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Marcus Aurelius › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 26 March 2018
Marcus Aurelius ()

Marcus Aurelius reigned as Roman emperor from 161 to 180 CE and is best known as the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome (following Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius ) and as the author of the philosophical work Meditations.He has long been respected as embodying the Platonic concept of the Philosopher King as articulated in Plato ’s Republic : a ruler who does not seek power for his own sake but to help his people. He was introduced to philosophy at a young age and his Meditations, composed while on campaign in his fifties, make clear that he held a deeply philosophical, specifically Stoic, view throughout his life.
His reign, in fact, is defined by the Stoic view and he is referred to as “the philosopher” by the later historian Cassius Dio (c. 155-235 CE) and the author (or authors) of the Historia Augusta (4th century CE), a history of Roman emperors. His Stoic outlook is expressed throughout his Meditations and his view of one's responsibility to others is made clear in a line from Book VIII.59: “People exist for the sake of one another; teach them, then, or bear with them.”


He lived his philosophy in both his private and public life in that he consistently placed the needs of the people before his own desires or visions of glory and worked for the common good. It is among history's ironies, however, that his reign is characterized by incessant warfare and the persecution of the new religious sect of Christianity. Even so, he successfully conducted campaigns in Germania and managed the affairs of the empire efficiently. He died of natural causes following an illness in 180 CE and was instantly deified.
In the modern-day, he is probably best known from the popular film Gladiator (2000 CE) as the father of Commodus (r.177-192 CE) whose decision to pass over his son as successor serves as the point of departure for the film's plot. Contrary to his depiction in the film, Aurelius was not killed by Commodus and, in fact, Commodus would co-rule with his father from 177-180 CE and succeeded him without opposition; though he would prove to be one of the worst rulers Rome would have to endure and his reputation suffered further by comparison with his father.
Bust of Marcus Aurelius

Bust of Marcus Aurelius


Marcus Aurelius was born in Spain on 26 April 121 CE to an aristocratic patrician family. His birth name was Marcus Annius Verus, after his father of the same name. His grandfather and great-grandfather on his father's side were senators and his mother, Domitia Lucilla (known as the minor, c. 155-161 CE), also came from a wealthy and politically connected family.Aurelius' father died in c. 124 CE and he was raised primarily by nurses and his grandfathers.
Events from his early life are suggested by comments he makes in his Meditations (especially in Book I), from correspondence between himself and his teacher Fronto, and from the Historia Augusta which, though often considered unreliable, is still cited by scholars when certain passages seem probable. Details of his younger years, therefore, are scarce but it is assumed he would have been brought up in accordance with traditional patrician practices, learned Greek at the same time he was learning Latin, and would have been groomed for a public life in rhetoric and oratory.
When he was in his early teens, around 132 CE, a teacher named Diognetus introduced him to philosophical texts. These were most likely works of the Cynic Philosophers who sought to live in the simplest way and disregarded all social conventions as artifice. Aurelius seems to have been quite impressed with this outlook as he then affected a typically Cynic lifestyle of dressing in a rough woolen cloak and sleeping on the ground or the floor of his room instead of his bed. He mentions this in Meditations Book I.6 in referencing how he chose “the Greek lifestyle – the camp-bed and the cloak” after his association with Diognetus.


He most likely would have also adopted the Cynic approach to simple, coarse food, few possessions, and neglect of basic hygiene. Although it is unclear, it seems that his mother forced him to stop his philosophical pursuits and focus on what she saw as a more respectable career path.
Sometime after this, he received new tutors in oratory and rhetoric and among these were Herodes Atticus (l. 101-177 CE) and Marcus Cornelius Fronto (d. late 160's CE) whose reputations for excellence in their arts were highly respected and commanded a high price. Fronto and Aurelius would become life-long friends and both he and Atticus would exert significant influence over the young Aurelius. He was shortly after betrothed to Ceionia Fabia, daughter of the respected politician Lucius Ceionius Commodus (d. 138 CE) and sister of Aurelius' future co-emperor Lucius Verus (r. 161-169 CE).


