Gaius Furius Sabinius Aquila Timesitheus

Vir Eminentissimus
Gaius Furius Sabinius Aquila Timesitheus
Born 190
Died 243
Provincia Mesopotamiae
Cause of death Obscure (possibly murdered by poison)
Nationality Roman
Citizenship Roman
Occupation Imperial Official and soldier
Years active AD 210(?)-243
Employer Roman Emperors Caracalla and Elagabalus, Alexander Severus, Maximinus Thrax and Gordian III
Organization Imperial Administration
Known for Fiscal expertise and generalship
Title Praefectus Praetorio (under Gordian III)
Term 240-3 AD
Predecessor Domitius
Successor M. Julius Philippus (later Emperor 'Philip the Arab'
Children Furia Sabinia Tranquillina
Relatives The Emperor Gordian III (son-in-law)[1]

Gaius Furius Sabinius Aquila Timesitheus[lower-alpha 1] (AD 190-243) was an officer of the Roman Imperial government in the first half of Third Century. Most likely of Oriental-Greek origins, he was a Roman citizen, probably of equestrian rank.

He began his career in the Imperial Service as the commander of a cohort of auxiliary infantry and rose to become Praetorian Prefect, the highest office in the Imperial hierarchy, with both civilian and military functions. His brilliant career reflected his mastery of contemporary cultural norms and his reputation for administrative competence, but also the his ability to access patronage at the highest level. His official life was spent mainly in fiscal postings and he typified the powerful procuratorial functionaries[lower-alpha 2] who came to dominate the Imperial government in the second quarter of the Third Century. Nevertheless, as Praetorian Prefect, he also seems to have proved himself more than competent in his military role. Although he was on several occasions appointed to positions that contemporary Administrative Law reserved for officials of senatorial rank, he remained an equestrian until the end: it is possible that he deliberately avoided adlection to the Roman Senate preferring to exercise real power in offices from which senators were excluded. Unlike his successor in the Praetorian Prefecture, Philip the Arab, he did not take advantage of the youth and inexperience of his Imperial master (and son-in-law), Gordian III, to seize the Empire for himself.

He died in obscure circumstances, possibly murdered, in the course of a successful campaign to drive the forces of the Persian "King of Kings", Shapur I, from Rome's oriental territories. On his death the war against the Persians that he had directed so masterfully fell almost immediately into disarray to the long-term detriment of the Empire.

Origins and social status

"Timesitheus" is a cognomen which suggests that the bearer was ethnically a Greek. However, Timesitheus's nomen and praenomen (i.e. "Furius Sabinius" and "Gaius" respectively) indicate long-established Roman citizenship and a family that was well-integrated into the élite classes of the Empire although it is otherwise unknown. Such enthusiasm to be associated with the Imperial power was not unknown in the case of ambitious Greek families.[lower-alpha 3] His origins could have been anywhere in the eastern provinces where Greek, rather than Latin, was the dominant culture. Somewhere in Asia (i.e. the region that roughly coincides with modern Turkey) is a possibility. However, as will be seen, his early career supports the notion that he may have had some connection to the Severan Dynasty, in particular the "Syrian Princesses".[lower-alpha 4] This could indicate that his origins were in the Oriens - i.e. the modern Levant /Arabia.[7]

Despite the obscurity of his family background, his reputation and his achievements suggest that he benefitted from an excellent classical education.[lower-alpha 5] His parents were almost certainly wealthy and, most likely, of equestrian status.

