The history of the Roman Empire contains several instances of worthy emperors producing far less worthy sons. One notable example was Commodus, who succeeded Marcus Aurelius in 180. Only 31 years later history repeated itself when Caracalla became emperor on the death of his father, Septimius Severus.
Caracalla was born at Lyons in 188. The name by which he is known is actually a nickname, referring to the type of Gaulish tunic that he liked to wear. There is another historical repetition here, in that Caligula – another “bad” emperor – gained his name from a childhood habit of wearing soldier’s boots.
Caracalla’s real name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, which is ironic given that his character was vastly different from that of either Marcus Aurelius or Antoninus Pius, who were emperors from earlier years.
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His rise to the throne
Caracalla was only ten when he accompanied his father on the latter’s three-year campaign in Mesopotamia against the Parthians. They returned to Rome in 202 but left again in 208 for Britannia, this time accompanied by Caracalla’s younger brother Geta.
One quality that neither brother displayed was brotherly love. They never liked each other, and this enmity was probably encouraged by the fact that their mother made it clear that Geta was her favourite, something that Caracalla clearly resented.
While the family was in Britannia, Septimius Severus died at York in February 211. He had made every effort to reconcile his sons but without success. His deathbed declaration that Caracalla and Geta should rule jointly as co-emperors might have been an attempt at getting them to forget their differences for the good of the empire, but if that was his idea it was a thoroughly misguided one, because Caracalla had absolutely no wish to give his younger brother a share of imperial power.
A brother is murdered
Geta’s reign as co-emperor was a short one. On their return to Rome the brothers set about their work by having as little to do with each other as they could manage. The imperial palace was split down the middle with all access points blocked off. The two emperors had their own staff, each doing their best to frustrate the work of the other.
The situation was resolved on 25th December 211 when Caracalla called Geta to a meeting. This was a trap. Geta was promptly murdered by soldiers hiding in the room, and Caracalla immediately set about the business of establishing his own rule as sole emperor.
Anyone who was thought to have been in league with Geta or disloyal to Caracalla was also murdered, and it has been estimated that the total number of deaths in this massacre was as high as 12,000. A new tyranny had begun.
A short and bloody reign
As emperor, Caracalla had two main objectives. One was to curry favour with the people of the empire and the other was to take revenge on anyone that he suspected of not supporting him.
In 212 he issued an edict entitled the Constitutio Antononiana that conferred Roman citizenship on all free-born inhabitants of the empire. Although this might have sounded like a magnanimous gesture – for example allowing all subjects access to Roman justice – it also rendered everyone liable to pay inheritance taxes, which stood at 10%.
One reason for needing to raise taxes was that Caracalla wanted to complete a building project started by his father, namely a massive baths complex in Rome, part of which can still be seen today.
The Baths of Caracalla was a leisure complex that included not only the full range of bathing facilities with hot, warm and cold rooms, but gardens and gymnasia and two fully stocked libraries. Water was piped from more than 50 miles away and ingenious engineering devices ensured that it flowed between the various rooms as required. More than 1600 bathers could be accommodated at the same time in a complex that covered around 32 acres.
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More expense was incurred by Caracalla’s generosity to members of the army, who were given a large pay rise.
Caracalla clearly calculated that ensuring the loyalty of his troops was in his best interests, especially as he was quite prepared to behave with extreme callousness towards civilian populations that displeased him. A prime example of this was when he was jeered on entering the city of Alexandria. He promptly ordered his troops to massacre as many protestors as they could, as well as executing the governor who had allowed the protest to take place. It is thought that the death toll could have been as high as 20,000 people.
A fitting but undignified end
In 217 Caracalla set off for the eastern empire, with a view to challenging the Parthians who had long been a threat to Rome’s influence in the east. He delayed his campaign in order to visit some ancient ruins in what is now southern Turkey, and it while he was on one such expedition (at Carrhae) that he dismounted from his horse in order to relieve himself at the side of the road.
What Caracalla did not know was that a plot to assassinate him had been hatched and the ideal opportunity to strike had just presented itself. With his back turned and his immediate entourage looking away to respect his privacy, one of the soldiers ran the emperor through with his sword and the reign of Caracalla was over.
The assassin was killed before he could divulge who had ordered him to kill the emperor, so the full story of who the plotters were, and their motivation, will always remain a matter for debate. However, it seems highly likely that one member of the conspiracy, and possibly the chief plotter, was a Praetorian prefect named Marcus Opellius Macrinus.
The empire was without an emperor for several days before Macrinus finally agreed to take on the job, albeit with considerable reluctance.
With Caracalla out of the way, could things get any worse? They could!