In 216 Caracalla started a war against the Parthians, then ruled by Artabanus V. By 217 the campaign had gone from indifferently to worse, but a most peculiar incident was to lead to Caracalla’s demise. An African prophet had put it about that the praetorian prefect Macrinus, who had already reached the heights of consular status, was destined to become emperor along with his son Diadumenian. The news reached the prefect of Rome, Flavius Maternianus, who promptly alerted Caracalla. This was not a trivial incident. At the time such prophecies, along with signs and portents, could carry enormous currency, especially with the notoriously superstitious members of the Severan dynasty. The letter was delayed en route to Caracalla because it was sent first to Julia Domna in Antioch in Syria, where she was administering his affairs. Meanwhile, Macrinus (who was with Caracalla) was alerted by the censor in Rome, Ulpius Julianus, and realized that if he did not act then it was inevitable that Caracalla would try to have him killed. Macrinus organized three co-conspirators. Two of them, Aurelianus Nemesianus and Aurelianus Apollinaris, were brothers and praetorian tribunes. The third was a disaffected evocatus called Julius Martialis who was nursing a grudge against Caracalla for not promoting him to the praetorian centurionate. Clearly then, the conspiracy was largely a praetorian one, though others were involved such as Aelius Triccianus, prefect of the II legion Parthica and Marcius Agrippa, commander of the fleet.
On 8 April 217, Caracalla dismounted from his horse, momentarily dropping his guard while he relieved himself. It was not the sort of lapse of concentration a despot like him could afford. Spotting his chance, Martialis began the attack but was killed by one of Caracalla’s Scythian personal bodyguards. At that moment Nemesianus and Apollinaris pretended to come forward to help the emperor but seized the opportunity to kill him. The Scythians formed part of an eclectic band of freedmen and enslaved bodyguards whom Caracalla had employed in preference to the praetorians, something that had no doubt caused further grievance; though, as it had turned out, Caracalla’s suspicions were well founded. Two days of chaos followed as the disorientated soldiers fumbled about wondering what to do. They were agitated at the prospect of Artabanus, who was approaching with a large force in an attempt to take advantage of a peace treaty. The soldiers decided to ask Oclatinius Adventus if he would be emperor. He declined on the grounds that he was too old, though it must also have been apparent that his origins were humbler even than those of Macrinus. The soldiers turned to Macrinus and offered him the position of emperor, largely because there was no one else suitable to hand and time was running out. Macrinus accepted and rallied the troops to face Artabanus, who still believed he was fighting Caracalla against whom he wanted revenge for the war. As a result the fighting went on relentlessly for two days until Macrinus realized that Artabanus was fighting under a misapprehension and sent him a letter, offering a negotiated peace. Artabanus accepted and the war ended.
Meanwhile, the news of Caracalla’s death reached Julia Domna in Antioch, who was mostly annoyed that his demise would mean a return to private life for her. Macrinus, however, allowed her to continue to enjoy the protection of a detachment of praetorians, the privilege that Nero had withdrawn from Agrippina over 150 years previously. For a while, some of the praetorians considered mutinying and supporting her bid to become sole ruler in her own right, which would have made her the first autonomous empress in Roman history. The scheme came to nothing because Macrinus forced her to leave Antioch. She died not long afterwards, either from suicide or breast cancer. The fate of her praetorian detachment is not known. Julia Domna left a grieving sister, Julia Maesa. Maesa had so enjoyed life at the imperial court during Julia Domna’s reign that she was determined not to let an upstart praetorian prefect bring about the end of the Severan dynasty.
