|22nd Emperor of the Roman Empire|
|Reign||198–211 (with Severus);
209 – 4 February 211
(with Severus and Geta);
February – December 211
December 211 – 8 April 217 (alone)
|Full name||Lucius Septimius Bassianus (from birth to 195);
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caesar (195 to 198);
Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus
(198 to 211);
Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Pius Augustus (211 to death)
|Born||4 April 188|
|Died||8 April 217(aged 29)|
|Place of death||Near Harran|
|Predecessor||Septimius Severus (alone)|
|Roman imperial dynasties|
The Severan Tondo
|—with Caracalla and Geta||209–211|
|Caracalla and Geta||211–211|
|Severan dynasty family tree
Year of the Five Emperors
Crisis of the Third Century
Caracalla (Latin: Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus; 4 April 188 – 8 April 217) was Roman emperor of Punic and Syrian descent from 198 to 217. The eldest son of Septimius Severus, he reigned jointly with his father from 198 until Severus' death in 211. For a short time he then ruled jointly with his younger brother Geta until he had him murdered later in 211. Caracalla is remembered as one of the most notorious and unpleasant of emperors because of the massacres and persecutions he authorized and instigated throughout the Empire.
Caracalla's reign was also notable for the Constitutio Antoniniana (also called the Edict of Caracalla or the Antonine Constitution), granting Roman citizenship to all freemen throughout the Roman Empire, which according to historian Cassius Dio, was done for the purposes of raising tax revenue. He is also one of the emperors who commissioned a large public bath-house (thermae) in Rome. The remains of the Baths of Caracalla are still one of the major tourist attractions of the Italian capital.
Caracalla, of mixed Punic and Syrian descent, was born Lucius Septimius Bassianus in Lugdunum, Gaul (now Lyon, France), the son of the later Emperor Septimius Severus and Julia Domna. At the age of seven, his name was changed to Marcus Aurelius Septimius Bassianus Antoninus to create a connection to the family of the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was later given the nickname Caracalla, which referred to the Gallic hooded tunic he habitually wore and which he made fashionable.
Murder of brother (211)
His father died in 211 at Eboracum (now York) while on campaign in northern Britain. Caracalla was present and was then proclaimed emperor by the troops along with his brother Publius Septimius Antoninus Geta. Caracalla suspended the campaign in Caledonia and soon ended all military activity, as both brothers wanted to be sole ruler thus making relations between them increasingly hostile. When they tried to rule the Empire jointly they actually considered dividing it in halves, but were persuaded not to do so by their mother.
Then in December 211 at a reconciliation meeting arranged by their mother Julia Domna, Caracalla had Geta assassinated by members of the Praetorian Guard loyal to himself, leading to Geta dying in his mother's arms. Caracalla then persecuted and executed most of Geta's supporters and ordered a damnatio memoriae pronounced by the Senate against his brother's memory.
Geta's image was simply removed from all coinage, paintings and statues, leaving a blank space next to Caracalla's. Among those executed were his former cousin-wife Fulvia Plautilla, his unnamed daughter with Plautilla along with her brother and other members of the family of his former father-in-law Gaius Fulvius Plautianus. Plautianus had already been executed for alleged treachery against emperor Severus in 205.
About the time of his accession he ordered the Roman currency devalued, the silver purity of the denarius was decreased from 56.5% to 51.5%, the actual silver weight dropping from 1.81 grams to 1.66 grams – though the overall weight slightly increased. In 215 he introduced the antoninianus, a "double denarius" weighing 5.1 grams and containing 2.6 grams of silver – a purity of 52%.
In the Roman provinces
In 213, Caracalla went north to the German frontier to deal with the Alamanni tribesmen who had broken through the limes in the Agri Decumates. The Romans defeated the Alamanni in battle near the river Main, but failed to win a decisive victory over them. After a peace agreement was brokered and a large bribe payment given to the invaders, the Senate conferred upon him the empty title of Germanicus Maximus. He was also addressed by the surname Alemannicus at this time. The following year Caracalla traveled to the East, to Syria and Egypt never to return to Rome.
