Roman Emperors: Gordian III to Valerian Part I

Shapur I as he may have appeared during his campaigns against the Roman armies in the 3rd century AD.

The bloodletting of summer 238 ended, in Italy at least, in a relatively stable peace. The 12-year-old emperor Gordian III, acclaimed caesar in February, and then augustus in May or June, was watched over by a cabal of mainly equestrian officials who determined imperial policy. These men were led by C. Furius Sabinius Timesitheus, the praetorian prefect, whose power was such that he married his daughter Tranquillina to the emperor himself in May 241, as soon as she was old enough. But whatever stability had accompanied the end of the civil war proved illusory. The proconsul of Africa, M. Asinius Sabinianus, who had replaced old Gordian, revolted soon after the new regime had settled. He was an old Severan, having been consul in 225, and it may be that he objected to the sidelining of the consular elites after the failure of Pupienus and Balbinus’s regime. Sabinianus’s putsch failed, put down by the procurator of Mauretania, Faltonius Restitutianus. He was replaced as proconsul by L. Caesonius Lucillus Macer Rufinianus, who had been one of the vigintiviri alongside Balbinus and Pupienus, which suggests that we must not read events in terms of senatorial and equestrian factions at court, but instead as rival factions within equestrian and senatorial ordines.

Nevertheless, with Timesitheus at the centre of things, the government continued to have the professional, systematising outlook of the bureaucratic classes – among the equestrians known to have prospered greatly during the reign we find M. Gnaius Licinius Rufinus, as a libellis; C. Attius Alcimus Felicianus, whose career had begun under Elagabalus and whose financial posts clearly made him something of an expert in the field; Gnaeus Domitius Philippus, who was prefect of the vigiles at the start of the reign; Faltonius Restitutianus, who put down the revolt of Sabinianus in Africa; and two brothers from Arabia, Julius Priscus and Julius Philippus, the latter becoming emperor within a few years: by the early 240s, the world in which the accession of Macrinus had been resisted because he was not a senator no longer existed.

In 238, the regime’s first order of business was Persia. The Sasanian kings who replaced the Arsacids in Persia and Mesopotamia were much more expansionary than their predecessors had been, bringing to heel the semi-independent satraps of Mesopotamia and the Caucasus, in part provoked by the survival of the Arsacids in Armenia, where kings like Tiridates II (r. 217–52) attempted to rally other frontier dynasts as far away as India against Ardashir. By the time the regime of the young Gordian had settled, much of Roman Mesopotamia was exposed to Persian invasion, Nisibis, Carrhae and Hatra had all fallen, and other fortress cities like Singara could not be re-enforced. The prestige of the new regime at Rome would be much enhanced if it could secure the eastern frontiers in a way that Maximinus had failed entirely to do.

Leaving behind Alcimus Felicianus to run Rome, and having appointed Julius Priscus as his fellow praetorian prefect, Timesitheus and the young emperor marched east in 242, evidently having found it difficult to muster a campaign army. They signalled the gravity of their intentions by opening the doors of the temple of Janus in Rome itself, probably the last time in history that this archaic ritual declaration of war was performed. They then progressed overland through Moesia and Thrace, their crossing from Europe to Asia, probably early in the summer of 242, being commemorated with an issue of gold medallions with the legend traiectus, ‘crossed over’, to important courtiers. Antioch in Syria served, as it usually did, as the staging point for the campaign against Persia, but delays were endemic. The year 243 was spent in Syria, but not until the winter of 243–4 do we find the army fighting along the Euphrates. It may be that the death of Timesitheus sometime in 243 had contributed to the delay. His successor as prefect was Julius Philippus, brother of the other prefect Julius Priscus. The joint prefecture of two brothers was unheard of, but in the circumstances, the two men had become indispensable: they came from Shaba in Arabia, had risen through the equestrian grades (Priscus, at least, had once been a fiscal procurator), and their local connections made them a good conduit to the region’s elites whose cooperation was necessary if the campaign was to go smoothly and the army was to be properly supplied.

Egypt and Cyrene

At first, the fighting went the Romans’ way and a victory over Persian forces is recorded in the sources, perhaps at Resaina in Osrhoene, and possibly in battle against the Persian shah himself. This was now Shapur I, ruling alone after the death of Ardashir in 242, though he had been effectively in charge since 240, when he was crowned co-ruler with his father. Shapur, even more than Ardashir, was the true architect of Sasanian power. Though he had not yet articulated an ambition to recreate the Persian empire of the Achaemenids, there is no question that he embraced an Achaemenid more than a Parthian model of display. What is more, he took to new levels his father’s militance, campaigning on every frontier of his empire and imposing Sasanian governors, often members of his own house.

Much of what we know about Shapur’s early reign comes from the monumental inscription he put up to commemorate his victories at Naqsh-e Rustam. The site is significant, for it lies a few miles outside the ancient Achaemenid city of Persepolis and houses the rock-cut tombs of several Achaemenid kings, including Darius the Great and probably Xerxes I. By appropriating for his own display the necropolis of the last conquering dynasty to come from Fars, Shapur was perhaps implying a continuity with them, and certainly displaying himself firmly in a Persian rather than a Mesopotamian or Parthian light.

