Caracalla: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 6 Part 2


(Thanks to Wikipedia for the image of Caracalla and Geta 1907 by  Lawrence Alma-Tadema)

Mothers like their children to do well, and jobs don’t come much better than being emperor of Rome. Both Julia Damna’s sons became emperor.  It would have been perfect if only they hadn’t been emperor at the same time.   Or if they hadn’t hated each other.

It is very hard to see what Severus was thinking when he gave them both full and independent power.  This wouldn’t have worked particularly well with two brothers been filled with fraternal love. With a pair of fighting cocks it was obviously going to end badly.  The only question was how badly and when.  The answer was very and soon.

They demonstrated their animosity from the start.  On their journey back to Rome following their father’s death, they never ate together or stayed in the same house – and they continually attempted to kill each other.  In Rome they divided the palace, posting guards at all the joining doors.  The only point of contact between them was their mother.  The idea was hatched of simply dividing the empire between them.  This was hardly a solution.   War between the two halves would be inevitable. But even so the plans were drawn up in some detail.

It was certainly not a popular idea with the Romans.  To see an empire built up over such a long time with so much effort and blood split to accommodate a pair of childish overindulged princes must have been seen as a crazy notion.  It was a crazy notion. Over the centuries the empire had developed into a tightly interlocked economic system with extensive trade. In desperation Julia held a meeting to try and resolve the brothers’ differences.


And a resolution, of sorts, was indeed reached.  Caracalla sneaked in some centurions.  Once the meeting started, they appeared and killed the unfortunate Geta, despite his mother’s spirited attempt to defend him.  She piled into the fray with such gusto that her hand was cut in the struggle.   Caracalla then rushed to the Praetorian camp and claimed that it was he that had barely escaped from an attempt on his life perpetrated by Geta.

Geta had been the more popular brother with the troops.  To win over their loyalty Caracalla handed over an immense donative comprising virtually the entire accumulated treasure of his father’s reign.  Hard cash is one way of making sure people don’t give you any trouble.  Another is violence.  Some 20,000 of Geta’s supporters were killed in a ferocious purge of those Caracalla rightly or wrongly did not trust.

Even his mother felt the rage of Caracalla.  On finding her weeping for her dead son, Caracalla ordered her to stop on pain of death.  Some of her female entourage who had been joining her in her lamentations were killed instantly, including the last surviving daughter of Marcus Aurelius. A gruesome episode. 

And the deaths continued taking in one of the most trusted servants of Severus.  Papinian still held the post of Praetorian Prefect that Severus had appointed him to. Caracalla ordered him to come up with a justification for the killing of Geta.  Papinian, who must have known the character of Caracalla well, refused.  He was killed.  To his fame as a lawyer and his success as a politician, he added the rare distinction of showing himself to be a man who valued his honour above his life. Such men are rare enough in any era, but they will find them to be very thin on the ground as we watch the fabric of the empire disintegrate over the coming chapters.

And so Caracalla began his reign with a huge pile of corpses and an empty treasury.  He left Rome and headed East where he soon added another crime to his growing list.  In Alexandria a play was on that mocked his account of the murder of his brother.   He ordered his troops to sack Alexandria and to kill all the leading citizens, personally supervising the operation. It was a far cry from Vespasian, who had permitted criticism of himself with the comment that he didn’t kill a dog just for barking. Caracalla killed not just the dog, but any other dog who happened to be nearby.

After this he settled into extracting cash from his subjects to fund the huge cost of the army.

He was pretty much the worst combination from the point of view of the average inhabitant of the empire.  He needed to raise high taxes to fund his pampered troops.  An emperor sitting in Rome spending your taxes is one thing.  An emperor turning up in your province surrounded by armed men another. Especially given the risk of losing your life purely because of what is on at your local playhouse.

But he was secure for as long as the army was behind him, and given the treasure he lavished on them why shouldn’t they be?

In the end it was the most convoluted series of events that brought and end to his reign.  The role of Praetorian Prefect had been split between two men.  The military side of things was looked after by an unambitious  plodder called Adventus.  Good choice.   The civil business, the less risky of the two, was in the hands of a successful businessman called Opilius Macrinus.  This seemed a reasonable arrangement from the emperor’s point of view.  Macrinus could handle the tricky stuff but having no military background was not a threat.  This is how this seemingly sensible set up came apart.

In Africa a soothsayer started predicting that Macrinus was destined to become the emperor and to found a dynasty.  The man had a good track record and his claim became widely believed.  The Romans took this sort of thing fairly seriously, but they weren’t completely credulous. So they investigated thoroughly.  They had the guy sent over to Rome in chains and tortured him.   But he stuck by his prediction.  With everything checking out it seemed like the prudent course of action would be to kill Macrinus.  You can’t be too careful I suppose.  A message was sent to Caracalla who at the time was in Syria with Macrinus.

The post arrived while Caracalla was enjoying some chariot racing.  He delegated opening the mail by handing the bundles to Macrinus to sort out.  So Macrinus learnt his fate before the emperor: anyone who has picked up a bombshell in their e-mail inbox will know the feeling.  But what to do?  There was nowhere to run to and no court of appeal. It was only a matter of time before the story got to Caracalla.

In desperation he hatched a plot to get Caracalla before Caracalla got him. He teamed up with a disillusioned soldier passed over for promotion.  An opportunity soon arose.  Caracalla had decided to visit the temple of the Moon at Carrhae in Turkey accompanied only by a light guard. Macrinus and his accomplice also joined the trip.  Even emperors have to answer the call of nature.  This gave the assassin his chance to get close to the emperor and stab him. Caracalla died instantly, as did his murderer as soon as the guards realised what was happening.  This had the effect of preventing any suspicion of the involvement of Macrinus arising.

And so ended the short lived dynasty of Severus.  A strong dynasty was the only practical solution to the selection of the emperor that did not involve a ruinous civil war.  The early death of Caracalla destroyed this possibility.  There was now a power vacuum. Somebody had to fill it.  Could it be that the African’s prediction would become self fulfilling?

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One Response to Caracalla: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 6 Part 2

  1. From antoninus138 on Youtube

    Well done. Have you read Dio and Herodianus? I'm always surprised that Roman History neglects this fascinating spectacle. I'd just add that you might add details from Dio and Herodianus' accounts as they lived during this epoch and Dio was a Senator.

    @antoninus138 I haven't read more than snippets from either of them. I have to be honest, I don't often go to the trouble of going back to Gibbon's sources. In my defence I am on chapter 10 out of 71 and I have already skipped 2 chapters. I think this project is like a marathon. I will be happy just to finish it. And thanks for your encouragement. I will need lots of it.

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