World Coins

This Day in History: March 22

The elderly Gordian I (seen here on a silver denarius of his short reign) ruled jointly with his son Gordian II after a planned coup against Maximius.

Coin images courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

When wealthy citizens of ancient Roman Africa were about to be taxed into the poorhouse in A.D. 238, they did the only thing that made sense to them — murder the procurator instead of making the payment.

Seeking rulers who could bridge the gap between the noblemen and the state, and “desperate for a leader who could both sympathize with their dilemma and assemble an army, the renegades implored the elder Gordian to accept the title of emperor,” David Vagi wrote in Coinage and History of the Roman Empire.

In a letter written in Carthage and sent to Rome, the joint rulers declared their intentions to serve, and the uber-wealthy Gordian I and his son were made co-emperors on March 22, 238, reportedly.

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“When news was posted in the Forum, the people rejoiced and there followed several days of riots during which informers, officials and tax collectors of Maximinus were slaughtered to the man,” Vagi wrote.

The reign of the two Gordians would be short, however; Gordian II died April 12 in battle near Carthage and, soon after, his father committed suicide. 

Despite a reign of only three weeks, their coinage is much more abundant than expected, which is one reason historians (Vagi included) believe that the plot to reject the pecuniary burdens introduced by Maximus was likely begun weeks in advance in concert with key senators in Rome.

The coinage of both men is very similar, and can be distinguished only with careful study of the portraits.

“The elder Gordian has a full head of hair, a thin face, beak nose and slightly recessed jaw,” according to Vagi. “The younger Gordian has a receding hairline, a long, flat nose, a pronounced forehead, heavy jaw and jutting chin, and is fleshier in appearance.”

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