The new emperor Macrinus was from Caesarea (Cherchell) in Mauretania Caesariensis (Algeria). The senate welcomed him on the basis that anyone was better than Caracalla. He was an enthusiastic, if not always well-informed, supporter of the law, serving as Plautianus’ assistant as a result but escaping execution by association. From that position he acted as curator of the Via Flaminia under Severus, then as a procurator under Caracalla, before finally being made praetorian prefect. His ascent was a product of a curiously egalitarian aspect of the Roman world. It really was possible to rise from total obscurity to the most important posts in the Empire out of a combination of luck and ability, though this did not necessarily lead to acceptance, as Macrinus was to discover. He is the first of the praetorian prefects whose appearance is well and reliably known to us thanks to his coinage struck at Rome and mints across the Eastern Empire. Despite the brevity of the reign, his coins are still relatively common. They depict a mature and hardened man with a full beard, but without any of the studied brutality so characteristic of Caracalla’s late coin portraiture. This is in spite of the Historia Augusta’s judgement of Macrinus as ‘arrogant and bloodthirsty’, and description of a litany of the vicious punishments he meted out such as burning adulterers alive. Herodian’s description of life in Rome under Macrinus as a time of security and freedom, despite Macrinus’ other shortcomings, is a considerable contrast and more balanced.
Macrinus had achieved something that no other praetorian prefect, or indeed equestrian, had ever achieved. He declared himself emperor and took the name Marcus Opellius Severus Macrinus Augustus without waiting for the senate to vote him any titles. This was a crucial breach of protocol. His son, Diadumenian, was declared Caesar and thus his successor. Macrinus, who decided to continue with the Parthian war, was initially welcomed by the army. He fixed praetorian pay at a rate set by Severus. Nevertheless, Macrinus had problems from the outset and they were linked to his rank. His elevation of Oclatinius Adventus to the position of senator, consul and prefect of the city, incurred particular censure; it looked as if Macrinus was attempting to divert attention from his own lowly origins while promoting someone even less suitable to the status of senator. Macrinus’ judgement was also called into question with his appointment of Ulpius Julianus and Julianus Nestor to the praetorian prefecture. Neither of these two had the right military or administrative skills. Their main credentials were principally their assistance of Caracalla in his decadent pursuits.
In spite of Caracalla’s expenditure on the war, no one in Rome immediately dared declare him to have been a public enemy out of fear of how the praetorians might react. This did not stop other denunciations of his deeds, destruction of his statues or punishment of his associates. Macrinus benefited because most people were consequently prepared to overlook his modest origins, at least for the moment. This did not last: before the year was out Macrinus and Diadumenian were regarded as no longer having any meaningful existence. After settling the Parthian war, Macrinus found he had made an enemy of the army. They were resentful at having had to go to war, at a pay cut and withdrawal of exemption from duties. Macrinus also ordered that while existing soldiers would continue to enjoy privileges granted by Caracalla, new recruits would serve on terms established by Severus. Naturally enough, that simply alienated any new recruits. The peace negotiated with Artabanus V had included handing back property and paying 200 million sestertii as an indemnity. This hardly constituted a glorious triumph over Rome’s enemies.
Julia Maesa could see that the window of opportunity had opened, and she passed immediately through it. When Julia Domna died she had been ordered by Macrinus to return home (the women came from Syria). Maesa had two daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, by a former consul, Julius Avitus. These younger women each had a son, Varius Avitus Bassianus (Elagabalus) and Gessius Bassianus Alexianus (Severus Alexander) respectively. Both boys were brought up in the worship of the sun god, Heliogabalus, the central cult object of which was a huge conical black stone. The elder boy acted as a priest, being known by the derived name of Elagabalus as a result. He was extremely popular with the military garrison at nearby Emesa, and a rumour had started to circulate amongst the troops that he was really the son of Caracalla. This was compounded by the belief that Maesa was extremely wealthy (which she was) and that if the soldiers made Elagabalus emperor then they would benefit from handouts. Maesa was delighted at the prospect of being able to return to court life and agreed, though she seems to have either been assisted or led by someone called Publius Valerius Comazon (also known as Eutychianus), said to have been a dancer who had performed in Rome. The women and their sons were taken to Raphaneae in Phoenicia where Elagabalus was declared emperor on 16 May 218. Macrinus’ praetorian prefect Ulpius Julianus was nearby and, despite his shortcomings, rallied to the moment, initially killing a daughter of Mamaea and the daughter’s husband before organizing a scratch force, presumably of praetorians, and attacking the fortress at Raphaneae.
