Why Did Caracalla Aspire to Become Alexander the Great?

Emperor Caracalla was a notorious figure in the history of the Roman Empire. But why did he want to compare himself to Alexander the Great?

Jul 19, 2023By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History

emperor caracalla as alexander the great


Caracalla’s reign (211-217 CE) inspired fear, outrage, and scorn in equal measure, according to the literary sources. However, one of the most striking eccentricities of the Roman emperor’s reign was his apparent obsession with Alexander the Great. Whereas other emperors had, for better or worse, compared themselves to their predecessors, or even the heroes of mythology like Hercules, Caracalla wanted to imitate Alexander the Great.


Alexander the Great’s Shadow and Roman Emperors

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Alexander the Great Taming Bucephalus by Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1826-27, via Petworth House, England


The specter of Alexander the Great loomed large over the ancient world long after his death. The Macedonian king, who had led his armies from Greece to India, left an indelible stamp on the culture of the Hellenistic world and, later, the Roman Empire. The exploits of the conqueror of the Persian Empire – some historical, many mythical – became a recurrent motif within the Empire, shaping art and culture in diverse ways. As an icon of rulership, however, the Macedonian King also had a habit of cropping up in places you might not expect to find him. According to the always entertaining but often inaccurate Historia Augusta, a collection of imperial biographies from Hadrian to Carinus, the young third-century emperor Severus Alexander (r. 222-235 CE) was given the name ‘Alexander’ because he was born on the same day as Alexander the Great had died.


These claims are — unfortunately — totally bogus. Historians now appreciate that these biographies are full of rhetoric, designed to entertain rather than educate. It’s highly likely that the attempt to link Severus Alexander, who allegedly wept at the thought of war, with antiquity’s most famous conqueror would have delighted the text’s contemporary audience.


The relationship between the namesakes was more politically motivated, according to the historian Herodian. He claimed that Severus Alexander was so named to connect him to his alleged father, the former emperor Caracalla. The reason for this link was because of Caracalla’s own alleged Alexander-mania. To understand the emperor’s desire to be a new Alexander, it’s important to understand his life and reign in a period of political instability and shifting identities.

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One Big Happy Family? Caracalla and the Severan Dynasty

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


Born in Lugdunum (modern Lyon) in 188 CE, Caracalla was the first son of his father’s second marriage. At the time of Caracalla’s birth, Septimius Severus, governor of Lugdunum at this time, had only been married to Julia Domna for around a year. Evidence for Severus’ first marriage to Paccia Marciana is scarce, although it appears he remembered her fondly: posthumous dedications to Paccia were erected in the North African city of Lepcis Magna during Severus’ reign. In fact, some later traditions — such as Eutropius’ Breviarium — even identify Caracalla as the son of Paccia, not Julia Domna. The tradition appears to have emerged following the unfounded rumors of Caracalla’s incestuous desire for his mother – unsurprisingly propagated by the Historia Augusta,


Within just a few years, the political situation in the empire was beginning to disintegrate. Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius, had been murdered. No longer able to tolerate the emperor’s alleged depravities, the senate had orchestrated his removal and brought an end to the line of Antonine emperors who had overseen a period of Roman history that was characterized by later generations as a golden age, including Trajan and Antoninus Pius. A period of fractious civil war erupted, and in 193 alone, at least six men laid claim to the imperial throne, including Septimius Severus.


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Caracalla and Geta, Bear Fight in the Coliseum: AD 203, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1907, via the Leicester Galleries


It was ultimately Severus who was victorious in this civil war, finally recognized as sole ruler following the defeat of Clodius Albinus in 197 CE. It was around this time — according to the senatorial historian Cassius Dio, at least — Severus undertook a remarkable dynastic formation. Recognizing the need to anchor his nascent regime to a solid foundation, he presented himself as the continuation of the former imperial dynasty. Claiming himself to be the son of Marcus Aurelius (and the brother of Commodus!), the emperor also changed his firstborn son’s nomenclature. Caracalla — whose actual name was Lucius Septimius Bassianus — now became Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, making explicit his father’s desire that the new Severan dynasty be recognized as a continuation of the previous regime.


