BOOK FOUR - Caracalla
THE activities of Severus during his eighteen years as emperor I have recounted in the preceding book. His sons, who were now young men, quarreled continually on the return journey to Rome with their mother. They did not use the same lodgings or even dine together, since they were extremely suspicious of all they ate and drank; each feared that the other would secretly get prior access to the kitchens and bribe the servants to use poison.
This fear led the youths to complete the journey with even greater haste; for they believed that they would be safer in Rome where, by dividing the palace between them, each could manage his own affairs as he pleased in the most spacious dwelling in the entire city.
When they arrived in Rome, the people welcomed them with laurel branches and the senate, too, came out to greet them. The two youths headed the procession, wearing the imperial purple; the consuls for that year followed, carrying the urn which held the ashes of Severus. Then those who had come out to greet the young emperors passed by the urn and paid their respects to the emperor.
The procession escorted the urn to the mausoleum where the remains of Marcus and his imperial predecessors are to be seen. After performing the rites prescribed for new emperors, the youths
entered the imperial palace. Each brother now took up residence in his half of the palace. Barricading the inner doors, they used in common only the public outer doors. Caracalla and Geta stationed their own private guards and were never seen together except briefly during their infrequent public appearances. But before doing anything else, the emperors performed the funeral rites for their father.
IT IS the Roman custom to elevate to divine status those emperors who at their death leave sons or designated successors; they call this honor deification. To begin with, public mourning, a combination of festive feeling and religious ceremony, is observed throughout the entire city. After a costly funeral, the body of the emperor is interred in the customary fashion. But then a wax image is fashioned in the exact likeness of the corpse and placed on a large, high couch of ivory draped with coverings embroidered with gold. This wax figure lies on the couch like a sick man, pale and wan.
During most of the day people sit on each side of the couch; on the left is the entire senate, clad in black; on the right are all the women who, because of their husbands’ or their fathers’ positions, are entitled to honor and respect. None of these women wear gold ornaments or necklaces; each affects the plain white garments associated with mourning. The various ceremonies mentioned above continue for seven days. Every day the physicians come and visit the couch; after pretending to examine the sick man, they announce daily that his condition is growing steadily worse. When it appears that he is dead, the noblest of the Equestrians and picked young senators lift the couch and carry it along the Sacred Way to the Old Forum, where the Roman magistrates give up their authority.
Tiers of seats are erected on each side of the couch: on one side sits a chorus of children from the noblest and most distinguished families; on the other, a chorus of women who seem to deserve respect. In honor of the dead man each choral group sings hymns and paeans arranged in solemn and mournful measures.
The couch is then carried out of the city to the Campus Martius, where, in the widest part of the plain, a square building has been constructed entirely of huge wooden beams in the shape of a house.
The whole interior of this building is filled with firewood; and on the outside it is decorated with gold-embroidered hangings, ivory figures, colored paintings. Upon this structure rests a smaller second story, similar in shape and decoration, with open windows and doors. And there is a third and a fourth story, each smaller than the one beneath it; finally, the smallest story of all tops this structure.
The building may be compared in shape to the lighthouses along the coast which by the light of their fires bring to safety ships in distress at night. The common name for such a lighthouse is Pharos. They bring the couch to this structure and carry it up to the second story; then they add every kind of perfume and incense the earth provides, together with all the fruits, herbs, and juices that are gathered for their fragrance.
Every province, every city, every man of fame and distinction is happy to furnish these last gifts in the emperor’s honor. After a huge pile of aromatic material is collected, and the structure is completely filled, a cavalry exhibition is staged around the building; the entire Equestrian cavalry circles around it, following a fixed rotating pattern in the Pyrrhic choruses and maneuvers. Chariots, too, are driven around the building in similar formations by drivers in purple robes; these chariots carry statues whose faces are those of Romans who fought or ruled in distinguished fashion. When these rites have been completed, the emperor’s successor puts a torch to the structure, after which the people set it on fire on all sides. The flames easily and quickly consume the enormous pile of fire-wood and fragrant stuffs.