Early days

An inscription from a statue set up to honour Timesitheus in Lugdunum in the province of Gallia Lugdunensis (Lyons, France) charts his cursus prior to his appointment as Praetorian Prefect listing the following offices:[8]

An apparent set-back

The mutiny of the army in Germany that resulted in the murder Alexander Severus and his dominating mother, Julia Avita Mamaea, and their replacement by Maximinus Thrax might have been expected to set back the career of a man who had been so closely associated with the Severan Dynasty and with Mammea herself. However, not only did Timesitheus survive, but his career continued to prosper. Under the new regime he became Procurator provinciae Bithyniae Ponti Paphlagoniae tam patrimoni quam rationis privatae ibi vice procuratoris XXXX, item vice proco(n)sulis - i.e. fiscal administrator of the Asiatic Black Sea provinces of Bithynia, Pontus, and Paphlagonia with particular responsibility for managing the Imperial domains, both patrimonial and private. In addition, he was made acting procurator responsible for the collection of the custom duties levied at one-fortieth ad valorem. As in his previous posting in Germania he was also appointed acting proconsul - i.e. governor of these provinces - thus replacing a senatorial appointee (this time of consular status) for whom that office would normally have been reserved). Whatever reservations Maximinus Thrax may have entertained regarding Timesitheus's loyalties, his need for money to finance his German wars obviously did not allow him the luxury of foregoing the financial and administrative expertise the man could bring to his government of the Empire. (At the time - it was before the assaults on this region mounted by barbarians from the lands to the north of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov that were to characterise the middle years of the Third Century[lower-alpha 13] - the provinces given over to Timesitheus's care were among the richest in the Roman world). However, it may be indicative of the emperor's reservations that, whereas in Germany Timesitheus had commanded two legions, he now had none, Asia consisting of provinciae inermes - i.e. provinces where there were no Imperial troops permanently in garrison.[14][lower-alpha 14][lower-alpha 15]

Another set-back ..?

The mutiny of his army at Aquileia that brought an end to the regime of Maximinus Thrax also ended Timesitheus's term as the governor of Asia. However, he was soon employed again, this time as procurator provinciarum Lugdunensis et Aquitainicae - i.e. procurator of the two largest Gallic provinces: it would seem that he retained powerful friends in Rome despite his willingness to enter into accommodation with the military tyrant that the Senate had successfully faced down and that his administrative talents were too useful to be gainsaid. Admittedly, on this occasion he was not made an acting-governor while as procurator of Lugdunensis and Aquitainica he was, nominally at least, demoted to the rank of ducenarius. It could be that influential senators who mistrusted equestrians who got above their social station and particularly resented brilliant high-fliers such as Timesitheus may have intended this downgrading of his official ranking as a snub to his perceived pretensions. As already intimated, Timesitheus is unlikely to have been either disturbed or impressed.[lower-alpha 16]

... turned to advantage

Timesitheus seems to have used his position in the government of the Gauls to cultivate the leaders of Gallic society.[17] The Lyons Inscription (already mentioned) refers to him as optimus patronus (i.e. Best of Patrons) which implies that when his term of office came to an end he returned to Rome as an ambassador representing the interests the Gallic provinces. This would have facilitated his renewed access to the Imperial Court. As already indicated, Timesitheus was much admired for his culture and learning - for which much could be forgiven in Roman Society - and his rhetorical prowess no doubt did much to restore his reputation and influence with senior courtiers and senators who were dominant in Imperial politics in the early years of the reign of GordianIII.[17]

So complete was his return to favour that, not long after his return to the City, he succeeded in marrying his daughter, Furia Sabinia Tranquillina, to Gordian, and was afterwards appointed his Praetorian Prefect, probably the consummation of his life's ambition. It has been suggested that the appointment of her father as his first minister and senior general was the Emperor's wedding-present to his young bride: there is no reason to suppose that Timesitheus had to serve terms in any of the other great Equestrian Offices of the Imperial Service (i.e. the Watch, the Corn Supply and the Government of Egypt) often regarded as necessary precursors to the Praetorian Prefecture before this appointment was bestowed upon him.[18]

