Marcus Opellius Macrinus
11 April 217 – 8 June 218 CE
c. 165 CE
8 June 218 CE
Macrinus was born around 165 CE in the African city of Cesarea (now Cherchell, Algeria) in the Roman province of Mauritania, under the name of Marcus Opellius Macrinus. He was from the Berber people and was the first emperor not to come from the senatorial state.
Macrinus was born in North Africa to an equite family. However, there is also another version of its origin. Macrinus was to be born into a poor family. Due to the financial situation, he was forced to hunt, mission, and even fight in the arena. The more probable version, however, seems to be his state of equestrianism. He received a good education which allowed him to rise to political heights in the Roman Empire. Initially, he gained a reputation as a gifted lawyer. During the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, he became an important official in the Empire. The next emperor, Caracalla, appointed him the prefect of the praetorium, who was divided between two ministers: the military department was headed by Adventus, an experienced rather than an eminently gifted soldier, and Macrinus was in charge of civil affairs. He enjoyed the considerable trust of the emperor until rumours emerged about the prophecy that he and his son would become the successors of Caracalla. Macrinus, wishing to prevent his inevitable death, tried to inflame the discontent of some of the lower officers, in particular Martialis, a soldier denied the rank of centurion.
In the spring of 217 CE, Caracalla has been in the eastern provinces preparing for war against the Parthian Empire. Macrinus was there also among other members of the Praetorian Guard. In April, the emperor visited the Luna temple in Carrhae with only the closest entourage. This moment was used by the legionary Martialis, who killed the emperor, and was immediately killed by the praetorians.
After the expiry of the Severus family, the Roman world was left without an emperor for three days. Macrinus cleverly dismissed all suspicions of his involvement in the plot, demonstrating mourning for the slain emperor. Adventus, due to his age, did not want to take the position of Caesar, so the army – not finding a better candidate – declared Macrinus the new emperor.
Despite his lowly descent, Macrinus was proclaimed Roman emperor on April 11, 217 CE. One of his first moves was to declare his own son, a boy only ten years old, emperor and his successor. Until now, the basic principle of the system was the election of the emperor among members of the senate, therefore the actions of Macrinus aroused discontent among the upper class. Ultimately, Macrinus was approved by the Senate but was unable to exercise power effectively. Power depended primarily on the army, which at that time was completely deprived of discipline by the lavish remuneration awarded by the previous emperor. Macrinus had to undertake reforms and cut military spending. To do this delicately, he left the current soldiers an exorbitant pay but offered newcomers only the rates that had been set much earlier by Emperor Septimius Severus. He also tried to be prudent and rather conciliatory in foreign policy. He quickly resolved the conflicts in Dacia and Armenia that arose during the times of Caracalla.
In the summer of 217 CE, Parthians attacked Mesopotamia. The party empire was in a state of serious weakness, but this attack was a continuation of the war started by Caracalla. Subsequent hostilities led to the Battle of Nisibis. The final outcome of the battle was not a foregone conclusion, and each side announced its victory. The fact is, however, that Macrinus was the first to send an emissary with a peace offering during the protracted three-day battle. In the concluded peace treaty, the emperor undertook to pay the Parthians as much as 200 million sesterces of compensation, keeping, however, the lands conquered earlier by the Parthians. Macrinus believed that he had emerged victorious from this war and minted a coin commemorating the victory over the Parthians, but most saw this peace as a defeat for Rome.
At the height of his reign, in the year 217 CE, a great Capitoline Temple was erected in the city of Volubilis, in Africa, to commemorate him. In addition, in order to repair the finances of the state, Macrinus revalorized the Roman currency: he increased the purity of silver in the denar from 51.5% to 58%, thereby raising the weight of the metal from 1.66 to 1.82 grams.
The emperor’s conciliatory policy did not inspire confidence, and therefore he lost support among the military quite quickly; dissatisfaction was expressed by all conscripts who had to fight for much less than the veterans. Also in Rome itself, among the senators, the new emperor did not enjoy the support of. As if that were not enough, a storm hit the city in late summer, which caused significant fires and floods. In this difficult time, the emperor did not fulfil his duties, because he neither showed up on the spot nor helped those in need, which aroused reluctance also among the lower class.
The End of Government
The discontent of all strata was skillfully but discreetly fueled by the surviving courtiers and family members of the previous emperor. Former Empress Julia, Severus’ wife and Caracalla’s mother retired herself due to her health (she suffered from advanced breast cancer), while her sister – Julia Maesa, along with two widowed daughters (Julia Bassiana and Julia Mamea) and their sons only children, were expelled from the imperial court at Antioch. After returning to their native Emesa, they initiated on May 15, 218 CE a revolt in favour of Julia Bassiana’s son – Heliogabalus. At the same time, there were unconfirmed rumors that Elagabalus (Varius Avitus Bassjanus) was in fact the son of Caracalla – the fruit of a relationship between cousins.
On May 18, 218 CE Elagabalus was proclaimed emperor by the 3rd Gallic Legion (Legio III Gallica) stationed in Syria at the time. The legion began its march towards Antioch and on June 8, 218 CE. there was a clash between the troops loyal to the emperor and the rebels. In the initial phase of the fight neither side gained an advantage, however, later Macrinus, abandoned by most of the soldiers, fled the battlefield and, disguised as a courier (or a representative of the militia), headed towards Rome. In order to confuse his enemies, he shaved his beard and hair. However, he was recognized by one of the centurions and was captured near Chalcedonia. He was then taken to Antioch, where he was also executed in Cappadocia. Macrinus’ son, Diadumenian (Diadumenianus), was sent to the Parthian side but was captured near the city of Zeugma, and he was also put to death before he crossed the border.
The short reign of Macrinus, despite its historical importance, did not bring about major changes in the Roman world of that time. They showed once again the weakness of the emperors towards the army, which could undoubtedly be considered the most important state in the empire, determining the imperial power. Macrinus’ rule was briefly interrupted and preceded another seventeen years of power exercised by the emperors of the Severus dynasty, i.e. Elagabalus and Alexander Severus.