From the topmost and smallest story, as if from a battlement, an eagle flies forth, soaring with the flames into the sky; the Romans believe that this eagle carries the soul of the emperor from the earth up to heaven. Thereafter the emperor is worshiped with the rest of the gods.
AFTER completing this ceremony of deification for their father, the youths returned to the palace. Open hostility followed, as they nurtured their hatred and hatched their plots. Each did everything in his power to eliminate his brother and secure the empire for himself alone. The honored and respected men of the city held divided opinions. Each of the youths privately solicited their support in secret letters, trying to win them by lavish promises. The majority favored Geta, who showed some evidence of a reasonable disposition, since he conducted himself mildly and moderately toward those who visited him, and devoted his time to the more serious pursuits. He studied with men respected for their learning and exercised frequently at the wrestling schools and the various gymnasia. Because he was kind and courteous to his associates and had an excellent reputation and good name, he won the friendship and good will of most of the Romans.
By contrast, Caracalla was harsh and savage in everything he did, scorning the pursuits mentioned above, and pretending a devotion to the military and martial life. Since he did everything in anger and used threats instead of persuasion, his friends were bound to him by fear, not by affection.
As the brothers were now completely at odds in even the most trivial matters, their mother undertook to effect a reconciliation.
And at that time they concluded that it was best to divide the empire, to avoid remaining in Rome and continuing their intrigues. Summoning the advisers appointed by their father, with their mother present too, they decided to partition the empire: Caracalla to have all Europe, and Geta all the lands lying opposite Europe, the region known as Asia.
For, they said, the two continents were separated by the Propontic Gulf as if by divine foresight. It was agreed that Caracalla establish his headquarters at Byzantium, with Geta’s at Chalcedon in Bithynia; the two stations, on opposite sides of the straits, would guard each empire and prevent any crossings at that point. They decided too that it was best that the European senators remain in Rome, and those from the Asiatic regions accompany Geta.
For his capital city, Geta said that either Antioch or Alexandria would be suitable, since, in his opinion, neither city was much inferior in size to Rome. Of the Southern provinces, the lands of the Moroccans, the Numidians, and the adjacent Libyans were given to Caracalla, and the regions east of these peoples were allotted to Geta.
While they were engaged in cleaving the empire, all the rest kept their eyes fixed on the ground, but Julia cried out: "Earth and sea, my children, you have found a way to divide, and, as you say, the Propontic Gulf separates the continents. But your mother, how would you parcel her? How am I, unhappy,
wretchedóhow am I to be torn and ripped asunder for the pair of you ? Kill me first, and after you have claimed your share, let each one perform the funeral rites for his portion. Thus would I, too, together with earth and sea, be partitioned between you."
After saying this, amid tears and lamentations, Julia stretched out her hands and, clasping them both in her arms, tried to reconcile them. And with all pitying her, the meeting adjourned and the project was abandoned. Each youth returned to his half of the imperial palace.
BUT the hatred and dissension between them continued to grow. If it became necessary to appoint a governor or a magistrate, each wished to select a friend for the post. If they sat as judges, they handed down dissenting opinions, often to the ruin of those on trial; for rivalry counted more than justice to these two. Even at the shows the brothers took opposite sides. They tried every sort of intrigue; each, for example, attempted to persuade the other’s cooks and cupbearers to administer some deadly poison. It was not easy for either one to succeed in these attempts, however: both were exceedingly careful and took many precautions. Finally, unable to endure the situation any longer and maddened by the desire for sole power, Caracalla decided to act and advance his cause by sword or slaughter or die in a manner befitting his birth. Since his plotting was unsuccessful, he thought he must try some desperate and dangerous scheme; [so he killed his brother in the arms of their mother, and by this act really killed them both], his mother dying of grief and his brother from treachery.
Mortally wounded, Geta died, drenching his mother’s breast with his blood. Having succeeded in the murder, Caracalla ran from the room and rushed throughout the palace, shouting that he had escaped grave danger and had barely managed to save his life.
He ordered the soldiers who guard the imperial palace to protect him and escort him to the praetorian camp, where he could be safely guarded, saying that if he remained in the imperial palace he would be murdered. Unaware of what had happened inside, the soldiers believed him and ran with him as he dashed ahead at full speed. