Caracalla: Life, Reign & Accomplishments

Lucius Septimius Bassianus, better known as Caracalla (reigned AD 198-217), was a Roman Emperor notorious for his turbulent and often violent rule. Born in Lyon, France, in AD 188 to Septimius Severus and Julia Domna, Caracalla’s reign as co-emperor, and later sole emperor, was characterized by both significant achievements and ruthless actions.

Caracalla, Roman Emperor from 198-217 AD, is notably recognized for issuing the Antonine Constitution, which extended Roman citizenship to all free men within the Empire, and for constructing the monumental Baths of Caracalla in Rome, a testament to Roman architectural prowess. Image: Bust of Roman Emperor Caracalla, Museo Nazionale Romano, Italy, 212–215 AD

Early Life of Roman Emperor Caracalla

Caracalla was brought up in a world of imperial politics. From a young age, he was introduced to the intricacies of power, thanks to his father, Emperor Septimius Severus. He was named Caesar at the age of eight, and by the age of ten, he was named Augustus, sharing the title of co-emperor with his younger brother Geta.

READ ALSO: Major Accomplishments of Emperor Septimius Severus

The Severan Tondo

Caracalla, originally named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, was the elder son of Emperor Septimius Severus and Empress Julia Domna. He had a younger brother, Geta, whom he eventually had assassinated to secure sole rulership. Image: The Severan Tondo, a famous piece of Roman artwork created during the reign of the Severan dynasty, portrays Roman emperor Septimius Severus, his wife Julia Domna, and their children Emperors Caracalla and Geta, whose face is removed.

Co-Emperorship

Upon the death of their father in AD 211, Caracalla and Geta inherited the empire as co-emperors. But their relationship was far from harmonious. The siblings’ disagreements and animosities divided the court and even led them to consider splitting the Roman Empire in two. However, before any such division could take place, Caracalla took a drastic step: in AD 211, during a reconciliation meeting orchestrated by their mother, Caracalla’s centurions murdered Geta in his mother’s arms. With Geta’s death, Caracalla became the sole ruler.

Notable Accomplishments

Caracalla, Roman Emperor (198-217 AD), known for the Antonine Constitution granting citizenship to free provincials and the grand Baths of Caracalla in Rome. Image: AR Denarius of Emperor Caracalla, reverse side with ‘FELICITAS AVGG’ – Felicitas Augusti means: “To the good fortune (or happiness) of emperors”

Below are some of the most notable achievements of Roman Emperor Caracalla, whose reign lasted from 28 January 198 – 8 April 217:

Constitutio Antoniniana

One of Caracalla’s most significant achievements was the edict known as the Constitutio Antoniniana (Antonine Constitution) in AD 212. This decree granted Roman citizenship to nearly all free men within the borders of the Roman Empire, an act that dramatically increased the empire’s tax base.

His reign, however, was not a peaceful era for the Empire. Domestically, instability reigned, marked by political tensions and power plays. Externally, the Empire faced threats from the Germanic tribes, challenging Rome’s boundaries and dominance. These invasions, coupled with internal conflicts, characterized Caracalla’s rule, making it a turbulent period in the annals of Roman history. Image: Caracalla as Pharaoh, Temple of Kom Ombo

Infrastructure and Building Projects

Caracalla was also a notable builder. The most renowned of his projects is the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, a grand architectural feat that showcased the splendor of Roman engineering and artistic prowess.

The Baths of Caracalla in Rome, constructed between 212-217 AD during the reigns of emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla, were the city’s second-largest public thermae after the Baths of Diocletian. Operational until the 530s, they subsequently deteriorated into ruins. Image: The Baths of Roman Emperor Caracalla

Military Campaigns

As a military leader, Caracalla embarked on campaigns in the Germanic territories and later against the Parthian Empire. Though his campaigns had mixed success, they demonstrated his commitment to emulating the great military emperors of the past, particularly his idol, Alexander the Great.

Silver denarius of Caracalla struck in Rome 216 AD obverse: emperor’s laureate head right ANTONINVS PIVS AVG GERM reverse: Sol standing half right, head left, wearing chalmys, raising hand

Controversies and Ruthlessness

Caracalla’s rule was marked by a series of purges and executions. Following the assassination of Geta, Caracalla ordered a damnatio memoriae, erasing his brother’s name from all inscriptions and public records. This was followed by a mass slaughter of Geta’s supporters, including members of the Senate and even Vestal Virgins.

