Caracalla (188 - 217 AD)
Emperor: 198 - 217 AD
Lucius Septimius Bassianus, later to be known as Emperor Caracalla, was the elder of two sons of the emperor Septimius Severus. His cognomen Bassianus stems from his maternal grandfather, Gaius Julius Bassianus who was a priest of Heliogabalus, the patron god of Emesa, Syria.
He was born in April AD 188, in the city of Lugdunum (Lyon, France) while his father (Severus) was governor of Gaul during the reign of Commodus.
When his father won the civil war following the assassination of Commodus (c. 193), Bassianus was declared Caesar (heir) and renamed Marcus Aurelius Antoninus in order to establish the Severan reign as legitimate heirs to the popular and adoptive Antonine dynasty.
The name Caracalla emerged from the style of cloak that he wore and later made popular throughout the empire. While it distinguishes his identity in a historical context, much like the name Caligula as a substitute for the third princeps Gaius, it should be considered little more than a nickname as it was not used in any official capacity.
The appointment of Caracalla as Caesar to his father negated a previous deal with the Roman governor of Britain, Clodius Albinus. Civil war was renewed, but Severus proved superior to his rival and defeated him at the battle of Lugdunum (Lyons, France) in February AD 197. Cementing the dynastic intentions, the ten year old Caracalla was named co-Augustus the following year and younger son Geta (by only 11 months) was named Caesar. In 202, Caracalla was married to Publia Fulvia Plautilla, the daughter of Praetorian Prefect C. Fulvius Plautianus, though the marriage proved to be politically disastrous.
Caracalla despised his wife while he his brother Geta and mother Julia Domna distrusted the growing power and influence of Plautianus. As a result, Plautianus may have sensed his own impending fall and plotted the overthrow of Severus or was perhaps simply a victim of the political machinations of the Severan family. He was accused of treason and executed in January, 205 while Plautilla (and her brother) were sent into exile.
After the death of Plautianus, both Caracalla and Geta began to aggressively assert their own authority and individual identities. According to Cassius Dio, "They outraged women and abused boys, they embezzled money, and made gladiators and charioteers their boon companions, emulating each other in the similarity of their deeds, but full of strife in their rivalries; for if the one attached himself to a certain faction, the other would be sure to choose the opposite side. And at last they were pitted against each other in some kind of contest with teams of ponies and drove with such fierce rivalry that Antoninus fell out of his two-wheeled chariot and broke his leg."
Severus recognized the danger of the rivalry and organized a military campaign in northern Britain in order to reinvigorate a growing idleness in the legions and also to occupy his sons in an endeavor of higher responsibility. In his middle 60's and in poor personal health, Severus gave command to Caracalla while Geta was appointed to co-Augustus and given authority over administrative duties.
The campaign itself, though hampered by the rough terrain of Caledonia, was probably more successful than Severus' attempt to bring his sons together. The rivalry continued more bitter than ever, and Severus feared for Geta's life. However, his health had rapidly deteriorated since the arrival of the family in Britain and little could be done to reconcile the future emperors. On February 4, 211 Severus died in Eboracum (York) and left the empire to the near 23 year old Caracalla and 22 year old Geta.
The new joint emperors returned to Rome shortly after their father's death but the relationship continued as it always had. Caracalla vied for ultimate authority and attempted to marginalize the position of Geta; who sought imperial equality. Distrust by both parties led to cooperative failure on decisions of policy, political appointments and general authority. The rivalry was beyond reconciliation; the two sides unable to find a tenable solution. Ultimately, Geta was murdered in December, 211 and in a systematic purge of his supporters, contemporary historian Cassius Dio claimed that some 20,000 people were put to death.
Caracalla after the murder of Geta
In the short term the death of Geta weakened rather than strengthened the rule of Caracalla. The people were upset both by the crime of fratricide, and by the fear that the divine punishment for that crime might involve the rest of the empire as collateral damage. The army were upset, because the soldiers had sworn allegiance to both brothers. The senate, while not deeply disturbed by the death of Geta, was dismayed by the loss of so many of its members in the subsequent purge.
The flurry of legislative activity which followed the purge of Geta's supporters should be seen partly as a reaction to this unpopularity, and partly as the implementation of many of Caracalla's plans for the empire which Geta had blocked. For Caracalla, as for any other sane third century emperor, the first priority was to make sure that the army stayed loyal. This was accomplished in the first instance by straightforward bribery. Soldiers received a pay rise of about fifty percent across the board. There were also some reforms to the legal system which benefited the soldiery, but essentially Caracalla purchased their loyalty. Since this pay rise was considerably more than Rome could afford on a long-term basis, Caracalla's next two steps were primarily aimed at increasing state revenues.
