Caracalla: Life, Death, and Achievements of the Cruelest Roman Emperor

Caracalla, notorious for his ruthlessness, ruled as one of Rome’s most infamous emperors, leaving a legacy marked by bloodshed and significant civic contributions. His ascent to power, marked by a deadly rivalry with his brother Geta, culminated in Geta’s assassination and Caracalla’s sole rule. His reign was characterized by extensive military campaigns and the notable issuance of the Constitutio Antoniniana, which extended Roman citizenship to all free men within the empire. Additionally, Caracalla’s architectural achievements, such as the construction of the grand Baths of Caracalla, underscore his complex legacy, blending monumental civic projects with his brutal exercise of power.

Early Life

Born in the cosmopolitan city of Lugdunum, present-day Lyon, France, his birthplace was a significant Roman outpost, hinting at the imperial reach of Rome and its cultural diversity. This city, a crucial junction of trade and military pathways, likely influenced Caracalla’s understanding of the empire’s vastness and the importance of military strength in maintaining control over such a sprawling entity.

His familial background, deeply rooted in political and religious significance, provided Caracalla with a unique perspective on leadership and divinity. His mother, Julia Domna, was from a prominent family in Emesa, modern-day Homs, Syria, known for its priestly class serving the sun god El-Gabal. This connection to a priesthood that commanded significant religious influence across the Roman East could have imbued in Caracalla a sense of divine right and destiny, influencing his autocratic rule. Furthermore, his father, Septimius Severus, a Roman Emperor of African descent, underscored the empire’s multicultural fabric and the potential for leadership beyond the traditional Italian aristocracy.

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The nickname “Caracalla,” derived from the Gallic cloak he frequently wore, suggests his penchant for identifying with the empire’s diverse cultures. This cloak, popular among the Gauls, symbolized his appeal to different segments of the empire’s population, perhaps in an early display of political acumen aimed at broadening his support base. It may also reflect his personal tastes and an inclination toward presenting an image of himself that broke from traditional Roman fashion, signaling a ruler who was not afraid to stand out and challenge norms.

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Raised in the Severan dynasty, Caracalla was groomed for leadership in a period marked by military expansion and internal consolidation. The dynasty’s focus on the military as a key pillar of governance likely influenced his later emphasis on the army’s loyalty, seen in his generous pay raises to soldiers. His education would have included rhetoric, philosophy, and military strategy, equipping him with the skills necessary for leadership in the complex socio-political landscape of the Roman Empire.

Caracalla Becomes Emperor

Caracalla’s path to becoming Emperor was set in AD 195 when his father, Emperor Septimius Severus, elevated him to the status of Caesar, effectively making him junior emperor and renaming him Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. This act not only solidified Caracalla’s position within the Roman hierarchy but also ignited a conflict with Clodius Albinus, who had previously been named Caesar. The ensuing strife culminated in Albinus’s defeat at the Battle of Lugdunum (Lyons) in February AD 197, clearing the way for Caracalla’s advancement. By AD 198, Caracalla was declared co-Augustus alongside his father, marking a significant milestone in his ascent to power.

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In the years following, Caracalla’s engagements both within and beyond the empire’s borders underscored his growing influence. His journey to ancestral North Africa alongside his father and brother in AD 203-4 was a nod to his heritage and a demonstration of the Severan dynasty’s unity. However, this facade of solidarity soon crumbled, revealing the deep-seated rivalry between Caracalla and his younger brother Geta. Despite their father’s efforts to mend their relationship by having them live together in Campania from AD 205 to 207, their animosity only deepened, setting the stage for a tumultuous co-reign.

Caracalla and Geta: The Rivalry Between Brothers

In AD 208 Caracalla and Geta left for Britain with their father, to campaign in Caledonia. With his father ill, much of the command lay with Caracalla. When on campaign Caracalla was said to have been eager to have seen the end of his sick father. There is even a story of him trying to stab Severus in the back while the two were riding ahead of the troops. This however seems very unlikely. Knowing Severus’ character, Caracalla would not have survived such failure.

However, a blow was dealt to Caracalla’s aspirations when in AD 209 Severus also raised Geta to the rank of Augustus. Evidently, their father intended them to rule the empire together.

