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Imperial Women

After Alexander's succession to power he possessed the trappings and name of emperor, but control of administration and imperial policy was in the hands of his womenfolk, who tried to bring back a complete return to moderate dignified government.' - The historian Herodian, middle of the third century AD!

he two brothers proved utterly incapable of living in harmony. Concluding peace with the Caledonians, they quickly left Britain. On the journey back to Rome they bickered, and then tried to ignore each other altogether. Once there they lived in separate wings of the palace, and had all connecting corridors and doorways bricked up, so that they would never meet by chance. They opposed each other in absolutely everything, even supporting different teams at the chariot races. Rumour said that they actually considered splitting the empire in two, with Caracalla staying in Rome and ruling the west, while Geta controlled the east from either Alexandria or Antioch. The dividing line would be the Bosphorus, and each brother would station legions on their shore to deter the other from aggression.'

No one had ever considered dividing the empire in this way, even when Antony and Octavian had carved up the provinces between themselves in the years before Actium. Yet the source for the story wrote his account just a few decades later, long before the empire was actually divided, so this is clearly not an invention from hindsight. The plan was blocked by the emperors' mother, Julia Domna, who demanded to know how they thought that they could divide her. On 26 December mother and both sons met in private in the palace to arrange a reconciliation. Caracalla had other ideas and concealed a party of loyal praetorian centurions nearby. Part way through, these men burst into the room and killed Geta with their swords. Julia Domna was left to cradle the body, and was so covered in his blood that she did not notice a wound to her own hand.'

Caracalla left quickly, rushing to the praetorian camp where he declared that he had acted in self-defence, having discovered that his brother was plotting against him. The guardsmen readily accepted his story and pledged their support. He had a harder job convincing the legionaries of II Parthica stationed at nearby Alba. They refused him entry and he had to address them from outside the rampart. Even then the soldiers replied that they had sworn an oath to both brothers and not simply one. Persuasion, backed by the promise of a very hefty gift of money, eventually won over the legion. Only after securing the loyalty of the only significant military units in Italy, did Caracalla go to the Senate, telling the same story of his brother's `plot'. The senators had little choice but to acclaim him, especially since he was accompanied by files of fully armed guardsmen. Geta was formally condemned and his memory ordered erased from the record. Surviving inscriptions from all over the empire show the marks of where the younger brother's name was chiselled away.4

Caracalla was twenty-three, older and more experienced than Commodus when he came to power, but still young for an emperor. It is questionable whether Geta would have proved any more capable, although later authors liked to contrast his virtue with his brother's evil nature. Unlike Commodus, Caracalla was neither stupid nor lazy, but he was unpredictable and impatient, and had a vicious temper. He had ordered the execution of several members of the imperial household almost as soon as his father died. The murder of his brother was followed by a far more widespread and even bloodier purge, which included many prominent senators and equestrians. A recently excavated cemetery in York contained a number of skeletons of men who had been chained up and then executed, but yet were still buried with some respect. Pottery fragments dated the find to roughly this period, and it is more than possible that the men concerned were officers and officials killed on Caracalla's orders. There were other victims throughout the remainder of the reign. Pertinax's son, who had been too young and unimportant to be worth killing in 193, died now, because he could not resist making a pun referring to the murder of Geta. Marcus Aurelius' last surviving daughter was also suspected of disloyalty and forced to commit suicide, something that the elderly lady is said to have done with great calmness and dignity. Dio says that in all some 20,000 people perished.'

Frequent executions made senators permanently nervous of the emperor's moods, and Carcalla lacked the skill - and possibly also the desire - to win them over. He was not much more successful with the wider population of Rome, even though these were unlikely to feel his anger directly. He gave lavish games, and even took part in a chariot race, although he did not emulate Commodus' excessive desire to perform in the arena. Yet he did become unpopular because the crowd saw him as too bloodthirsty when he watched gladiatorial fights. One famous gladiator was made to fight three consecutive bouts, in the last of which he was killed, and this was seen as unfair. Work was begun on a bath complex, the Baths of Caracalla, whose huge ruins are still visible today, providing work for the unemployed as well as the prospect of a future amenity.'