First the silver content of the denarius (which had been slowly dropping for centuries) was more sharply cut; from around fifty - eight percent to fifty. Secondly a new coin called the antoninianus was issued. The coin had a face value of two denarii, but had a silver content of only 1.5 denarii. Debasement of the currency would provide temporary relief until inflation ate away the the gains. However, Caracalla had an altogether more ambitious plan for the long term. In 212 he issued the momentous Constitutio Antoniniana de Civitate, the declaration that all free citizens of the Roman empire were eligible for the Roman citizenship.
Exactly how the decree was implemented in practice is still debated by historians, but three consequences had great effect on the development of the empire. The first was that government revenues received a significant boost, because all the new citizens now paid taxes to the Roman state. (According to the historian Cassius Dio, who loathed and despised Caracalla, this was the sole reason for the decree.) Furthermore the standardization of the multiple tax systems which had existed heretofore briefly set back the ever-increasing bureaucracy with which the empire was becoming burdened, and this also increased revenues.
Secondly, the army received a short-term boost to recruitment because membership of the legions was open only to Roman citizens, and there were now many more of these available. However, service in the auxilia had for centuries been a route to obtaining the Roman citizenship, and since service in the auxilia was seen as less desirable than service in the legions, the auxilia increasingly became dependent on barbarians to make up for their manpower shortfall.
Finally, with his decree, Caracalla either knowingly or unwittingly completed the transformation of the Roman empire from being an empire ruled by Rome to an empire of Romans. This process had been going on for centuries, but henceforth most people of the empire saw themselves as one people engaged in a common project. The Antonine Decree was the main reason why the people of the Byzantine empire still called themselves 'Romans' almost a millennium after Rome itself had fallen.
To appease the people of Rome, Caracalla pushed forward the building of the magnificent baths commissioned by his father but which still bear his name today, although so ambitious was the entire project that the full completion required not only the remainder of Caracalla's reign but continued through that of his two successors before finally being achieved by Severus Alexander. In his relations with the senate, Caracalla did rather as had Hadrian almost a century before. Also on poor terms with the senate, Hadrian simply had as little to do with its members as he possibly could. Caracalla took the same route. He left Rome in 213 and spent very little time in the city thereafter. Henceforth his career was that of a war leader.
Due to the very successful campaigns of his father, Septimius Severus, most of Rome's enemies were already weakened and subdued. This meant that Caracalla had to go actively looking for trouble. Caracalla started on the Rhine frontier, less because the Germans were causing problems than because it was important to be seen and acknowledged by the Rhineland legions. This was especially important as Caracalla had been quietly lowering the efficiency of these legions as he attempted to ensure that no provincial governor had command of more than two. This made the governors less of a threat as usurpers, but it also made the army less effective militarily. Thus the Rhineland campaign was mainly a public relations exercise by which Caracalla endeared himself to the troops by eating their rations, sleeping in the same conditions and publicly declaring that he lived only to serve the soldiery.
In actual military operations, Caracalla had noted that the Roman army was generally incapable of subduing the Germans for long. He also noted that rivalries and factionalism among the German tribes could be encouraged by giving judicious political and financial support to different Germanic elements. Basically, rather than using the Roman army for the job, it was more cost-effective to pay the Germans to beat themselves up. However, as with many of Caracalla's initiatives, under later Roman emperors this policy slowly degenerated. It became the harmful measure of bribing the Germanic tribes not to attack Rome; a policy which simply meant that when the Germans did attack they could afford the best armour and weapons available for the job.
However, this was not evident at the end of 213, when Caracalla could safely estimate that neither the Rhine legions and the German tribes posed any immediate threat to his rule. It was therefore safe to embark on a more ambitious project. Caracalla was an admirer of Alexander the Great, and he felt that the time was right to emulate the most notable achievement of his hero ? the conquest of the east.
Caracalla - The Final Part
The Parthians were certainly not a threat to Rome at this point. Rome's great enemy in the east was prostrated by the after-effects of an enduring plague and from some very rough handling by the army of Septimius Severus some fifteen years previously. As is often the case, instability in Parthia had bred further instability, and the country was now riven by a bitter civil war between the brothers Artabanus V and Vologaneses VI. Consequently, Caracalla felt that his enemy was ripe for the picking. (Nor was he completely mistaken in this assessment. The Parthian empire was in its death throes and would fall within a decade. However, due to circumstances beyond Caracalla's control, the final blow would come from rebellion within rather than from the force of Roman arms.)