Reputation as Praetorian Prefect

Timesitheus served as Praetorian Prefect for some three years from 241 until his death in 243. The only narrative source on his term of office is the SHA and, as already noted, the author of the Vita Tres Gordiani could hardly have been more fulsome in singing his praises, both as the father-in-law of the young emperor and as the protector of the Empire. This generous assessment is supported by two citations of supposed correspondence between Timesitheus and Gordian (probably invented) and a number of topoi familiarly used in Latin historiography to define a worthy servant of the state - i.e. a crackdown on sale of offices by members of the palatini,[lower-alpha 17] care for the defence of the frontiers and exemplary behaviour in his capacity as commander of the Praetorian Guard. The favourable view of Timesitheus's term of office entertained by the SHA is not challenged by modern scholars - although the inadequacy of the data is acknowledged.[19]

Achievements in office

Much of the first two years of Timesitheus's prefecture seems to have been spent producing a stable environment in which government of any sort could be carried on. His main weapon to this end seems to have been to strengthen the authority of the Praetorian Prefecture, his own office, and to move equestrians with a fiscal background - such as himself - into positions of power.[lower-alpha 18] The main effect of his manoeuvring seems to have been to ensure that the kind of men who had carried on the government under Alexander Severus were restored to effective office.[20]

The principal challenges to his conduct of affairs seem to have been posed by senators such as Sabinianus, the governor of Africa Proconsularis whose revolt had to be put down by the equestrian governor of Mauretania and Tullus Menophilus, the hero of the Siege of Aquileia' The latter was executed in 241 for reasons not properly understood and to have suffered the further penalty of damnatio memoriae - i.e. formal obliteration of his name from the historical record.

Details of Timesitheus's policies and achievements as the (probable) de facto ruler of the Empire during the reign of his son-in-law are sparse. There is evidence of substantial road repairs undertaken in many parts of the Roman World which would have been of economic and strategic significance. Monuments were restored in major cities which might have lifted civilian morale as well as providing employment for sculptors, stonemasons etc. It also seems that there was a thoroughgoing adjustment of the African frontier.[21] It is not possible to tell how far such measures reflected policy guidelines issued by Timesitheus's office to provincial authorities, still less what detailed planning was carried out there. The most that can be said with any confidence is that he does not seem to have stood in the way of functionaries, such as the procurator of Mauretania, who conceived and drove forward such works.

The Persian menace

His main concern as the Emperor's principal minister and adviser was in dealing with the threat to the oriental provinces posed by the renascent power of Persia under one of its most effective "King of Kings", Shapur I.

Shapur's ambitions when he succeeded his father Ardashir in 240 were no doubt inflated by his initial successes, but there also seems no doubt that he was determined to: (i) secure strategic control of the minor states of eastern Mesopotamia that controlled access to Roman Syria across the eastern desert-frontier west of the River Euphrates; and (ii) replace Rome by Persia as the hegemonic power of the Kingdom of Armenia. During the reign of Maximinus Rome had suffered the loss of considerable territories in Mesopotamia to Ardashir which the Roman Emperor had been unable to prevent or avenge because of his internal distractions: on his accession, Shapur renewed the onslaught, capturing more of the Mesopotamian fortresses and penetrating Syria itself where Antioch, the capital of the Roman east may have come under threat. More seriously, perhaps, the confidence of the Rome's governing elite that the Empire was capable of seeing-off the Persian threat to the Oriens was seriously undermined.[22]

In the first two years of his prefecture Timesitheus was not able to give his attention to the threat to Rome's territories in the east posed by Shapur, but in 242 he began to organise a response appropriate to the magnitude of the crisis. Under his supervision, a powerful army was put together consisting of vexillationes from the garrisons of the Rhine and Danube provinces. This expeditionary force seems to have been very well-equipped and financed. Neither did Timesitheus neglect the issue of morale. For the last time in recorded history, war was declared with traditional Roman formalities from the temple of Janus. More significantly, before he left Rome with the Emperor, Timesitheus addressed the concerns of the Greek east by holding games in honour of Pallas Athena in her capacity as Athena Promachos - Aθηνᾶ Πρόμαχος (Athena Who-Fights-In-The-Frontline) - the patron goddess of Athens credited with saving Greece from Persia at the time of the Battle of Marathon. The object of this latter exercise was probably to reaffirm the role of Rome under the Emperor Gordian as the heir of Athens in securing the Greek world from Persian domination.[23]

