there occurred an eclipse of the sun, so black that men thought it was night and business could not be transacted without the aid of lanterns.It was a one-way bet on emperors falling like flies, and (for those with lots of hindsight), a stellar prediction that Gordian III would have a short reign. There's little doubt that the Gordiani family, reputedly fabulously rich, had bought the support of the urban mob and bribed the Praetorian Guard, and so Gordian was saluted as emperor and took over the Roman empire.
But who was running the show?
Even by the standards of the mid-3rd-century AD, these are murky times.
Between May (or perhaps July) 238, when he became emperor, and late 240 (or perhaps early 241), when he married Furia Sabinia Tranquillina, the daughter of the Praetorian Prefect, Timesitheus, we can only assume that his mother and her coterie ruled the roost -- if only because she is later denounced for doing so.
We don't even know his mother's name (or his father's for that matter)! She was a daughter of Gordian I, and that is all that history records of her lineage. But this a female-orientated blog so we'll do our best with the little we have. And, on the way, have a fascinating lesson in the prejudices and accuracy of our sources.
The scandal of female rule, and his mother's brief regency.
We are again left almost entirely to the tender mercies of the Historiae Augustae, with its snippets of history padded out with gossip, fanciful anecdotes and spurious documents. The author of Hist. Aug. did not like Gordian's mother. Decidedly not. As he tells us, it was only after the boy's marriage to Timesitheus' daughter, that
his rule seemed not in the least that of a child or contemptible, since he was aided by the advice of his excellent father-in-law, while he himself ... did not let his favours be sold by the eunuchs and attendants at court through his mother's ignorance or connivance.Or again, in an entirely fictitious letter purportedly sent by the 16-year old emperor to Timesitheus,
but now, the gods be thanked, I have learned from suggestions by you, who are incorruptible, what I could not know by myself. For what could I do? -- since even our mother was betraying us.If this doesn't sound like a palace coup, I don't know what does. With what justification? Those eunuchs and women, of course:
For no one could bear it when commissions in the army were given out on the nomination of eunuchs [or] when men who should not have been were slain or set free through caprice [read: a woman's hand!] or bribery.And, indeed, we hear no more of Gordian's mother, nor ever see her face on a coin. I fear the worst for her.
Who put the eunuchs in the palace?
Although eunuchs were a known phenomenon of the ancient world, they acquired high political positions in the Roman Empire only in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. In other words, our censorious author is writing about his own times, the time of Constantine, after 324 AD. It's probably entirely anachronistic. Inscriptions mentioning eunuchs, however, show that their later high social position had roots in the oriental regions the Roman annexed to their Empire, in particular in Asia Minor.*
"... Those unhappy beings, the ancient production of oriental jealousy and despotism, were introduced into Greece and Rome by the contagion of Asiatic luxury. Their progress was rapid; and the eunuchs, who, in the time of Augustus, had been abhorred, as the monstrous retinue of an Egyptian queen, were gradually admitted into the families of matrons, of senators, and of the emperors themselves.We never would go as far as the eighteenth-century Gibbon in Decline and Fall, but Greeks and Romans certainly associated emasculation with the East, the Persian courts (both Achaemenid and Sassanian), and contrasted their own "hard" masculinity with the effeminated or mutilated human body of the soft Orient." It is still very hard to engage the history of eunuchs or to consider the realities and perceptions of their lives, given the literary evidence reviling (eunuchophobia) or defending their physical alterations and political influence (Byzantine eunuchophilia).
Although the Emperor Domitian (81 - 96 AD) had decreed that, from now on, no one in the territory ruled by Rome should be castrated (a law mostly honoured in the breach), it wasn't quite for the "hard" Roman reasons that Romans liked to think. According to Cassius Dio in scandal-mongering mode, Domitian's older brother Titus (on the throne 79-81 AD) had always been strongly attracted to castrated boys. Now Domitian hated Titus, and Dio says that he outlawed castration only in order to insult his memory .
I'm not so sure.
Domitian himself had an eunuch lover, a boy from that hotbed of castration, Pergamum in Asia Minor. His name was Earinus, 'belonging to spring,' possibly a made-up name since, whatever his age, he would alway appear beardless and prepubertal. Earinus served as cupbearer, and was Domitian's favorite slave. The two most important poets of the time, Martial and Statius,** praised his beauty and delicately alluded to his being the Emperor's sex-toy.
When Earinus sent a lock of his hair to the god Asclepius at Pergamum, Martial gurgled,
A mirror advising his beauty & a sweet-smelling lockbut he somewhat spoils the romantic effect, at least for the squeamish, with these later lines:
of hair - these are the presents set up as sacred
to Pergamum's god by the palace-slave his master loves
most, the boy whose name signifies "springtime".
Our Caesar has a thousand pet-servants like you; his hall'sMeanwhile, Statius celebrates the same temple event, with the goddess Venus arranging the boy's fate, thus,
immensity hardly contains these ethereal males.
Come, then, boy. Come with me.All very well, but even the god of healing could not heal Earinus' unkindest cut.
I will speed you in my chariot across the starry skies,
a wonderful gift for a leader of men. No commonplace duties
await you. Your destiny is the palace, to be a slave for love.
I've never seen, I swear, nor engendered anything so sweet
the whole world over.
But I digress.
Trouble on the borders
While Rome itself stayed largely calm in the early years of Gordian's reign, there were elsewhere severe earthquakes, so terrible that whole cities with all their inhabitants disappeared in the opening of the ground. More prosaically, there was trouble with Germanic tribes and in Libya. In 238, tribesmen crossed the Danube when Maximinus left the region undermanned in his attempt to march on Rome. The governor of Lower Moesia (modern Bulgaria and Romania) , Tullus Menophilus, restored peace in the region through force and bribes, for which good work he apparently was executed for treason; perhaps not all was as calm as it seems. In 240, in the absence of the Third Legion ( which had been disbanded by Gordian III for their part in the deaths of Gordian I and II) the governor of Africa rebelled but this uprising in Libya was brutally crushed.
And then came the Persians.
The Persians seized the cities of Nisibis and Carrhae in upper Mesopotamia (in what today is today the Kurdish area of northern Iraq), which had been under direct Roman control for more than a generation.
In 240, Shapur son of Ardashir became King of Kings. In the same year Hatra, the location of Rome's easternmost military garrison, (today in northern Iraq roughly 55 miles south of Mosul), was captured by the Sassanians.
Planning for a massive Roman military counterattack was soon underway.
(To be continued...)
* Youvl Rotman, "The Roman Eunuch and The Hellenistic Heritage", a paper presented at a Hellenic Studies Workshop.
** Translations by John T. Quinn, Earinus the Eunuch: Martial (from Book 9) and Statius (Silvae 3.4)