In 136 CE, the emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) selected Lucius Ceionius Commodus as his successor for reasons which are unclear. Commodus was married to Marcus Aurelius' aunt Faustina and it is probable that Hadrian chose Commodus as a kind of place-holder for the teen-age Aurelius who would then succeed him later. Commodus died in 138 CE, however, and Hadrian then chose Aurelius Antoninius (later known as Anoninus Pius (r. 138-161 CE) as successor with one stipulation: he had to adopt Marcus and Lucius Verus as his sons and successors. Antoninus agreed and young Marcus took the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and was groomed as the next emperor.
Marcus Aurelius on Campaign

Marcus Aurelius on Campaign

Antoninus Pius was an extremely effective monarch and an important role model for his successor. Aurelius devotes a long passage of praise to his adopted father in his Meditations in which he lists the emperor's impressive qualities (Book I.16).Antoninus had Aurelius' betrothal to Ceionia Fabia annulled and arranged a marriage between him and Antoninus' daughter Anna Galeria Faustina (known as Faustina Minor or Faustina the Younger, c. 130-175 CE).
Antoninus groomed his successor in almost every aspect of becoming an efficient ruler (though he neglected to instruct him in military matters) and, although Aurelius complied, his tastes ran more toward philosophical introspection than the mundane duties of court life. He lived where Antoninus instructed him to in order to further his reputation as one of the elite and also for practical purposes in fulfilling his responsibilities but it seems clear he would have preferred a simpler life elsewhere. He may have consoled himself at this time through philosophy – as he would do throughout his life – and later writes:
The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.Color it with a run of thoughts like these: Anywhere you can lead your life, you can lead a good one. Lives are led at court – so then good ones can be. ( Meditations V.16)
In his letters to Fronto he complains about his tutors at the time and his duties, which were essentially secretarial, as well as court life in general. His philosophical bent would have made such duties seem fairly meaningless. Scholar Irwin Edman comments on this:
At the age of eleven, Aurelius dedicated himself to religion, for philosophy all his life was with him a kind of religion, the true inward religion that lay behind the rites and ceremonies of the imperial religion which he was careful and content to observe. He studied law and he studied arms. He had the education of an imperial gentleman, but of a gentleman who felt something missing in the outward show and in the outer world and felt ultimately that peace, if not happiness (which was impossible) lay in oneself. (Edman, Long, 5)
At about this time he was introduced to two new teachers who were brought to court by Antoninus to tutor Aurelius in philosophy. These were Apollonius of Chalcedon (dates unknown) and Quintus Junius Rusticus (c. 100-170 CE), one of the greatest Stoic philosophers of his day. In his Meditations, Aurelius praises both men highly and lists the many important lessons he learned from them.
In writing on Rusticus he thanks him “for introducing me to Epictetus ' lectures – and loaning me his own copy” (I.7) and, regarding Apollonius, says he learned, “independence and unvarying reliability, and to pay attention to nothing, no matter how fleetingly, except the logos ” (I.8). Both entries have to do with Stoic philosophical principles and strongly suggest that it was not until this time that Aurelius became acquainted with the Stoic outlook.
Gold ring with Coin of Emperor Marcus Aurelius

Gold ring with Coin of Emperor Marcus Aurelius

Epictetus (lc 50-130 CE) was the author of the Discourses and Enchiridion, famous lectures on Stoic principles and practice and the logos was the binding force in the universe which caused all things to be and kept all running harmoniously. If one concentrated one's focus on the logos, the Stoics claimed, one could live peacefully because one would realize that everything which happens is natural; it is only one's interpretation of an event which makes it “good” or “bad”.
Although Fronto strongly objects to Aurelius' interest in Stoicism in his letters, his former student embraced the philosophy fully and would put the principles he learned from his teachers into effect once he came to power.


In March of 161 CE, Antoninus Pius died and the senate looked to Aurelius as the new emperor; in keeping with Hadrian's original designs, however, Aurelius refused the honor unless Lucius Verus was elevated as co-emperor with him. His request was granted and Aurelius and Verus began their reign by instituting programs to help the poor and rewarding the military with more pay and greater honor. They encouraged free speech, the arts, education, and boosted the economy – at least for a time – by debasing the currency; the two emperors quickly became immensely popular with the people.
Aurelius continued to hold fast to his Stoic principles as emperor but Verus, who had always been more extravagant, indulged himself through lavish parties and expensive gifts to friends. The Historia Augusta records one such “especially notorious” party at which Verus gave out “ gold, silver, and gemmed bowls…golden vases in the shape of perfume boxes…carriages with silver harnesses” as well as many more luxuriant gifts and the entry concludes, “the cost of this dinner party has been estimated as six million sestertii [around $60 million]. When Marcus heard about this party he is said to have groaned and wept for the fate of the world” (Harvey, 280).
Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