Death of Septimius Severus and Caracalla’s Attempt on Seizing Power

Septimius Severus died in February AD 211 at Eburacum (York). On his deathbed, he famously advised his two sons to get on with each other and to pay the soldiers well, and not to care about anyone else. The brothers though had a problem following the first point of that advice.

Caracalla was 23, Geta 22, when their father died. And felt such hostility towards each other, that it bordered on outright hatred. Immediately after Severus’ death there appeared to have been an attempt by Caracalla to seize power for himself. Whether this was truly an attempted coup is unclear. Far more it appears Caracalla tried to secure power for himself, by outright ignoring his co-emperor.

He conducted the resolution of the unfinished conquest of Caledonia by himself. He dismissed many of Severus’ advisors who would have sought to also support Geta, following Severus’ wishes.

Such initial attempts at ruling alone were clearly meant to signify that Caracalla ruled, whereas Geta was emperor purely by name (a little like emperors Marcus Aurelius and Verus had done earlier). Geta however would not accept such attempts. Neither would his mother Julia Domna, and it was she who forced Caracalla to accept joint rule.

With the Caledonian campaign at an end, the two then headed back for Rome with the ashes of their father. The voyage back home is noteworthy, as neither would even sit at the same table with the other for fear of poisoning.

Back in the capital, they tried to live alongside each other in the imperial palace. Yet so determined were they in their hostility, that they divided the palace in two halves with separate entrances. The doors which might have connected the two halves were blocked. More so, each emperor surrounded himself with a large personal bodyguard.

Geta’s and Caracalla’s Joint Rule and Fight for the Senate

Each brother sought to gain the favor of the senate. Either one sought to see his own favorite appointed to any official office that might become available. They also intervened in court cases in order to help their supporters. Even at the circus games, they publicly backed different factions. Worst of all attempts apparently were made from either side to poison the other.

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Their bodyguards were in a constant state of alert, both living in everlasting fear of being poisoned, Caracalla and Geta came to the conclusion that their only way of living as joint emperors was to divide the empire. Geta would take the east, establishing his capital at Antioch or Alexandria, and Caracalla would remain in Rome.

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The scheme might have worked. But Julia Domna used her significant power to block it. It is possible that she feared, if they separated, she could no longer keep an eye on them. Most likely though she realized that this proposal would lead to outright civil war between East and West.

Caracalla’s Assassination of Geta

Alas, in late December AD 211, Caracalla pretended to seek to reconcile with his brother and so suggested a meeting in the apartment of Julia Domna. Then as Geta arrived unarmed and unguarded, several centurions of Caracalla’s guard broke through the door and cut him down. Geta died in his mother’s arms.

What, other than hate, drove Caracalla to the murder is unknown. Known as an angry, impatient character, he perhaps simply lost patience. On the other hand, Geta was the more literate of the two, often surrounded by writers and intellectuals. It is therefore well likely that Geta was making more of an impact with senators than his tempestuous brother.

Perhaps even more dangerous to Caracalla, Geta was showing a striking facial similarity to his father Severus. Had Severus been very popular with the military, Geta’s star might have been on the rise with them, as the generals saw their old commander in him.

Hence one could speculate that perhaps Caracalla opted to murder his brother as he feared Geta might prove the stronger of the two of them. Many of the praetorians didn’t feel comfortable with the murder of Geta, for they remembered that they had sworn allegiance to both emperors, but Caracalla knew how to win their favor.

He paid each man a bonus of 2500 denarii and raised their ration allowance by 50%. If this didn’t win over the praetorians, then, a pay rise from 500 denarii to 675 (or 750) denarii to the legions assured him of their loyalty.

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Further to this, Caracalla then began hunting down any supporters of Geta. Up to 20.000 are believed to have died in this bloody purge. Friends of Geta, senators, equestrians, a praetorian prefect, leaders of the security services, servants, provincial governors, officers, ordinary soldiers – even charioteers of the faction Geta had supported; all fell victim to Caracalla’s vengeance.

