The nickname by which the emperor Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus is known, Caracalla, was never officially used, either during the reign of his father, Septimius Severus, or during his own reign.
The nickname was given to him sarcastically by the Roman people, in reference to a cloak which he brought back from his campaign against the Germanic tribes and which became fashionable. He was also known by the nickname Tarautas, the name of a gladiator of small stature, of notorious ugliness and with a spirit as bloodthirsty as it was brutal.
Caracalla was not offended by this; on the contrary, he proudly allowed the Greeks to call him the “Ausonian Beast” (Ausonia was a poetic name for Italy), and, confident of his power, one day said to the Senate:
“I know you don’t like anything I do, but that’s why I have guns and troops: so I never have to worry about what you say about me.”
The terror he instilled in his opponents and all his subjects was enough for him.
Septimius Bassianus, as he was first called, was born in 188 in what is now France. He was the son of Septimius Severus, a senator of African origin who, five years later, would be proclaimed emperor of Rome.
His mother was a Syrian named Iulia Domna, daughter of Julius Bassianus, priest of Baal at Emesa, whom Septimius Severus married because her astrological chart said she would be empress.
Historical sources confirm that Caracalla was originally devout, probably due to the influence of a Christian nanny from his childhood, who is believed to have conditioned him to a relative tolerance of the faith.
When his father came to the throne, he was renamed Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, in homage to the emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose son and heir Septimius had officially proclaimed himself to be.
The new sovereign named Caracalla and his second son, Geta, as his successors. To consolidate the dynasty, he married the former to the daughter of Plautitanus, prefect of the praetorian guard and friend of the emperor.
A fratricidal succession
Even during his father’s lifetime, Caracalla began to regret the excessive power amassed by Plautitanus, and also began to detest his wife. Thus he made it appear that Plautitanus was preparing an assassination attempt against him and his brother Geta, and when Severus summoned the accused to the palace, he rushed at him in a rage to kill him.
In 208, Septimius Severus went to Britain with his family to deal with the raids of the Scottish Highlanders. He hoped that by appointing Caracalla as his lieutenant, he would be able to tame his rebellious temper.
But in February 211, while in York, the emperor died. Then the rivalry that reigned between the two brothers since childhood exploded dramatically.
After the army proclaimed them emperors, Caracalla and Geta marched on Rome with the apparent aim of dividing the empire’s spheres of influence. However, once in the capital, Caracalla asked to meet his brother and mother.
During the meeting, Caracalla threw his guards against Geta, who died in his mother’s arms, exclaiming, “Mother, mother, you who gave me birth, mother, help me, for he is killing me.”
Caracalla then ran out of the palace and through the streets of Rome shouting that he had been miraculously saved by a plot hatched by his brother. He then acted to win the soldiers over to his side with generous donations.
The next day, in the Senate, he gave a cynical explanation, stating that he had acted in self-defense, and even justified himself with the example of the legendary assassination of Remus by Romulus.
A slaughter ensued among Geta’s supporters and among those who had no connection with the imperial power. Among the victims were the jurist Papinianus, the tutor of Geta and Caracalla; the latter’s wife, Plautilla; and Marcus Aurelius’ only surviving daughter, Cornificia.
She, after tearfully recalling the memory of her family, cut her veins in front of Caracalla.
The Baths of Caracalla
Established on the throne by this brutal purge, Caracalla began a reign characterized by populist measures, especially favorable to the provinces. Through the Antonine Constitution of 212, he granted Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of the Empire, until then reserved, outside Italy, to the provincial elite.
He also raised soldiers’ wages, erected temples, and paid for the games, while leading campaigns in Germany and Asia. The cities reacted by erecting statues to him and honoring him as the “new Helios”, as represented on their new coinage, the “Antoninian”, a double denarius emblazoned with his triumphant effigy wearing a radiate crown.
In Rome, the emperor remodeled the southern quarter, where the nouveau riche of the time lived and where the urban cohorts were kept; he built the imposing Bai Antoniene, with a capacity of 1,600 users, and built the Via dei Antoni, a road that led to the construction of the Roman Baths, with a capacity of 600 users.
He also built the Via Nova, the most beautiful boulevard in Rome, which ended at the Circus Maximus, which Caracalla also remodeled.
But all these splendours could not hide the crisis that engulfed the empire. The Antonine Constitution increased the number of taxes imposed on the free Roman citizen.
But neither the consistent increase in taxes, nor the expropriation of the senators’ fortunes, nor the victorious campaigns of the emperor helped the treasury to recover. The “Antoninian,” a double denarius, was worth less than the single denarius because it contained less silver; it was therefore a devalued currency, but the people did not know it.
Caracalla, the megalomaniac emperor
But the people knew about the emperor’s arbitrary crimes. The Herodian historian tells how Caracalla, when he learned that the people of Alexandria were mocking him for killing his brother, traveled to the city to take revenge: he gathered all the young men from the gymnasium under the pretext of creating a Macedonian phalanx, then he set his soldiers upon them and their families to massacre them.
In Parthia, he tricked King Artabanus IV with a marriage proposal for his daughter. Caracalla traveled to the kingdom for the marriage, but in the midst of the celebration his soldiers went on a rampage against the unarmed local population. In total, ancient historians estimated the number of victims of his reign at 20,000.
In his megalomania, Caracalla compared himself to Achilles, whose tomb he honored while passing through Troy on a journey. In his desire to recreate a perfect parallel to the mythical hero, he decided to poison his favorite freedman, Festus, to imitate the funeral of Achilles’ friend Patroclus.
Moreover, Caracalla’s passion for the figure of Alexander the Great reached such a degree that he wore Macedonian costumes, founded a military division he called the “Macedonian phalanx” and populated the empire with images of two heads bearing the features Alexander and himself.
He went so far as to tell the Senate that Alexander was resurrected in him, and when he visited Alexandria, he opened a supposed tomb of his hero and stripped himself of his rich robes to clothe the Macedonian sovereign in them.
His continued extravagances led to an early and ignoble death. On April 8, 217, during a visit to a local temple near the city of Carras in the province of Asia, he made his entourage stop in the middle of the field for a bowel emergency, and when they all turned out of the way out of respect for his imperial dignity, a soldier stabbed him in the back, probably sent by the prefect of the praetorium, Macrinus, who was to succeed Caracalla on the throne.
Thus died this man who was said to possess none of the virtues of the three races of which he belonged, but had all their vices: the reckless cowardice of a Gaul, the cruelty and coarseness of an African, and the insidious temper of a Syrian.
Caracalla was a cruel but culturally sensitive man
Later historians depicted Caracalla as an ignorant and corrupt emperor who neglected his governing responsibilities to drive chariots, fight wild beasts and gladiators, and fill his court with dancers and mimes.
But the bureaucratic needs of the empire, especially after the Antonine Constitution, would not have been met if his father and himself had not included in the imperial council jurists such as Papianus and his successors, Julius Paulus and Domitius Ulpianus, considered “kings of Roman jurisprudence”.
Caracalla was no stranger to cultural activities either. He erected a cenotaph in honor of the city-dweller Mesomede, whose compositions he studied, and during the campaign against the Alamanni he often heard the sophist Heliodorus declaim.