Elagabalus: The Year 218

Bust of Elagabalus (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

On 1 January, Macrinus and Marcus Oclatinius Adventus began their respective consulships. Macrinus now made a series of mistakes which cost him his popularity and ultimately his head. First, after many diplomatic attempts, he managed to make peace with the Parthians. This was not a bad move as such, but the peace seems to have cost him dearly, with Cassius Dio claiming the emperor paid a total of 200.000.000 sesterces to King Artabanus and his noblemen. This may be an exaggeration, but it looks like Macrinus – who was, after all, not a soldier – wanted peace at any cost, so it is more than likely that he was willing to pay for it. Macrinus further made the mistake of not travelling to Rome, where he probably would have found support, and staying in a potentially hostile environment among troops who still had fond memories of Caracalla. When the emperor refused to grant privileges to new recruits in the army, he made himself most unpopular with them. The fact that he himself lived a rather comfortable life in Antiochia certainly did not help.

To make matters worse, Macrinus was soon facing serious opposition from a woman. The late Julia Domna had an elder sister called Julia Maesa. After Domna’s death, Macrinus had banished her from the imperial court and sent her back to Emesa (modern-day Homs in Syria), where she came from. Julia Maesa had two daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea. Soaemias had a son whose name was Varius Avitus Bassianus, while Mamaea’s son was called Alexianus (full name: Marcus Julius Gessius Bassianus Alexianus). The boys’ fathers were Roman-Syrian equestrians. Bassianus, about 14 years old (he was born in 203 or 204), was a priest of the sun god Elagabal (LHGBL; “god of the mountain”). This god was worshipped in his temple in Emesa in the form of a large black rock, which according to tradition had fallen from heaven. The priesthood may have been hereditary, as Julia Maesa’s and Julia Domna’s father Julius Bassianus – the boy’s great-grandfather – had been a priest of Elagabal as well.

Julia Maesa on a coin (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

Julia Maesa on a coin (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

It was Julia Maesa who used her wealth and influence to regain the throne for her family. Legio III Gallica was camped at Raphaneae, quite near Emesa, and Maesa started contacting the soldiers. With a few handsome bribes and the fairy-tale that Bassianus was in fact Caracalla’s son (he was, of course, just a first cousin once removed) she convinced the men to proclaim the boy emperor, which they did on 16 May. The soldiers named him Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, but he would become known to history as Elagabalus or – less correctly – Heliogabalus.

Fighting back, but failing

Ulpius Julianus, Macrinus’ praetorian prefect, attacked the camp of Legio III Gallica with the Moors under his command, but was repulsed. Macrinus hurried to the camp of Legio II Parthica (“the Alban legion”) at Apamea, but to his astonishment found that it had also revolted against him and had killed Julianus. The emperor then tried to make a stand in the vicinity of Antiochia. There, on 8 June, perhaps at the village of Immae, Macrinus and his few remaining forces (probably the praetorian guard) fought against Gannys, the general leading Elagabalus’ army. Neither army would have numbered more than 10.000 men. Macrinus’ troops initially fought well and – according to Cassius Dio – managed to force back their opponents, until Elagabalus, his mother and grandmother intervened and personally rallied their soldiers. Although he could have fought on, Macrinus now fled the battlefield, causing his troops to lose heart and switch sides.

Denarius featuring Julia Soaemias (source: http://www.wildwinds.com / Wikimedia Commons)

Denarius featuring Julia Soaemias (source: http://www.wildwinds.com / Wikimedia Commons)

The emperor threw away his imperial robes and other insignia, shaved off his beard and hair and tried to reach Rome over land, accompanied by only a few trusted centurions. He sent his son Diadumenianus, whom he had made a Caesar and later an Augustus, to Artabanus, but the boy never got there. Macrinus himself, sick and exhausted from his journey, was captured at Chalceldon and taken to Cappadocia. When he learned that his son had been arrested, he threw himself off the cart that he was on in an attempt to commit suicide. He only fractured his shoulder and was later decapitated near Antiochia. His son Diadumenianus was executed as well.

Now a 14-year-old boy was on the throne of the Roman Empire, but it was two women – Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemias – who ruled it in his name.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 74-79;
  • Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 581.

Updated 1 January 2023.


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