Was Caracalla More than a Bloodthirsty Tyrant? (9 Facts)

Known for fratricide, war and the construction of his massive bath complex, Caracalla remains a controversial Roman figure. But who was the Roman emperor behind his notorious scowl?

Dec 30, 2020By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History
caracalla emperor
The Dying Geta in his Mother’s Arms, Murdered on Behalf of his Brother Caracalla by Jacques Augustin Cathérine Pajou, 1788, via Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart; with Bust of Emperor Caracalla by Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, ca. 1760, via the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


If you were a Roman emperor, and if you happened to take your name from a sartorial choice, the odds are that the judgment of history will not be kind to you. The emperor Gaius, better known as Caligula for the ‘little boots’ he wore in imitation of the soldiers, is a by-word for the depravity and cruelness of imperial megalomania. Just less than two centuries later, Rome was ruled by another emperor named for his fashion predilections. From AD 211 to 217, the Empire was ruled by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, previously Lucius Septimius Bassianus. However, history better knows this emperor as Caracalla, a name derived from the ‘caracallus,’ a heavy, hooded-cloak associated with the soldiers from the Gallic and Germanic frontiers.


Like Gaius Caligula before him, Caracalla is notorious in the historical tradition. His distinctive, glaring portrait strikes out from galleries of imperial busts, thrown into sharp relief by the calmer, more serene visages of his predecessors. Elsewhere, stories of fratricide and cruelty stalk the pages of the literary sources, followed by whispers of incestuous scandal and sexual impotency. Nevertheless, there was more to this man than simply a scowl. Great edifices of cultural splendor and imagination illuminate his six-year reign and should serve to challenge preconceptions. It is time to meet the man behind the scowl.


1. Caracalla’s Background: Imperial Heir And Invented Dynasties

roman emperors
Portrait of Septimius Severus photographed by the author, 200-11 AD, in the Altes Museum, Berlin; with Portrait of Marcus Aurelius, 161-80 CE, via The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; and Portrait of Commodus, ca. 185-90 AD, via the British Museum, London


Caracalla was not born to be emperor. Born in AD 188 in the city of Lugdunum in southern Gaul (modern Lyon), the young man’s ancestry was a testament to the cosmopolitanism of the Roman Empire in the late second century. His father, Septimius Severus, was from the port city of Leptis Magna (modern Libya), whilst his mother, Julia Domna, was from a family of aristocratic priests of the god Elagabal in the Syrian city of Emesa (modern Homs). Later, the senatorial historian Cassius Dio, no great fan of Caracalla’s approach to ruling the empire, would blame this ancestry for the Roman emperor’s character flaws: “the fickleness, cowardice and recklessness of Gaul… the harshness and cruelty of Africa, and the craftiness of Syria.”


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Gold Aureus of Septimius Severus, featuring reverse depiction of the Julia Domna, Caracalla (right) and Geta (left), with legend Felicitas Saeculi, or ‘Happy Times,’  202 AD, via the British Museum, London


By AD 193, the empire was in disarray. The assassination of Commodus had thrown the issue of imperial succession in question and rival claimants appeared across the empire, including Severus who was backed by the legions from Pannonia. His ultimate victory in the series of civil wars that followed (and lasted until 197) led to Severus securing his position as Roman emperor. Part of his rule involved the explicit naming of Caracalla as his heir by awarding him the title of Caesar in 195 (marking him as his junior partner in power). Along with this, and to the dismay and derision of the senate, Severus had himself posthumously adopted into the dynasty of Marcus Aurelius (and therefore as the brother of the recently murdered Commodus). He confirmed this by renaming his son Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. His imperial destiny was confirmed.

