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Black Caesar, Mad emperors of Rome

Caracalla (April 4 188April 8, 217. Caracallus ), born Lucius Septimius Bassianus and later called Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus, was the eldest son of Septimius Severus and Roman Emperor from 211 to 217. He was one of the most nefarious of Roman emperors. Caracalla's reign was notable for:

"Caracalla was the common enemy of all mankind," wrote Edward Gibbon. He spent his reign traveling from province to province so that each could experience his "rapine and cruelty."


Rise to power

Caracalla, of mixed Punic/Berber and Syrian Arab descent, was born Lucius Septimius Bassianus in Lugdunum, Gaul (now Lyon, France), the son of the later Emperor Septimius Severus and Julia Domna. At the age of seven, his name was changed to Marcus Aurelius Septimius Bassianus Antoninus to solidify connection to the family of Marcus Aurelius. He was later given the nickname Caracalla, which referred to the Gallic hooded tunic he habitually wore and which he made fashionable.

His father, who had taken the imperial throne in 193, died in 211 while touring the northern marches at Eboracum (York), and Caracalla was proclaimed co-emperor with his brother Publius Septimius Antoninius Geta. However since both of them wanted to be the sole ruler, tensions between the brothers were evident in the few months they ruled the empire together (they even considered dividing the empire in two, but were persuaded not to do so by their mother). In December 211, Caracalla had Geta, the family of his former father-in-law Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, his wife Fulvia Plautilla (also his paternal second cousin), and her brother assassinated. He persecuted Geta's supporters and ordered a damnatio memoriae by the Senate against his brother.


In 213 Caracalla went north to the German frontier to deal with the Alamanni who were causing trouble in the Agri Decumates. The emperor managed to win the sympathy of the soldiers with generous pay rises and popular gestures, like marching on foot among the ordinary soldiers, eating the same food, and even grinding his own flour with them.

Caracalla defeated the Alamanni in a battle near the river Main, but failed to win a decisive victory over them. After a peace agreement was brokered, the senate conferred upon him the title "Germanicus Maximus". In the next year the emperor traveled to the East.

When the inhabitants of Alexandria heard Caracalla's claims that he had killed Geta in self-defense, they produced a satire mocking this claim, as well as Caracalla's other pretensions. Caracalla responded to this insult savagely in 215 by slaughtering the deputation of leading citizens who had unsuspectingly assembled before the city to greet his arrival, and then unleashed his troops for several days of looting and plunder in Alexandria. According to historian Cassius Dio, over 20,000 people were killed. [[File:MMA bust 01.jpg|thumb|left|upright|Bust of Caracalla (Metropolitan Museum of Art)]] During his reign as emperor, Caracalla raised the annual pay of an average legionary to 675 denarii and lavished many benefits on the army which he both feared and admired, as instructed by his father Septimius Severus who had told him to always mind the soldiers and ignore everyone else. His official portraiture marked a break with the detached images of the philosopher-emperors who preceded him: his close-cropped haircut is that of a soldier, his pugnacious scowl a realistic and threatening presence. The rugged soldier-emperor iconic type was adopted by several of the following emperors who depended on the support of the legions, like Trebonianus Gallus.

Seeking to secure his own legacy, Caracalla also commissioned one of Rome's last major architectural achievements, the Baths of Caracalla, the largest public bath ever built in ancient Rome. The main room of the baths was larger than St. Peter's Basilica, and could easily accommodate over 2,000 Roman citizens at one time. The bath house opened in 216, complete with private rooms and outdoor tracks. Internally it was decorated with golden trim and mosaics.


While travelling from Edessa to begin a war with Parthia, he was assassinated while urinating at a roadside near Harran on April 8, 217 by Julius Martialis, an officer in the imperial bodyguard. Herodian says that Martialis' brother had been executed a few days earlier by Caracalla on an unproven charge; Cassius Dio, on the other hand, says that Martialis was resentful at not being promoted to the rank of centurion. The escort of the emperor gave him privacy to relieve himself, and Martialis ran forward and killed Caracalla with a single sword stroke. He immediately fled on horseback, but was killed by a bodyguard archer.

Caracalla was succeeded by the Praetorian Prefect of the Guard, Macrinus, who almost certainly was part of the conspiracy against the emperor.

His nickname

According to Aurelius Victor in his Epitome de Caesaribus, the cognomen "Caracalla" refers to a Gallic cloak that Caracalla adopted as a personal fashion, which spread to his army and his court. Cassius Dio and the Historia Augusta agree that his nickname derived from his cloak, but do not mention its country of origin.

Legendary king of Britain

Geoffrey of Monmouth's legendary History of the Kings of Britain makes Caracalla a king of Britain, referring to him by his actual name "Bassianus", rather than the nickname Caracalla. After Severus's death, the Romans wanted to make Geta king of Britain, but the Britons preferred Bassianus because he had a British mother. The two brothers fought a battle in which Geta was killed, and Bassianus succeeded to the throne. He ruled until he was betrayed by his Pictish allies and overthrown by Carausius, who, according to Geoffrey, was a Briton, rather than the Menapian Gaul that he actually was.

See also

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