The removal of so many seasoned troops from their Rhine and the Danube stations encouraged an assault across the lower Danube by the Carpi and other northern barbarians. However, Timesitheus, en route to the east through the Balkans, inflicted a serious defeat on the invaders in Thracia. He seems then to have followed the usual practice of Roman commanders after victories over barbarian peoples of obliging the defeated to provide contingents of troops. Such measures were intended not only to reinforce his army, but also to remove those restless young men who might have been disposed to make more trouble in its absence.[lower-alpha 19]

On arriving in the theatre of operations he seems to have mounted a highly successful campaign against the Persians in Mesopotamia, inflicting a crushing defeat on them at the Battle of Resaena (Ras-al Ayn, Syria). This enabled the Romans to recover their all their main positions in Mesopotamia, including Carrhae, Nisbis and Singara and restore their colony at Edessa in Adiabene.[lower-alpha 20] The SHA suggests that it was Timesitheus's intention to follow up this success by advancing on the Persian western capital at Ctesiphon.[24] His death meant that Shapur never had to face a powerful, well-equipped Roman army, not distracted by other enemies (as in the case of Valerian in 260) and led by a first-class general until he encountered Odenathus of Palmyra.

The death of Timesitheus

Before the projected campaign to capture Ctesiphon could get underway, Timesitheus died in obscure circumstances.[lower-alpha 21]

Following the removal of Timesitheus's presiding genius the organisation of the campaign - presumably under the guidance of Priscus who succeeded him as Praetorian Prefect - the assault on the western heartland of the Persian monarchy fell into disarray. The SHA assertion that Philip (who was promoted to the Praetorian Prefecture in tandem with his brother), deliberately contrived to starve the army of supplies in order to undermine the authority of Gordian may or may not be true, but the decision of the brothers to pursue the attack down the River Euphrates at the turn of 243/4 in the height of the Assyrian rainy season seems to demonstrate a lack of strategic insight that invited disaster. Whatever its cause, the death of Timesitheus put in train a series of events that deprived the Roman Empire of what was probably its best chance of quashing the pretensions of the Persian monarchy before it became fully established.


Timesitheus's historical significance is that in the period when the provisions of Roman Administrative Law that formally reserved the government of key Imperial provinces for members of the Senatorial Order were being increasingly set aside and specialists of equestrian rank brought to the fore, he was one of the foremost examples of the new type of functionary. In his day such officials tended to be particularly expert in fiscal administration reflecting the Imperial government's urgent need for additional revenues to support the cost of the army reforms introduced by Septimius Severus and Caracalla. However, within a very short time, as the Imperial Crisis of the Third Century gathered momentum, the equestrian officers being appointed vice senatorial magistrates in regions at particular risk tended to be professional soldiers than those who had made their way in the procuratorial branches of the Imperial Service. It would appear that Timesitheus combined fiscal expertise of a high order with considerable military competence which probably assisted his advancement. However, it was almost certainly his fiscal capabilities - together with the powerful court-connections that were essential to success at the highest level of the Imperial Service - that supplied the chief underpinning of his career.

He had the reputation in antiquity of being highly cultured, fluent in both Latin and Greek, an exemplar of the virtues of paideia (in Latin humanitas), the essential qualities of a public servant. (The SHA notes as mark of virtus that he corresponded with his son-in-law in Greek.[26] This, combined with administrative and military competencies of a high order, rendered Timesitheus the perfect Imperial functionary in the eyes of his contemporaries. These attributes enabled him to survive the violent removal of three emperors and continue to flourish as an indispensable if not always wholly trusted servant of the state.

