Who was Emperor Caracalla and What Did He Do?

How did the emperor Caracalla become a seemingly despotic ruler and was his reputation justified? A soldier and instigator of public works, his reign saw the development of roads, public buildings and one of the greatest bath complexes in Rome’s history. Here is the truly astonishing story of the man born Lucius Septimius Bassianus.

History Rulers
3 April 2023

Born in 188 AD, the future Caesar Marcus Aureluis Antoninus Augustus – commonly known today as Caracalla – was described by noted historian Edward Gibbon as ‘the common enemy of mankind.’

However, Caracalla was more than a simple tyrant. He also did much to try to improve the infrastructure of the Empire, with large-scale road and fortification building, as well as the construction of the famous Baths Of Caracalla.

However, his perceived cruelty and despotism have dominated his place in history, where he is usually seen as nothing more than one of the most severe tyrants ever to have sat on the Roman throne.

Read on to find out about the life and times of Caracalla, emperor of Rome.

The Early Years: Lucius Septimius Bassianus

Lucius Septimius Bassianus (Photo: Bildagentur-online via Getty Images)

The future emperor Caracalla was born in the French city of Lugdunum, modern-day Lyon. His father was emperor Septimius Severus and his mother was Julia Domna.

When he was seven, his name was changed by his father from his birth name – Lucius Septimius Bassianus – to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, because he wanted his son to be associated with the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty. This was the dynasty of some of Rome’s greatest rulers including Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. Sadly Caracalla’s reign was not like those of his adopted forefathers.

Caracalla and his brother Geta were constantly at odds, first as youngsters and later as hated political rivals. At ten he was named co-ruler with his father, a year later he was joined as co-ruler by his brother. In 202 AD, at the age of fourteen, he was forced into an arranged marriage for political purposes. It was an unhappy union and, in 205 AD, Caracalla executed his father-in-law Gaius Fulvius Plautianus for treason against the imperial dynasty. In the same year he exiled his wife and her brother, first to Sicily and then to Lipari, one of the Aeolian Islands, where they were both strangled, probably on Caracalla’s orders. He was still only seventeen.

It’s fair to say he didn’t have what would be considered a normal childhood.

Caracalla - Meaning of the Name

Caracalla (Photo: UniversalImagesGroup via Getty Images)

Why was he called Caracalla? In ancient Rome, a caracalla was a heavy, hooded tunic worn in places like Germania and Britain where it gets very cold in winter. Caracalla, meaning cloak, was a nickname and never his official name.

Roman Emperor Caracalla

Geta brother to Caracalla (Photo: Michael Nicholson via Getty Images)

Around the same time his wife was killed, Caracalla joined his father on a campaign in Britain. It was during this campaign that his father, Septimius Severus, died in York in 211 AD.

For a short time, Caracalla ruled jointly with his brother, but it wasn’t a harmonious association. After negotiating a peace deal with the Caledonians – the modern-day Scots – which brought the northern frontier of the Roman Empire south to Hadrian’s Wall, Caracalla and Geta bickered continuously. One suggestion was to split the empire down the middle, with Caracalla ruling the western half and Geta the eastern half, but their mother talked them out of it.

To solve a potentially sticky situation, Caracalla resorted to the play he knew best. Simply remove the obstacle in the way. On 26 December 211, Geta was lured to his mother’s apartments on the pretence of a reconciliation meeting but was murdered by guards loyal to his brother. He died in her arms.

But ordering the assassination of his brother wasn’t enough for Caracalla. Emperor of Rome was a title he took to its absolute limits. There followed a purge of everyone Geta was associated with. It is said that Caracalla had thousands of people killed.

The Constitution of Antoninus

Known also as the Edict of Caracalla, this was, on the surface, an honour. He declared that all free men in the Roman Empire would be granted Roman citizenship. It gave them the right to vote (ius suffragii), the right to serve in the Roman army (ius militiae), the right to be elected to office (ius honorarium) and the right to own property (ius census).

However it was little more than a ruse to ensure millions more men paid taxes. Caracalla had promised the army pay rises and needed to pay for them somehow. In addition, the outer limits of the Roman Empire were becoming increasingly important and granting citizenship to all was a vital step in the empire’s expansionist policy.

Emperor Caracalla - The Soldier

Emperor Caracalla minted (Photo: scaliger via iStock)

Roman Emperor Caracalla was a soldier first, a builder second and an emperor a distant third. In fact his mother saw to much of the mundane administration of Rome. In 213 AD he left Rome to head up a number of military campaigns. First, he defeated German tribes – the Alamanni – who dared cross the frontier lines. Then, he moved east to prepare for war with the Parthians in modern-day northeastern Iran. He started the campaign but wouldn’t finish it.

The Baths of Caracalla

Baths Of Caracalla (Photo: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the reign of Emperor Caracalla was the Baths of Caracalla. They were the second largest public baths ever built in Rome next to the Baths of Diocletian, and they were nothing short of magnificent.

They were built between around 212 AD and 217 AD and included gardens, libraries, statues, sculptures and fountains, saunas, a stadium and a swimming pool. The baths remained functional until the fifth century and are still one of Rome’s most visited tourist sites.

The Death and Legacy of Caracalla, Emperor of Rome

Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (Photo: PennaPazza via Getty Images)

While travelling on the road from Edessa to Carrhae in what is now southern Turkey, Caracalla stopped briefly by the side of the road. He was stabbed to death by a soldier named Justin Martialis who was angry he had not been appointed centurion. The murder was orchestrated by Caracalla’s eventual successor Macrinus. Upon hearing of her son’s assassination, Julia Domna committed suicide.

Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was without question a cruel, capricious, bloodthirsty ruler but in the interests of balance, he was liked by the army who saw him as one of their own, and it’s believed he wasn’t particularly disliked by the general population. Not something that can be said for the Senate, who hated him.

He brought a semblance of stability to Rome and – although he clearly lacked the political and diplomatic skills of many of his more successful predecessors – he brought military order to the Empire. Yet history has generally focused more on his personal flaws than his wider rule, and thus his reign is generally remembered for his perceived tyranny and obsession with power.


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