8th April 217 was a bad day for Caracalla, obviously. It was also a bad day for his assassin.
In Part 1, I introduced this blog series; in Part 2, I gave some background to the life of Caracalla; in Part 3 I gave an overview of Roman citizenship in the Early Roman Empire; in Part 4, I discussed Caracalla’s Edict of 212.
Returning to Caracalla – in 216, Caracalla provoked a war with the Parthian Empire, located on Rome’s eastern frontier. The war consisted mainly of punitive operations by Roman forces into Parthian controlled northern Mesopotamia. There were no significant battles with Parthian forces during this campaign under after Caracalla’s death. Caracalla reported success to the Roman Senate by letter, who granted him the title ‘Parthicus Maximus’ (Great Conqueror of Parthia).
In April 217, Caracalla and a small body-guard was travelling to re-join his army on the eastern frontier. On 8th April, the imperial party stopped to visit the Temple of Luna near the town of Carrhae (modern-day Harran, near Turkey’s south-eastern border with Syria). The Emperor had taken the opportunity to answer a call of nature. The body-guards had drawn back a little to permit the Emperor some privacy to do his necessary business.
Events then took an interesting turn.
According to the report subsequently provided to the Senate by Macrinus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard – while urinating, the Emperor was killed by a single sword stroke by Julius Martialis, a member of the bodyguard. When attempting to flee, Martialis was killed by another member of the guard.
An open and shut case, surely. No need for Sherlock Holmes. Two bodies. An assassinated emperor and his assassin. Case closed. Martialis had motive, means and opportunity.
- Motive. Two different motives were recorded by contemporary historians. According to Herodian, Martialis’ brother had been executed a few days earlier by Caracalla on an unproven charge. On the other hand, Cassius Dio, states that Martialis was resentful at not being promoted to the rank of centurion.
- Means. Martialis had a sword.
- Opportunity. Caracalla was alone while answering a call of nature.
Case closed? If a soldier turns up on your door-step with two bodies and a lot of other soldiers, would you believe his investigation report? Ever helpful in this time of crisis, Marcinus appointed himself emperor. As I said, just to be helpful.
In fact, throw in a wronged woman and you would have the plot of a Greek tragedy. Or a Game of Thrones episode.
No, wait. Enter four women from Stage Right. First, Julia Domna, Caracalla’s mother. Initially Emperor Macrinus left Caracalla’s mother alone. But when caught conspiring against the new emperor, Julia Domna chose suicide (by starvation).
Next came Julia Maesa (Caracalla’s aunt) and her daughters (Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea). Macrinus evicted the women from the imperial palace in Rome and ordered them to return home in Syria. On their arrival, they proclaimed Soaemias’s son as the illegitimate son of Caracalla (i.e. a child of the two first cousins). Troops from the eastern provinces rallied to the uprising, abandoning Macrinus; Macrinus was executed; his son was also executed while trying to flee for safety at the Parthian court.
The cycle of (Roman political) life continued.