His career bears witness to his rare appreciation of where real power lay in the Roman polity and also of the opportunities that prevailing circumstances were opening up for men of equestrian origins such as himself to share in that power. However, it also suggests that he also realized the likely limitations that the social compact still imposed on men originating from outside the charmed circle of the Senatorial Order. It would seem that, having made this analysis, he pursued the exercise of Real Power with a single-minded diligence as an equestrian. Within the constraints of the Imperial System of government, he seems to have been a highly effective statesman and administrator. It is possible that his premature death (however that came about) deprived Rome of the services of a general who might have saved the Empire from the humiliations that were to be inflicted on it by Shapur I.


  1. Zosimus refers to Timesitheus as Timesikles or Timesokles.[2] He may merely have made an error in transcribing his source(s) .The SHA calls him Misitheus.[3] This could also be an uncomplicated error, but, might possibly be an instance of the malicious humour in which the author of those unreliable, but indispensable Imperial biographies so often indulged. However, the SHA account of Timesitheus is beyond fulsome in its praise for his wisdom and learning, his care for his young son-in-law, the Emperor Gordian III, and his administration of the Empire.[4]
  2. See Equites and Procurator (Roman).
  3. Such tendencies seem to have been particularly pronounced among the Greeks of Asia and the Oriens.[5] The Greeks of Achaea (particularly Athens) may have been more concerned to emphasise their pre-Roman heritage and cultural distinction[6]
  4. The term "Syrian Princesses" refers to three powerful women originating in Emesa (i.e. Homs, Syria). They included Julia Maesa, the Elder sister of Julia Domna, wife of the Emperor Septimius Severus, and her daughters Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, who were themselves mothers of the Emperors Elagabalus and Alexander Severus respectively.
  5. Zosimus calls him "... a man high in estimation for his learning ...." (Zos. Hist I, 17.2.). The SHA is also very laudatory - see below.
  6. The lands directly owned by the Severan Dynasty in north east Gaul and the Germanies - as throughout the Empire - are likely to have been substantially increased by Septimius Severus's victory in the civil wars of the 190s and the subsequent confiscations of the property of his defeated enemies and their supporters. This would have increased the demand for expert estate managers such as Timesitheus to administer these acquisitions and maximize the revenues derived from them[9]
  7. It is possible that Timesitheus's appointment to these offices related to Caracalla's war against the peoples of southern Germany (213 AD), for which much money would have been required, but there is no evidence to support this proposition.
  8. Concerning the salary-defined equestrian ranks of sexagenanarius, centenarius, etc. see Equites.
  9. Under prevailing Administrative Law established during the reign of the Emperor Augustus the government of provinces with legionary garrisons was reserved for men of senatorial status. (In the case of provincial Arabiae the senator would have been of praetorian rank - i.e. yet to hold a consulate). However, an Emperor could over-ride this requirement and appoint an equestrian as a temporary expedient if he saw fit. Such appointments became increasingly common in the Third Century AD. Whether Timesitheus would have commanded the legion on active service in person or through a military deputy is not known.
  10. The Persian Empire had been recently revived under the leadership of the Ardashir, the first "King of Kings" of the Sassanides dynasty.
  11. The name 'Alamanni' may not yet have been applied by the Romans to the league of German peoples recently formed to the north of their South German territories, the Agri Decumates. However, as a serious threat to the Imperial hegemony in that region this group had been known to the Imperial government at least since the era of Caracalla - see above.
  12. The war against Persia was termed "Sacred" because the conflict was conducted, in name at least, by the Emperor himself, Alexander Severus. (In fact the men in charge would have been officers who answered to Alexander's mother, Julia Mammaea.
  13. See inter alia Crisis of the Third Century.
  14. The inermes status of Timesitheus's provinces does not necessarily mean that there were no troops stationed there: there were undoubtedly detachments from other provinces with legionary garrisons sent to carry out escort/police duties, collect supplies etc.[15]
  15. Maximinus could have intended that any sense of slight Timesitheus might have felt at being deprived of a legionary command would be assuaged by the fact that as vice proco(n)sulis of Asia he would be sexa-fascalis - i.e. merit a ceremonial escort of six lictors - whereas as vice praeses of Germania Inferior he had enjoyed praetorian status only and was thus merely quinque-fascalis - i.e. only five lictors! However, even had the emperor cared in the slightest for Timesitheus's presumed feelings - which seems unlikely given what is known of his character - as already suggested, Timesitheus probably set little store by the dignified appurtenances of power as opposed to his ability efficiently to exercise its actuality.[16]
  16. It is possible that, even in the short term, the main effect of the demise of Maximinus Thrax's administration and the subsequent overthrow of the Senate's preferred candidates for the Empire, Pupienus and Balbinus, was to return to effective power those who had exercised it under Julia Mamaea.[10] As suggested above, Timsetheus seems not have lacked for influential friends at court or in the City.
  17. In Timesitheus,s case the prime offenders identified by SHA were members of the household of the Empress-Mother, Antonia Gordiana. The usual caveats relating to this source apply
  18. Two such men were Marcus Julius Philippus (later known as Philip the Arab) - and his brother Gaius Julius Priscus who Timesitheus seems to have made his co-Praetorian Prefect. Like Timesitheus, these men had impressive backgrounds in fiscal administration, but his promotion of them was to have dire consequences - for his regime and for the Empire - see below.
  19. In Res Gestae Divi Saporis, the inscription on his victory-monument at Naqsh-e Rustam, the Persian King was later to claim that the Roman Army he defeated at the Battle of Misiche in 244 included German and Gothic auxiliaries.
  20. It is considered good practice in Academe to accept the SHA as a reliable source of information only when his assertions can be verified from other evidence. On this occasion his account of the success of Timesitheus's operations in Mesopotamia seems to be justified in the light of coins issued honouring Gordian and Tranquillina by the Mesopamian cities of Edessa, Carrhae and Nisbis - see SHA Vita Gord, 26 fn 100.
  21. The SHA asserts that Timesitheus was suffering from an attack of diarrhoea and that Marcus Julius Philippus (Philip the Arab, succeeded in having his medication doctored, thus, fatally inflaming the symptoms of his illness.[25] This account is not found in the Greek sources and is not now generally accepted in Academe. However, Philip the Arab, and his brother Gaius Julius Priscus, Timesitheus's co-Praetorian Prefect, were the chief beneficiaries of Timesitheus's death.