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2. A Fatal Sibling Rivalry

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Gold Aureus of Septimius Severus, featuring reverse depiction of Caracalla, left, and Geta, right, with legend Aeternit Imperi (Eternity of Empire), 200-01 AD, via the American Numismatic Society, New York


Caracalla was not the only child of the marriage of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna. His younger brother Geta (named after his father’s brother) had been born just a year later in AD 189. Although Caracalla remained the senior of the two for most of their adolescence, Severus increasingly sought to cultivate them both as his heirs, even naming Geta as Augustus in AD 209, meaning that all three Severan men now effectively enjoyed the same status. By the time of Severus’ death in Eboracum (York) in AD 211, Caracalla and Geta would succeed their father as co-emperors.

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Portrait Bust of Geta, early 3rd century AD, via the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Unsurprisingly, sibling rivalry had been simmering beneath the surface of life at the Severan court for years. At first, this was the largely innocent competition typical of fraternal rivalries, with Caracalla reputedly badly injuring his leg in a chariot race against Geta. The death of their father, however, accelerated the breakdown in their relationship, and factions of supporters and sycophants grew around each of the co-emperors. Later historians would even go so far as to imagine that it would lead to the break-up of the empire between the east, ruled by Geta from Chalcedon in Bithynia, and the west, ruled by Caracalla at Rome. Only the tearful intervention of Julia Domna was able to placate the brothers.


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Bronze coin of Septimius Severus, with Geta erased (countermarked with head of Athena), Stratonikeia, 193-211 AD, via the Altes Museum, Berlin; with  Severan Tondo, early 3rd century AD, in the Altes Museum, Berlin, via Google Arts & Culture


Nevertheless, it was clear that the situation was untenable, and Caracalla contrived the murder of his brother. Accounts of fratricide are of course nothing new in the annals of Roman history – this was, after all, a city founded on bloodshed between brothers – but the murder of Geta is still shocking for its brutality. The accounts of the murder itself vary slightly, but it appears certain that on 26th December, at a disingenuous reconciliation between the brothers, Praetorian guards stormed into the room and, on the orders of Caracalla, slew the younger brother who died in his mother’s arms.


There followed a period of devastating bloodshed as the supporters of Geta everywhere were purged. Across the empire, images of the young man were torn down and vandalized in an act of damnatio memoriae. Perhaps most cruelly of all, it is even said that Caracalla forbade his mother from mourning for the death of her son.


3. The Women Of Caracalla’s Court

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Marble portrait of Julia Domna, 203-17 AD, via the Yale Art Gallery, New Haven


One woman, above any others, dominates the life of Caracalla: his mother, Julia Domna. As the wife of the former emperor and mother of the present, she had been prominent around the empire across a variety of media, including coins and inscriptions, for almost a decade by the time of Caracalla’s reign as sole emperor. They all presented her in a variety of roles caring for the people of the empire. These included mater sentatus, mater castrorum, and mater patriae: she was the mother of the senate, of the camps (i.e. the armies), and of the empire too.

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Gold aureus of Julia Domna with reverse depiction of the empress and legend MAT AUG MAT SEN M. PATR (Mother of the Augustus, on the senate, and of the empire), 211-17 AD, via the Bode Museum, Berlin


Alongside this representation prominence, which she had also enjoyed for most of the reign of Severus too, Julia found herself increasingly involved in aspects of the imperial administration during Caracalla’s reign. This shouldn’t be overstated – Caracalla remained the sole executor of imperial power – but there is evidence to suggest that whilst the bellicose emperor was spending time with the legions, his mother oversaw some of the more mundane responsibilities of imperial rule. Cassius Dio had accompanied Caracalla on a tour of the provinces and the Roman emperor’s reticence in fulfilling the expected menial tasks of the empire was a stick with which the senator and historian was all too willing to use to beat the emperor: “Need I add that she heled public receptions for al the most prominent men, precisely as did the emperor?”


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Marble portrait head of Plautilla, wife of Caracalla, 200-05 AD, via the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Julia Domna wasn’t the only woman in Caracalla’s life, however. He had been married in AD 202 to Fulvia Plautilla. Plautilla was the daughter of Plautianus, the close friend and Praetorian Prefect of Septimius Severus. It was not a happy marriage. Fortunately for the future Roman emperor, the alleged treachery of her father offered Caracalla an escape: Plautianus’ execution for treachery saw Plautilla exiled to Lipara, a small Sicilian island. Plautilla’s exile lasted for several years until Caracalla’s emergence as a sole ruler when she was killed and her memory condemned (most famously on the arch of the Argentarii in the Forum Boarium at Rome).