His reign was also characterized by a level of paranoia, leading to the assassination of potential rivals and perceived threats. The severity of his punishments and his heavy taxation policies made him unpopular among the elite, though he did maintain support from the army through pay raises and favorable policies.

Geta Dying in his Mother’s Arms, by French painter Jacques-Augustin-Catherine Pajou, 1766–1828 (Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany)

Assassination and Legacy

Caracalla’s tumultuous reign came to a violent end in AD 217. While on campaign in the East, he was assassinated by a disgruntled member of his own guard, reportedly as revenge for a personal grievance.

The legacy of Caracalla is multifaceted. While he is often remembered for his brutality and the controversies that marked his reign, his more constructive policies, such as the granting of Roman citizenship to a wider populace and his architectural contributions, showcase a ruler who aimed at tangible improvements for the empire.

His interest in the East, specifically his admiration for Alexander the Great, led to a closer cultural connection between the Eastern and Western parts of the empire, laying the groundwork for the eventual rise of the Byzantine Empire.

Moreover, Caracalla’s need for a larger army and his decision to increase soldiers’ pay had profound implications for the empire’s financial system. To fund his military reforms, he devalued the Roman currency, which resulted in rampant inflation.

Emperor Caracalla

In 217, while near Carrhae (modern-day Harran, Turkey) — a site historically significant for a Roman defeat by Parthians — Caracalla was assassinated by a soldier named Justin Martialis. Angered by Caracalla’s denial of a centurion position, Martialis seized an opportunity to kill the emperor.

Conclusion

Caracalla’s reign is emblematic of the challenges and complexities of the Severan period. Navigating the cross-currents of military pressure, political intrigue, and economic demands, his rule offers a glimpse into the dynamics of late-second and early-third-century imperial Rome. While his methods were often ruthless, his intent – the consolidation and strengthening of the Roman Empire – is clear. Today, he stands as a controversial yet pivotal figure in the vast tapestry of Roman history.

READ ALSO: List of Roman Emperors from the Severan Dynasty

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Caracalla, originally named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, was a Roman Emperor who ruled from 198 to 217 AD. Image: Portrait of Caracalla (AD 212–217) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

When and where was he born?

Bust of young Caracalla; Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, commonly referred to as Caracalla, served as Roman Emperor from 198 to 217 AD. Born in Lugdunum (modern day Lyon, France) as Lucius Septimius Bassianus on 4 April 188, he later assumed the moniker “Caracalla” which was derived from a type of hooded tunic he frequently wore. Hailing from the Severan dynasty, he was the elder offspring of Emperor Septimius Severus and Empress Julia Domna.

Though he wielded supreme power, Caracalla had little enthusiasm for administration. He viewed such tasks as tedious, delegating most of the bureaucratic duties to his mother, Julia Domna. Image: Bust of Julia Domna, mother of Caracalla and Geta, at the Museo Chiaramonti

When did he become co-emperor?

In 198, at a relatively young age, Caracalla was proclaimed co-ruler by his father, positioning him on equal footing with his younger brother, Geta. This shared reign persisted until 211, when their father passed away. The succession, however, was not amicable. Later that year, a power struggle culminated in Geta’s assassination, orchestrated by the Praetorian Guard under Caracalla’s directives. This act eliminated competition and cemented Caracalla as the uncontested ruler of the vast Roman Empire.

Severan Emperors (L-R): Septimius Severus, Caracalla, and Geta

What was Caracalla’s reign like?

Caracalla’s tenure as Roman Emperor was marked by several significant events that left an enduring impact on the Roman Empire. Perhaps most consequential among them was the Antonine Constitution, or the Edict of Caracalla. This sweeping reform granted Roman citizenship to all free men across the Empire. Furthermore, as a sign of imperial unity, these newly enfranchised citizens adopted Caracalla’s praenomen and nomen, “Marcus Aurelius.”

On the infrastructural front, Caracalla commissioned the construction of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. These were not just any ordinary baths; they ranked as the second-largest in Rome, exemplifying Roman architectural and engineering prowess. Caracalla also introduced economic reforms, notably the antoninianus – a new currency that essentially functioned as a double denarius.

Externally, Caracalla sought to expand Roman dominion. In 216, he embarked on a military campaign against the longstanding regional rival, the Parthian Empire. However, fate had other plans. Before he could bring this campaign to a triumphant conclusion, Caracalla met an untimely end in 217, assassinated by a disgruntled soldier. His sudden death ushered in a new era, with Macrinus ascending to the imperial throne a mere three days later. Image: The Roman Empire during the reign of Caracalla

What were some of the atrocities he committed?