  1. Christol, M (2006). L'Empire Romaine du III Siècle - 295-325 apres J.C. Paris: Editions Errance. p. 98.
  2. Zos., Hist., I, 17, 2).
  3. SHA, Vit. Gord. passim).
  4. SHA Vit. Gord 23, 5-6; 25, 6-7; 27, 2, 4, 7 and 10; and 28, 1-6).
  5. Madsen(2009:passim.)
  6. Millar(1969):28-29.
  7. Pflaum:1960-1:pp 813.
  8. CIL, XIII, 1807 - (D 1330) Lugdunum.
  9. Cascio(2005;p 151)
  10. 1 2 Potter(2004(pp 229-30)
  11. Pflaum(1960; p 813)
  12. Pflaum(1960-1:p 814)
  13. Pflaum(1960-1:p 815)
  14. Pflaum(1960-61:8p 818)
  15. Le Bohec(2007:120-3)
  16. Pflaum ibid.
  17. 1 2 Pflaum(1960-1:p 819)
  18. Pflaum(1960-1:p 820)
  19. See, for instance, Enslinn(1965:p 86)). Potter is not so uncriticallly impressed, but nevertheless presents Timesitheus as the type of Novus Homo with a strong fiscal background coming to the fore as the Severan Empire stumbled towards its inevitable failure (Potter(2004:pp 229-31)).
  20. Potter(2004:xxx).
  21. Enslinn(1965:86).
  22. SHA. Vita Gord. 26.3.
  23. Christol (2006) 98
  24. SHA Vita Gord 26, 3-6
  25. 'SHA 28 1, 5.
  26. SHA (vita tres gordiani: 25.5)


This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/4/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.