In late 161 CE, the Parthian king Vologases IV (r. 147-191 CE) invaded Armenia, which was under Rome's protection, and the Roman province of Syria revolted. Verus had more military experience than Aurelius and so took charge of the campaigns in the east personally. It is also thought that Aurelius may have manipulated Verus into going to curtail his extravagant parties.The Parthian Wars would last until 166 CE and concluded with a Roman victory. This success was due not so much to Verus but to the general Gaius Avidius Cassius (l. 130-175 CE) who brilliantly deployed the troops and devised the tactics.
While Verus was away on campaign, Aurelius remained at Rome and, by all accounts, performed his duties with distinction. He adjudicated court cases, reviewed and passed laws which benefited all the classes of Rome, and dealt with the various requests and difficulties that came in from the provinces. It is also during this time (c.162-c.166 CE) that he persecuted the new sect of Christianity which refused to honor the state religion and disrupted the social order. Although these persecutions were later condemned once Christianity triumphed, at the time they would have been considered necessary in keeping the peace.


By 166 CE, the Christian problem seemed to be resolved and it looked as though the war with Parthia would be won. Aurelius had married Faustina in 145 CE and they had a number of children over the years. Even though some of these died young, Aurelius still had every reason to believe the gods could be smiling upon him with good fortune.
As the Parthian war concluded, however, the Marcomanni tribe of Germania invaded Roman provinces on the Danube in an alliance with the Persian Sarmatians. In 167 CE, Aurelius joined Verus in the field to drive back these invasions and restore order. It is possible, even likely, that Aurelius was advised in his campaign by the experienced military leader and consulMarcus Nonius Macrinus (dc 171 CE), whose early career and close relationship with Aurelius inspired aspects of the character of Maximus Decimus Meridius in the film Gladiator.
Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

In 169 CE, Verus died – most likely of the plague his troops had brought back to Rome from campaign – and Aurelius ruled alone. He would devote most of his remaining reign to campaigns in Germania where he would write his Meditations.


Aurelius' Meditations is his true legacy to the world, far out-stripping any achievements of his reign, however notable they may have been. The work is a private journal of the emperor's thoughts written to encourage himself in living the best life possible.Scholar Gregory Hays comments:
The questions that the Meditations tries to answer are primarily metaphysical and ethical ones: Why are we here? How should we live our lives? How can we ensure that we do what is right? How can we protect ourselves against the stresses and pressures of daily life? How should we deal with pain and misfortune? How can we live with the knowledge that someday we will no longer exist? (xxiv-xxv)
The Meditations is far from a philosophical treatise, however; it is one man's thoughts on life and the struggle to remain at peace with one's self in a world which constantly threatens such peace. Aurelius' answer to the problem is not an answer but a course of discipline in denying one's self the luxury of self-pity. In accordance with the Stoic view, everything that happens in life is natural – sickness/health, satisfaction/disappointment, joy/sadness, even death – and it is only one's interpretation of events which can trouble a person. The logos, which controls all things, controls one's fate as well but, even so, a human being still has the freedom to choose how to respond to circumstance. Hays elaborates:
According to this theory, man is like a dog tied to a moving wagon. If the dog refuses to run along with the wagon he will be dragged by it, yet the choice remains his: to run or be dragged. (xix)
The universe, to Aurelius and the Stoics, is good and only has the best intentions for humanity; it is an individual's choice to interpret those intentions correctly and find peace or to choose to cling to one's impressions and suffer. Aurelius writes:
If it is good to you, O Universe, it is good to me. Your harmony is mine. Whatever time you choose is the right time. Not late, not early. What the turn of your seasons brings me falls like ripe fruit. All things are born from you, exist in you, return to you. (IV.23)
Although he would lose children, friends, and even his wife, Aurelius remained faithful to this vision of a world governed by a natural, and benign, intelligence which ran through all things, bound all things together, and dispersed all things in time. There was, then, no concept of tragedy in Aurelius' philosophy because everything that happened was a natural occurrence and nothing in nature could be interpreted as tragic. He writes:
Fear of death is fear of what we may experience: nothing at all or something quite new. But if we experience nothing, we can experience nothing bad. And if our experience changes, then our existence changes with it – change, but not cease. (IV.58)


Between 170-180 CE, Marcus Aurelius campaigned against the Germanic tribes and toured the eastern provinces of his empire. In 175 CE, his general Cassius rebelled in Syria, proclaiming himself emperor, before he was assassinated by a subordinate. Faustina accompanied Aurelius on campaigns 170-175 CE and went with him to Syria, Egypt, and Greece. She died in the winter of 175 CE.
In 178 CE, Aurelius defeated the Germanic tribes on the Danube and retired to winter quarters at Vindobona. He would die there two years later in March of 180 CE and was succeeded by Commodus. Although he had tried to groom his son in the same steady way that Antoninus Pius had him, he seems to have realized that he had failed. Commodus' self -indulgence and cruelty marked a reign which could not have been more different from his father's and proved true another of Aurelius' maxims from his Meditations IV.57: “What does not transmit light creates its own darkness.”
What happened to the Meditations after Aurelius' death is unknown but they somehow survived and copies were made and preserved. The text is mentioned in the 4th century CE by the orator Themistius (Hays, xliv) and in the Historia Augusta. No further mention of it is made until the 10th century CE when the cleric Arethas mentions copying it in a letter to a friend.
Arethas' copy may be responsible for preserving Meditations which is thought to have been among the books rescued from the library of Constantinople in 1453 CE when the city fell to the Ottoman Turks. These books were carried west where they were copied and, by 1559 CE, the first printed edition of the work was available. It has long since become a source of inspiration for people around the world who know Aurelius first as a philosopher and only second as an emperor; which is probably how Marcus Aurelius himself would have wanted it.

Caracalla › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Patrick Hurley
published on 02 October 2011
Roman Emperor Caracalla (Mary Harrsch (Photographed at the Capotoline Museum, Rome))

Caracalla was Roman emperor from 211 to 217 CE. Caracalla was born Lucius Septimius Bassianus on the 4th of April 188 CE in Lugdunum (Lyon) where his father Septimius Severus was serving as the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis during the last years of the Emperor Commodus. When Caracalla was seven, his name was changed to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.This was done because of the wish of his father, now emperor, to link the new Severan dynasty with the previous Antonine one. The name 'Caracalla' was considered a nickname and referred to a type of cloak that the emperor wore (the nickname was originally used pejoratively and was never an official name of the emperor). At the time his name was changed, Caracalla became the official heir of his father, and in 198 CE at the age of ten, he was designated co-ruler with Severus (albeit a very junior co-ruler!).


From an early age, Caracalla was constantly in conflict with his brother Geta who was only 11 months younger than he. At the age of 14, Caracalla was married to the daughter of Severus' close friend Plautianus, Fulvia Plautilla, but this arranged marriage was not a happy one, and Caracalla despised his new wife (Dio 77.3.1 states that she was a 'shameless creature').While the marriage produced a single daughter, it came to an abrupt end when in 205 CE Plautianus was accused and convicted of treason and executed. Plautilla was exiled and later put to death upon Caracalla's accession (Dio 77.5.3).


In the year 208 CE, Septimius Severus, upon hearing of troubles in Britain, thought it a good opportunity to not only campaign there but to take both of his sons with him as they were living libertine lifestyles in the city of Rome. Campaigning, Severus thought, would give both boys exposure to the realities of rule, thus providing experience for them which they could use upon succeeding their father. While in Britain, Geta was supposedly put in charge of civil administration there, while Caracalla and his father campaigned in Scotland. Although Caracalla did acquire some valuable experience in military matters, he seems to have revealed an even darker side of his personality, and according to Dio, tried on at least one occasion to kill his father so that he could become emperor. Although it was unsuccessful, Severus admonished his son, leaving a sword within his son's reach challenging him to finish the job that he botched earlier (Dio 77.14.1-7). Caracalla backed down, but according to Herodian, was constantly trying to convince Severus' doctors to hasten the dying emperor's demise (3.15.2).In any case, the emperor died at Ebaracum in February 211 CE. Severus' last advice to both Caracalla and Geta was to 'Be good to each other, enrich the army, and damn the rest' (Dio 77.15.2).


