ACTA ACCLA, April 2004
SAN COVER COIN - SILVER DENARIUS OF GORDIAN II
Barry N. Rightman
Indicative of the turbulent period confronting Rome, the reverse of this coin struck by the Emperor Gordian II (Gordianus) clearly portrays the ironies of the times. The personification of Providence, which is featured on the reverse of this denarius, was meant to convey foresightedness and guardianship by the co-rulers over their imperial domain. But as history will show, this did not occur.
In the first three decades of the third century A.D., central leadership from Rome had been in steady decline. Provincial loyalties grew stronger and the border areas became more susceptible to raids and foreign invasions. The armies were recruited almost entirely from the frontiers, and they had little or no allegiance to the empire or to its provinces where they were garrisoned. Their main interest was to enrich themselves through high pay, plunder, and the receipt of bonuses from the emperors they supported. At the same time, the distinction between a legitimate emperor and a usurper tended to blur. Their ascension to the throne, followed by frequent assassinations, became commonplace to the point where the people in the provinces neither knew nor cared who was in power.
The reigning monarch in the year 238 A.D. was a Thracian of peasant background named Maximinus. He was an uneducated man who had risen from the ranks of the army. Maximinus had little if any admiration for the Senate, or for that matter, any great love for the civilian population. He felt that both were there to finance his military endeavors. His harshness in exacting additional financing for his Danubian campaign, coupled with his callous indifference to the hardships on the provincial peoples, led to a revolt in North Africa.
An over-zealous procurator in the Carthaginian region tried to gain favor with Maximinus by condemning several wealthy young men of noble families, and then attempting to seize their family fortunes to help finance the emperor's military exploits. These noblemen conspired to kill the procurator, and then went a step further by persuading or forcing the proconsul of the region, Gordian I, to share in the uprising. Gordian I was proclaimed emperor in association with his son, Gordian II, by these same nobles. Most likely forewarned, the Senate then acknowledged the two Gordians as joint emperors. By way of a unanimous Senatorial decree, the two Gordians were officially elected co-regents, whereupon they immediately moved their court to Carthage where they were warmly received by the local residents. Maximinus was declared a public enemy by the Senate, with a commission of twenty former consuls appointed to conduct military operations against him.
The Gordians belonged to one of the most respected and illustrious families in the Roman Senate. Paternally their lineage can be traced back to the noble Gracchi family of republican Rome. Maternally they were descended from the family of the Emperor Trajan. Fabia Orestilia, the elder Gordian's wife, and mother of the younger Gordian, was a great granddaughter of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, who ruled 77 years earlier. The family could also lay claim to the consulship for the last three generations. During their years in the Senate, their vast wealth enabled them to acquire many friends as well as many supporters who had become dependent on them. They also managed to establish political alliances with many of the most distinguished houses of Rome.
Though both Gordians lived a rather frugal and temperate life relative to their wealth, they spent huge sums in ministering to the enjoyment of their friends and to the people at large. Their mild administration held out hope for a chance of returning to a civilian government, thus putting an end to the recent string of military regimes.
Always accustomed to wealth, Gordian II grew up residing in the palace originally owned by Pompey the Great, later usurped by Mark Antony, and ultimately purchased by his great-great grandfather during Trajan's time. The younger Gordian's conduct was not as virtuous as his father's but he was respected just the same. Like many men of wealth, Gordian II was able to indulge in a variety of interests. He was known to have possessed more than twenty concubines, each of whom bore him three or four children. At the same time he was bequeathed a library of over 60,000 volumes by his preceptor Serenus Sammonicus. Attesting to the fact that these books were not on display merely as a showcase, history records his love of literature through his writings in prose and verse.
His life in public service, though not outstanding, was one of integrity. He served as quaestor under the Emperor Elagabalus, and praetor and consul under his successor, Emperor Severus Alexander. When the elder Gordian was sent to serve as proconsul in North Africa by Emperor Severus Alexander in 229 A.D., the younger Gordian was appointed his lieutenant, and was sent to assist the older man in his administration. The two men governed eight years before their peaceful province was to erupt in violence. This disturbance ultimately resulted in their elevation to the co-emperorship of Rome. However, their ascendancy was anything but a blessing.
Capellianus, the governor of the neighboring province of Numidia, and a staunch supporter of Maximinus, incited his constituents to rebel against the Gordians. Leading an army of veterans and trained barbarians, Capellianus set out to attack the emperors at Carthage. Gordon II was dispatched by his father to try and stop Capellianus before he reached the city. With a hastily assembled band of a few palace guards and a group of undisciplined civilians, the younger Gordian was no match for the legionnaires of Capellianus. Gordian II fell on the field of battle along with many of his followers. When word of his death reached his father, the elder Gordian knew there was no hope of stopping Capellianus and took the only way out by committing suicide. Thus, where there was once hope of ending the succession of military emperors, within a short period of three weeks, the Gordians were to rise and fall from the imperial throne.
In distinguishing between the portraits of the two Gordians on their coinage, the elder Gordian has thinner features with a full head of hair growing low on his forehead, whereas the younger Gordian appears plumper with a high bald forehead. This cover coin of Gordian II was originally, as far as known, part of the Duc de Blacas collection which was sold to the British Museum in 1867. Photographed and listed in Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum, Volume VI, Number 19, Plate 42, this coin was traded to a prominent English collector in 1979 and then traded or sold to one or more coin dealers, and ultimately sold to a private collector in California. In addition, the coin was published in the book Roman Coins by C. H. V. Sutherland in 1974, Number 442.
Barry Rightman has been an active member of ACCLA since 1970.
Barry Rightman's story was originally featured in SAN volume XV number 4 issued in 1984 with cover photography by Ethel and Eardley Madsen. SAN was the quarterly journal of the now defunct Society for Ancient Numismatics.