In consolidating his authority, Severus leaned heavily on his family. Combined, his wife and their two sons were promoted as guarantors of future stability. If Severus’ reign was presented as the revival of a golden age for the empire, art, coinage, and a range of other media were meant to assure the imperial populace that things would continue in the same vein under his successors…


Death and Disgrace: Caracalla and Geta

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The ‘Severan Tondo’, painted depiction of the Severan family with Geta, left, erased,via Altes Museum


Students of Roman history will know well that the assumption that sons will follow the examples of their fathers was an exercise in misplaced optimism. Just as Domitian was vilified in ways Vespasian could not have foreseen, and just as Commodus could not have been further from the exemplary Marcus Aurelius, so too was the assurance of Severan stability ultimately an empty promise.


Severus died at Eboracum in 211 CE, and power passed to Caracalla and his younger brother, Publius Septimius Geta. Tensions between the two heirs had been fractious throughout their youth, but things escalated violently within less than a year of their father’s death. In the winter of 211-212, Geta was tricked. Making his way into the imperial palace in Rome, the younger Severan son was struck down and murdered on his brother’s orders.


What followed was one of the most infamous examples of memory sanctions from the ancient world. Known by the neologism, damnatio memoriae, images of Geta of all kinds — from vast public artworks through to coinage and private artworks — were vandalized, effacing the young man from the historical record. The empire was now solely in Caracalla’s control.


Remaking an Empire: Caracalla and the Constitutio Antoniniana

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Portrait bust of Caracalla from the Altes Museum, Berlin, Author’s photograph


In the immediate aftermath of Geta’s murder, Herodian describes how Caracalla fled to the camp of the Praetorian Guard. There, he informed the soldiers that he had escaped a dangerous plot. Crucially, according to Herodian’s narrative, Caracalla denounced his brother as a conspirator, framing the fratricide as self-defense. The gathered soldiers (perhaps encouraged by the promise of a financial reward) saluted Caracalla as the sole emperor.


This small episode in the aftermath of this fatal sibling rivalry is significant on an empire-wide scale. During his reign, Caracalla enacted an extraordinary piece of legislation known as the constitutio Antoniniana, which extended Roman citizenship to all of the empire’s freeborn male inhabitants. The decree has been heavily debated by historians, and contention is not helped by the dearth of ancient evidence: the text of the constitutio is only preserved by the heavily restored Giessen papyrus.


However, the text does also refer to a conspiracy, which some have interpreted as an accusation levelled at Geta and the faction supporting him (and thus a justification for the murder). This has led some to suggest that the decree allowed the emperor to create a new empire after Geta’s murder, one in which every individual had a direct relationship with the emperor and owed him loyalty. In fact, epigraphic evidence from the ancient Near East indicates how many newly enfranchised inhabitants changed their names. These new Aurelii demonstrate how the constitutio created a community of “my people”, a phrase that is also explicitly used in the Giessen papyrus.


Although some interpret the constitutio as an attempt to establish universal consensus in a Caracallan empire, others have looked beyond Geta’s murder to establish a motive for the constitutio. This includes surviving a shipwreck, the emperor’s Germanic campaigns in 213, and also part of the emperor’s desire to imitate Alexander the Great…


Remaking an Emperor: Caracalla the Soldier

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Portrait of Caracalla, via Met Museum


When describing the constitutio Antoniniana, the historian Cassius Dio decries it as a product of Caracalla’s unquenchable rapacity. Making more citizens would allow the emperor to generate more tax revenue, the senator argues; the additional funds would, in turn, allow him to continue to buy the loyalty of the soldiers. Dio’s argument is patently ridiculous — there would be no need for an emperor to enact such revolutionary legislation to generate more tax when simpler solutions were available.


However, Dio’s suggestion feeds into another enduring image of Caracalla: that of the emperor as commilito (“fellow soldier”). The loyalty of his soldiers was important to the emperor, Dio argues, because it kept him safe: “I know that my behaviour does not please you [i.e. the senate], but that is why I have arms and soldiers”.