In 211 CE Caracalla became emperor along with his younger brother Geta. The relationship between the two did not resemble the loving one of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus fifty years earlier, and it seems that both brothers were constantly conspiring against each other so that one of them could become sole emperor. When the two did try to make decisions together, they constantly bickered, disagreeing on everything from political appointments to legal decisions. Indeed, according to Herodian, things got so bad between the two brothers that not only did they divide the imperial palace between themselves but also tried to convince each other's cooks to drop poison into the other's food, it was also proposed that the empire be divided up between the two into eastern and western parts. It was only the intervention of the boys' mother, Julia Domna, that this plan was not realized (Herodian 4.3.4-9).
Nevertheless, Caracalla resolved to be rid of his brother. After a failed attempt to assassinate his brother on the Saturnalia(Dio 78.2), Caracalla arranged a meeting with his brother and mother in the imperial apartments, ostensibly to reconcile.Instead, upon appearing in his brother's room with centurions, Caracalla had his men murder Geta who tried to hide in his mother's arms. Despite her shock and sorrow, Caracalla forbade his mother from even shedding tears over Geta (ibid.; Herodian 4.4). So by 212 CE, Caracalla was sole emperor, and according to Dio, his brother's murder was followed by a purge of Geta's followers totalling roughly 20,000 deaths, including that of the former Praetorian Prefect Cilo and the jurist Papinian (Dio 78.3-6). Caracalla, when explaining his actions to the Senate, asserted that he was defending himself from Geta and rejected the idea that the concept of two emperors ruling the empire could work, declaring that must lay aside your differences of opinion in thought and in attitude and lead your lives in security, looking to one emperor alone. Jupiter, as he is himself sole ruler of the gods, thus gives to one ruler sole charge of mankind.
The Senate could do nothing but tremble before his words (Herodian 4.5).
Geta was duly damned from memory ( damnatio memoriae ), and all references to him in public were erased; it was considered a crime to mention his name.
Young Caracalla

Young Caracalla


While Caracalla did not take his father's advice in being good to his brother, he certainly took to heart that he needed to keep the army happy. Indeed, Caracalla declared to his soldiers that:
I am one of you," he said, "and it is because of you alone that I care to live, in order that I may confer upon you many favours; for all the treasuries are yours." And he further said: "I pray to live with you, if possible, but if not, at any rate to die with you. For I do not fear death in any form, and it is my desire to end my days in warfare.There should a man die, or nowhere. (Dio 78.3.2).
He backed up his words with actions by raising annual army pay, evidently by 50% (Herodian 4.4.7). In order to pay for this raise, Caracalla debased the coinage from a silver content of from about 58 to 50 percent. It should be noted, however, that while he did debase the coinage, this did not cause deflation, as those receiving the coin were willing to accept its basic value.Caracalla also created a new coin known as the antoninianus which was supposed to be worth 2 denarii to help pay for these army raises (although the actual silver content was only worth 1.5 denarii ; Birley 1996, 221). [editor note: There has been a great debate over the years as to whether debasement of the coinage directly led to inflation. The more traditionalist school argues that debasement caused price inflation which began in the Severan era (For example, see Jones 1974; Greene 1985, 57-66; Burnett 1987, 122-131). A more 'moderate' school states that the debasements of Severus and Caracalla did not cause inflation; however, because of the precedent set by the Severans to debase, this became a regular practice of successive emperors when they needed coin, and that consequently inflation set in during the reign of Gordian III (Crawford 1975, 566-71; Potter 1990). A third school of thought states that there is no evidence that inflation occurred at all in the third century as a result of debasement as the empire was not fully monetized, especially in the frontier areas,and this extra coinage was merely absorbed into these non-monetized areas. Indeed, as long as those using the money were willing to accept the face value of the coinage, there would not be debasement-caused inflation. When inflation did occur, it usually was as a result of whenever an emperor such as Aurelian or Diocletian tried to reform the currency which caused a temporary loss of confidence in the coinage and caused prices to fluctuate wildly in the short term (see Rathbone 1996, 321-40). This debate has been continuous and shows no signs of being resolved any time soon.]
Moreover, he attempted to portray himself as a fellow soldier while on campaign, sharing in the army's labours, personally carrying legionary standards and even grinding his own flour and baking his own bread, as all Roman soldiers did. These actions made him wildly popular with the army.
During this time, military activity in Britain began to wind down. As the campaign in Britain had stalled by the end of Severus' reign, Caracalla thought it necessary to engage in a face-saving maneuver and end the campaign there, but not before essentially creating a protectorate in southern Scotland to keep an eye on native activities. This essentially not only ensured his father's legacy as a propagator imperii on the island but also would justify Caracalla's adoption of the title Britannicus (Birley 1988, 180). Even so, the natives north of Hadrian ’s Wall and the 'protectorate' had probably by this time felt discretion to be the better part of valour as making trouble had only invited the Roman army into their lands. If this is the case, then the Severan campaigns in Scotland kept that area peaceful for the better part of a century (Breeze and Dobson 2000, 152). There is also a degree of debate over whether it was Severus or in fact Caracalla who was the one to split Britain into two provinces in order to prevent governors from having access to a large number of legions thus tempting them to make a bid for the imperial throne. [editor note: For example, Mann and Jarrett 1967, 61-4, argue that it was Severus who carried out the division, while Southern 2001, 37, suggests that the division could have been carried out as late as 213.]
Instead, upon leaving Rome in 213 CE, Caracalla (who would spend the rest of his reign in the provinces) decided to campaign in Raetia and Upper Germany against the Alamanni. While it is not clear if these enemies were making trouble for the empire, Caracalla prepared for this campaign very thoroughly and it seems that this campaign may have been a pre-emptive strike or a chance for Caracalla to win military glory in his own right. [ editor note: Southern 2001, 53, stated that in any case Caracalla's campaign may have provided a good opportunity to provide maintenance for the Rhine frontiers. For an important view, see Drinkwater 2007, who argued that the threat posed by the Alamanni during their existence as a federation was fairly minimal but nevertheless always been overstated by Roman emperors, who used this threat as an excuse to campaign against an enemy as a way of building up their military credentials. That is, the Rhine frontier and the wars against the Alamanni were a training ground where emperors could improve their military skills so that they knew how to fight when a more important campaign arose.] In any case, it is important to state that there was no serious enemy activity on this frontier until two decades later, so the emperor may have made an important contribution to Rome's security there, and had legitimate claim to the title of Germanicus which he adopted after these campaigns. Southern writes that Caracalla's frontier policy in this region:
...seems to have been a combination of open warfare and demonstrations of strength, followed by an organisation of the frontiers themselves. He may have paid subsidies to the tribes after his campaigns, and in other cases he stirred up one tribe against another to keep them occupied and their attentions diverted from Roman territory (Southern 2001, 53).

Roman Emperor Caracalla


One of the most noteworthy (and debated) acts of Caracalla's reign is his Edict of 212 CE (the Constitutio Antoniniana ) which awarded Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire. The motives for this action are many. Propagandistically, this edict allowed Caracalla to portray himself as a more egalitarian emperor who believed that all free people of the empire should be citizens, thus creating a stronger sense of Roman identity among them (Southern 2001, 51-2; Potter 2004, 138-9). More practically, however, this edict meant that Caracalla could widen the base from which he could collect an increased inheritance tax (ibid). Indeed, Dio states that, as a result of the money he lavished on the army, a financial shortfall was created and the emperor needed money, thus necessitating this edict and the consequent cheapening of the citizenship. [ editor note: Dio 79.9.5. In discussing this edict, Dio described how Caracalla was able to create a larger tax base while at the same time raising taxes to 5 percent on the manumission of slaves and 10 percent on inheritances.] Moreover, the propaganda of equality was illusory, as instead of a hierarchy of citizens and non-citizens in the empire, the edict created a new class division of upper and lower classes ( honestiores and humiliores ) in which honestiores had greater legal rights and privileges, while humilioreshad less legal protection and were subject to harsher punishments (Southern 2001, 52).