Caracalla did not remarry. Instead, later accounts of his life, such as the Historia Augusta, as well as Aurelius Victor and Eutropius, took great delight in spreading salacious scandal of the emperor conducting an illicit, incestuous relationship with Julia Domna (who the biographer presents as Caracalla’s stepmother). These rumors were also spread by the people of Alexandria, who delighted in referring to Julia as Jocasta (the tragic mother of Oedipus). The jibes were quelled by Caracalla however when he ordered the massacre of young men in the city.


4. On Campaign: A Roman Emperor At War

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View of the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum, including a scene of the Parthian campaign photographed by the author


War was a recurrent theme throughout the reign of Caracalla, both in his youth as Caesar and co-emperor with his father, as well as later as sole ruler. He was, by all accounts, bellicose from his youth, and he delighted in the company of soldiers upon whom he lavished tremendous sums of money. It was clear where Caracalla saw his legitimacy as empire deriving. His first experience of war came in the last years of the second century, as he accompanied his father’s Parthian Campaign, an event commemorated on the colossal Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum. In the last years of his father’s life, Caracalla also accompanied Severus on his campaigns in Britain. By the time he emerged as sole ruler, his military successes were made clear in his honorific titles with the emperor recognized as Britannicus Maximus.


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Portrait of Caracalla photographed by the author, in the Palazzo Massimo, Rome


War remained a central feature of Caracalla’s reign as sole emperor. In the aftermath of Geta’s murder, the emperor vacated the imperial capital in AD 213 (he would never return) and began a tour of the empire. His first stop was the Germanic frontier. Here, he subdued the Alamanni tribes who had crossed the imperial limes (the boundary of the empire). Awarded the title of Germanicus Maximus, Caracalla journeyed east. Spending the winter of 214/5 at Nicomedia, he continued east, reaching Alexandria by the following year. In the spring of 216, after the bloodshed at Alexandria, Caracalla set out for the east once more.


An attempted Parthian campaign was to be the final endeavor of his reign. Parthia was reeling from its own turbulences of monarchical succession, and Caracalla appears to have seen this as an opportunity to extend Roman influence in the east. In order to pursue the war, Caracalla was compelled to invent a motive, and varying accounts of an abortive marriage proposal made to the daughter of Artabanus, the Parthian King. According to Herodian (not always reliable), in the midst of a celebration of this union, Caracalla ordered his soldiers to massacre the Parthian guests. It was treachery for which the Romans would pay a heavy price.


5. Hero Worship: Caracalla, Alexander The Great And Achilles

gold medallions alexander the great caracalla
Gold medallions recovered from Egypt featuring portraits of Alexander the Great and Caracalla, 215-43 CE, via The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


Various aspects of Caracalla’s reign attracted derision, scorn, and outrage in equal measure, from the murder of his brother through to the alleged incest with his mother. However, one of the more unusual characteristics of the empire was his apparent obsession with Alexander the Great and, by association, Achilles. The transformation of Caracalla into the King of Macedon occurred on his journey east: “Immediately he became Alexander the Great.” The second-coming of Alexander was celebrated around the empire (and routinely ridiculed) across art in the empire.


Herodian reports that the empire and the imperial capital were awash with images of Alexander, and even some truly bizarre portraits with a double-faced portrait; Caracalla on one side, Alexander on the other! Cassius Dio reports a similarly unusual instance of Caracalla’s Alexander-mania, with the emperor reportedly organizing a body of soldiers in traditional Macedonian styles, with the 16,000 men armed according to 4th century BC styles and referred to as ‘Alexander’s Phalanx.’