Unfortunately, Julianus’ scratch squad was inconveniently beguiled into transferring their support to Elagabalus, whom the soldiers were displaying on the fortress walls. Julianus was either killed at the scene or made his escape and was killed later. When the news reached Macrinus he removed his court to Apamea, tried to appoint his ten-year-old son Diadumenian emperor and offer 20,000 sestertii (5,000 denarii) to every soldier, as well as reversing all the previous pay and ration cuts he had imposed on them. The cash offer was the same as the discharge grant for praetorians set originally by Augustus. Macrinus laid on an extravagant dinner to show that he was celebrating his son’s elevation, only for one of the rebel soldiers to turn up with the wrapped-up decapitated head of Julianus disguised as the head of Elagabalus. The head was unwrapped, revealing the horrible truth, and Macrinus realized he would have to flee. As events spiralled out of control for Macrinus he promoted Julius Basilianus, prefect of Egypt, to the praetorian prefecture in place of the unfortunate Julianus.84 Macrinus was defeated on 8 June 218 by a force under Gannys, the eunuch of Maesa’s other grandson, Varius Avitus, and Comazon. Macrinus had his praetorians with him, whom he had ordered to abandon their scale armour and grooved shields so that they would be more lightly equipped and could move faster in battle. This single reference is one of the few detailed clues that exist about praetorian equipment. According to Herodian, the praetorians, notable for their height and for being hand picked, fought exceptionally well, even though Macrinus had already fled the scene.
Macrinus tried to make his escape by heading north, but was caught and killed by a centurion called Marcianus Taurus at Calchedon in Bithynia. Diadumenian, who had been sent by his father to Artabanus V, was also caught and killed en route. Macrinus, sometime prefect of the Praetorian Guard, had reigned as an emperor of Rome for three days shy of fourteen months. Dio’s acerbic conclusion was that if Macrinus had been content with his station and supported the elevation of a senator (Dio’s bias is obvious here) then Macrinus might have enjoyed considerable esteem; however, there must be some truth in the idea that in the context of the era a man such as Macrinus simply lacked the status necessary to advance beyond the prefecture and expect to survive.
Elagabalus paid out 2,000 sestertii (500 denarii) each to the soldiers in Antioch and prepared for the journey to Rome. He styled himself Marcus Aurelius Antoninus in a further manifestation of the Severan policy of fabricating dynastic continuity from the Antonines, though he is invariably known to history as Elagabalus. He and his court began their slow progress to Rome, wintering between 218 and 219 at Nicomedia. Elagabalus, still only fourteen or fifteen, was already a fanatical follower of his cult, dressing in extravagant costumes and going about accompanied by flute and drums. Maesa was alarmed by this, comprehending immediately how it would alienate the Roman people. Elagabalus refused to tone himself down and resorted to the bizarre solution of sending ahead to Rome a huge painting of himself ‘in action’ as a priest. When he arrived he demanded that his god take precedence over all others, and forced the entire senatorial and equestrian orders to participate in his ceremonies, with military prefects amongst those obliged to carry the entrails of sacrificial victims.
Comazon had now been appointed praetorian prefect, a promotion that turned out to be one in a series of unprecedented stages in his meteoric rise, much to Dio’s disgust. Comazon, who had no professional experience and was considered something of a clown, as well as having been a stage dancer, went on to be consul three times, and then prefect of Rome. Comazon exploited his influence to pursue personal feuds. He had been punished by Claudius Attalus, governor of Thrace, for some earlier misdemeanour committed while he was serving there. Comazon, now in his exalted position, secured the execution of Attalus, though this was only one of a number of killings ordered by Elagabalus.