It’s been stated that Caracalla’s reign wasn’t without its dark shades. He was notorious for the numerous massacres he sanctioned, both within Rome and in other parts of the Empire, painting his rule with a blood-streaked brush.

Gold medallion of Caracalla (Bode Museum, Berlin)

How did Roman Emperor Caracalla die?

Roman Emperor Caracalla met his end through assassination. In 217 AD, while he was on a military campaign in the eastern regions of the Roman Empire, Caracalla was killed near Harran (in present-day Turkey). The person behind the act was an officer in his own guard, Justin Martialis. The common account suggests that the assassination was orchestrated due to a personal vendetta; Martialis was seeking revenge because Caracalla had slighted him.

However, broader conspiracy theories also surround his death. Some sources suggest that the Praetorian Prefect, Macrinus, who subsequently became emperor, might have had a role in plotting Caracalla’s assassination, as he perceived himself to be in potential danger from the unpredictable emperor.

Regardless of the exact motivations, Caracalla’s death marked the end of a tumultuous reign, and Macrinus took the reins of the empire shortly after the assassination.

It’s believed that Macrinus, who succeeded Caracalla, may have exploited Martialis’ discontent to orchestrate this assassination. After the murder, Martialis was promptly killed. At the time, Caracalla’s mother, Julia Domna, was in Antioch filtering messages for him. Within three days of Caracalla’s death, Macrinus, backed by the Roman army, proclaimed himself emperor. Image: Bust of Emperor Macrinus Capitoline Museums

How has Caracalla been viewed over the centuries?

Historical accounts have, over time, shaped a formidable image of Caracalla as a ruthless and despotic leader. Ancient sources, notably from historians Cassius Dio and Herodian, who lived during or shortly after Caracalla’s time, provided an image of him more as a militaristic figure than a statesman. They underscored his attributes as a soldier, placing his abilities as an emperor in the background.

Interestingly, the character of Caracalla traveled through the annals of time, experiencing rebirths and reshaping. In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth propagated the legend of Caracalla taking on the role of a king in Britain. This narrative interwove myth and historical supposition, adding layers to the already complex image of the emperor.

The 18th century witnessed another resurgence of Caracalla’s image, this time amid the social and political upheavals of France. French artists drew parallels between the perceived tyranny of Caracalla and that of King Louis XVI, highlighting the autocratic tendencies of rulers across different epochs.

In modern representations, Caracalla’s legacy has retained its infamous sheen. Contemporary works often depict him as a malevolent ruler, ranking him among the most tyrannical Roman emperors. This perception, rooted in ancient chronicles and perpetuated through various historical lenses, cements Caracalla’s place as a controversial figure in the vast tapestry of Roman history.

READ ALSO: 5 Absolutely Bad Roman Emperors and Their Atrocities

Quick Facts

Roman Emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla, French artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1769 (Louvre)

  • Caracalla is most famously known for the Antonine Constitution (or Edict of Caracalla), which granted Roman citizenship to all free men within the Empire. He’s also recognized for constructing the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
  • Caracalla was assassinated near Carrhae in 217 AD by a soldier named Justin Martialis, purportedly due to a personal vendetta.
  • Key achievements of Caracalla include the Antonine Constitution, the construction of the Baths of Caracalla, and the introduction of the antoninianus currency.
  • Ancient sources often depict Caracalla as a tyrant and cruel leader. His rule was marked by various massacres and is generally seen as tumultuous.

Caracalla & Geta: Bearfight in the Colosseum, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1907

  • The two brothers – Caracalla and Geta –  had a strained relationship, resulting in Caracalla ordering Geta’s assassination in 211 AD to become the sole ruler.
  • After Caracalla’s assassination, Macrinus became the emperor, having possibly played a role in plotting Caracalla’s death.
  • Caracalla’s reign represents a transitional period in the Empire, marked by significant reforms like the granting of widespread citizenship and the challenges of maintaining power amidst external threats and internal strife.
  • Modern portrayals often depict Caracalla as one of the more tyrannical Roman emperors, largely influenced by ancient accounts of his cruelty and unpredictability.

Caracalla wearing nemes and uraeus headdress as Roman pharaoh, from the Nile bank opposite Terenouthis. (Alexandria National Museum, Egypt)

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