Gibbon in his work describes Caracalla as "the common enemy of mankind". He left the capital in 213, about a year after the murder of Geta, and spent the rest of his reign in the provinces, particularly those of the East. He kept the Senate and other wealthy families in check by forcing them to construct, at their own expense, palaces, theaters, and places of entertainment throughout the periphery. New and heavy taxes were levied against the bulk of the population, with additional fees and confiscations targeted at the wealthiest families.
When the inhabitants of Alexandria heard Caracalla's claims that he had killed Geta in self-defense, they produced a satire mocking this as well as Caracalla's other pretensions. In 215, Caracalla savagely responded to this insult by slaughtering the deputation of leading citizens who had unsuspectingly assembled before the city to greet his arrival, and then unleashed his troops for several days of looting and plunder in Alexandria. According to historian Cassius Dio, over 20,000 people were killed.
Domestic Roman policy
Affiliation with the army
During his reign as emperor, Caracalla raised the annual pay of an average legionary to 675 denarii and lavished many benefits on the army which he both feared and admired, as instructed by his father Septimius Severus who had told both him and his brother Geta on his deathbed always to mind the soldiers and ignore everyone else. Caracalla did manage to win the trust of the military with generous pay raises and popular gestures, like marching on foot among the ordinary soldiers, eating the same food, and even grinding his own flour with them.
With the soldiers, "He forgot even the proper dignity of his rank, encouraging their insolent familiarity," according to Gibbon. "The vigour of the army, instead of being confirmed by the severe discipline of the camps, melted away in the luxury of the cities."
|O: laureate head of Caracalla||R: Sol holding globe, rising hand|
|silver denarius struck in Rome 216; ref.: RIC 281b, C 359|
Seeking to secure his own legacy, Caracalla also commissioned one of Rome's last major architectural achievements, the Baths of Caracalla, the second largest public baths ever built in ancient Rome. The main room of the baths was larger than St. Peter's Basilica, and could easily accommodate over 2,000 Roman citizens at one time. The bath house opened in 216, complete with libraries, private rooms and outdoor tracks. Internally it was lavishly decorated with gold-trimmed marble floors, columns, mosaics and colossal statuary.
Edict of Caracalla (212)
The Constitutio Antoniniana (Latin: "Constitution [or Edict] of Antoninus") (also called Edict of Caracalla or Antonine Constitution) was an edict issued in 212 by Caracalla which declared that all free men in the Roman Empire were to be given full Roman citizenship and all free women in the Empire were given the same rights as Roman women.
Before 212, for the most part only inhabitants of Italia held full Roman citizenship. Colonies of Romans established in other provinces, Romans (or their descendants) living in provinces, the inhabitants of various cities throughout the Empire, and small numbers of local nobles (such as kings of client countries) held full citizenship also. Provincials, on the other hand, were usually non-citizens, although many held the Latin Right.
The Roman Historian Cassius Dio contended that the sole motivation for the edict was a desire to increase state revenue, coupled with the debasement of the currency, needed to pay for the new pay raises and benefits conferred on the military. At the time aliens did not have to pay most taxes that were required of citizens, so although nominally Caracalla was elevating their legal status, he was more importantly expanding the Roman tax base. The effect of this was to remove the distinction that citizenship had held since the foundation of Rome and as such the act had a profound effect upon the fabric of Roman society.
War with Parthia
According to the historian Herodian, in 216, Caracalla tricked the Parthians into believing that he was sincere in his marriage and peace proposal, but then had the bride and guests massacred after the wedding celebrations. The thereafter ongoing conflict and skirmishes became known as the Parthian war of Caracalla.
While travelling from Edessa to continue the war with Parthia, he was assassinated while urinating at a roadside near Carrhae on 8 April 217 (4 days after his 29th birthday), by Julius Martialis, an officer of his personal bodyguard. Herodian says that Martialis' brother had been executed a few days earlier by Caracalla on an unproven charge; Cassius Dio, on the other hand, says that Martialis was resentful at not being promoted to the rank of centurion. The escort of the emperor gave him privacy to relieve himself, and Martialis then ran forward and killed Caracalla with a single sword stroke. While attempting to flee, the bold assassin was then quickly dispatched by a Scythian archer of the Imperial Guard.