Of the two earliest Sasanian reliefs at Naqsh-e Rustam, one shows Shapur on horseback, with a Roman emperor kneeling in supplication before him. The other shows Shapur’s father Ardashir being invested with his crown by the supreme Zoroastrian divinity Ohrmazd. A more elaborate version of the Shapur monument appears at Bishapur, a town that served as a staging post between the Sasanian dynastic centre at Istakhr and the old Parthian capital at Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia. Back at Naqsh-e Rustam, a square tower known as the Ka’ba-i Zardusht (or the Kaaba of Zoroaster) stood opposite the rock-cut tombs of the Achaemenids, and had served as a Zoroastrian fire sanctuary since the reign of the Achaemenid Darius. On it, Shapur’s son Ohrmazd I had inscribed a text in three languages – Parthian, Middle Persian and Greek – that his father had composed in the last years of his long reign, outlining an official version of his glorious deeds and his piety. The inscription gives Shapur’s title as His Mazdayasnian Majesty Shapur, King of Kings of Iran and not-Iran (or of the Aryans and the non-Aryans) Whose Seed is from the Gods. Shapur’s father Ardashir had already revived the Achaemenid title of shahanshah (‘king of kings’) and asserted a personal connection to Ohrmazd, but Shapur now added an explicit claim to universal rulership that matched that of the Roman emperors. The rest of the text gives us the Persian account of Shapur’s struggles with his neighbours and is often strikingly different from what we find in the Greek and Latin sources, sometimes completely contradicting them. It also, to some extent, confirms the strong focus of Shapur on his conflicts with the Romans, rather than with other parts of his realm, for the battles that he commemorates on his inscription are all those that he fought against the Romans, rather than on his eastern and north-eastern frontiers.

And yet we also know that Shapur inherited the same problems his Arsacid predecessors had faced on the eastern frontier. Early in his reign, he may have subjugated Khwarezm, the northernmost of the Central Asian oases, at the delta of the Amu Darya beside what was then still the Aral sea, though it never became a province of the empire. It was also Shapur, though when in his reign we do not know, who reduced the Kushanshahr to a client state of his dynasty, marked by a series of coinages that we know as Kushano-Sasanian. Here, as elsewhere, we continue to learn a great deal that is new in Sasanian history from the numismatic evidence – much of it, sadly, coming to light from the clandestine excavation and looting made possible by conflict in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most significantly, the heavy concentration of Sasanian minting in places like Merv and elsewhere in the east, some of it by die-workers clearly trained in the metropolitan mint at Ctesiphon, demonstrates how much military force was needed to control the east under Shapur and how many campaigns he must have fought there.

In his inscription, he lays claim to Sind and ‘the Kushanshahr up to Peshawar and up to Kashgar, Sogdiana and the mountains of Tashkent’, but he does not tell us about the fighting that was clearly necessary to control that region. Instead, he focuses on his Roman victories – reciprocating the kind of focus that Roman emperors had for their eastern neighbours. This Sasanian focus on Rome marks a change from the Arsacids’ more balanced division of attention between their eastern and western frontiers, although Shapur did continue the Arsacid policy of farming out control of the Syrian and northern Arabian deserts to clients, most particularly the Lakhmid king of Hira, Imru’ulqais, who had succeeded his father some years before and went on to serve not just Shapur but also his successors Ohrmazd I and Varahran I as satrap of Iraq and the Hijaz.

For historians of the Roman empire, this Sasanian interest in Rome offers a valuable counterpoint to the sparse imperial evidence. On the Naqsh-e Rustam monument, Shapur claims to have defeated and killed the emperor Gordian at Misiche (or, in Persian, Mishik) on the middle Euphrates. Of the three Roman emperors depicted on the victory monument, one lies dead on the ground, one is supplicant and the third has been taken captive – Gordian, Philip and Valerian, respectively. Shapur also renamed Misiche Peroz-Shapur, or ‘victorious is Shapur’. By contrast with Shapur’s explicit claims, the Roman sources are ambiguous. None straightforwardly attests Gordian’s death in battle. Indeed, the best Roman evidence suggests that Gordian died further north than Misiche, at Zaitha, sometime between mid January and mid March 244. He was certainly buried there, at least temporarily, in a massive tumulus that could still be seen more than a hundred years later, when another Roman army was invading the region.