After a year Caracalla left Rome and never again returned to Italy. By nature he was restless, and both this and his temper were not improved by his bad health. As he travelled he visited a number of shrines and temples associated with healing deities, following the courses they prescribed. Stories circulated that he was troubled by dreams in which Severus silently rebuked him for his brother's murder. Dreams were taken seriously by many in the Roman world and books survive offering detailed interpretations. The emperor was still the emperor wherever he happened to be, and petitioners followed him, seeking an audience and asking for a favour or ruling in a dispute. Surviving records suggest that Caracalla was as prone to rapid and spontaneous replies as our literary sources claim, and confirm that in many cases his judgement was still clear and often sensible. However, he was not always enthusiastic about performing such a dull task. Dio remembered that he and others were frequently summoned to the imperial camp while the emperor was in Syria, having been told that he would see them at dawn. They were then often left to wait - even though there was no chamber to accommodate them - for hours on end, and sometimes sent home at the end of the day because Caracalla had decided not to see them at all.7

Small and unhealthy, Caracalla liked to see himself as the rugged, aggressive man of action, and most of all as a soldier. When he spoke to the praetorians after Geta's murder, he had told them to `Rejoice, comrades, for now I am in a position to do you favours.' Army pay was raised during his reign, so much so that imperial revenue struggled to cope with the increased burden. On campaign the emperor dressed and acted the part of an ordinary soldier, even going as far as to grind his own ration of wheat into flour to prepare his meal. These theatrics were probably mainly for the benefit of the guardsmen, and it may also have been one of the heavy praetorian standards that he sometimes chose to carry on the march. Most emperors were accompanied by distinguished senators on campaign, but Caracalla preferred the company of army officers - again, probably mainly from the guard. He was also very fond of his cavalry bodyguard, the singulares Augusti, many of whom were German. Some of these men were commissioned as centurions and kept in close attendance. The emperor nicknamed them his `lions'. Dio also remembered seeing him take drinks to the sentries on duty outside his headquarters. Other Roman generals -Julius Caesar prominent amongst them - had played the part of the `fellow soldier', but here as in so many other things, Caracalla took it to an excess. It was far more than an acknowledgement that his power ultimately rested on control of the army. He also developed an obsession with Alexander the Great, and evidently liked to see himself as resembling the youthful conqueror of so much of the known world!

In 213 he had campaigned on the Rhine and in the following year moved to the Danube. Both frontiers show signs of substantial reorganisation and the construction of new military bases. It may have been during these campaigns that he took to wearing a version of the Gallic hooded cloak (caracalla), which gave him his nickname. In 215 he went to the east and remained there for the rest of his life, following in the footsteps of his hero Alexander. He raised - or perhaps reorganised existing legions into - a force modelled on the ancient Macedonian phalanx. That winter he was in Alexandria and summoned the young men of the city to a parade, declaring that he wanted to recruit them as soldiers. Instead, he ordered his troops to kill them - a massacre that has never been satisfactorily explained. He also began a series of campaigns against Parthia, which was split in a civil war between two brothers vying for the throne. Caracalla asked to marry the daughter of one of the claimants, just as Alexander had married Roxanne. His offer was refused and some saw this as no more than a pretext for war.'

At the beginning of 217 a large army was concentrated at Edessa in preparation for a fresh invasion. On 8 April Caracalla travelled to visit a shrine near Carrhae - in 53 BC the site of a great defeat at the hands of the Parthians, but now within a province and recently granted the status of a Roman colony. When the emperor stopped to relieve himself by the roadside, he was stabbed to death by one of his own military household, Julius Martialis. The assassin was a former praetorian who had re-enlisted, but was bitter because he had been denied a centurion's commission by Caracalla. Within minutes Martialis was himself cut down by the emperor's `lions' and died before he could reveal any details of the plot. This was a great relief to its leader, Marcus Opellius Macrinus, one of the two praetorian prefects, who was thereby able to plead complete ignorance. Caracalla was still popular with the guard, and the rest of the army showed no great enthusiasm for his murder. In fact, Macrinus had recently discovered that a message was on its way to the emperor accusing him of disloyalty and decided to strike before he was himself condemned.'°