In or around 219 Elagabalus married Cornelia Paula. He celebrated the occasion with a payout to the senate and the equestrians, a dinner costing 600 sestertii per head for the people, and a gift of 400 sestertii to the soldiers, presumably his praetorians. It was clearly an attempt to present Elagabalus as normal and counteract the mounting scurrilous stories about the emperor’s promiscuous homosexuality, conducted in the passive role. Elagabalus divorced the unfortunate Cornelia Paula soon afterwards and moved on to Aquilia Severa, one of the Vestal Virgins, which caused even more offence than his previous activities. Elagabalus’ behaviour unsettled the praetorians, something that the peculiar young emperor was himself well aware of. Under pressure from his grandmother and mother to placate them, he adopted his cousin, Bassianus Alexianus, who was renamed Severus Alexander, as his heir. Elagabalus was praised by the senate but observed that although the senate, the people and the legions loved him, the Praetorian Guard did not, regardless of how much he gave them. It seems that even the praetorians had their limits.
Severus Alexander, who appears to have been a far gentler and more conventional boy, enjoyed the protection of his mother and grandmother, as well as that of the praetorians. Elagabalus bitterly resented the fact that Alexander’s mother was clearly preparing him for succession as an educated and more appropriate emperor. It was also obvious that the praetorians preferred Alexander and, given that their prefect was allegedly a dancer, this is hardly surprising. Elagabalus turned against his cousin and tried to have him killed. Mamaea took the precaution of paying a secret donative to the praetorians to smooth her son’s path to power; it was an astute investment. Elagabalus pulled his cousin out of public appearances and put it about that Alexander was dying in order to test the water. He also appears to have ordered the praetorians to deny Alexander the title ‘Caesar’, which denoted his status as heir, and to plaster mud over any inscriptions naming Alexander that were displayed in the Castra Praetoria. The mud smearing was done but the praetorians were furious and upset.
The angry praetorians then set out to find Alexander, Mamaea and Maesa, and took them back to the camp for their own protection. Next, a band of praetorians went off looking for the emperor in the Gardens of Spes Vetus, where he was getting ready for a chariot race. Elagabalus heard them coming and sent one of his praetorian prefects (whose name is not known) to calm down the Castra Praetoria where most of the Guard still was under the command of a tribune called Aristomachus. The other, an otherwise unknown individual called Antiochianus, was told to calm down the praetorians in the Gardens. The praetorians in the camp told the anonymous prefect that their price for backing down was Elagabalus handing over his hangers-on and starting to live in a suitable manner for an emperor. They also demanded that the prefects guard Alexander. This must be the occasion to which Herodian was referring when he described how the praetorians refused to turn up to guard the emperor, locking themselves into the Castra Praetoria. Elagabalus had to go to the Castra Praetoria with Alexander to prove that all was well, suffering the soldiers’ far more preferential greeting of Alexander, and also hand over some of his more nefarious associates.
Elagabalus ignored the danger he was in. He demanded back his lover, the former Carian slave and charioteer Hierocles, to whom he regarded himself married, and refused to appear in public with Alexander. Maesa and Soaemias told him that his life was in danger from the praetorians but he ordered the senate to leave the city. In Dio’s account this was followed by an irate Elagabalus haranguing the praetorians in the camp sacellum, followed by a second visit to the camp to reassure the praetorians all was well. This episode was accompanied by the unseemly sight of his mother Julia Soaemias and her sister Julia Mamaea competing to win over the praetorians to their respective sons. Soaemias lost. According to the Historia Augusta, the praetorians had had enough after Elagabalus told the senate to leave. They killed Elagabalus’ associates, then found the emperor in a latrine where they murdered him before throwing his body in the river. In Dio’s version, on 11 March 222 Soaemias and Elagabalus were murdered by praetorians in the Castra Praetoria, along with all their attendants. Their decapitated and stripped bodies were dragged around Rome. The victims also involved members of the court, including the praetorian prefects Comazon and Antiochianus.