According to Aurelius Victor in his Epitome de Caesaribus, the agnomen "Caracalla" refers to a Gallic cloak that Caracalla adopted as a personal fashion, which spread to his army and his court. Cassius Dio and the Historia Augusta agree that his nickname was derived from his cloak, but do not mention its country of origin.
His official portraiture as sole emperor marks a break with the detached images of the philosopher–emperors who preceded him: his close-cropped haircut is that of a soldier, his pugnacious scowl a realistic and threatening presence. This rugged soldier–emperor iconic archetype was adopted by most of the following emperors who depended on the support of the troops to rule, such as Maximinus Thrax.
Herodian describes Caracalla as not tall, but robust. He preferred Germanic clothing, caracalla being the name of the short Gaulish cloak that he made fashionable, and often wore a blond wig. Vgl. Cassius Dio 79 (78),9,3: Cassius Dio mentions that the emperor liked to show a "wild" facial expression.
We can see how he wanted to be portrayed to his people through many surviving busts and coins. Images of the young Caracalla cannot be well distinguished from his younger brother Geta. On the coins the older brother Caracalla was however shown with laureate since becoming Augustus in 197 while Geta is bareheaded until himself becoming Augustus in 209. Especially between 209 and their father's death in February 211 both brothers are shown as mature young men, ready to take over the empire. Between the death of the father and the assassination of Geta towards the end of 211 Caracalla's portrait remains static with a short full beard, while Geta develops a long beard with hair strains like his father, a strong indicator for the effort to be seen as the "true" successor to their father. The brutal murder of Geta made this claim obsolete of course.
Legendary king of Britain
Geoffrey of Monmouth's legendary History of the Kings of Britain makes Caracalla a king of Britain, referring to him by his actual name "Bassianus", rather than the nickname Caracalla. In the story, after Severus's death the Romans wanted to make Geta king of Britain, but the Britons preferred Bassianus because he had a British mother. The two brothers fought a battle in which Geta was killed and Bassianus succeeded to the throne. He ruled until he was betrayed by his Pictish allies and overthrown by Carausius, who, according to Geoffrey, was a Briton, rather than the historically much later Menapian Gaul that he actually was.
- In Classical Latin, Caracalla's name would be inscribed as MARCVS AVRELIVS SEVERVS ANTONINVS AVGVSTVS.
- Hurley, P. (2011). Life of Caracalla at Ancient History Encyclopedia
- "Caracalla" A Dictionary of British History. Ed. John Cannon. Oxford University Press, 2001. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.
"Caracalla" World Encyclopedia. Philip's, 2005. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.
- Tulane University "Roman Currency of the Principate"
- Everyman's Smaller Classical Dictionary, 1910, p.31
- Gibbon, Edward, The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Vol. 1. Chapter 6.
- "Late Antinquity" by Richard Lim in The Edinburgh Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010, p. 114.
- Lethart, P. "Defending Constantine the Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom", pg 35
- Herodian's Roman History, chapter 4.11: Caracalla's Parthian War, translated by Edward C. Echols (Herodian of Antioch's History of the Roman Empire, 1961 Berkeley and Los Angeles), online at Livius.org
- Aurelius Victor, Epitome de Caesaribus 21 (translation). For information on the caracallus garment, see William Smith Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities: "Caracalla"
- Cassius Dio, Roman History 79.3
- Historia Augusta: Caracalla 9.7, Septimius Severus 21.11
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: Portrait head of the Emperor Caracalla". acc. no. 40.11.1a
- Herodian 4,7 and 4,9,3.
- Cassius Dio 78 (77),11,1.
- Andreas Pangerl: Porträttypen des Caracalla und des Geta auf Römischen Reichsprägungen - Definition eines neuen Caesartyps des Caracalla und eines neuen Augustustyps des Geta; Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt des RGZM Mainz 43, 2013, 1, 99-116
- Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae 5.2–3
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Caracalla.|
- Life of Caracalla (Historia Augusta at LacusCurtius: Latin text and English translation)