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Alexander the Great at the Tomb of Achilles by Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1718-19, via The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


Caracalla’s journey to the east was just marked by a fascination with the legend of Alexander of Great, but also the myth of Achilles (who had likewise been an inspiration to Alexander). The emperor’s journey across the Hellespont into Asia Minor brought him to sites associated with the Greek hero of the Trojan war and the Homeric Iliad. Mimicking his Macedonian hero, the emperor reputedly paid homage at the tomb of the hero with a series of sacrifices and athletic events. Again, Herodian offers a shocking anecdote, suggesting that in presenting himself as Achilles, Caracalla desperately sought a Patroclus to grieve for. Selecting his favorite freedman, Festus, the man was buried at Troy allegedly dying in mysterious circumstances


6. A Palace For The People: The Roman Baths

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A view of the Baths of Caracalla by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1765, via Wellesley College


Although the emperor left Rome in AD 213, never to return, it could be argued that few Roman emperors have left such a lasting impression on the material fabric of the city as did Caracalla. Built to the southeast of the imperial capital, near the start of the Via Appia, the thermae of Caracalla is a monumental bath complex. Begun in around AD 211/2, but not completed until AD 216, they were at the time the largest bathing structure in the Roman Empire (unsurpassed until the Baths of Diocletian in the early 4th century). They drew on the architectural model offered by the Baths of Trajan on the Oppian Hill but represent the jewel in the crown of the Severan imperial capital.


They remain one of the most impressive monuments of antiquity to be explored by modern tourists to the Italian capital, whilst their architectural significance can be seen across the world. This is notable in the United States, where the vast domed spaces of the thermae inspiring the architects who designed the original Pennsylvania Station in New York and the Chicago Union Station.


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Athlete Mosaic from the Baths of Caracalla, ca. 4th century AD, via Musei Vaticani, Vatican City


As well as sheer size and scale, the thermae of Caracalla were also magnificent in their interior decoration and architectural innovation, capturing the imagination of artists ever since. Throughout the interior of the complex, resplendent in marble, mosaics, and cavernous vaulted ceilings, an array of spectacular statuary watched over the patrons of the baths. A selection of these have been recovered, and now represent some of the most iconic statues from antiquity.


These include the so-called Farnese Bull, depicting the myth of Dirce, and the Farnese Hercules. Both statues encourage the viewer to actively move around the piece and experience a narrative unfolding before their eyes. The Hercules statue, for example, can be seen holding the apples of Hesperides in his right hand behind his back, as the demi-god rests following his labor. One detail that continues to entice archaeologists and historians is the cella solearis. Recorded in the Historia Augusta, this architectural marvel was reputedly impossible to reproduce. What it was, exactly, remains subject to hypothesis and scholarly interpretation.


7. Caracalla And Citizenship

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Portrait of Caracalla, 212-17, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Caracalla’s reign was not his palatial thermae, nor his bellicose reputation, nor even the stain on his reputation as a fratricide. Rather, it is to be found in a scrap of papyrus and in the single sentence of the Digest, the collection of Roman laws. There, it states: “All persons throughout the Roman world were made Roman citizens by an edict of the Emperor Antoninus Caracalla.” This edict, known as the Constitutio Antoniniana, issued on 11th July AD 212, transformed the Roman Empire. It declared that all free men within the Roman Empire were granted Roman citizenship, whilst all free women were granted the same status as their Roman counterparts.


The emperor’s motivation for this edict remains contested. One prevailing interpretation suggests that the emperor was compelled by financial pressures to enact the edict. This was the interpretation of Cassius Dio, the only historian to comment on the edict, who claimed that the edict was passed not so much to honor the inhabitants of the empire, but, “to increase his revenues… inasmuch as aliens did not have to pay most of these taxes.” This is a tempting interpretation – wars, the favored past time of Caracalla – are of course expensive.


Nevertheless, given that as emperor, Caracalla exercised total control over the finances of the empire, such a significant social and political development seems to extend beyond basic fiscal wants. Regardless of the emperor’s motivations, the impact is most clearly indicated in the epigraphic record. In the immediate aftermath of the edict, a whole host of ‘Marcus Aurelius’ appear on inscriptions around the empire, as the newly enfranchised men paid homage to their new patron by adopting his nomenclature.