Suspicious of the military, Caracalla also now rearranged the way legions were based in the provinces, so that no single province would be host to more than two legions. Clearly this made revolt by provincial governors much more difficult.

Emperor Caracalla’s Achievements

Emperor Caracalla was known for his significant reforms and contributions that dramatically impacted the Roman Empire. His notable achievements include reforming the monetary system to stabilize the economy and demonstrating judicial acumen by personally presiding over court cases. However, his most revolutionary act was the issuance of the Constitutio Antoniniana in AD 212, which granted Roman citizenship to all free men within the empire. This landmark edict effectively dissolved the distinction between conquerors and the conquered, profoundly changing the empire’s demographic and legal frameworks.

In AD 213, Caracalla led a campaign against the Alemanni along the Rhine, showcasing his military prowess and strategic foresight. His approach to leadership in the field was notable for its emphasis on solidarity with his soldiers. Caracalla not only marched on foot with his men but also shared in their daily routines, including eating the same food and grinding his own flour, actions that endeared him to his troops and reinforced their loyalty. Although his victory over the Alemanni was not decisive, his ability to adapt by negotiating peace demonstrated a pragmatic side to his otherwise aggressive military stance.

Baths of Caracalla

Among the most enduring legacies of Emperor Caracalla, beyond his legal reforms and military expeditions, are the Baths of Caracalla. Constructed in Rome between AD 212 and 216, these baths were not merely a place for bathing but a multifaceted leisure center for the Roman public, showcasing Caracalla’s commitment to enhancing urban life and the welfare of his citizens.

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The Baths of Caracalla were among the largest and most opulent public baths ever built in ancient Rome, covering approximately 33 acres (13 hectares). They were designed to accommodate over 1,600 bathers simultaneously, offering a range of facilities that went far beyond the basic function of bathing. These included a vast central swimming pool, frigidarium (cold baths), caldarium (hot baths), tepidarium (warm baths), saunas, and gymnasiums. The complex also housed libraries, lecture halls, and lush gardens, providing a comprehensive space for physical, intellectual, and social activities.

Architecturally, the Baths of Caracalla were a marvel, featuring advanced engineering techniques and luxurious decorations. The walls and floors were adorned with high-quality mosaics and marble, while the vaulted ceilings were ingeniously constructed to support the massive structure without compromising the interior space. The complex utilized a sophisticated heating system that circulated hot air beneath the floors and through the walls, ensuring a comfortable environment for the bathers.

The Baths of Caracalla remained in use until the 6th century when the aqueducts that supplied them with water were cut by the Goths during the Siege of Rome. Despite falling into disrepair over the centuries, the ruins of the baths have continued to inspire architects and artists through the Renaissance and into the modern era.

A Delusional Leader and a Tyrant

Caracalla’s reputation as a bad emperor is underscored by his delusional grandeur and tyrannical actions, particularly his obsession with Alexander the Great. This fascination led him to model military campaigns after the Macedonian conqueror and dress his forces in similar fashion. Caracalla’s fixation also influenced the visual arts, as he commissioned works portraying him as a semi-divine figure reminiscent of Alexander. Moreover, his tyrannical nature was evident in his persecution of Aristotelian philosophers, driven by his belief in Aristotle’s involvement in Alexander’s death, showcasing the extent of his obsession and misuse of power.

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The massacre in Alexandria, where Caracalla unleashed his troops on the city’s inhabitants, stands out as a stark example of his ruthlessness. This act of violence, born from an unspecified rage, resulted in the deaths of thousands, showcasing Caracalla’s propensity for extreme measures in dealing with perceived threats or slights. Such actions cemented his legacy as a tyrant, feared by his own people and the empire at large.

War Against Parthia

Caracalla’s war against Parthia in AD 216 stands as a significant chapter in his reign, showcasing his military ambitions and the complexities of Roman-Parthian relations. Caracalla aimed to extend Rome’s influence over the East, capitalizing on Parthia’s internal strife to assert dominance and secure territorial expansions. However, the campaign’s outcomes were mixed, reflecting both the strategic depth and the inherent challenges of his military endeavors.

