Tyrants of the world: Caracalla

A bust of Caracalla. (Source: Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC BY 2.5)

It’s no mistake that we are already documenting Caracalla, the second Roman emperor to capture our attention in the span of only one month. The rulers of Rome, especially after the Five Good Emperors of the late 1st and 2nd centuries AD, were largely a bunch of knobs. And Caracalla was perhaps the knobbiest. Just look at him. He looks like a knob, doesn’t he?  To truly understand Caracalla’s knobishness, though, we have to cover some background.

Caracalla was the nickname of the Emperor Antoninus,1 who began his reign as a co-Augustus with his father, the hard-headed but effective Septimius Severus, and his brother Geta.  Severus was, appropriately, a severe ruler, and resembled more a military dictator than the “first citizen” that Augustus, the first emperor, had cultivated carefully as an image centuries before.  By 193 AD, that first citizen idea was more or less in the toilet.  Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors, died in 180, and his rotten son Commodus spent twelve years drinking, fornicating, fighting as a gladiator in staged battles and running the Empire into the ground through financial and administrative mismanagement before he was thankfully murdered in 192.  At the time, Severus was a general stationed in the all-important province of Syria, and after hearing that Commodus’ replacement, the respected Pertinax, had also been murdered a mere three months after taking office, he took this as his cue to head to Rome and take the diadem for himself.  Long story short, Severus successfully became emperor and ruled for 18 years until 211 AD, which is where we rejoin our current story.

Severus, now old and sick, was on campaign in the Roman province of Britannia putting down a native rebellion around what is today Yorkshire.  He had brought his sons, Caracalla and Geta, along to join in the fun of battling barbarians and killing civilians to smoke out said barbarians from the woods and wilds and committing what would very probably qualify as genocide today.  Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say he dragged them along.  Caracalla and Geta were still young, and they had grown up from childhood in Rome enjoying the good life.  By all accounts, both princes were much like Commodus in that they spent their time watching the games, drinking, and fornicating.  You can imagine how much they appreciated their father’s efforts to toughen them up by making them live the soldier’s life in cold, windy northern Britain.  The two brothers also naturally hated each other with a passion.

Considering how Caracalla and Geta were both vicious, debauched, spoiled princelings, the two could not have been very broken up about their father’s death while wintering in Eboracum in 211.  Before Septimius died, however, he let it be known to all that he intended for his sons to share the Empire. Not to split it – splitting the Empire between heirs would occur later, most famously in the case of Emperor Constantine’s children – but to rule it together. This was a strange thing to want, because pretty much everyone knew about Caracalla and Geta’s mutual hatred. Yet that was what Severus wanted, and that was what he got.  For about ten months.

A Severan family portrait. Septimius is above with his wife Julia Domna. The child on the right is Caracalla. The face of the younger son, Geta, has been obliterated as a part of the official campaign of damnatio memoriae that Caracalla began after ordering his murder.

The pair returned from cold Britain to warm Italy and got right back into their old habits, this time without a father around to shame them.   The pair still hated each other, however, and after less than a year of less than productive joint rule, Caracalla successfully had Geta murdered by his henchmen.  Right in front of their mother Julia Domna, no less, at a meeting that she had arranged to reconcile them.  To solidify his position with the army, many of whom liked Geta, Caracalla swore up and down that he hadn’t been involved in Geta’s murder.  He then totally undermined his claims of innocence by proclaiming Geta’s memory damned and all references to him destroyed.  As we’ll soon see, Caracalla didn’t have very good impulse control.  At this point, though, it didn’t matter, because he paid the legions and Praetorian Guard enough that they stopped talking about Geta’s assassination (so loudly, at least.)

For her part, Julia Domna reportedly never forgave Caracalla his deed.  Not that he likely cared.

Most of the Roman emperors killed a lot of people and maintained a not especially enlightened rule over their subject peoples.  Even the most intelligent and thoughtful among the emperors, like Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, waged war against tribes on Rome’s borders and persecuted various groups in the empire perceived to be troublemakers.  Whatever the benefits of being a part of the Roman Empire, the drawbacks were clear – subjugated peoples paid high tax rates to maintain the legions, usually after mass slaughters of their own people in battle against the very same legions.  Caracalla, however, took his cruelty and killing several steps further than the average Roman emperor.

The first public instances of Caracalla’s violence occurred in connection with Geta.  Continuing his campaign against his murdered brother, the emperor proscribed Geta’s friends, associates, and basically anyone who had known someone who had known someone who had known Geta.  The blood soon flowed, and the contemporary historian Cassius Dio recounts that twenty thousand were slaughtered in Rome in the course of this purge (while figures in these ancient sources can’t always be relied upon, in this case it’s likely not that much of an exaggeration, considering what would come next.)

Caracalla by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1902). Bad Roman emperors seem to have been one of Sir Lawrence’s favorite subjects – he also depicted Elagabalus during his famous rose petal murder party.