There was no heir. Caracalla's marriage had been unhappy and childless - it was generally believed that illness rendered him impotent in his last years. He had not marked out a successor, mainly because he did not trust anyone, but given his youth this had not seemed important. For two days the empire had no emperor, as Macrinus sounded out the mood of the senior officers. Then he declared himself as the new ruler, assuming all the imperial titles and powers without waiting for the formality of a vote in the Senate. Armies had made emperors in the past - it was only twenty years since Severus had defeated Clodius Albinus - but this was different. Macrinus was not a senator, but an equestrian, who had risen to his position through loyalty and legal skill. Praetorian prefects had always been chosen from amongst the knights precisely because it was believed that they could not aspire to the supreme office. Even Sejanus, who had come close to supplanting Emperor Tiberius in 31, had worked at gradually acquiring offices, including the consulship. At the age of fifty-five, Macrinus leaped straight to supreme power. It was doubtless easier because there were no senators nearby, who might have been considered suitable candidates for the throne. Mesopotamia had from the beginning been an equestrian province, and Caracalla had never been in the habit of taking senior senators with him on campaign. The few that did travel with him were tainted by his favour. The recent division of provinces into smaller units also meant that there was no governor anywhere in the empire who controlled as large a force as that concentrated at Edessa. The other praetorian prefect pleaded advanced age and stood aside in favour of his colleague.

When the Senate received news of the coup there was relief at the demise of the unpopular and unpredictable Caracalla. Acceptance of the new emperor was more grudging and largely for the want of any obvious alternative. The senators were less bothered by his Mauretanian ancestry and pierced ear - although it is noticeable that all images of the emperor are highly traditional and very Roman in appearance - than his lack of social rank. It did not help that he made no effort to hurry to Rome and win them over. Worse was the appointment of men of similarly undistinguished background to high office, including another equestrian to the post of urban prefect at Rome itself - the city's effective chief magistrate in the emperor's absence. Macrinus tended to appoint men he knew and so inevitably these were mainly from the imperial administration just like himself. Caracalla had given rapid promotion to men he trusted regardless of their social background and had used a lot of equestrians in posts of considerable responsibility, sometimes after a rapid elevation to the Senate. Senators had disliked this, and had no great enthusiasm for a new regime that further promoted many of the same people. Macrinus ruled because he had arranged the death of the last emperor, was able to control the troops on the spot and, for the moment at least, also received the loyalty of the army as a whole."

The Severan Women

Caracalla's mother had accompanied him on most of his travels. Julia Domna had had a prominent public role during Severus' reign, when she received titles such as Augusta and `The Mother of the camp', and had travelled with him around the empire. Intelligent and capable, she had also worked hard behind the scenes to help her husband with the great task of administering the empire. Augustus' wife, the formidable Livia - called `Ulysses in a frock' by Caligula - had similarly worked hard to assist him, dealing with correspondence, advising and watching events. In spite of her horror at the murder of Geta, Julia Domna continued to offer the same support to her older son. If anything, her responsibilities increased because Caracalla became so easily bored with mundane tasks. She was in Antioch when he was murdered, tasked amongst other things with opening and reading correspondence to the emperor, so that she could `sort everything that arrived and prevent a mass of unimportant letters from being sent to him while he was in the enemy's country'.'2 Ironically, the message warning Caracalla about Macrinus was diverted to Antioch in this way, while another went directly to the praetorian prefect himself and prompted him to act. The new emperor treated Julia Domna well until he discovered that she was intriguing against him, after which she was placed under house arrest. In protest she starved herself to death, her end hastened by a long-term illness that may have been breast cancer. She was probably still short of her fiftieth year."

There it might have ended, for both Severus' children were now dead and the dynasty seemed over. Yet Julia Domna had a sister, Julia Maesa, who had usually accompanied her and helped her work, and she in turn had two daughters. All three women were now widows, and the daughters - Soaemias and Mamaea - both had young sons. Maesa returned to her family's home city of Emesa after her sister's death, where it was said that she fretted at no longer living in the imperial household. Emesa (near modern Homs) was in the province of Syria Phoenice, which was garrisoned by a single legion, III Gallica, an easy journey to the north at Raphaneae. The origins of the city are obscure, as indeed is the ethnic background of its population. They seem to have been considered Phoenician by some, although there is no evidence for Phoenician settlement there. The bulk of the population spoke Aramaic, but virtually all inscriptions were in Greek, and presumably most official business was conducted in the same language. Trade contributed to Emesa's prosperity, but it was most famous for the great temple of the god Elagabalus (`LHGBL' in Aramaic), whose image was a black, conical stone, said to have fallen from heaven, and who was associated with the Sun.

