The above denarius is of Caracalla when he was twelve years old (ca. AD 199). This portrait is a sharp contrast to the man this child came to be. The little profile on the coin looks elfin & somewhat cute. He was a handsome kid. However, a problem arises when one tries to align this lovely little boy to the tragic, overbearing & power-hungry leader he is remembered for today. The boy becomes the man & the man becomes the boy with royal vulnerabilities.
Is there anything nice to say about Caracalla? We are left with the histories, the ruins & the artifacts to piece together an already damaged life. He was born to Semptimius Severus & Julia Domna on April 4th 188. The name Caracalla was an informal nickname for the hooded-robe he popularized. That name stuck & replaced (although not officially in his lifetime) his given imperial name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Caracalla had a slightly younger brother Geta, together they were to share the Roman Empire. The brothers ruled together for a very short time due to their fatal quarrelling.
Their father Severus died in 211, leaving the two brothers with the words: “…get along with each other, take care of the troops & scorn all others.” Needless to say, the bitter father’s deathbed advice was no palliative, or solution, since their co-reign only lasted only for a few months, until the foolish Caracalla ordered his ostensibly faithful Praetorian guard to assassinate Geta in 212. Remember too, that all of Geta’s in-laws & public supporters were also murdered in the tens of thousands. I suppose no punitive action was taken against Caracalla, other than a questioning by the senate. Perhaps they all feared for their very lives. In ancient Rome, human life didn’t seem to have the value it has today. Other people were merely disposable, including members of your own family. The founding myth of Rome itself tells of Romulus eventually killing his twin brother Remus, for simply jumping over a wall.
It was also at the time of the fratricide in 212, that Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all within the empire, thereby increasing a taxable public & many more military recruits. It is arguable this imperial gesture was made to enhance his credibility with the public, to distract from his unpunished & morally disastrous power-grab. Add to this a few years later that the Baths of Caracalla were opened & his name was temporarily glorified. Caracalla was known for his prowess on the battlefield & seemed to exemplify the soldier, more than the aloof, philosophical rulers before him. This brutish fighter of an emperor made for an angry model seen by his imperial portraiture that survives.
He was murdered on April 8th 217. Apparently it had nothing to do with killing Geta. One of the Praetorian guards who had another vengence, stabbed the emperor while his highness was relieving himself on the roadside…
Caracalla’s life is painful to look at from our perspective in the 21st century where the value we place on life is fundamental. The lesson now, in looking to a story like Caracalla’s, is to see the extent unbridled anger & hunger can take a person. How a person becomes defined by their anger & greed, when consumed with it.
Yes, we see a cute kid on a silver coin, but we also see an empire equipped with profound delusions.
Caracalla you were once the emperor of Rome & we don’t remember you well.