After putting Rome to the sword, Caracalla seemingly got bored and commenced a great tour of his empire.  This tour was accompanied by a massive spending spree as Caracalla feasted, drank and ordered massive building projects to be commenced in various cities that were to be completed upon his arrival.  Typically for bad emperors, Caracalla lavished great amounts of money on certain people and put others to death, not out of any sense of justice or necessity but simply for personal reasons.  Once the emperor arrived in Alexandria, however, his attitude darkened.  The Alexandrians, he heard, had been mocking him for the murder of his brother and his half-hearted denials of guilt.  So when his party reached the ancient city, Caracalla ordered a general massacre of the population.  Perhaps as an afterthought, he sent a message to the Senate in Rome justifying his actions by asserting that all of Alexandria had been guilty of treason.

One of the most shocking tales of Caracalla’s reign comes from the historian Herodian, who relates that Caracalla went east with his legions in 216 to meet the king of Parthia (roughly speaking modern-day Iran) to conclude a peace deal.  The Romans and Parthians had battled off and on for long stretches in their struggles over power and influence in Mesopotamia and the Caucasus, and the proposed marriage of Caracalla to the Parthian king’s daughter would hopefully put an end to all the fighting.  Caracalla enjoying violence, however, he arrived at the wedding and ordered the slaughter of the entire party.  The king managed to slip away, but Caracalla seems to have considered his work done and turned back to Mesopotamia, where he carried on looting with his still very well-paid legions.2

A coin of Emperor Macrinus (r. 217-218). (Source: “Aureus Macrinus-RIC 0079” by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0.)

There was perhaps no other Roman emperor who deserved to die a violent and painful death as much as Caracalla did.  Thankfully, history obliges us here.  While traveling in Mesopotamia in 217, Caracalla’s Praetorian prefect Marcus Opellius Macrinus got word that prophecies were swirling around about him.  Specifically, that he, Macrinus, would be Caracalla’s successor as emperor.  This was the kind of prophecy that would certainly get you killed back in the 3rd century in Rome, and the kind that would get you extra-killed under the bloody, paranoid regime of Caracalla.  So Macrinus took the only course of action left open to him – he would become the emperor to save his own skin.  During a pit stop, Caracalla was approached by a soldier sent by Macrinus.  The soldier unsheathed his blade and stabbed the emperor to death on the prefect’s orders.  Macrinus then had himself declared emperor, despite being a mere knight (not even a senator – the first time a member of a lower class had taken the purple) and not a member of the Severan family.

Despite the fact that he apparently was not insanely cruel and vicious, Macrinus’ reign was far shorter than even Caracalla’s.  The prefect-turned-emperor had no real legitimacy, and barely a year after taking office the Severans, with legions at their backs, had Emperor Macrinus deposed and executed.  Thus began the reign of Elagabalus, Caracalla’s cousin, who would go on to prove that yes, it could get worse (though arguably not worse than Caracalla if you were an Alexandrian.)

Caracalla depicted on a medallion.

Caracalla isn’t terribly well known, at least among the non-Roman-history-obsessed public.  Caligula and Nero have long been the standard go-to names when we’re talking about bad Roman emperors.  Commodus too has achieved household fame thanks to the historically inaccurate but still enjoyable film Gladiator.  However, Caracalla was quite possibly worse than the rest of them.  His documented cruelty is arguably greater than theirs, and his massive payments to the soldiers to keep their loyalty established a dangerous precedent for later emperors who were deposed and killed as a result of the soldiers’ dissatisfaction with number of sestertii each received.    Macrinus was not the first or last Praetorian prefect to plot against his master, and the reason for the plotting was often anger over being denied an honorarium.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Caracalla, however, is the nature of his violence.  Plenty of other rulers and emperors killed as much or more than he did, and yet they have been honored with titles like “the Great” and are revered.  Julius Caesar, for example, massacred Gauls in modern-day France in the course of his conquest of that land, which he undertook largely to increase his own glory.  The same was true on an even wider scale of Alexander the Great.  Caesar and Alexander are often lauded, while the comparatively mild – in terms of numbers of dead – Caracalla is damned.

If Caracalla had merely committed his cruelties against Parthians and other outsiders, he might have been remembered as a good ruler who used cunning to Rome’s benefit.  However, he also turned his sword against his own citizens, those who were supposedly under his protection.3  In the end, his violence against the people of the Empire was his downfall.  (In fact, some soothsayer spreading prophecies about the soon-to-be Emperor Macrinus was his downfall, but his great cruelty could not have helped.)


1 Caracalla’s given name was Lucius Septimius Bassianus, and the name he took as Emperor was Antoninus. The name Caracalla refers to a kind of Gallic cloak that the emperor liked to wear. You would not have referred to the emperor as “Caracalla” during his reign.

2 This episode is one of several that might have influenced George R. R. Martin’s infamous Red Wedding.  A Song of Ice and Fire and its sister TV series Game of Thrones both owe a lot to history.

3 Caracalla granted citizenship to every free man living in the Empire, extending the franchise massively. This sounds uncharacteristically nice and thoughtful of Caracalla until you realize the reason for this policy – all those new citizens would have to pay extra taxes, and Caracalla needed more money to waste.

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