Gordian I was born in AD 159. His full name was Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus. He was the son of Maecius Marullus and Ulpia Gordiana, and claimed to be descended both from the emperor Trajan and the Gracchi. His family at this time was one of the wealthiest ones in Rome, even owning a palace in the city. Gordian himself was of a kindly and well-meaning disposition, in contrast with other rich Romans at that time, particularly the emperors.
Although Gordian was from a wealthy family, it was not until late on in his life that he obtained political power. He become a senator at a reasonably young age, and was praetorian governor in Britain at the age of 47, but did not become a consul until the age of 64. In his late 70s he became governor of Lower Britain, and at the age of 80 he was appointed governor of Africa by Maximin, the emperor at the time.
Maximin was certainly not a good emperor. A Thracian by birth, he had usurped the throne from the kindly rule of Alexander Severus. Although he was a good general, Maximin was coarse and uncivilised, and preferred to rule from the banks of the Danube rather than from Rome. He was generally despised, both in Rome and the provinces, but maintained his rule by force of arms.
In 238, while Gordian was governor of Africa, there was a revolt there against the emperor due to heavy taxes. It was Gordian’s duty to crush them. Both taking advantage of the situation, and considering Gordian to be a good and just ruler, the rebels promptly proclaimed Gordian emperor. At first he declined, but eventually, realising that Maximin would have him killed whether or not he accepted the throne, he reluctantly agreed, at the same time making his son Gordian II co-emperor.
A message was quickly sent to Rome, announcing the new emperors. The senate which hated Maximin both for his foreign origins and his long absence from the city, were more than willing to accept the Gordians as emperors. There was one danger – the praetorian prefect, Vitalianus, loyal servant to Maximin, but he was soon done away with , and the senate proclaimed Gordian emperor.
Gordian was quick to act. He said he would disband the network of government informers and secret police which had arisen over the years. He promised amnesty for exiles, and extra pay for the army. He deified Alexander Severus and declared Maximin a public enemy. But then his rule came to a sudden unexpected end. Cappellianus, the governor of the neighbouring province, Numidia, had remained loyal to Maximin. Now he marched on Carthage with the 3rd legion. Gordian II came to meet him, and was defeated and killed. On hearing this Gordian I hanged himself.
The Gordians were emperors only for 22 days. They would have probably made good rulers, certainly better than Maximin
. But as was becoming increasing common, the good emperors were quickly murdered, but the bad ones reigned for several years. They were deified by Balbinus
, who successfully defeated Maximin, but were soon murdered themselves.