Dio’s narrative emphasizes Caracalla’s almost unbearable penchant for all things military, describing how the emperor would march and drill with the soldiers. However, the intent is clearly to denigrate Caracalla by showing how he failed to follow the expected behavior of an emperor. The historian also notes that Caracalla was exceedingly lazy. The juxtaposition of the enthusiastic recruit and imperial indolence is a jarring contrast, indicating that Dio is constructing a rhetorical — rather than realistic portrait — of the emperor.


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Aureus of Caracalla, with revese depiction of Victory, seated on a cuirass, with trophy and captives right, 217 CE via British Museum


Nevertheless, Caracalla’s brief reign was characterized by military endeavors. Within a year of his having seized sole power, he had launched a campaign against the Alamanni in Germany. Centered on the limes (the imperial frontiers) in Germania and Raetia in 213CE, Caracalla’s objectives for the campaign remain hard to ascertain: any notion of a long-term strategy here is undermined by the chaos that would erupt in the region in the coming decades. Regardless, he was relatively successful, and his march up the Rhine was met by an imperial acclamation, and the emperor was soon awarded the title Germanicus maximus. Used on inscriptions and coins, the title communicated to the emperor’s subjects — now a much larger number of people thanks to the constitutio Antoniniana — that he was a traditional and successful military leader.


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Bust of Caracalla from the Palazzo Massimo, Author’s photograph


Although the purpose of the campaign in Germany is unclear, it is obvious that it was important to the emperor. It appears that Caracalla’s emphasis on his military prowess was his attempt to establish a distinct paradigm of imperial authority, namely as a great military conqueror. It has even been suggested that the iconic portrait style of Caracalla — with short curls and distinctive scowl and furrowed brow — was an attempt to use art to show the evolution of the emperor into a soldier. It should also be noted that it is from the emperor’s predilections for military affectations that he took his especially enduring nickname: the caracallus was a coarse, hooded cloak favoured by soldiers on the empire’s northern frontiers.


Myths and Heroes: Caracalla, Alexander the Great, and Achilles

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Giovanni Paolo Panini, Alexander the Great at the Tomb of Achilles, 1718-9, via Walters Art Gallery


If you wanted to present yourself as a great military leader in the ancient world, then who better to model yourself on than Alexander the Great? Caracalla at least appears to have recognized this, because from around 214 CE, the emperor began to consciously mimic Alexander the Great in a variety of ways, drawing parallels between the two men wherever possible. Much as was the case with Commodus’ Herculean and gladiatorial masquerades, the literary sources, already not enamored with Caracalla, delight in denigrating the emperor’s imitation of Alexander as further evidence of grandiloquent and delusional megalomania. However, was there a deeper reason for the emperor’s apparent play-acting?


Following the successful completion of his Germanic campaign, Caracalla departed from Rome in 214 CE. Heading east on campaign against the Parthians, he “immediately became Alexander the Great,” according to Herodian. The historian goes on to describe how images of Alexander could be found all over Caracalla’s empire.


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Gold medallions recovered from Egypt featuring portraits of Alexander the Great (left) and Caracalla (right), via Walters Art Museum


There were even some truly bizarre portraits with a double-face, pairing the Roman emperor with the Macedonian king, and for the Historia Augusta, the Alexander-mania caused the change in Caracalla’s portraiture. Dio describes the more practical transformations that arose from Caracalla’s apparent obsession: a body of soldiers was organized in the traditional Macedonian style with 16,000 men formed into ‘Alexander’s Phalanx’. Because Alexander the Great was fascinated by the heroes of Greek myth — especially Achilles — Caracalla also paid homage to the fallen hero when he had crossed into Asia and came to the sites associated with the Trojan War. This included the organization of sacrifices and games at the Tomb of Achilles.


Although some of Caracalla’s imperial predecessors might feel hard done by not to serve as a model of military emulation, it is apparent that the emperor’s obsession to be a new Alexander (his imitatio Alexandri) was a way of communicating his particular approach to rulership to his subjects. Because of the ongoing fascination with the Macedonian king in the ancient world, he served as a very recognizable figure. Imitating Alexander offered Caracalla a convenient way of communicating his authority and status in the empire, especially in the east.


