February 11th in Roman History
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 2/11/2019


Finding specific dates for events in Roman history is a challenge for many reasons; therefore, most of these Roman calendar essays will examine religious festivals or governmental events that have been widely accepted as dated approximately correctly. However, when I find a date that seems accepted by many ancient historians for a particular person or event in Roman history, I want to bring that to your attention. This week, I want to draw your attention to a couple of Romans associated with the date of February 11th.


1. Imperial Child’s Life Conveniently Ended before Birthday

After the murder of Emperor Claudius in 54 CE, his stepson, Nero became emperor. However, Claudius had a son who was younger than Nero, Britannicus (Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus). Suetonius and Tacitus portray Britannicus’ short life as one of extremes.

At first, Britannicus was his father Claudius’ favorite, brought to all sorts of public and semi-public events and there shown great affection by the Emperor. After the boy’s mother, Messalina, was forced to commit suicide, things changed for the child. Claudius married his own niece, Agrippina, and adopted her son as Nero (Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus). Britannicus was pushed to the side or, worse, treated as a child while Nero was pushed forward not only in public displays but by being given rank on the cursus honorium (course of public offices) by the Senate and Emperor Claudius.

Was there a conspiracy to get rid of Nero and install Britannicus once the boy became a legal adult? The only plot in our ancient sources was the one by Agrippina and Nero to ensure their authority and to keep Britannicus as far from the throne as possible. Britannicus was poisoned and died right before he turned 14 and legally became an adult by Roman law. The majority of modern historians believe that February 11, 55 CE was the most likely date of his death, though some date it as far back as the end of December.


2. Emperor Murdered – Or Not

The third century was not kind to the Roman world. Economic and governmental upheavals threatened to destroy the massive empire. If you were emperor at any given point between 235 and 284 CE, you likely died violently. The exact face of that violence varied a bit, however.

On February 11, 244 CE, Emperor Gordian III (Marcus Antonius Gordianus Pius Augustus) either was murdered by his own troops or died in battle. Why are both options possible?

Gordian III had been pushed up the cursus honorium by the Senate in hopes that he might take power in the future. The Senate was hoping to control the throne, but they kept making mistakes and proclaiming one man after another who simply couldn’t hold the office nor command the respect of the troops. Even though Gordian’s grandfather and uncle had led a revolt against short-serving emperor Maximinus Thrax, the people of Rome were told that they were peace-loving and intellectuals, and the intellectual part may actually have been true. Gordian III was very young – he died at age 19 – during his reign from 238 to 244 CE, and it may well be that the Senate exercised a great deal of control over him. But armies need to see their leaders, so the Emperor went east to help fight the Sassanid Empire, a Persian kingdom. Did he ever make it to the front? Roman authors say that Gordian III was murdered by his own army before they made it to the fighting, but Persian sources claim that they killed him in the Battle of Misiche.

Modern scholars debate which caused the death because there are reasons to believe both accounts. To be blunt, it wasn’t uncommon for emperors to die at the hands of their enemies, either foreign or Roman, so either could have happened to Gordian III. If his own troops killed him, his successor may have hand a hand in the murder. Philip (Marcus Julius Philippus), who was a member of the army in the role of Praetorian prefect, proclaimed himself emperor immediately after Gordian’s death. Of course, the Sassanids would want to claim their role in the Roman emperor’s death as a sign of their strength. The fact that Philip signed a weak treaty with them may indicate that either the Sassanids held the military upper hand or that Philip wanted to get back to Rome to bolster his claim as emperor.

Regardless of how Gordian III died, however, on February 11, 244 CE, Rome had a new emperor.

Join the discussion!