The Death of Gordian III, AD 244

#1
I've been reading about the Roman-Persian wars of the third century, and I thought I'd share some information on an interesting topic.

The young emperor Gordian III (r. 238-244) died while on campaign against the Persian Shahanshah Shapur I (r. 240-272).

Fourth-century and later Roman sources claim that Gordian was murdered by his praetorian prefect Philip the Arab (Chronica Minora 1.147 (Chronography of 354); Aurelius Victor, Liber de Caesaribus 27.8; Festus, Breviarium 22; Eutropius 9.2; Jerome, Chronicon 217; Ammianus 23.5.7-8, 17; Historia Augusta, Three Gordiani 29.1-31.3; Epitome de Caesaribus 27.2; Orosius 7.19.5; Zosimus 1.18.2-19.1 (cf. 3.32.4); Zonaras 12.18.). In some of these versions, Philip messed with army supplies in order to provoke a military uprising.

On the other hand, a Persian triumphal relief at Bishapur and the monumental inscription Res Gestae Divi Saporis (3-4) in Naqsh-e Rustam imply that Gordian was killed in battle. Both of these were erected by Shapur to celebrate his victories over the Romans. The inscription reads: 'On the border of Babylonia at Misikhe, a great ‘frontal’ battle occurred. Gordian Caesar was killed and the Roman force was destroyed. And the Romans made Philip Caesar. Then Philip Caesar came to us for terms, and to ransom their lives, gave us 500,000 denars, and became tributary to us. And for this reason we have renamed Misikhe Peroz-Shapur.' Here is the relief:

Shapur3.jpg

Shapur is holding the captive emperor Valerian by the wrist (he was captured in 260), and Philip kneels before him in a show of submission. Gordian's body is beneath Shapur's horse.

The two relevant Roman sources of the third century are more ambiguous. Porphyry, Vita Plotini 3, states that, after Gordian was killed in Mesopotamia, Plotinus escaped with difficulty to Antioch. The Oracula Sibyllina 13.13-19 seems to support the Philip-being-responsible version while also locating his death in battle, ‘prophesizing’ that ‘Betrayed by his colleague, he will fall down in the ranks, smitten by the gleaming iron.’

The different versions of events have naturally prompted debate. This was a period when emperors were often killed by their subordinate officers and/or soldiers, and so there is the possibility that Philip’s involvement in Gordian's death may have been merely speculated through natural suspicion. There is also bias against Philip among the Roman historians, since these authors tended towards a pro-senatorial perspective, and Philip was an equestrian when he became emperor. The same Roman writers who claim that Philip killed Gordian also claim that he deified Gordian (this is currently impossible to verify, since inscriptions that refer to Divus Gordianus could be referring to Gordian I or II). They also state that he erected a cenotaph for Gordian near where he died, which Ammianus saw when he was campaigning with the emperor Julian, and they record that Philip had Gordian's body transported back to Rome. Such things undermine any scenario in which Philip and the soldiers openly overthrew the emperor, but do not rule out a murder more secretive. On the other hand, Shapur could be suspected of framing Gordian’s death as his own doing regardless of what actually happened.

Interestingly, David MacDonald (1981: The Death of Gordian III: Another Tradition, Historia 30.4, 502-508) has made a case that certain Byzantine writers preserve what truly happened. Namely, they state that Gordian fell from his horse while in battle against the Persians and, as a result, crushed his thigh. He afterwards died from the wound (Malalas, ap. Synopsis Sathas (cf. Stauffenberg 1931, Die römische Kaisergeschichte bei Malalas, griechischer Text der Bücher IX-XII und Untersuchungen, p. 62); Georgius Monachus, Chronicon 32, p. 461 (Teubner); Cedrenus, i, pp. 450-451 (Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae 8); Zonaras 12.17). Malalas specifies that Gordian died on the trip home. The strength of this version lies in its relative banality. Neither the pro-senatorial and suspicious Roman writers nor the glory-hounding Shapur had anything to gain from the claim that Gordian broke his thigh. If this is what occurred, it presumably happened at the Battle of Misikhe, thus Shapur’s version.

In any case, I thought this worth sharing.
 
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Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,673
Blachernai
#2
The Malalas thing is interesting, and makes me wonder if he's not drawing on some otherwise unknown Syriac source. Does Gordian's death appear in any of the major Syriac accounts, like Michael Rabo or 1234? And has anyone looked through some of the later Byzantine world historians like Zonaras, who occasionally include little details from antiquity that do not appear anywhere else?
 
#3
The Malalas thing is interesting, and makes me wonder if he's not drawing on some otherwise unknown Syriac source. Does Gordian's death appear in any of the major Syriac accounts, like Michael Rabo or 1234? And has anyone looked through some of the later Byzantine world historians like Zonaras, who occasionally include little details from antiquity that do not appear anywhere else?
Monachus, Cedrenus and Zonaras include the same story as Malalas, but don't specify that he died on the return journey, only that he died after crushing his thigh. But they are indeed providing the same version. The references: Georgius Monachus, Chronicon 32, p. 461 (Teubner); Cedrenus, i, pp. 450-451 (Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae 8); Zonaras 12.17.

As for the Syriac accounts, the scholarship that I've read does not bring them up, but yes, I should check!
 
#4
I should have added that Zosimus and the Historia Augusta claim that Philip sent messengers to Rome to announce that Gordian had died of disease. Like the cenotaph erected by the soldiers and Philip's supposed deification of the emperor, this indicates that these writers envision a situation in which Gordian was not openly overthrown.

But I am more inclined towards the broken thigh version.
 

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,673
Blachernai
#5
Looks like Michael Rabo completely skips Gordian. I'm not sure what source he's using, but perhaps it's a badly garbled version of Eusebius?

Amongst the Armenian historians, Gordian seems to be absent from Agathangelos and Movses of Khoren.
 
#6
Looks like Michael Rabo completely skips Gordian. I'm not sure what source he's using, but perhaps it's a badly garbled version of Eusebius?

Amongst the Armenian historians, Gordian seems to be absent from Agathangelos and Movses of Khoren.
Yes, as far as I can tell, it's absent from Armenian, Arabic and New Persian sources. Thanks for checking Michael. Do you know of an edition of the Chronicle of 1234 that I should be looking up?
 

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