According to the Augustan History, his mother was a Roman woman called Ulpia Gordiana and his father Roman Senator Maecius Marullus. Modern historians have dismissed his father's name as false. Maybe there is some truth behind the identity of his mother. We can guess Gordian's family history only through inscriptions. The name Sempronianus in his name may indicate a connection to his mother or grandmother. In Ankara Turkey, a funeral inscription has been found that names a Sempronia Romana, daughter of a named Sempronius Aquila (an imperial secretary). Romana erected this undated funeral inscription to her husband (whose name is lost) who died as a praetor-designate. Gordian might have been related to gens Sempronius.
Also according to the Augustan History, his wife was a Roman woman called Fabia Orestilla, who the Augustan History claims was a descendant of Roman Emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius through her father Fulvus Antoninus. Modern historians have dismissed this name and her information as false, as they believe his wife was the granddaughter of Greek Sophist, consul and tutor Herodes Atticus. With his wife, Gordian had at least two children: a son of the same name (Gordian II) and a daughter, Antonia Gordiana (who was the mother of the future Emperor Gordian III). His wife died before 238.
Gordian climbed the hierarchy until he entered the Roman Senate. His political career started relatively late in his life and probably his early years were spent in rhetoric and literary studies. As a military man, Gordian commanded the Legio IIII Scythica when the legion was stationed in Syria. He served as governor of Roman Britain in 216 and was a suffect consul in the reign of Elagabalus. Inscriptions in Roman Britain bearing his name were partially erased suggesting some form of imperial displeasure during this role.
While he gained unbounded popularity by the magnificent games and shows he produced as aedile, his prudent and retired life did not excite the suspicion of Caracalla, in whose honour he wrote a long epic poem called Antoninias. Gordian certainly retained his wealth and political clout during the chaotic times of the Severan dynasty, which suggest his personal dislike for intrigue.
Maximinus was not a popular emperor and universal discontent roused by his oppressive rule culminated in a revolt in Africa in 238. Gordian yielded to the popular clamour and assumed both the purple and the cognomen Africanus on March 22. According to Edward Gibbon:
An iniquitous sentence had been pronounced against some opulent youths of [Africa], the execution of which would have stripped them of far the greater part of their patrimony. (…) A respite of three days, obtained with difficulty from the rapacious treasurer, was employed in collecting from their estates a great number of slaves and peasants blindly devoted to the commands of their lords, and armed with the rustic weapons of clubs and axes. The leaders of the conspiracy, as they were admitted to the audience of the procurator, stabbed him with the daggers concealed under their garments, and, by the assistance of their tumultuary train, seized on the little town of Thysdrus, and erected the standard of rebellion against the sovereign of the Roman empire. (...) Gordianus, their proconsul, and the object of their choice [as emperor], refused, with unfeigned reluctance, the dangerous honour, and begged with tears that they should suffer him to terminate in peace a long and innocent life, without staining his feeble age with civil blood. Their menaces compelled him to accept the Imperial purple, his only refuge indeed against the jealous cruelty of Maximin (...).
Opposition would come from the neighbouring province of Numidia. Capelianus, governor of Numidia and a loyal supporter of Maximinus Thrax, renewed his alliance to the former emperor and invaded Africa province with the only legion stationed in the region, III Augusta, and other veteran units. Gordian II, at the head of a militia army of untrained soldiers, lost the Battle of Carthage and was killed, and Gordian took his own life by hanging himself with his belt. The Gordians had reigned only thirty-six days.