Although the emperor’s apparent aping of Alexander was used by ancient (and modern) historians to denigrate his rulership, the reality was likely to have been more politically motivated than simple megalomania. For the emperor’s coming campaign in Parthia, posturing as the great conqueror of Persia from the ancient world would have communicated to a disparate imperial populace that military success was assured.


Twisted Homage: Caracalla in Alexandria

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Alexander the Great Founding Alexandria, by Placido Costanzi, 1736-7, via Walters Art Musuem


Perhaps one of the most enduring of Alexander the Great’s successes was the foundation of the city of Alexandria on the coast of Egypt in 331 BCE. The capital of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, a center of ancient learning, and the home of an ancient wonder, Alexandria was one of the most prominent and important cities in the ancient world. The emperor Caracalla arrived in the city of Alexandria in the winter of 215 CE, including the city as part of his journey to the east (he had previously visited other significant ancient cities, including Nicomedia and Antioch). Despite the emperor’s well-known love and admiration for the city’s historical founder, it seems that the residents of Alexandria did not reciprocate this warmth…


The citizens of Alexandria appear to have had an awkward relationship with imperial power. They had even supported the attempted coup of Avidius Cassius during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Their reaction to Caracalla’s visit was less explicitly treacherous but no less unwelcome to the emperor.


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Marble portrait of Julia Domna, 203-217 CE, via Yale Art Gallery


According to Herodian, the people of Alexandria had been enjoying mocking Caracalla for some time. The emperor had become the butt of their jokes and witticisms because of his treatment of Geta, as well as his imitation of famous kings and heroes. They also mocked the emperor’s relationship with his mother. Julia Domna, who had to endure the murder of her youngest son, was mocked by the Alexandrians and called ‘Jocasta’ (the tragic mother of Oedipus). It is possible that this is where the apocryphal tradition of Caracalla’s incestuous desires originated.


Regardless, Caracalla orchestrated a bloody vengeance upon the people of Alexandria. He pteretended to have the young men gather in one of the city’s open spaces so as to organize a phalanx in honor of his hero, Alexander. Naively, the young men of the city obeyed. There, they were butchered in great numbers by Caracalla’s soldiers. According to Dio, the emperor had the audacity to describe the massacre as a purification of the city in a dispatch to the senate! The bodies were disposed of in mass graves, and Herodian evocatively describes how even the wide mouth of the mighty Nile was turned red by the blood of the men of Alexandria.


Wars of Succession: the Death of Caracalla

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Marble portrait head of Alexander the Great, 300-150 BCE, via British Museum; with marble bust of Caracalla, 212-215 CE, via Musee du Louvre


Caracalla’s attempts to live up to the example of Alexander fell well short. In 217 CE, the emperor was cut down, murdered at the side of a desert road as he stopped to relieve himself by a disaffected soldier. What followed was, according to Dio, anarchy. Lacking an heir to lead them, the armies that Caracalla had massed in Parthia were paralyzed by anarkta, or inaction. News of a Parthian advance on the leaderless Romans compelled them to choose the praetorian prefect, Macrinus, as ruler. The first man of equestrian rank to attain the imperial purple, Macrinus’ reign was notable only for its brevity.


Almost immediately, his legitimacy was challenged. From Syria, the family members of Julia Domna orchestrated the elevation of a rival emperor, a young man known to history as Elagabalus. To cloak the youth in legitimacy, he was presented to the soldiers as the bastard son of Caracalla and, thus, the true imperial heir. War would be inevitable.


Although not as expansive as the wars of succession that followed the death of Alexander and the breakup of his kingdom, the end of Caracalla’s life did provide parallels. Both Macrinus and the Severan faction under Elagabalus (orchestrated by his grandmother, Julia Maesa) sought to link themselves to previous emperors for legitimacy, just as Alexander’s generals had tried to use the former king to legitimize their power grabs. Macrinus’ efforts were unsuccessful, but Elagabalus was able to secure his power as a true Severan heir, thanks in part to his claim of descent from Caracalla.


In time, his cousin, Severus Alexander, would also be presented as a bastard child of Caracalla and an imperial rival. The name Alexander would once again become synonymous with rulership.

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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.