Soaemias' fourteen-year-old son was the high priest of the cult. His name was Bassianus, but he has gone down in history by the name of his deity, Elagabalus - sometimes in the corrupted and inaccurate later form `Heliogabalus' used by Gibbon and others. A handsome boy, he cut an especially impressive figure in the regalia of his priesthood. One fourth-century source claims that his grandfather had also been high priest, and it may be that the office ran in the family. The extension of this to assume that Julia Domna and her sister were descendants of the old ruling dynasty of priest-kings is far more questionable than is usually claimed. Their father was a Roman citizen, and they were clearly a wellestablished and prominent family amongst the local aristocracy. Julia Domna was the wife of a senator - it was said that Severus was attracted because her horoscope predicted that she would be the wife of a king - and Maesa and her daughters had all married equestrians following a public career. They were Romans, and they were also very prominent locally, with influence and family connections in Emesa and throughout the wider region. Already wealthy, the family had grown even richer through close association with the Severan dynasty.14

The young Elagabalus was highly visible to the many pilgrims who visited the famous temple. Quite a few men - probably particularly officers - came to the shrine from III Gallica and are said to have been especially impressed by the boy. Maesa encouraged a rumour that he was in fact Caracalla's illegitimate son, for he and Soaemias were widely believed to have been lovers before the child's birth. Some claimed that they could spot a physical resemblance. Illegitimate children had few rights in Roman law, and never before had anyone suggested that a bastard son should succeed to the throne, but no one seemed to question this now. Macrinus remained an unknown, and although he grew his beard long to look like Marcus Aurelius and named his son Antoninus, he had no connection with a legitimate dynasty. He had also inherited some major problems from his murdered predecessor. The war with Parthia continued, the enemy only being encouraged when Roman envoys told them that the man who started the war was dead. Macrinus had no experience as a general and may have suffered a defeat before the war was ended by negotiation. The terms were certainly not humiliating for the Romans, but they were far less than the unambiguous military success that his new regime desperately needed. No territory was lost, but the Parthians received a substantial subsidy. The cost of this, added to the expense of paying the army at the rate set by Caracalla, threatened to overburden the emperor's available funds. Macrinus realised that his power to rule relied upon the obedience of the army and knew that reducing the pay scale to the level set by Severus would be hugely unpopular. Instead, he announced that existing soldiers would continue to receive the higher rate, but that all new recruits would be paid the old salary. If the compromise made financial sense, it left the troops suspicious that all pay would be reduced as soon as the emperor felt more secure."

On 16 May 218 the young Elagabalus was taken to the camp of III Gallica and proclaimed emperor by the legion. He took the name Antoninus - later Marcus Aurelius Antoninus - to demonstrate his supposed relationship with Caracalla, who in turn had been given the name by his father following his `adoption' into the family of Marcus Aurelius. Macrinus was at Antioch, but had few troops at his immediate disposal, for the army had dispersed to winter quarters and some detachments may already have started travelling back to their home provinces. He visited II Parthica, but failed to win the soldiers over. Soon after he left, the legion declared for the usurper. A scratch force was sent under the command of the praetorian prefect to besiege III Gallica at Raphaneae. An initial attack failed, despite the courage shown by some Mauretanian troops who fought well for their countryman. However, when Elagabalus was paraded on the walls of the camp in imperial regalia - and the promise was made that anyone killing a superior officer would assume his rank - the besiegers changed sides. Macrinus was sent the head of his prefect.

