Marble Bust of Roman Emperor Gordian III Seized from Trafficker Makes It to Bulgaria’s National Museum of History

This marble bust, allegedly of Roman Emperor Gordian III, has been seized by the Bulgarian police from a trafficker of antiques, and transferred to the collection of the National Museum of History in Sofia. Photo: National Museum of History

This marble bust, allegedly of Roman Emperor Gordian III, has been seized by the Bulgarian police from a trafficker of antiques, and transferred to the collection of the National Museum of History in Sofia. Photo: National Museum of History

A marble bust of Roman Emperor Gordian III (r. 238-244 AD) has been seized by the Bulgarian police from a trafficker of antiques, and has been transferred to Bulgaria’s National Museum of History in Sofia, the Museum has announced in a media statement.

“This is a wonderful addition to the [collection of] the National Museum of History. Such a valuable monument gets discovered once in 20 years," its Director, Bozhidar Dimitrov, is quoted as saying.

The Museum’s release does not provide any information as to where in Bulgaria and under what circumstances the marble bust of Roman Emperor Gordian III was confiscated by the Bulgarian policy, other than mentioning that it was seized by the Unit for Combating Organized Crime (GDBOP).

The National Museum of History in Sofia does point out, however, that the find has caused “a heated argument" among its archaeologists and historians as to which Roman Emperor the marble bust really depicts: is it Gordian III, or is it his successor, Emperor Philip the Arab (r. 244-249 AD).

Eventually, however, the scholars who believe it is Philip the Arab ended up in the minority, and the wider consensus in the Museum is that the bust does show Emperor Gordian III based on its characteristics.

In its statement, the National Museum of History in Sofia reminds that Roman Emperor Marcus Antonius Gordianus was the grandson of Emperor Gordian I. He was born in 225, and became Emperor of the Roman Empire in 238 AD at the age of 13, reigning in agreement with the Senate in Rome.

Under Gordian III, the Roman Empire waged war on the Goths along the Lower Danube, i.e. in today’s Bulgaria and Romania, in 238-239 AD, and achieved a victory against the Franks on the Rhein.

In 241 AD, Emperor Gordian III went through the province of Thrace to reach Antioch in Syria where his forces successfully fought against the Persians. Also in 241, he married Furia Sabinia Tranquillina, daughter of the praetorian prefect, Timesitheus. Emperor Gordian III died in Mesopotamia in 244 AD.

“The mints in the cities of [the Roman provinces] of Moesia Inferior and Thrace conducted large-scale coin minting operations [producing coins] with the name and image of Gordian III and his wife Tranquillina," says the National Museum of History in Sofia.

It enumerates the mints in the Roman cities: Callatis (today’s Mangalia in Romania), Dionysopolis (today’s Balchik in Bulgaria), Istros (Histria) (today’s Istria in Romania), Marcianopolis (today’s Devnya in Bulgaria), Nicopolis ad Istrum (today’s Nikyup in Bulgaria), Odessus (today’s Varna in Bulgaria), Tomis (today’s Constanta in Romania), Perinthus (today’s Marmara Ereglisi in Turkey), Traianopolis (today’s Traianopouli in Greece), Anchialos (today’s Pomorie in Bulgaria), Byzantium (today’s Istanbul in Turkey), Deultum (today’s Debelt in Bulgaria), Hadrianopolis (today’s Edirne in Turkey), Mesembria (today’s Nessebar in Bulgaria).

“Especially notable are the issues of bronze medallions minted in Odessus (also known as Odessos, today’s Varna – editor’s note) which mark the Emperor’s (Gordian III) passing through the city in 242 AD. On their backs, the Emperor is presented as a victorious warrior or as performing a sacrifice. Sports events were organized in his honor," remarks Bulgaria’s National Museum of History in its statement.

It also reminds that the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences has in its collection a bronze head of Emperor Gordian III which was discovered in the Yantra River in Northern Bulgaria, and was probably part of a bronze statue that decorated the forum of the Ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum near today’s town of Nikyup.

The National Museum of History statement announces the conclusion of most of its scholars that the newly found marble bust seized by the police presents Roman Emperor Gordian III in the last years of his rule, shortly before his death.

It notes also that the cause of Gordian III’s death remains unclear, with hypotheses ranging from a murder during a mutiny in the Roman forces to a battle wound, to a plot involving his successor, Emperor Philip I the Arab.

The bust transferred to the National Museum of History is said to resemble the bronze portraits of the Emperor found in the Museum in Bonn, Germany, and the Museum of the Thermae in Rome, Italy.

“The face has the typical [features] of Gordian III, large, wide open eyes, rounded thick eyebrows, slightly conspicuous forehead, thick lips with mustache, and a chin dimple," says the National Museum of History in Sofia

It adds that the bust’s gown and its fastener are same as those on a marble bust of Gordian III kept in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.

“The bust was part of a larger monument which probably had to do with the cult for the Emperor," concludes Bulgaria’s National Museum of History, noting that the Senate of Rome deified Gordian III after his death.

In a statement issued later, Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry has provided more details about the seizure of the Gordian III bust.

It says the artifact was confiscated in a special operation which took place between September 7 and September 9, 2015. A photo showing the bust inside the trunk of a trafficker’s car has also been released (see below).

Together with the Emperor’s bust, the Bulgarian police have also captured an Ancient Roman gravestone stele with an inscription dedicated to “the ancient gods of the underworld", and featuring the names of the members of a Roman family. The stele is also decorated with reliefs of human figures and floral motifs.

Just 2 days ago, the Unit for Combating Organized Crime (GDBOP) transferred to the National Museum of History in Sofia an Ancient Roman sacrificial altar mentioning three Roman Emperors: Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 AD), his son and Co-Emperor Septimius Geta (r. 209-211 AD), and Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 AD), and dedicated to god Jupiter Dolichenus.

The seized bust of Roman Emperor Gordian III is pictured here inside the trunk of the trafficker's car. Photo: Bulgaria's Interior Ministry

The seized bust of Roman Emperor Gordian III is pictured here inside the trunk of the trafficker’s car. Photo: Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry

An Ancient Roman gravestone stele has also been confiscated by the Bulgarian police together with the bust of Gordian III. Photo: Interior Ministry

An Ancient Roman gravestone stele has also been confiscated by the Bulgarian police together with the bust of Gordian III. Photo: Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry