April is the anniversary of the assassination of Roman Emperor Caracalla (8th April 217), the man who enfranchised all free people of the Roman Empire.
In a highly stratified and class conscious society, Roman citizenship was highly prized. It provided extensive legal rights and obligations, and lightened the taxes to be paid.
The Roman Empire – along with many pre-modern societies – did not hold with such outlandish notions such as equality and the rule of law. Typically, you were born into your legal class – and that class determined the rights and protections that you were entitled to receive. If you born into the top of the heap, then great. If into the bottom class, then not so good.
In every era there are maverick thinkers – such as those who think equality amongst all people is a good thing. And that the rule of law (i.e. the principle that the law should be applied equally and without favour) is a really, really good thing.
Needlessly to say, in a highly stratified society, notions of equality are not universally popular. People at the top of the heap want to stay there. People lower down the society are constantly hoping for a leg up – and so, they do not take kindly to anyone suggesting that their hopes should be disregarded.
Those who favour equality tend to be first up against the wall, hung, beheaded, nailed to a cross or whatever.
Caracalla wrought fundamental changes on the Roman Empire with his Edit in 212 extending citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Empire.
Did he make this change to promote equality amongst his subjects? Or did he extend the franchise purely for more selfish reasons, such as make all citizens subject to the same taxation demands?
Caracalla was an adherent of Stoic philosophy, which believed some radical things: in the importance of rationality over emotion, and also in social equality. But Caracalla was not a very nice man, so the Edict of Caracalla is remembered as a shameless grab for more State revenues.
In this 5 part series, I will provide an overview of Caracalla’s life (Part 2), and discuss Roman citizenship in the Early Roman Empire (Part 3), the Edict of 212 (Part 4), and the assassination of Caracalla in 217 (Part 5) – an historical cold case.