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Marcus Opellius Macrinus (c.165 AD - 218) was Roman emperor for 14 months in 217 and 218. He is historically important for the facts that he was the first member of the equestrian class (Latin: eques) to ascend to the imperial throne, as well as the first emperor to hail from the African province of Mauretania.
Background and Career
Born in Caesarea (modern Cherchell ) in the Roman province of Mauretania to a middle class equestrian family, Macrinus received an education which allowed him to ascend to the Roman political class. Over the years he earned a reputation as a skilled lawyer. Under the emperor Lucius Septimius Severus he became an important bureaucrat. Severus' successor Caracalla appointed him prefect of the Praetorian guard, the highest office which an equestrian could hold. The prefect was second in command to the emperor and responsible for the Praetorian cohorts, nominally the emperor's bodyguard and the only true military force permitted within the city of Rome. While Macrinus likely enjoyed the trust of Caracalla, this may have changed when, according to tradition, he was prophesied to depose and succeed the emperor. Rumors spread regarding Macrinus' alleged desire to take the throne for himself. Given Caracalla's tendency towards murdering political opponents, Macrinus probably feared for his own safety should the emperor become aware of this prophecy. According to Dio, Caracalla had already taken the step of re-assigning members of Macrinus' staff.
In the spring of 217, Caracalla was in the eastern provinces preparing a campaign against the Parthian Empire. Macrinus was among his staff, as were other members of the praetorian guard. In April, the emperor went to visit a temple of Luna near the spot of the battle of Carrhae, accompanied only by his personal bodyguard, which included Macrinus. Events are not clear, but it is certain that Caracalla was murdered at some point on the trip (perhaps on April 8). Caracalla's body was brought back from the temple by his bodyguards, along with the corpse of a fellow bodyguard. The story as told by Macrinus was that the dead guard had killed Caracalla. By April 11, Macrinus proclaimed himself emperor. He was the first man to became so without membership in the senatorial class. Macrinus also nominated his son Diadumenianus Caesar and successor and conferred upon him the name "Antoninus", thus connecting him with the relatively stable reigns of the Antonine emperors of the 2nd century.
Reign (April 217 - June 218)
Despite his equestrian background, Macrinus was confirmed in his new role by the Senate. According to S.N. Miller (writing in the Cambridge Ancient History, Volume XII,), this may have been due to both his background as an accomplished jurist and his deferential treatment of the senatorial class
In urgent matters of foreign policy, Macrinus displayed a tendency towards conciliation and a reluctance to engage in military conflict. He averted trouble in the province of Dacia by returning hostages that had been held by Caracalla, and he ended troubles in Armenia by granting that country's throne to Tiridates, whose father had also been imprisoned under Caracalla. Less easily managed was the problem of Mesopotamia) , which had been invaded by the Parthians in the wake of Caracalla's demise. Meeting the Parthians in battle during the summer of 217, Macrinus was defeated near the town of Nisibis and as a result was forced to enter negotiations through which he paid a considerable indemnity to the Parthian ruler Artabanus V in return for peace.
Macrinus' reluctance to engage in warfare, and his failure to gain victory over even an historically inferior enemy such as the Parthians caused considerable resentment among the soldiers. This was compounded by the rolling back of the privileges they had enjoyed under Caracalla and the introduction of a pay system by which recruits received less than veterans. After only a short while, the legions were searching for a rival emperor.
His popularity also suffered in Rome. Not only had the new emperor failed to visit the city after taking power, but a late-summer thunderstorm has caused widespread fires and flooding, and Macrinus' appointee as urban prefect proved unable to repair the damage to the satisfaction of the populace and had to be replaced.
This discontent was fostered by the surviving members of the Severan dynasty, headed by Julia Maesa (Caracalla's aunt) and her daughters Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea. Having been evicted from the imperial palace and ordered to return home by Macrinus, the Severan women plotted from their home near Emesa in Syria to place another Severan on the imperial throne. They used their hereditary influence over the cult of sun-deity Elagabalus to proclaim Soaemias's son Heliogabalus (named for his family's patron deity) as the true successor to Caracalla. (The rumor was spread, with the assistance of the Severan women, that Heliogabalus was in fact Caracalla's illegitimate son, and thus the child of a union between first cousins.)
On May 18, Heliogabalus was proclaimed emperor by the Legio III Gallica at its camp at Raphaneae . A force under his tutor Gannys marched on Antioch and engaged a force under Macrinus on June 8 218. Macrinus, deserted by most of his soldiers, was soundly defeated and fled towards Italy disguised as a courier. He was captured near Chalcedon and later executed in Cappadocia. His son Diadumenianus, sent for safety to the Parthian court, was captured at Zeugma and also put to death.
Macrinus' short reign, while important for its historical "firsts", was cut short due to the inability of this otherwise accomplished man to control or satisfy the soldiery. In his death at the hands of Roman soldiers, Macrinus reinforced the notion of the soldiers as the true brokers of power in the 3rd century empire and highlighted the importance of maintaining the support of this vital faction. His reign was followed by another seventeen years of rule under the Severan emperors Heliogabalus (also known as Elegabalus) and Severus Alexander.
External Links and References
- Life of Macrinus (Historia Augusta at LacusCurtius: Latin text and English translation)
- "Macrinus and Diadumenianius" at De Imperatoribus Romanis (by Michael Meckler of Ohio State University)
- Dio Cassius, bk. 78
- Herodian, 4.14-5.4
- Historia Augusta
- Miller, S.N. "The Army and the Imperial House". The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume XII: The Imperial Crisis and Recovery (A.D. 193-324). Cook, S.A. et al, eds. Cambridge: University Press, 1965. pp 50-52.
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