Emperor Caracalla – does he deserve his reputation?

According to Edward Gibbon, Caracalla was “the common enemy of all mankind.” Further, Gibbons says that “although not destitute of imagination and eloquence, [he] was equally devoid of judgment and humanity.” Dio Cassius (or confusingly, Cassius Dio), the Roman Senator and historian writing in the early 3rd century CE knew Caracalla personally, and seemingly hated him. He said, that Caracalla, “belonged to three races; and he possessed none of their virtues at all, but combined in himself all their vices; the fickleness, cowardice, and recklessness of Gaul were his, the harshness and cruelty of Africa, and the craftiness of Syria, whence he was sprung on his mother’s side.” Not a fan then. Herodian, a minor Roman civil servant writing at a similar time, said Caracalla “was harsh and savage in everything he did, scorning the pursuits mentioned above [contrasting Caracalla’s behaviour with his brother Geta’s supposed interest in physical exercise and intellectual pursuits], and pretending a devotion to the military and martial life. Since he did everything in anger and used threats instead of persuasion, his friends were bound to him by fear, not by affection.”

But did Caracalla deserve all this approbation? He certainly committed some evil acts by modern standards, but if we compare them to the deeds of beloved Emperors such as Augustus, Diocletian and Constantine the Great, was he any worse? Does he deserve to be hated and reviled more than Sulla, Tiberius and Maximinus Thrax?

Much about the history of this period is murky, and there is a possibility of many inaccuracies in the accepted narrative of events and “facts.” These arise from all the usual problems we see in history, exacerbated by the huge distance in time separating us from the third century. So we see bias and contradiction in the sources and patchy archaeological and epigraphic detail. It is made worse that for the period of Caracalla’s life, the best contemporary history of the period, Cassius Dio (or Dio Cassius!) is available to us only as fragments and a brief summary made by the 11th century monk John Xiphilinus on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas. Herodian, another important source, is relatively brief, while the other main record, the Historia Augusta, written by an unknown author or authors in the 4th century, is at least partly a work of fiction, with an estimate of the accuracy of the history of Caracalla’s brother Geta being put at only 5%!

Of course, as a historical fiction author, this can be seen as an opportunity rather than a problem. If the sources are missing, contradictory, or can be interpreted in multiple ways, then the fiction author can choose the version that suits the story best. I have a personal rule that as far as possible I do not alter the known history when it comes to my books, even if the plot suffers as a result. Other authors are happy to change events, for example the dates, to improve the narrative flow, and this is a personal decision and certainly not wrong, especially if the reality is explained in an author’s note. But what I am happy to do is pick a possible but less probable version of the facts.

For example, let’s look at Caracalla’s date of birth. It is generally believed that Caracalla was born in 188 CE, the child of Julia Domna and Septimius Severus, and full brother to Geta. However, Dr Illka Syvänne, associate professor at the university of Haifa, and the author of the only full length text on Caracalla, contends both in his book and in personal correspondence to me that it is possible that he was born to Severus’ first wife, Paccia Marcian, in 186 or 174 CE, and that 174 CE, the date attested in the Historia Augusta, is the more likely. For me this is convenient, as it is more believable that Caracalla is having an affair with his stepmother Julia Domna if he is a bit older.

Stepmother? The accepted history is that Julia Domna was Caracalla’s mother, but Dr Syvänne says that if there was a larger age gap between the brothers, because Caracalla was born to Severus’ first wife, it would explain why he was promoted to Augustus so many years before his brother. He also speculates that the sibling rivalry would be more pronounced if they had different mothers, and less plausibly he thinks that biologically the gap of 12 months between children is unlikely. In favour of Julia Domna being Caracalla’s mother was his original name of Bassianus, which was the name of Domna’s father. However, Dr Syvänne notes that Caracalla could have been renamed Bassianus when he was adopted by Domna.

I believe the conventional stories about Caracalla’s date of birth and parentage are probably correct, but the controversy over these two seemingly firm facts helps illustrate how much of history is uncertain, and is just a best guess.

So we return to Caracalla’s reputation. He was hated by his two main historians, a senator and civil servant, who he likely snubbed and paid insufficient respect to, preferring the company of the legions and the common soldiers. One of his most generous acts, his extension of citizenship to every free man in the Roman empire, the Constitutio Antoniniana, may have rankled with the senatorial elite, who characterised this as a way of increasing the taxable population. This may be true, but as the majority enfranchised in this way would have been poor, it was unlikely to have contributed much to the Imperial coffers. He also gave all freeborn women the same rights as Roman women, which doesn’t seem to have brought any significant financial advantage.

What of Caracalla’s worst deeds? He was rumoured to have wanted to put a premature end to his father’s reign. The main documented attempt on his father’s life was during a meeting with surrendering Caledonian nobles, when he drew his sword behind his father’s back. Others present shouted a warning, and Severus turned and saw the sword. Severus later put a sword in Caracalla’s reach, in the presence of the Praetorian Prefect Papinianus, and told Caracalla to use the sword or order Papinianus to murder him. Caracalla declined. However, another explanation is that Caracalla actually intended to kill the unarmed Caledonians, who had been lured into a trap. This was consistent with his later behaviour as a general and Emperor. On the other hand, it may be that Caracalla genuinely wished to kill his father, and was suffering from the Oedipus complex so well known to classical history.

