Marcus Opellius Severus Macrinus Augustus
(164 - 218 AD)
Emperor: 217 - 218 AD
Marcus Opellius Macrinus was a man who, in more settled times might have made a solid, unspectacular emperor. He was honest, thorough, hard-working and a good administrator. However, in more settled times, Macrinus would never have become emperor at all, for by conventional standards he was completely unqualified for the job.
Macrinus was a provincial, born in the province of Mauretania Caesarienis (in modern Algeria). He had no family connection with the Antonine dynasty or the family of Septimius Severus, and certainly was no blood relative. Furthermore, he was not even a senator, which until Macrinus' succession was regarded as the minimum qualification for the position of emperor.
Instead of family or political connections, Macrinus managed to get to within striking position of the imperial throne by solid, hard work and reliability. There are various stories about the early years of Rome's 23rd emperor, including that he had worked as a courier and even as a gladiator. We can discount the latter as a later defamation, as does the historian Cassius Dio who was a contemporary of Macrinus and knew the man well by reputation; indeed he may well have met him personally.
It is probable that Macrinus' parents were well-respected but not very wealthy small-town grandees. They were able to fund their son's education as a lawyer (there is no record of Macrinus having any siblings). When the ambitious young man went to Rome the shortcomings of his provincial education were exposed. As Dio remarked, his knowledge of the law was less reliable than the punctiliousness with which he observed those laws.
In the snake-pit of Roman politics loyalty and reliability were every bit as desirable as talent, and consequently Macrinus became a protégé of the Praetorian Prefect of Septimius Severus. Loyal and reliable as he may have been, the country lad from Mauretania must have had some political ability for he not only survived his patron's fall from grace, but afterwards even managed to obtain a promotion. This promotion was to the post of manager of the vital Via Flaminia, one of the main road arteries of Italy. By this time Macrinus was married, to a woman of whom we know only the name, Nonia Celsa, and that from an unreliable source, the notoriously error-prone Historia Augusta.
Eventually Macrinus switched from imperial functionary to imperial courtier, holding a series of positions in the household of Septimius Severus. When Severus died, Macrinus was placed in charge of the finances of the new co-emperors, Geta and Caracalla. The political acumen of Macrinus ensured that he had no ties to the ill-fated Geta. Indeed, once Caracalla had murdered his brother in 211, Macrinus not only survived the subsequent purge but was promoted again, this time to the post of Praetorian Prefect.
Septimius Severus had decided that the office of Praetorian Prefect was too powerful for one man to hold alone, so Macrinus shared his duties with a colleague, the elderly Adventus. However, Macrinus was undoubtedly the senior of the two, and the man who most enjoyed Caracalla's trust. As a member of the emperor's advisory council Macrinus was privy to the innermost secrets and decisions of the imperial administration. As part of his duties Macrinus commanded the legion II Parthica. Since the Praetorian guard was now defunct, this legion represented the military power nearest Rome, and was another sign of Caracalla's trust in his subordinate.
This trust vanished during the Parthian campaign which took Caracalla and Macrinus east in 214. At some time in late 216, two different prophecies reached Caracalla that Macrinus would kill and replace him. Caracalla affected not to believe this, and indeed had one of the prophets executed. However, Macrinus noted that key subordinates loyal to him were transferred out of his control, as was command of II Parthica. Macrinus himself received personal awards such as the title of 'clarissimus' and the right to wear consular insignia, but the shrewd politician cannot have but noted that he was being isolated and his powers replaced by honours.
Consequently, when Caracalla wanted to go on a sightseeing trip to a famous local temple, it seems that Macrinus made sure that one Martialis was among the emperor's retainers. Martialis hated Caracalla, either because Caracalla had unjustly ordered his brother killed, or because Caracalla had denied Martialis promotion to the rank of centurion. When Caracalla dismounted and sought privacy to empty his bowels, Martialis approached and stabbed Caracalla with a concealed knife. The emperor's bodyguard promptly killed the assassin (and according to Cassuis Dio other retainers loyal to Macrinus quietly finished off Caracalla). In a quick, clean killing Rome's emperor was dead, and the obvious suspect was dead also.
Macrinus as Emperor
Caracalla had been the last of his line. Since he was hated by the senate, he had not risked appointing an heir whom his enemies would immediately have rallied behind. Therefore his death left a power vacuum at the top. After some deliberation the army decided to back Macrinus simply because they could think of no-one better. The senate also accepted Macrinus as emperor, partly because Macrinus had always been deferential to that august body, and mostly because he was not Caracalla. Thus the lawyer from the provinces became Rome's first non-senatorial emperor.