What actually happened will never be known, but Gordian was a teenager and had little military experience. Few can have expected great things of him on the battlefield. It may be that a mid-winter defeat by Shapur on the edge of Persian territory, one in which the emperor himself was perhaps badly wounded, prompted a disgruntled soldiery to assassinate him at Zaitha. An opaque passage in the life of the philosopher Plotinus, who had been accompanying the imperial expedition on a sort of research trip for esoteric knowledge, suggests that there was rioting in the Roman camp when Gordian was killed. As one would expect, many sources – from the near-contemporary apocalyptic text known as the Thirteenth Sybilline Oracle to the fourth-century Latin tradition of abbreviated histories – blame the man who profited from Gordian’s death for causing it, Julius Philippus, the praetorian prefect who had succeeded Timesitheus. But Philippus (or Philip the Arab, as he is conventionally known) was not with the army at the time of Gordian’s death, though his brother Priscus may have been. That fact could explain why the older and presumably predominant brother did not himself take the throne – throughout late Roman history, councils of army officers sometimes chose an imperial candidate who could achieve consensus precisely because he was not present on the spot to take part in debate about the succession.

Regardless of how Gordian died, it took a lot of negotiation for the army to extricate itself from disputed territory, and the new emperor had to act personally as a supplicant in the peace talks. The settlement, which was all Philip could have hoped for in the circumstances, was the root of endless further conflict between Persian and Roman monarchs. According to the Roman sources, Philip ‘betrayed’ Armenia to the Persians, which must mean that he acknowledged Shapur’s right to determine that kingdom’s succession, as the Arsacids had done for centuries. Shapur, in his victory inscription from Naqsh-e Rustam, claims both that Philip became his tributary and that he was made to pay an indemnity of half a million gold aurei, a seemingly impossible sum, but at the very least an approximation of the scale: to get his army out of Persia safely, Philip mortgaged his throne. In all likelihood, along with acknowledging Sasanian hegemony in Armenian affairs, he also transferred the traditional supplementary payments for guarding the Caucasian passes against nomadic incursions from the Armenians to the Persians themselves, hence the shahanshah’s willingness to claim that Philip was offering him tribute – and hence, too, the reason the Roman sources are silent on such details.

Philip, for his part, put as happy a face on things as he plausibly could. Back in Antioch, he struck antoniniani with the legend pax fundata cum Persis (‘peace made with Persia’), took for himself the titles Parthicus and Persicus Maximus, and began to establish the dynastic image of his family. His wife, Marcia Otacilia Severa, was made augusta and named mater castrorum, a direct assertion of the regime’s concern for its soldiers. Then, on two key frontiers, Philip installed relatives as his representatives: his brother Julius Priscus in Syria and their brother-in-law Severianus (Otacilia Severa’s brother) on the Danube in Moesia. He himself returned to Rome as quickly as possible, taking the sea route up the coast of Asia Minor, reaching the imperial capital early in the summer of 244. Severianus’s command shows the growing importance, in these years, of the Danubian armies by contrast to those of the Rhine frontier; it may also be an early sign of the increasingly assertive Roman self-consciousness in a region that was one of the last Latin-speaking parts of the empire to gain widespread access to the Roman citizenship – certainly men from the Danube would come to dominate politics in the latter half of the century.

The Syrian command of Julius Priscus, meanwhile, demonstrates Philip’s determination to keep an eye on Persian developments and to maintain the family’s close connections to their native east. The reconstruction of the dynastic home town of Shahba under the new name of Philippopolis was a truly massive endeavour, one financed in part by stricter financial exactions under the supervision of Priscus. Priscus’s role is also significant: he was not merely the governor of Syria but also corrector, a nebulous word that signalled his precedence over other officials. He possessed, in other words, supra-regional jurisdiction over the other governors of the east, an important precedent for later third-century experiments in government. Priscus was, to all practical purposes, Philip’s co-ruler in the east. Severianus probably disposed of a similar authority in the Balkans, though his title is not explicitly attested in the way that Priscus’s is.

At the same time that Philip was securing his familial power in this way, he was also ensuring that he had no challenges to his own legitimacy – he had not forgotten how popular the young Gordian had been with the people of Rome, and so he put about word that Gordian had died of an illness and brought his body back to Rome, burying it with honours. He also asked the senate to approve the dead boy’s consecration as Divus Gordianus, which it did, and though Tranquillina disappears from the historical record, she is likely to have enjoyed an honourable retirement, since she and Gordian had lacked any worrisome heirs. Philip’s own son, born around 237/238 and thus five years old, was now made caesar. Because of the poor documentation for this period, we do not know how long this relative tranquillity lasted, or how popular Philip was in Rome itself. But trouble at the frontiers occupied the middle of his reign.

Just as the earlier 200s had seen upheavals among the barbarian polities of the upper Rhine and Danube, so the middle years of the century brought major cultural and political change beyond the lower Danube and the northern Black Sea coast. Scholars have traditionally associated these changes with the arrival in the region of Goths migrating from their former homes in what is now Poland. This narrative is shaped around what we find in the Getica of Jordanes, a tale of ethnic origins composed hundreds of years later, in sixth-century Constantinople, by a Latin-speaking Roman of Gothic descent. Archaeological evidence has been consistently distorted to fit a legendary saga of mass migration and Scandinavian origins. But this simplistic model is not well supported by the evidence.


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