The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 20

The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. The history of the Roman Empire is perhaps unprecedented in its prosperity, considered by most historians and scholars to have been the “perfect empire” with a stable economy, a strong government and superb military. The men who ruled this empire varied greatly, from noble leaders like Antoninus Pius to oppressive despots like Caligula. The story of Rome’s rulers has it all – love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride. Their history is a roller coaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny. Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the most outstanding rulers that Roman history created – and who created Roman history. This week we focus on Caracalla, a despot whose reign contributed to the decay of the empire.

Caracalla: The Bloodthirsty Tyrant

121814-emperor-caracallaCaracalla was the elder son of Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus and Julia Domna. He was originally named Bassianus after his maternal grandfather, but later assumed the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. He added the title Caesar because his father wanted to connect his family with the famous dynasty of the Antonines. In 198, he was given the title of Augustus, which nominally meant he had equal rank with his father. The byname Caracalla was based on his alleged designing of a new cloak of that name. Another of his nicknames, Tarautas, was that of an ugly, insolent and bloodthirsty gladiator whom he was thought to resemble.

The ancient sources concerning his life and character are by no means reliable. One of them, for example, recounts that as a boy he was amiable, generous and sensitive and only later became insufferable. But the same source reports in another context that he was fierce by nature. His mother was well acquainted with Greco-Roman culture and hired excellent teachers to give her son the best education available. It is reported that he studied the Greek orators and tragedians and was able to quote long passages from the Greek playwright Euripides. He also strongly despised education and educated people. This may have been the result of his passion for military life which probably developed when he accompanied his father on his many military expeditions.

At the age of 14, he was married to Fulvia Plautilla, daughter of the influential and ambitious commander of the imperial guard, Fulvius Plautianus. He is said to have hated Plautianus and played an important role in having him executed on the charge of a conspiracy against the imperial dynasty. Caracalla also exiled his own wife to an island and later killed her.

A significant development was the growing rivalry between Caracalla and his younger brother Geta, a rivalry that was aggravated when Severus died during a campaign in Britain, and Caracalla, nearing his 23rd birthday, passed from the second to the first position in the empire. All attempts by their mother to bring about a reconciliation were in vain and Caracalla finally killed Geta in the arms of their mother herself. There can be no doubt about the savage brutality of Caracalla’s act, but a solution that would have been at once moral and practicable was not in sight.

Caracalla next showed considerable cruelty in ordering many of Geta’s friends and associates put to death. Probably in order to regain goodwill, he granted an amnesty to exiles, a move denounced as hypocritical in ancient sources, which also slander Caracalla’s most famous measure, the so-called Constitutio Antoniniana de Civitate as a device designed solely to collect more taxes.

His expeditions against the German tribes in 212-213, when he senselessly massacred an allied German force, and against the Parthians in 216–217, are ascribed by ancient sources to his love of military glory. Just before the Parthian campaign, he is said to have perpetrated a “massacre” among the population of Alexandria, probably in response to a disturbance there.

The Emperor’s unpredictable behavior is said to have prompted Macrinus, commander of the imperial guard and his successor on the throne, to plot against him. Caracalla was assassinated at the beginning of a second campaign against the Parthians.

Important for the understanding of his character and behavior is his identification with Alexander the Great. Admiration of the great Macedonian was not unusual among Roman emperors, but in the case of Caracalla, Alexander became an obsession that proved to be ludicrous and grotesque. He adopted clothing, weapons, travel routes, portraits, perhaps even an alleged plan to conquer the Parthian empire, all in imitation of Alexander. Caracalla assumed the surname Magnus (the Great), organized a Macedonian phalanx and an elephant division and had himself represented as godlike on coins.

Another important trait was Caracalla’s deeply rooted superstition. He followed magical practices and carefully observed all ritual obligations. He was tolerant of the Jewish and Christian faiths, yet his favorite deity was the Egyptian god Serapis, whose son or brother he pretended to be. He adopted the Egyptian practice of identifying the ruler with god and is the only Roman emperor who is portrayed as a pharaoh in a statue.

If Caracalla was a madman or a tyrant, the fact had no great consequences for his administration of the empire, which may or may not have been vitally influenced by Julia Domna and the great jurists who surrounded him. He was venerated by his soldiers who forced the Senate to deify him after his death, and there is no indication that he was especially disliked among the general population. In any case, the Roman Empire at that time was still strong enough to bear a ruler who certainly lacked the qualities of an outstanding emperor.

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