Gordian III - Boy King

Gordian III became Emperor at the end of the confusion of 238 AD. That he was largely a figurehead is made obvious by his young age (about 15) but, compared to other 'boy kings', Gordian did a good job as ruler of Rome. The grandson of the respected Gordian I (and nephew of Gordian II), Gordian III was selected to restore peace following the deaths of all the contestants for power during that terrible year. Actual power during the reign fell to the Praetorian Prefects, first Timisitheus and later Philip the Arab. Under Timisitheus, Gordian married his mentor's daughter Tranquillina. The death of Timisitheus resulted in his replacement by a man with a son of his own and no need to support a young puppet. Gordian III was killed and Philip I became Emperor.

Gordian III - 238-244 AD - Bronze sestertius - Rome mint - 30mm, 20.2g.

While few details about the history of the reign of Gordian III are known, his coins present a great opportunity for the collector interested in attractive, reasonably priced items. Positioned between the higher priced coins of the earlier Empire and the smaller, cruder issues that followed, coins of Gordian III are an attractive choice. Bronze coins are usually well struck on good flans with only a hint of the small and squared flans that would become common in sestertii of later rulers. Sestertii of decent style are readily available. The sestertius above showing Liberty holding the pileus (liberty cap) is just a typical example. The few 'premium' items available for the reign include very rare medallions with the Colloseum reverse.

Gordian III Caesar under Balbinus & Pupienus
A sestertius that commands a premium price is the scarce issue for Gordian III as Caesar during the short reign of Balbinus and Pupienus in 238 AD. Political considerations required the two elder Senators to extend this office to the young grandson of Gordian I (and nephew of Gordian II). Relatively few of these coins were issued (they are more scarce than the coins of the joint Augusti) during the short time he held this office. Both the sestertius (shown here) and the denarius show a bare headed bust of the young ruler. Collectors who require a single coin of each ruler force up the demand for coins of Gordian I, Gordian II, Balbinus and Pupienus. Only specialists in the period care to collect the Gordian III as Caesar coins so demand is relatively less than their rarity would suggest. Collectors need to be careful to separate coins of Gordian III from the rare issues of Gordian I and II. Only Gordian III used legends including PIVS or PIVS FEL. The two elder Gordians always used a legend including AFR (Africanus). Fakers have been known to alter coins of Gordian III to raise their value to collectors. Remember the first two were much older than the boy Gordian III. Coins reading AFR but showing a youthful portrait are fake.

Rome mint silver denarius
20mm diameter 3.3g.
Rome mint silver antoninianus
23mm diameter, 3.8g.

Silver was issued in both the single denarius (above left) and double denarius or 'antoninianus'. Antoniniani are distinguished by the radiate crown worn by the Emperor. On denarii, he is shown with the traditional laurel wreath. Gordian III denarii are the last decent silver examples of this denomination that are commonly available. Coins are often well manufactured but thin flans (as on the antoninianus above) and a tendency to push the useful life of dies make it desirable to search out specimens with will struck reverses. Since the denarii weighed much more than half the double denomination, they quickly disappeared from circulation.

Antioch mint silver antoninianus - 21mm diameter - 5.8g. - FORTVNA REDUX

While most coins were products of the mint at Rome, there are also branch mint issues to keep the study interesting. The Eastern mint (generally assigned to Antioch) produced antoniniani (only) of fine style. Our example above illustrates a late portrait (note the sideburns of the 18 year old Emperor) from this mint. Eastern antoniniani tend to show a part of the curaiss at the back of the shoulder while Rome mint coins genarally show only a draped bust. Our example is very heavy when compared to most coins of the period. At 5.8g, the coin is actually an appropriate weight to be a double denarius. The diameter is the same as the reqular, lighter antoniniani. The difference is entirely the double thick flan. While not particularly common, these heavy antoniniani are seen frequently enough that their issue must have been intentional. Proper explanation of the weight standards of this period will require further investigation.

The coin shown in this paragraph would have once rated the top position on this page (I'm trying to reform). Followers of these pages know I have an attraction for oddities. It is obviously a barbaric fourree. Not only is the style wild but the reverse type shows a figure with attributes of Aequitas combined with the legend PAX AVG. A die duplicate of this coin was offered (but not sold due, IMHO, to a ridiculously high estimate) in the Numismatic Fine Arts Spring 1993 Mail Bid sale (lot 729). There the coin was called a 'Barbarous imitation from the Balkans'. I am not certain of the correctness or origin of this attribution. Certainly there was considerable contact between the Romans and the local people of the Balkan region and imitations of the Roman coinage should not be surprising. The Roman presence in the region is best shown by the huge array of local issues that make up the Roman Provincial/Greek Imperial coins of Moesia and Thrace


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(c) 1998 Doug Smith