Some time after Severus died, he ordered the murder of his wife Plautilla, and her brother and child. Although the child was nominally his, he had hated his wife, who was thought to be unfaithful to him, and it is possible Plautilla’s child actually had a father other than Caracalla.

The next most egregious deed of Caracalla is the murder of his brother in his mother’s arms at a peace conference in which both brothers were supposed to be alone and unarmed. Dio Cassius puts the blame for this firmly in Caracalla’s court, but it is entirely possible, given the animosity between the siblings, that Caracalla’s claim that he was defending himself against an attempt on his life by Geta is true. Herodian says that both brothers repeatedly tried to murder each other with “every sort of intrigue” including poison. So even if Geta’s murder was planned and plotted by Caracalla, he may have considered it pre-emptive given his brother was trying to do the same to him.

After the death of Geta, it becomes harder to defend Caracalla’s actions. He embarked on an orgy of slaughter of Geta’s family, friends and associates. Herodian says,

“Geta’s friends and associates were immediately butchered, together with those who lived in his half of the imperial palace. All his attendants were put to death too; not a single one was spared because of his age, not even the infants. Their bodies, after first being dragged about and subjected to every form of indignity, were placed in carts and taken out of the city; there they were piled up and burned or simply thrown in the ditch.”

Caracalla may have become unhinged with guilt and grief at the death of his brother, or may have been shrewdly and ruthlessly securing his position, but in the modern day, no one would attempt to defend a mass slaughter. Put in the context of his time though, it may have been no worse than the actions of other respected and not so respected rulers. The following are some examples of heinous acts of other Emperors and rulers of Rome that compare with Caracalla’s actions, with the disclaimer that some of these “facts” may be malicious stories made up by hostile contemporaries.

  1. Mass slaughter/proscriptions. Caracalla is reported to have slaughtered 20,000 of his brother’s adherents after Geta’s death, though this may have been exagerrated by his hostile biographers. Sulla’s proscriptions are estimated to have resulted in the deaths of between 1000 and 9000 of Rome’s upper classes. Gaius Marius, the great Roman general, at the start of his seventh consulship, began a hideous massacre of his enemies in Rome, and it was only his death 17 days into his consulship that brought this to an end. Octavian/Augustus as part of the second triumvirate was responsible for a more modest 300 deaths in his proscriptions, but these deaths were aimed at silencing political rivals and acquiring wealth. Diocletian, the saviour of the Empire who ended the Crisis of the Third Century, massacred Christians, with the Great Persecution estimated to have resulted in the deaths of 3500, although earlier sources put the number as high as 17,000 in a single month.
  2. Uxoricide, (I had to look this one up – it’s the act of killing one’s wife), fratricide, matricide etc. Nero kicked Poppaea, his pregnant second wife, to death, and had his mother assassinated. Messalina was ordered to be executed for infidelity and treason, though this was on Narcisuss’ instructions rather than Claudius’. As for the murder of other family members, Constantine the Great ordered the execution of his own son, Crispus, Nero poisoned his brother Britannicus and and even the founder of the city, Romulus, murdered his own brother.
  3. Incest. If Caracalla did commit incest with his stepmother or mother, he was in good company in ancient Rome. Although incest was illegal, Caligula was rumoured to have sex with his sisters, Claudius married his niece and Nero was thought to have sex with his mother.

Caracalla undoubtedly had positive character traits. He was a good general, waging a brutal but successful campaign in Scotland under his father’s oversight. He won victories against the Allemani in Germania, and also the Parthians, which weakened the Empire that had been a thorn in Rome’s side for centuries sufficiently that it fell to the Sassanids. He is characterised as launching surprise attacks under the guise of peace negotiations, which Dio Cassius characterises as treachery, but others may see as good strategy. Whatever the motivations for his Constitutio Antoniniana, it was clearly welcomed by the poor who strived to be Roman citizens. Unfortunately it weakened recruitment to the legions, since citizenship on discharge was one of the big attractions of serving your lengthy term. He was also cultured to an extent, learning to play the lyre later in life and able to quote Euripides at length. The Historia Augusta characterises the young Caracalla as intelligent, kind, generous and sensitive, although becoming more reserved and stern in later life. He was physically in good shape, enjoying swimming in rough water and long horse rides. He enjoyed the company of the army and the common soldier.

But he also had many characteristics and performed actions that modern readers would consider reprehensible. My contention in writing this article is not to be an apologist for Caracalla’s actions, but to set them among the actions of his contemporaries. Even if the worst actions and motivations for those actions ascribed to him are true, which is a big if, does Caracalla deserve his reputation for being one of the most despised of all the Roman Emperors, and “the common enemy of all mankind,” when so many other Roman Emperors, both hated and loved, behaved similarly?

Further reading:

Sylvänne, I., (2017) Caracalla, A Military Biography Pen & Sword Military, Barnsley
Grant, M., (1996) The Severans, the Changed Roman Empire, Routledge, Abingdon
Levick, B., (2007) Julia Domna, Syrian Empress, Routledge, Abingdon