The transfer of power was immediate. Severus Alexander was acclaimed emperor there and then by the praetorians. Alexander also appointed two praetorian prefects, Flavianus and Geminius Chrestus, explicitly because they were soldiers who had experience in both military affairs and civilian administration. But, apparently at the behest of his mother Mamaea he also appointed Gnaeus Domitius Annius Ulpianus, a celebrated jurist (now usually known as Ulpian), to be a praetorian prefect and to oversee them, which infuriated Flavianus and Chrestus. Ulpian’s legal knowledge and other skills made him ideal to take care of everyday government and also plan for the future. Ulpian had previously been exiled by Elagabalus. He did not last long this time round. In 223 or 224 a dispute broke out between the Praetorian Guard and the people of Rome. It led to a three-day running street battle in the city. The Guard was outnumbered and resorted to setting fire to buildings to force the people to back down and agree to peace. Somewhere along the line Ulpian or Mamaea had Flavianus and Chrestus killed, apparently either because they were conspiring against him or simply to remove them. The whole story is confused and difficult to unravel but it is clear there was enormous tension between Ulpian and the praetorians. It is apparent that Ulpian had been made prefect as soon as Alexander became emperor and was also held in enormous trust, being the only person permitted to see Alexander on his own. Ulpian was later killed by some of the Guard, who had been put up to the job by a freedman of Caracalla called Epagathus. They had already complained to Ulpian because they had heard that Cassius Dio (the historian), governor of Pannonia, had imposed a strict regime on the garrison there and were worried that something similar might happen to them. However, it must also be the case that Ulpian had no relevant experience of commanding troops. His death may have occurred as soon as 223, not 228 when his replacement is known to have been installed. By 229 Dio, who was consul that year, was under threat from the praetorians and he moved on health grounds to his home in Bithynia for his own safety. With Dio’s death at some point during the reign of Severus Alexander, the principal source for the period is lost. Alexander subsequently appointed another jurist, Julius Paulus, to the praetorian prefecture in 228. During this time some praetorians decided to make a dedication to Asclepius in his conflated form with a local Thracian god called Sindrinus (or Zimidrenus). They all came from Philoppolis in Thrace and proclaimed this fact at the beginning of the dedication, which named each man, his cohort and rank. The text invokes an image of a Guard made up of various subgroups of soldiers who clearly maintained their provincial ethnic identities and affiliations. It was a far cry from the early days of the Guard and its largely Italian nature.
Severus Alexander was the last of the Severan dynasty. He had become emperor at around the age of fourteen but it was inevitably the case that he would seek to become more independent, especially once his grandmother died around 224. Alexander is depicted by Herodian as a benign and merciful ruler, but one who grew increasingly frustrated by his mother’s behaviour. She took opportunities to confiscate other people’s property, ostensibly so that she could bankroll a payout to the army on her son’s behalf, but in reality so that she could add to her private fortune. Given the instability of the previous eleven years, it was remarkable that Alexander survived until 235. From the outset, much of the real power was in the hands of his mother Mamaea and his grandmother Maesa.
Mamaea and Maesa organized the creation of a council of sixteen senior senators to guide Alexander. It was an initiative that anticipated arrangements adopted for medieval monarchs who acceded while still minors. Herodian even observed that the new structure represented a significant change in the form of the principate. This meant that senior appointments, such as the prefects of the Guard, were made only with senatorial approval, even though Alexander made the initial choice. This on one occasion included a candidate who had declined, Alexander arguing that it was better to give the job to a man who was not interested in office for its own sake. Holding the prefecture under Alexander became an automatic qualification for senatorial status, unless the incumbent was already a senator (the prefecture had been opened up to senators as well by now), but Alexander had a serious purpose in mind. He objected to the way in which promotion had become merely the established method of removing a praetorian prefect from his post; he wanted his praetorian prefects to be senators so that they held an appropriate rank for passing a judgement on a senator.
