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Emperor Caracalla

A Biography of Emperor Caracalla

A few Roman emperors are remembered as pitiless tyrants who treated their contemporaries and subjects poorly. Emperor Caracalla, who ruled the Roman Empire between AD 37 and 41, was one of these tyrants. History damns him for killing his brother Geta in order to secure the emperorship for himself, currying favour with the army instead of his subjects in Rome, and massacring a hostile crowd of tormentors in Alexandria, Egypt. When he was assassinated in present-day southern Turkey, it was felt by many that he had only got what he deserved.

Something of Caracalla’s intense personality can be derived from his bust which was sculpted in AD 212. If the emperor was trying to convey his ferocity via the sculpture, he succeeded admirably; the close-cropped beard, furrowed brow and undeniably forceful glare combine to suggest a fearsome, severe character.

Caracalla was born Lucius Bassianus Septimius on 4 April AD 186 or 188 in Lugdunum (present-day Lyons) in Gaul, to Emperor Septimius Severus and Julia Domna of the Severan dynasty. He was years later nicknamed Caracalla owing to his favourite Gallic hooded cloak, and the name stuck, although it was intended as an insult and was probably never used in his presence.

When his father died on campaign in Britain on 4 February AD 211, Caracalla may have been surprised that the empire was left to both him and his younger brother Geta, who had been born in AD 189. Predictably, tensions quickly grew between the brothers, paralysing the administration of the empire. Feelings ran so high that the siblings considered dividing the empire between them, but they were persuaded to abandon the idea by their mother, Julia Domna.

She instead decided to organise a reconciliation meeting for 25 December AD 211, at which she planned to mediate between her sons. But Caracalla’s patience was at an end, and once Geta was in the room, he instructed his concealed bodyguards to execute his younger brother. Many of Geta’s supporters – reported to be as many as 12,000 people – were then hunted down and killed, although such figures should be regarded with suspicion.

By committing fratricide, Caracalla had mirrored the circumstances of the founding of Rome. In 753 AD, Romulus murdered his twin brother Remus after an altercation, and went on to found the city. But Caracalla knew that, unlike Romulus, it was unlikely he would be regarded as a hero by Rome’s citizens. He declared that it was his brother who had been plotting against him, and said he was so relieved at escaping Geta’s alleged machinations that he wanted to reward everybody by issuing an edict conferring citizenship on all free-born inhabitants of the empire.

This move from Caracalla may have transformed Rome into the world’s first multicultural mega-state but it was purely symbolic as it made no difference to people whether or not they were officially declared citizens. In addition, the edict meant many more people had to pay inheritance taxes, something Caracalla no doubt knew well.

Another attempt to curry favour with Roman citizens was Caracalla’s investment in an extensive waterworks project that had been initiated by his father in AD 206. This project became known as the Baths of Caracalla, a place that 1,600 Romans could, all at once, wash or soak in warm water. The experience wasn’t only about aquatics, however; visitors could shop, exercise, use the library, stroll around the grounds, visit the brothel or simply gossip with those they knew. Provision was even made for conference rooms and holding areas for oils and perfumes.

Today, the Baths of Caracalla is a shadow of its former self; in fact, nothing remains of Caracalla’s masterpiece other than towering walls, faded mosaics and tiled floors that give visitors a glimpse into a bygone era. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see why so many ancient Romans took advantage of the empire’s expert hydraulic engineering.

Certainly, Caracalla wasn’t ignorant of the fact that part of being a successful emperor was showing that you could be a man of the people; he patronised the circus, practised his hunting skills and could even drive a master chariot, although he refrained from doing so in public. But nothing could conceal his fondness for the military, and he is said to have marched on foot alongside his soldiers while on campaign.

Caracalla was fascinated by the legacy of Alexander the Great and decided to ape his hero by attacking the Persian Empire. But it was brutality towards civilian populations that truly damaged his legacy; in AD 215, while visiting Alexandria in Egypt, he was incensed when an angry crowd gathered to insult him about his brother’s death, and had the protestors massacred. The following year, just as the finishing touches were being applied to the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, Caracalla decided to attack the Parthians for a second time.

In early April AD 217, the emperor, while waiting to launch his Parthian campaign, decided to visit a temple outside Carrhae in present-day southern Turkey. En route to the temple, he was assassinated by a sword-wielding man who had probably been bribed by Marcus Opellius Macrinus, a prefect of the Praetorian Guard. Caracalla was briefly succeeded by Macrinus before the usurper was beaten in battle by forces loyal to Julia Maesa, Caracalla’s maternal aunt.

c. Peter Balanck 2016


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