With an army that consisted mainly of the units of the guard, he met the advancing enemy not far from Antioch - perhaps near the village of Immae. The praetorians fought well and broke through the enemy line, but the fourteen-year-old boy, his mother and grandmother personally helped to rally the troops and drove the guardsmen back. Macrinus despaired and fled the field - an unforgivable crime for a Roman general. He was hunted down and killed, as was his young son, who had been elevated to imperial rank in an attempt to create a new dynasty. It is doubtful that either army numbered much more than 10,000 men at Immae - far smaller than the armies which had fought between 193 and 197. Almost as importantly, there may have been no senators present at the battle, and certainly none played a significant role. The fate of the empire had been decided in a tiny battle fought far from Rome and with little or no participation by the Senate.'6

The Boy Emperors

Few mourned Macrinus when news of his death reached Rome, but it was some months before the new emperor arrived. Paintings had been sent ahead, showing him in his full regalia as high priest. Two years younger even than Nero when he had come to power, Elagabalus took his duties to the deity very seriously, and his sense of a special relationship with the god can only have been enhanced by his sudden elevation. Theatrical by nature, he clearly revelled in the very public role of emperor, while showing little taste for the mundane work of administration. In some ways he was little more than a figurehead, while his mother, grandmother and various favourites made decisions behind the scenes. Sometimes their importance was made very public - both women were admitted to at least one meeting of the Senate and may have attended on other occasions. The only woman to have done this before was Nero's mother Agrippina, although even then she had stayed hidden behind a curtain. Senators disliked this breach of tradition, and even more resented the continued promotion of favourites from humble backgrounds to high office. Yet in the main their hatred focused on the emperor himself, whose behaviour became steadily more bizarre .17

Elagabalus spent the greater part of his four-year reign in or near Rome and his main concern was to enjoy himself. The stories told of his antics are wild, and doubtless grew in the telling. Yet both Dio and Herodian lived through the reign and we would be rash to ignore their testimony, even though both men hated the emperor. Probably they repeat gossip as well as fact, but it is significant that such stories were circulating - and doubtless being credited. The teenage emperor was married perhaps as many as six times, twice to the same woman. This was the Vestal Virgin Aquilia Severa, whom he divorced his first wife to marry, apparently seeing it as a sacred union appropriate for his status as priest. There was such outrage at his shattering of an ancient taboo, that even the emperor realised his mistake and divorced her. Oddly, after divorcing his third wife, a descendant of Marcus Aurelius, there was no protest when he married Aquilia again, presumably because she was considered to have lost any sacred status. (Curiously his taste for Vestals may have been shared by his alleged father Caracalla, who is supposed to have tried to rape one and was only thwarted by his impotence. The woman was later tried for breaking her vow of chastity and defended herself by saying that the emperor himself could vouch that her virginity was intact in spite of his best efforts. She still suffered the traditional punishment of being entombed alive.)

As well as his marriages, the young emperor made frequent use of prostitutes, although allegedly never the same one twice. He also openly took many male lovers, and like Nero before him, he is said to have been the bride at a wedding ceremony and then lived with his `husband'. It was even said that he had asked doctors whether they could use surgery to give him a vagina. Roman attitudes to homosexuality were complex, but - in spite of some modern claims - it was always seen as vice. If carried on discreetly it was a minor one, perhaps understandable and easily outweighed by a man's better characteristics. Emperor Trajan was said to have been too fond of boys, but had never let any favourite gain an unhealthy influence over him or persuade him to act wrongly. Elagabalus blatantly paraded and promoted his lovers. It was said that appointments to provincial commands were being allocated to the man with the largest penis. The emperor's behaviour in public was shocking - perhaps deliberately so - and rumours of his antics in private were rife."

The emperor continued to play an active part in the cult of his god, which involved very public dancing and devotees working themselves into a frenzy. The Romans had adopted many foreign deities over the centuries, but usually in a sanitised form. These new rituals shocked them, particularly because the emperor was at the centre of things and expected senators to take part. The senatorial class as a whole hated him for this, even though they took part, the most ambitious of them doing so with great enthusiasm. Daily animal sacrifices on an extravagant scale were carried out, and Dio believed that there were secret ritual killings of children. The teenage emperor changed the cult into something it had never been before, intimately linking it with himself and the empire. The black stone had been brought with the imperial party and installed in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, replacing Jupiter as the most important god of Rome. In 220 the sun god was `married' to the Roman goddess Minerva, and a very ancient and highly sacred statue physically brought from her temple to join him. Again opinion was outraged, particularly amongst the aristocracy, and a year later the god divorced his wife as too warlike for his nature, and instead `married' Astarte, whose image was brought from Carthage.''