Alexander was married to a woman called Sallustia Barbia Orbiana but Mamaea, unwilling to share the position of empress, had her daughter-in-law removed from the palace. This so disgusted the girl’s father that he took her to the Castra Praetoria for protection and accused Mamaea of insulting his daughter. This was a miscalculation. Mamaea, disregarding her son’s feelings and exhibiting all the ruthlessness for which the Severan women were celebrated, had the father executed and Orbiana exiled to Libya.
The latter part of Alexander’s reign was overtaken by the return of the Persian threat, this time under Artaxerxes, who had killed Artabanus and taken Parthia. Attempts to negotiate a peace came to nothing, leaving Alexander with no choice by 230 but to introduce a form of conscription so that an army of sufficient size with legions at full strength could be sent against Artaxerxes. By 231 Alexander had left for Antioch where the necessary training could be organized. It must be assumed that he had taken at least a large part of the Guard with him. His first campaign involved dividing his forces into three separate armies, each of which would approach the Persians by a different route. The northerly army made its way through Armenia to attack the Persians, the central army under Alexander’s personal command simply never invaded (a fact blamed by Herodian on Mamaea’s reluctance to allow her son to go into danger), and the southerly third force was practically wiped out when Artaxerxes threw his whole army at it on the Euphrates.
Nonetheless, Mesopotamia was recovered. Alexander was able to return to Rome and celebrate a triumph in 233, only to face instability on the Rhine and Danube frontiers, in particular in the form of a threat from the German Alamanni. This led to a serious split in the army. Units transferred from Illyricum to the Persian War had suffered serious losses and now believed their absence from the Danube and Rhine had contributed to the problems there. The German tribes presented a far greater threat to Italy than the Persians, so Alexander led an army north from Italy. Rather than throw himself into fighting, he opted to offer to negotiate a peace with the Germans, adding for good measure that he had enough money to provide a payment. Alexander had placed his army’s training under the management of a giant Thracian soldier called Maximinus, who proved extremely popular with the army and provided a considerable contrast to an emperor who was generally depicted as a mother’s boy and lacking in any military guile, panache, skill or motivation. Maximinus had earned an early reputation for his physical strength and astonishing height, coming to Septimius Severus’ attention as a wrestler. So impressed was Septimius Severus that Maximinus had been automatically offered a position in the Praetorian Guard. He had subsequently retired under Macrinus, only returning to military service as an evocatus under Alexander.
Herodian added the observation that the soldiers had now experienced a relatively (by the standards of the time) long reign, meaning that it had been a considerable while since the last major donative. This made the prospect of promoting Maximinus attractive. Conversely, the Historia Augusta states that during Alexander’s reign at least three cash gifts were made to the soldiers. Moreover, the same source says that Alexander always personally heard complaints made by soldiers against their tribunes and would punish the tribune appropriately if he were found guilty. Under Alexander, the antoninianus, the new debased double-denarius introduced by Caracalla, was temporarily discontinued. Alexander produced only the traditional silver denarius, perhaps as part of his policy of restoring the coinage. Since the troops would have been the first to notice that the antoninianus contained less silver than two denarii, this return to the old denomination ought to have helped restore their confidence. If so, the gesture failed.
The soldiers proclaimed Maximinus emperor, forcing him to accept. Having acquiesced to their wishes, Maximinus told them they would have to take Alexander’s bodyguard by surprise. To help them steel their nerves, he offered doubled pay, a donative and cancellation of punishments. Alexander got wind of what had happened, panicked and floundered around, begging his troops to stand with him. They abandoned him, one by one, demanding the execution of the praetorian(?) prefect and Alexander’s household. When Maximinus arrived he sent a tribune and centurions into Alexander’s tent where they killed the sometime favourite of the praetorians, his mother Mamaea and many of their associates.