8. Death In The Desert

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Portrait bust of Caracalla photographed by the author, in the Altes Museum, Berlin; with  Damaged Portrait of Macrinus (probably), early-mid 3rd century CE, via Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge


The money spent by Caracalla on ensuring the loyalty of the soldiers was to prove ultimately futile. In the spring of AD 217, Caracalla was traveling to the lunar temple at Carrhae (southern Turkey), the emperor stopped at the side of the road to urinate. As he turned away from his guards to relieve himself, he was approached by a soldier named Julius Martialis who motioned that he wished to say something to the emperor. Taking the otherwise engaged emperor by surprise, Martialis drove a dagger into the emperor’s back, killing Caracalla. Mid-stream, half-dressed and unaware, it was an ignoble end for an emperor who had spent the previous years of his reign proclaiming his heroism and military capacities.

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Gold aureus of Macrinus, 217 AD, via the American Numismatic Society, New York


Martialis could not escape. He was cut down by the Roman emperor’s guards as he attempted to flee. The fact remained, however, that the question of the imperial succession needed to be addressed urgently; the Roman army was deep into Parthian territory, surrounded by the forces of Artabanus who sought revenge for Caracalla’s earlier treachery. The power passed – reluctantly – to Macrinus, Caracalla’s Praetorian Prefect and he became the first equestrian emperor.


This was a shocking upheaval in the social hierarchy of Roman imperial politics, and to help elevate his standing, Macrinus quickly positioned himself as a member of the Severan dynasty by taking the name ‘Severus’ as evidenced on his coinage. Macrinus had reputedly instigated the plot against Caracalla in fear of his own life; Martialis was a willing associate for the plot with his brother reputedly having been killed at the emperor’s behest. Macrinus’ reign would be brief, lasting only a year before his death and replacement by Elagabalus (who presented himself as the illegitimate son of Caracalla).


9. Afterlife: Caracalla And The Arts

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Septimius Severus and Caracalla by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1769, via The Louvre, Paris


Following his undignified death on the dusty, sun-baked road to Carrhae, Caracalla’s remains were returned to Rome and deposited in the Antonine Mausoleum (home of the imperial remains since the reign of Hadrian). The senate, in particular, was delighted to see the end of his reign, but popularity with the soldiers around the empire ensured that no official memory sanctions could be passed against him by Macrinus. Rather, he looms in and out of the Roman imperial consciousness like a bad-tempered specter: he is banished from the company of the gods in the satire composed by the 4th-century emperor Julian: “to atone for his crimes.”


The figure of Caracalla would return again to prominence in, of all places, France in the late 18th century, on the eve of revolution and, therefore, arguably of modernity. Translations of the histories of Cassius Dio, Herodian, and the Historia Augusta, and an awareness of the emperors within, rejuvenated Caracalla as a flexible emblem for a changing world. To the artists of France at this time, he was an emblem of immorality. First, he was imagined as an enemy of the family unit as depicted by Greuze (whose painting flopped spectacularly in the Salon) who embodied the ideals of the sensibilté movement. Later, his iconic grimacing portrait would serve as a readily-recognizable visage of tyranny as artists such as David painted in the atmosphere of the Revolution and railed against autocracy.


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Caracalla: AD 211 by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1902, via the Royal Academy of Arts, London


The emperor was later a source of inspiration to another of his ilk; it has been suggested that Caracalla’s Constitutio Antoniniana were a source of inspiration to Napoleon and his administration in the composition of the French Civil Code in 1804. Between tyrant and legislator, it remains clear that from out of the shadows of the soldier’s cloak, and from behind the furrowed brows of his notorious marble grimace, a rather more complex figure of Caracalla strides forward into history.

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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK-based independent researcher with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explore the representation of imperial status during the reigns of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the ancient world. He is currently writing his first book.