Caracalla is remembered for a number of notable things: firstly, his Edict of 212 extended Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Roman Empire; and secondly, his propensity for political violence.
In Part 1, I introduced this blog series.
Caracalla was born in 188 in Lugdunum in Gaul (now Lyon, France), the eldest son of the future Emperor Septimius Severus. His family was of mixed Punic and Syrian descent, further continuing a trend over the previous century for imperial families to come from the wider provinces. At birth he was given the name Lucius Septimius Bassianus. However later, when he was seven, his father changed Caracalla’s name to Marcus Aurelius Septimius Bassianus Antoninus – Septimius Severus, as the founder of a new imperial dynasty, wanted to link his dynasty with the previous Antonine dynasty. As the eldest son, Caracalla was renamed in honour of the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus).
But of course, Marcus Aurelius Septimius Bassianus Antoninus is a bit of a mouthful. Instead, he was nicknamed ‘Caracalla’ – caracalla was the name of a Gallic hooded tunic that he habitually wore and which he made fashionable.
In 198, Caracalla became co-emperor with his father. According to Cassius Dio, Caracalla made several attempts to kill his father and so hasten his own rise to the status of sole emperor. Severus evidently knew something was up (he probably had had some clues to his son’s true character). After one assassination attempt, Severus supposedly gave his son a sword and challenged him to finish the job (Dio 77.14.1-7).
Whether with his son’s assistance or not, Severus died at Eboracum (modern-day York, England) in February 211. Severus’ last advice to Caracalla and his brother Geta was to ‘Be good to each other, enrich the army, and damn the rest’ (Dio 77.15.2). Caracalla and Geta became co-emperors, a situation that Caracalla sought to change as quickly as possible.
From the outset, Caracalla and Geta were at each other’s throats: figuratively and literally. First they tried to divide the imperial palace in Rome between them, as a precursor to a plan to divide the Empire between them. Next, according to the history of Herodian, the brothers tried to convince each other’s cooks to poison the other brother’s food (Herodian 4.3.4-9). Their mother tried to broker a resolution to the growing crisis. Instead Caracalla came to the family meeting with a detachment of soldiers, and had Geta executed in front of their mother. Not finished, Caracalla proceeded to execute most of Geta’s supporters and their families (Dio 78.2, Herodian 4.4). According to Cassius Dio, Caracalla ordered the deaths of 20,000 people (Dio 78.3-6).
He also killed anyone who poked fun at him. On a visit to Alexandria in 215, Caracalla heard that a play had been performed satirising his claim that he had killed his brother in self-defence. Enraged, he executed the official welcome delegation and then allowed his troops to kill and plunder the city for several days (Dio 78.2.2; Herodian 4.9.8).
In Part 3, I will discuss the nature of Roman Citizenship in the Early Roman Empire.