Elagabalus was not a tyrant, but he was an incompetent, probably the least able emperor Rome had ever had. That the empire continued to function was due mainly to the efforts of his grandmother. Never more than a figurehead, he soon became an embarrassment. There were several mutinies in which elements of the army raised rival candidates to the throne, but none had so far gathered enough momentum to mount a serious threat. Even the legion that had first supported him, III Gallica, declared for another emperor and seems to have been disbanded, although it was subsequently re-formed. Maesa's skill, money and connections had made Elagabalus emperor. Her other grandson, Alexander, the son of Mamaea, was five years younger than his cousin and had been too young in 218 to be a viable candidate. Now, a little older, he was becoming an alternative, and Elagabalus was made to adopt him in 221. Realising what this meant, the emperor dismissed anyone he felt favoured Alexander, but was aware that the boy was popular with many, including the praetorian guard. On ii March 222 the thirteen-year-old cousin disappeared from public view and the guardsmen rioted, fearing that he had been murdered. Elagabalus went to the praetorian camp to calm them, but failed and was stopped from leaving. When Maesa and Alexander appeared, the emperor hid. During the night some praetorians found him hiding in a basket or box and beheaded him. His mother was also killed."

The End of a Golden Age

The empire had a new figurehead, but effective control remained with Maesa, passing on her death in 224 to her daughter Mamaea. From the beginning care was taken to avoid the mistakes of the recent past. The black stone was sent back to Emesa by decree of the Senate. Senators were supposed to play a greater role in advising the young emperor and women were formally banned from attending their meetings. There was to be less use of social outsiders in senior posts, more of traditional senatorial governors and commanders. The real changes were superficial and the imperial household, staffed mainly by equestrians, continued to wield massive influence. Alexander reigned for thirteen years, and the decades of turmoil that followed his death made the period seem better than had truly been the case. He never fully escaped the control of his grandmother and then mother. The latter dismissed the wife she had chosen for him when it seemed that she might be able to influence the malleable youth. This became less and less pardonable as Alexander grew older. Throughout his reign sporadic risings occurred amongst the legions as various emperors were proclaimed, although as under Elagabalus none made any headway. The praetorians had grown undisciplined during the latter's weak rule and now were scarcely kept under control. The praetorian prefect and eminent jurist Ulpian was killed by the guardsmen. In 229 Alexander granted Dio the great honour of a second consulship held jointly with him. However, he warned the historian not to come to Rome since he was unable to guarantee his safety as he was known to be unpopular with the praetorians."

Alexander undertook a number of campaigns, but had little success as a general. In 235 he and his mother were murdered by soldiers of the Rhine army who supported a usurper. The new emperor was another equestrian, Maximinus Thrax. He was said to have been from peasant stock and had worked his way up after service as an ordinary soldier. As usual we must allow for the particular perspective of the elite, as well as the propaganda of his enemies. In fact, his parents were probably from the local aristocracy and his career was mainly in the ranks reserved for equestrians, although it is possible that he progressed to this after service as a centurion or junior officer. He certainly took pride in his martial prowess and strength, and sent a painting of himself charging down his enemies for display in the Senate. It was a very different image to Elagabalus, and the senators felt obliged to recognise his rule. Maximinus won power through the support of the troops in one region. In time those elsewhere found other candidates for the throne. He won some victories against these opponents, but was dead within three years, killed by his own men.22

The Severan Age is far better documented than the decades that followed, which only adds to a misleading impression of stability. It was a remarkable period, particularly because it saw real power being wielded by four women from the imperial family. Julia Domna herself was probably the ablest of them, and certainly there is evidence that she had a wide intellectual curiosity. She and the others were all clearly ambitious and ruthlessly determined to cling on to power. They also - with the possible exception of Soaemias - seem to have done their best to act in the general good of the empire. Even so, this was not how the Principate was supposed to work, or at least be seen to work. Augustus and his successors were at heart military dictators, but had carefully created a facade of ruling by consent, and especially the consent of the Senate. As a body it was supposed to advise, and as individuals senators filled all the most important posts as magistrates and governors. Bad emperors had not followed these principles or shown the Senate sufficient respect, but there had been more good emperors than bad up to the death of Marcus Aurelius. Individuals - mainly equestrians, but some like Pertinax who had been born to a humbler station - joined the senatorial order without changing its essential nature.