Simply put, Caracalla idolized Alexander the Great and sought to emulate him (Dio 78.7-8). Consequently, he saw fit to campaign in the east as a way to accomplish such emulation. It is debatable whether or not such campaigns were necessary, as at this time Rome's major rival, the Parthian Empire, was involved in internal conflicts, and the Parthian Royal House was fighting among itself (Dio 78.12.2-3). Caracalla saw this, however, as an excuse to mount a campaign to make gains at the expense of the Parthians. He returned to Rome after his activities in Germany, summoned Abgar, the King of Edessa, to the city and imprisoned him in the hopes of turning Edessa into a colony and use it as a base from which to launch an invasion of Parthia. He seems to have tried to have done the same with the king of Armenia but encountered resistance from that land's population (Dio 78.12.1). When he arrived in the East in 215 CE, Caracalla had little reason to justify an invasion of Parthia, as that empire's king, Vologaeses V, made a point to avoid any action that could be construed as a provocation. Leaving preparations for a campaign against Parthia to his general Theocritus, Caracalla visited Alexandria, ostensibly to pay respects to Alexander the Great at his tomb. He was first welcomed by the Alexandrians, but when he found out they were making jokes about the reasons he gave for the murder of his brother Geta, flew into a rage and had a large segment of the population massacred (Dio 78.2.2; Herodian 4.9.8).
Caracalla then moved east to the frontier in 216 CE and found that the situation was not as advantageous to Rome as it was previously. Vologaeses' brother Artabanus V had succeeded him, and managed to reinstate a degree of stability to Parthia.Caracalla's best option in this instance would have been a quick campaign to demonstrate Roman strength, but instead the emperor opted to offer his own hand in marriage to one of Artabanus' daughters. Artabanus' refused, seeing this as a rather lame attempt by Caracalla to lay claim to Parthia (Herodian 4.10.4-5; Dio 79.1). According to Herodian, Caracalla's behaviour was even more reprehensible: the emperor invited Artabanus and his household to meet to discuss a permanent peace. Upon meeting with the Parthian king and his retinue, who had put aside their weapons as a sign of good will, Caracalla ordered his forces to massacre them. Most of the Parthians present were killed, but Artabanus was able to escape with a few companions (Herodian 4.11.1-6).
Caracalla then campaigned in Media in 217 CE and was planning a further campaign when his treacherous and rash behaviour caught up with him. It seems that he made sport of ridiculing his Praetorian Prefect M. Opellius Macrinus, who had a great deal of experience in legal matters but next to none in affairs militarily (Herodian 4.12.1-3). Macrinus began to resent this, but Caracalla began to fear the man, especially after hearing of a prophecy that Macrinus would become emperor.Caracalla then began to move against his Prefect, but Macrinus got wind of this and, realizing he was in great danger, conspired to assassinate the emperor (Dio 79.4.1-2; Herodian 4.12.5). This he did on the road to Carrhae when the emperor stopped his troops on the side of the road to relieve himself. Evidently, while Caracalla was in the midst of urinating, one of Macrinus' men fell upon him, ending the emperor's life (Dio 79.5; 4.13.1-5). Caracalla was 29 years old when he died. When the bulk of the army had heard of his end, they were enraged at the murder of the emperor whom they loved. Indeed, Macrinus' inability to placate the soldiers helped to play a part in his own demise when his enemies offered Caracalla's cousin Elagabalus as Emperor in 218 CE.
Terme di Caracalla

Terme di Caracalla


Caracalla was one of the most unattractive individuals ever to become emperor of Rome. He was cruel, capricious, murderous, wilfully uncouth, and was lacking in any sort of filial loyalty save for that of his mother Julia Domna (who died shortly after his assassination) [editor note:Dio 79.23 states that Julia Domna, possibly suffering from breast cancer and despairing at the death of her son, took her own life.]. This is certainly the picture given to us by both Dio and Herodian. While some of the information in these accounts might be embellished, they nevertheless shed light on the increasing trend of emperors depending more on the army, believing they could act in any way they wanted towards the rest of the population provided they keep the soldiers happy. This is not entirely the fault of Caracalla, as he was following the advice of his father and genuinely wanted to be seen as a soldier and conqueror in the vein of Alexander the Great rather than the 'philosopher king' that Marcus Aurelius embodied. While his military policies in the western empire may have contributed to that region's security for several years, his eastern policy was self-destructive and unnecessary. Had Caracalla followed the formula of Augustus and maintained a balance between keeping both the army and the upper echelons of Roman society happy, he may have been more successful. In any case, the third century would witness many emperors who took the tact that Caracalla had and would overly depend on the support of the army for their regime at their own peril.


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