On his arrival in the east, Caracalla reviewed the available evidence and decided that the civil war in Parthia could safely be left to ruin the country further while he mustered his armies and waited to intervene. Therefore his early interventions in the east were limited to intelligence gathering and the opportunistic seizure of land around Edessa which became the short-lived province of Osroene. The Historia Augusta, an inaccurate and sensationally libellous account of Caracalla's life, describes this early phase of the campaign as 'guerilla warfare'.
As was almost obligatory with Romano-Parthian relations whenever one empire discerned weakness in the other, Caracalla attempted to seize control of Armenia. He did this by inviting the Armenian king to a conference, ostensibly to mediate in a quarrel between the king and his sons, and then took the king captive on his arrival. Much the same tactic had been used to take control of Edessa, but in this instance the tactic backfired. The Armenian people promptly rebelled, and defeated the Roman force sent against them. Thereafter they refused to believe or trust any Roman peace initiatives.
At the end of the campaigning season, Caracalla took himself to Alexandria in Egypt. His motives for going there are uncertain and are further obscured by hostile contemporary sources. Dio, for example, believes that he felt the city still honoured the memory of his brother Geta, and was determined to punish the Alexandrians for it. (Dio 78.22ff) A more probable scenario is that Caracalla rightly or wrongly believed that the city was disloyal and he did not want a rebellion at his back once his army was committed to the invasion of Parthia. Whatever the reason, it appears that Caracalla was made welcome by the citizens and in turn he appeared to accept their friendship cordially while he distributed troops about the city. At a signal, the army set about plundering the city and massacring the inhabitants.
This provides us with at least one reason for this atrocity - that Caracalla intended the wealth of one of the East's most prosperous cities to fund his Parthian campaign, and rumours of Alexandrian disloyalty had provided the excuse for doing so. Since he also needed an excuse for invading Parthia, Caracalla wrote to king Artabanus (who was coming out on top in the civil war with his brother) and demanded the hand of the Parthian king's daughter in marriage. Artabanus saw no reason to give Caracalla a dynastic claim to his empire, and sensibly refused. Consequently, in 216 Caracalla launched his long-planned invasion.
This invasion went without a hitch, mainly because Artabanus refused to fight and instead pulled his army back to the shelter of the highlands beyond the River Tigris. This left Caracalla free to rampage through Mesopotamia where he captured the ancient city of Arbela. Caracalla then wrote back to the senate and, according to Dio, claimed victories over an enemy that he had in fact not even seen. The emperor made no attempt to hold his conquests but took his army back into Roman territory at the end of the campaigning season with the intention of resuming operations the following year.
Throughout his trip to the east, the superstitious Caracalla had made a point of visiting every major religious shrine along his route. Even while preparing to massacre the people of Alexandria, Caracalla had visited the city's famous shrine of the Serapaeum. He had earlier performed the rites to Asclepius at the God's temple in Pergamum. Before the start of the spring campaign for 217 Caracalla intended to travel from Edessa to visit the shrine of the moon-god at Carrhae. Confident in the goodwill of the soldiers, he took only a small escort with him.
Caracalla's superstition was also evident in his dealings with his Praetorian Prefect, a man called Macrinus. Two separate prophecies had informed Caracalla that Macrinus would succeed him in the very near future. The emperor had responded by giving Macrinus greater honours but less power. This may have warned Macrinus that the capricious Caracalla was planning his downfall, and so caused the Praetorian Prefect to add a man called Julius Martialis to the imperial retinue.
Martialis had a grudge against Caracalla. According to one source, Caracalla had put the man's brother to death on unsubstantiated charges. Another source claims that Martialis had not been promoted to the rank of centurion as he felt he deserved. Accordingly, Martialis approached Caracalla as the emperor was relieving himself by the roadside on the return trip from Carrhae. His bodyguard had withdrawn slightly to give the emperor some privacy, and this gave the chance for Martialis to inflict a fatal stab wound, though the assassin was cut down seconds later.
Caracalla was 29 years old when he died. With him died any chance of Roman expansion in the east, as his successor Macrinus had to make a hasty peace with the Parthians in order to consolidate his position in Rome. Despite his numerous character flaws, Caracalla had given the empire two decades of stability which caused later generations to look back to his reign with a degree of nostalgia.
Did you know...
Eboracum was the major military base in the north of Britain and the capital of northern Britain, Britannia Inferior.
Did you know...
The principal exports from Mauretania Caesariensis were purple dyes and valuable woods.