Life: AD 164 – 218
- Name: Marcus Oppellius Macrinus
- Born AD 164 at Caesarea in Mauretania.
- Consul AD 218.
- Became emperor in 11 April AD 217.
- Wife: Nonia Celsa (one son; Marcus Opellius Diadumenianus).
- Died at Antioch June-July AD 218.
Marcus Opellius Macrinus was born in AD 164 in Caesarea, a harbour town in Mauretania. There are two stories surrounding his origins.
On tells of him being from a poor family and, as a young man, having made his living at times as a hunter, a courier – even a gladiator.
The other describes him as a son of an equestrian family, who studied law.
The latter is perhaps more likely. For when he moved to Rome, Macrinus gained a reputation as a lawyer. Such was the reputation he achieved that he became the legal adviser to Plautianus, the praetorian prefect of Septimius Severus, who died in AD 205. Thereafter Macrinus worked as director of traffic on the Via Flamina and then became financial administrator of Severus’ private estates.
In AD 212 Caracalla made him praetorian prefect. In AD 216 Macrinus accompanied his emperor on campaign against the Parthians, and in AD 217, whilst still campaigning he received consular rank (consular status without office: ornamenta consularia).
Macrinus is described as a stern character. As a lawyer, though not being a great expert in law, he was conscientious and thorough. As praetorian prefect he is said to have had good judgement whenever he sought to act. But in private he is also reported to have been impossibly strict, frequently flogging his servants for the slightest of mistakes.
In the spring of AD 217 Macrinus intercepted a letter, either from Flavius Maternianus (commander of Rome in Caracalla’s absence) or from an astrologer of Caracalla’s, denouncing him as a possible traitor. If only to save his own life from the vengeance of the bloodthirsty emperor, Macrinus needed to act.
Macrinus quickly found a possible assassin in Julius Martialis.
There are two differing reasons given for Martialis anger at Caracalla. One by the historian Cassius Dio points out that the emperor had refused to promote him to centurion. The other version, by the historian Herodian, tells us that Caracalla had had Martialis’ brother executed on a trumped up charge only a few days earlier. I would assume that the latter of the two versions sounds more credible to most.
In any case, on 8 April AD 217 Martialis assassinated Caracalla.
Though as Martialis tried to get away, he was himself killed Caracalla’s mounted bodyguards. This meant there was no witness to link Macrinus with the murder. And so Macrinus feigned ignorance of the plot and pretended grief at his emperor’s death.
Caracalla though had died without a son. Their was no obvious heir.
Oclatinius Adventus, Macrinus’ colleague as praetorian prefect, was offered the throne. But he decided that he was too old to hold such office. And so, only three days after Caracalla’s assassination, Macrinus was offered the throne. He was hailed emperor by the soldiers on 11 April AD 217.
Macrinus though knew very well that his being emperor depended entirely on the goodwill of the army as he at first had no support at all in the senate. – He was the first emperor, not to be a senator !
So, playing on the army’s liking of Caracalla, he deified the very emperor he’d had assassinated.
The senate, faced with no alternative but to acknowledge Macrinus as emperor, though was in fact quite glad to do so, as the senators were simply relieved to see the end of the hated Caracalla. Macrinus won further senatorial sympathies by reversing some of Caracalla’s taxes and announcing an amnesty for political exiles.
Meanwhile though Macrinus should win an enemy who shoudl seal his fate. Julia Domna, the wife of Septimius Severus and mother of Caracalla, quickly fell out with the new emperor. Most likely she came to know what part Macrinus had played in her son’s death.
The emperor ordered her to leave Antioch, but Julia Domna, seriously ill by then, instead chose to starve herself to death.
Julia Domna however had a sister, Julia Maesa, who laid the blame for her death with Macrinus. And it was her hatred which shoudl come to haunt Macrinus very soon.
Meanwhile Macrinus was gradually losing the support of the army, as he tried to disentangle Rome from the war with Parthia which Caracalla had begun.
He handed Armenia to a client king, Tiridates II, whose father Caracalla had imprisoned.
Meanwhile the Parthian king Artabatus V had gathered a powerful force and in late AD 217 invaded Mesopotamia. Macrinus met his force at Nisibis. The battle ended largely undecided, though possibly slightly in favour of the Parthians.
In this time of military setbacks, Macrinus then committed the unforgivable mistake of reducing military pay.
His position weakened by increasingly hostile military, Macrinus next had to face a revolt by Julia Maesa. Her fourteen year old grandson, Elagabalus, was hailed emperor by the Legio III ‘Gallica’ at Raphanaea in Phoenicia on 16 May AD 218.
The rumour, put out by Elagabalus’ supporters, that he was in fact the son of Caracalla spread like wildfire. Mass defections quickly began to enlarge the challenger’s army.
As both Macrinus and his young challenger were in the east, there was no effect the powerful legions based at the Rhine and Danube could have. Macrinus at first sought to quickly crush the rebellion, by sending his praetorian prefect Ulpius Julianus with a strong cavalry force against them. But the cavalrymen simply killed their commander and joined the ranks of Elagabalus’ army.
In an attempt to create the impression of stability, Macrinus now pronounced his nine year old son Diadumenianus joint Augustus. Macrinus used this as a means to cancel the previous pay reductions and distributing a large bonus to the soldiers, in the hope that may win back their favour. But it was all in vain. For soon after an entire legion deserted to the other side. So dire did the desertions and mutinies in his camp become that Macrinus was forced to retire to Antioch.
The governors of Phoenicia and Egypt remained loyal to him, but Macrinus cause was lost, as they could not provide him with any significant reinforcements. A considerable force under the command of the rival emperor’s general Gannys finally marched against him. In a battle outside Antioch on 8 June AD 218 Macrinus was decisively defeated, abandoned by most of his troops.
Disguised as a member of the military police, having shaved his beard and hair, Macrinus fled and tried to make his way back to Rome. But at Chalcedon on the Bosporus a centurion recognized him and he was arrested.
Macrinus was taken back to Antioch and there he was put to death. He was 53. His son Diadumenianus was killed soon after.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.