Macrinus gave the army a large bonus (called a donative) to the army on his accession. It was essential to secure the goodwill of the soldiers, not least because the mother and aunts of the deceased Caracalla remained influential and deeply suspicious of the role Macrinus had played in the assassination. Following Caracalla's example, Macrinus gave the family honours - he even deified Caracalla - while moving to strip away their powers. Provincial governors whom Macrinus felt were too deeply attached to the Severan dynasty were ordered to stand down and replacements were sent to take their places.
Julia Domna, Caracalla's mother was ordered to leave Antioch, the local seat of power, and to return with her sister Julia Maesa to their home in Edessa. Julia Domna was already terminally ill - possibly from breast cancer - and she simply refused to go. It was the matriarch's final and very astute political manoeuvre. When Julia Domna did die soon afterwards, many held Macrinus responsible.
Meanwhile Macrinus' promising start with the army ran into difficulties. Caracalla had come east to campaign against the Parthians and this war continued. Macrinus had no military experience and he was a fussy perfectionist who punished mistakes more than he rewarded success. Predictably, this meant that when the Romans did meet the Parthians in a major battle near Nisibis in 217, Macrinus' commanders were more intent on avoiding defeat than in securing victory. The battle was a draw, though the enemies of Macrinus preferred to paint it as a defeat, comparing it unfavourably with the run of successes enjoyed by Septimius Severus against the same enemy.
Macrinus knew his own limitations, and was anyway prepared to cut his losses and get out of the Parthian war. He needed to stamp his personal authority on Rome, where the populace both disliked his appointee as city prefect and the implied insult of an emperor who appeared uninterested in returning to the city. The Parthian king had his own problems, including a simmering civil war. He cheerfully accepted Macrinus' offer of peace in exchange for a huge cash payment, and in return allowed Macrinus to place his choice of client king upon the throne of Armenia. (It is uncertain that this cash payment was ever made.) None of this sat well with the army. By some accounts it appears that Macrinus, ever the conscientious administrator, decided to recoup some of his financial losses from military wages. He was not so foolish as to cut the pay of serving soldiers, but he lowered the starting salary for new recruits.
The new emperor may have felt that this cut was compensated by a financial reform - again as a conscientious administrator, he would have noted that rising inflation had as its root cause the ever-declining amount of silver in the standard Roman coin, the denarius. (Once pure sliver, the silver content of the coin was now around 51%.) Macrinus slightly increased the silver content of the coin and may have hoped that the increased purchasing power compensated in part for the cut in recruits' pay. The army instead noted only an unsuccessful battle, peace without victory (and more importantly, without booty) and a pay cut.
All this played into the hands of Macrinus' enemies, especially the sister of Julia Domna. This was Julia Maesa, aunt of the late Caracalla, and a lady dedicated to restoring the dynasty of Severus, and her own position as a power behind the scenes. Julia Maesa had a grandson, a handsome youth called Varius Avitus Bassianus. Julia started a rumour that this fourteen-year-old boy was in fact the natural son of Caracalla, thus giving the youth that crucial family tie to the Severan dynasty which Macrinus lacked. Macrinus had tried to make the family connection in his titles, calling himself Severus and his son Antoninus, but this move was widely mocked.
Once the rumour of his parentage was well-established, Julia smuggled the boy into the camp of III Gallica, a legion based at Raphanaea at a strategic location between Antioch and Damascus. She had taken the precaution of further boosting the legion's pro-Severan sympathies with a large cash payment, and on 16 May the legion became the first to declare for the boy emperor who was to later be known as Elagabalus after the sun god whom he worshipped.
Macrinus responded by sending his Praetorian prefect and the legion II Parthica to suppress the revolt. He also promoted his own son 'Antoninus' Diadumenianus to the rank of Caesar. It will be remembered that Macrinus had commanded II Parthica a few years previously, so it says something of his powers of leadership that his soldiers killed the Prefect and promptly joined III Gallica in rebellion.
With the rebel army advancing on Antioch and more defections occurring daily, Macrinus had to make a stand. On 8 June 218 he met the rebels in battle, and despite having more experienced troops and superior commanders ,his unmotivated and demoralized army was soundly defeated.
Macrinus had already sent his son off to seek safety in Parthia under the guise of an embassy. He knew that his only chance at survival was to escape to the west and attempt to rally the legions there. Shaving his head and beard Macrinus set off westward disguised as a courier - an interesting choice of disguise given that he was allegedly a courier in his youth. He got as far as Chalcedon on the coast of Bithynia before he was arrested 'like a common thief'. His son had also failed to escape, and the pair were executed.
Macrinus was solid and capable, but he lacked the personality, family connections and flair that citizens and soldiers looked for in a ruler.
Did you know...
The principal exports from Mauretania Caesariensis were purple dyes and valuable woods.