Born in 188 AD, the short life of emperor Caracalla centered around his inherited control over the Roman Empire through the Severan dynasty.
At just 10 years old, Caracalla was designated a co-ruler with his Father Septimius Severus, who had reigned since 193 AD. The future emperor did have to wait until 211 AD to rule outright without sharing power with his brother, Geta – but more on that later!
During his time at the helm, Caracalla faced instability domestically and often struggled to impress against external forces, primarily the Germanic peoples and Parthian Empire. It is documented and still today argued that Caracalla lacked the loyalty necessary to run the empire effectively. When one takes a look at the fate of his closest family members, this line of thought can begin to look particularly understandable.
The marriage, exile, and execution of Caracalla’s wife
There remains debate over whether Caracalla had always harbored secret disdain for those closest to him, or if his actions had developed as he grew older and ramped up his search for power. However, his distaste seems apparent from an early age in the case of his wife, Fulvia Plautilla.
The daughter of Plautianus, a close friend of emperor Severus, Plautilla was wed to the young co-ruler in an arranged marriage whilst he was 14 years of age. Despite the couple having a child together, their relationship faced obvious difficulties from the offset. In fact, Dio Cassius, the Roman historian, writes that by the year 205 AD Caracalla was ‘disgusted with his wife, who was a most shameless creature’.
This most unhappy communion was not built to last, and last it did not. That same year, Caracalla reportedly convinced a number of centurians to reveal a plot of treason against the Severan family hatched by none other than Plautianus. The truth behind Caracalla’s trickery may have been embellished or diminished, as is the case with much of written Roman history, but the result remained the same.
Plautianus was executed and his daughter exiled. Upon Caracalla’s accession to power, Plautilla faced the same fate as her father, putting a definitive end to this extremely rocky relationship.
Plotting to kill an ailing father
At roughly the same time, Caracalla had joined his father on a military campaign in Britain. It would be the first in a lifetime of expeditions throughout the provinces of the Roman Empire, as Caracalla looked to avoid mundane administration in favor of his desire to emulate Alexander the Great through trips east to the Parthian lands.
According to a second Roman historian, Herodian, Caracalla’s days in Britain consisted mainly of aiming to win the support of the army (3.15.2). Yet, this trip also revealed a deep-seated thirst for power in the young co-ruler. In response to his ailing father’s drawn-out death, Caracalla supposedly tried to poison the emperor so as to speed his rise to the top:
‘Considering his father, who had been ill for a long time and slow to die, a burdensome nuisance, he tried to persuade the physicians to harm the old man in their treatments so that he would be rid of him more quickly.’ Herodian (3.15.2)
Although Caracalla’s plots were unsuccessful, he would soon have his wish as Severus passed. As his death approached, the emperor left some final advice to his sons to ‘be good to each other, enrich the army, and damn the rest’ (Dio 77.15.2).
To murder a brother is to lose a mother
Rather unsurprisingly, the two brothers did not heed their predecessor’s words of wisdom.
Forever the bickering siblings, relations between the pair became so sour that the imperial palace was divided between them. In fact, if it was not for the intervention of Julia Domna, their mother, the entire empire was set to be split in two (Herodian 4.3.5).
Eventually, after ongoing hostilities, Geta was murdered by the Praetorian Guard on 19 December 211, almost certainly by order of Caracalla himself. However, in his bid for power, Caracalla had committed a truly self-detrimental act:
‘So he killed his brother in the arms of their mother, and by this act really killed them both.’ (Herodian 4.4.3)
Caracalla continued to annihilate the supporters of Geta as he imposed total control, but this would not stop the final of his family’s deaths. Supposedly already struggling with breast cancer, Caracalla’s fratricide was the final straw for Julia Domna, who took her own life after seeing her son die in her arms.
Learning a lesson in death?
Caracalla spent the next half-decade aiming to ensure domestic stability, with the Baths of Caracalla his most remembered construction, while also quasi-effectively dealing with external issues to the west.
However, everything would change with an ill-fated campaign to the east against the Parthian Empire. Unable and unwilling to show strength in a quick expedition, the trip began to drag and his actions on tour garnered unwelcome dissatisfaction.
Witnessing brutal massacres and resenting personal slights, Praetorian Prefect Macrinus acted on his own well-founded paranoia before he too could become another victim of the emperor. And so, in a campaign in Media in 217 AD, Caracalla was assassinated whilst urinating on the side of a road at just 29 years old.
And thus Macrinus become emperor, ending Caracalla’s implosive regime that saw him lose his wife, father, brother, and mother as he had eyes only to play his part in the history of the Roman Empire.