The initiation of hostilities under the guise of seeking a marriage alliance with Parthia’s royal family reveals Caracalla’s tactical cunning and deceptive diplomacy. Yet, this approach also highlights the duplicitous nature of Roman foreign policy under his rule. Once the hostilities began, Caracalla’s forces made several incursions into Parthian territory, engaging in skirmishes that demonstrated Roman military prowess but also exposed logistical and strategic vulnerabilities.

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Caracalla’s strategy was not merely focused on military conquest; it also involved complex diplomatic maneuvers intended to destabilize Parthia from within. He sought to exploit existing divisions and unrest, offering support to factions within Parthia that were opposed to the central authority. This blend of warfare and diplomacy indicates Caracalla’s understanding of the multifaceted nature of imperial expansion, yet it also underscores the challenges inherent in sustaining long-term occupation and governance over newly conquered territories.

Despite initial successes, including temporary territorial gains, Caracalla’s campaign did not achieve a decisive victory. The vast distances, difficult terrain, and the resilience of Parthian resistance limited the effectiveness of Roman forces. The logistical challenges of supplying and reinforcing troops across such an expansive frontier further complicated the campaign, highlighting the limits of Roman military power in the face of determined resistance and complex geopolitical realities.

Moreover, the campaign’s aftermath revealed the ephemeral nature of Caracalla’s achievements. The territories briefly held by Roman forces were difficult to integrate into the empire’s administrative and economic structures, leading to instability and revolts. The inability to secure a lasting peace or substantial territorial annexation underscored the strategic miscalculations and overreach of Caracalla’s ambitions.

Death of Emperor Caracalla

It was Julius Martialis, an officer in the imperial bodyguard, who murdered the emperor on a voyage between Edessa and Carrhae when he relieved himself out of sight from the other guards.

Martialis himself was killed by the emperor’s mounted bodyguard. But the mastermind behind the murder was the commander of the praetorian guard, Marcus Opelius Macrinus, the future emperor.

Caracalla was only 29 at his death. His ashes were sent back to Rome where they were laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Hadrian. He was deified in AD 218.

Legacy and Afterlife

Caracalla’s reign, marked by a combination of noteworthy reforms and ruthless tyranny, has left an indelible mark on the history of the Roman Empire. His most significant legislative achievement, the Constitutio Antoniniana, fundamentally transformed Roman society by extending citizenship to all free men within the empire. This edict not only reshaped the social and legal landscape of Rome but also facilitated the integration of provincial populations, promoting a sense of unity and Roman identity across diverse territories. The long-term effects of this policy contributed to the Romanization of the provinces and the spread of Roman legal principles, which would influence European legal systems for centuries.

Caracalla’s architectural contributions, most notably the Baths of Caracalla, stand as a testament to his interest in enhancing urban infrastructure and public welfare. These monumental baths were among the largest and most complex of their time, offering a glimpse into the emperor’s vision for Rome as a center of culture, leisure, and architectural grandeur.

However, Caracalla’s legacy is also marred by his tyrannical rule, characterized by purges, massacres, and a deep-seated paranoia. His assassination of his brother Geta and the subsequent purge of Geta’s supporters cast a long shadow over his reign, highlighting the brutal measures Caracalla was willing to employ to secure his power. The massacre in Alexandria, in particular, exemplifies his capacity for cruelty and his unpredictable nature.

Following his assassination in AD 217, Caracalla’s policies and actions continued to influence the Roman Empire and its perception of leadership. His successors grappled with the precedent of his expansive citizenship policy, which had far-reaching economic and social implications. Caracalla’s focus on the military and his efforts to secure loyalty through pay raises and shared hardships set a standard for subsequent emperors, emphasizing the importance of the army’s support in maintaining imperial authority.

Caracalla: Architect of Citizenship and Cruelty

Emperor Caracalla is known for the Constitutio Antoniniana, which expanded Roman citizenship, and his architectural achievements like the Baths of Caracalla. However, his reign was also marked by brutality, including the murder of his brother Geta and the Alexandria massacre, highlighting a legacy of both progressive reforms and ruthless tyranny. His rule exemplifies the complexity of Roman imperial power, leaving a lasting impact on the empire’s history.

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