The ever contradictory Caracalla did not respect the Senate, while still writing letters urging senators to diligence and encouraging free debate. Macrinus never visited Rome or the Senate, and probably knew few senators that well. Elagabalus shocked and (privately) disgusted them, and if his cousin tried to treat the Senate with deference, this was weakened because everyone realised that he was a lightweight. Throughout the period a succession of favourites enjoyed spectacular careers. Many were of humble origins, although we should again allow for the exaggeration of senatorial snobbery. Dio was particularly disgusted by the career of Publius Valerius Comazon, who had supported Elagabalus' bid for power as an equestrian - perhaps as the prefect commanding II Parthica. He was made a senator, then consul, and held the prestigious post of urban prefect three times. He was said to have been a dancer - and, Dio scathingly implied, a mediocre one, good enough for Gaul, but not for the sophisticated audiences in Rome - although this probably was untrue, even if his father may have owned a theatrical company. Even worse was the growing role of equestrians appointed to commands without the formality of being enrolled in the Senate. As far as senators were concerned, the wrong people were gaining power and influence. Nor were they always convinced of their competence. In the past, members of the imperial women and members of the household had often gained influence, but wise emperors had always ensured that this was kept discreet. Septimius Severus had generally kept to this principle. The rest of his family, just like Commodus, had not managed it."

The twenty years of internal peace from the defeat of Clodius Albinus in 197 to the murder of Caracalla were never to be repeated. Military mutinies and abortive coups occurred sporadically throughout the reigns of Elagabalus and Alexander, but were all unsuccessful until 235. After this, right down to the end of the Western Empire, there were only a handful of decades when there was not a major civil war. The contrast with the first two centuries of the Principate could not be more striking. Then, civil war was rarely more than a remote possibility. For each generation of Romans from now on civil wars and usurpations were normal facts of life. The nature of the conflicts had also changed profoundly, and so had the people bidding for supreme power. Macrinus and Maximinus were both equestrians. Elagabalus was no more than a boy, who claimed to be the illegitimate son of an emperor. All of these men had grown up away from Rome and were seen - at least by the aristocracy - as not fully Roman.

It is hard to imagine that any of them could possibly have become emperor even fifty years earlier. Tacitus had already declared that the secret of empire was that rulers could be made in the provinces. Now it seemed that far more people could aspire to the supreme office, just as long as they could rally troops to their cause. The population as a whole had shown a fondness for dynasties from the beginning of the Principate. For many people in the provinces it mattered little what the emperor got up to in Rome as long as he answered petitions, appointed reasonably honest and capable governors, and did not raise taxes too much. The preference was always to stick with the same family and name. When Severus made himself an Antonine, and Elagabalus and Alexander were declared sons of Caracalla, the political advantage of family connections was weakened.

Men from outside the old senatorial elite were now becoming emperors. The much more numerous equestrian class from throughout the provinces was also filling a growing proportion of the senior jobs in the army and administration. What it meant to be Roman had also changed. In zit Caracalla issued a decree granting citizenship to virtually the entire free population of the empire. Dio maliciously claimed that this was because he needed to raise funds and so made more people liable to inheritance taxes and other levies to which only citizens were liable. Historians have speculated that Caracalla was once again emulating Alexander the Great's efforts to integrate his subjects of all races. One fragmentary papyrus has survived that seems to be a copy of the decree, but the surviving text consists of general platitudes. The emperor thanked the gods for preserving him - whether from Geta's `plot' or a dangerous sea voyage is unclear - and wanted the population as a whole to share in his gratitude. In the end we cannot know what motivated the often impetuous emperor. The result did not change most peoples' daily lives to any great degree, although it did make them subject to different laws. All remained members of their existing communities, whether city or village. Inevitably, with so many more citizens, the value of the franchise was lessened. Roman legal practice had always tended to reserve harsher punishments for the less well off and less well connected. Now laws regularly emphasised the distinction between the `more honoured' men, and the `more humble'. There was also increasingly less distinction between Italy and the provinces.14

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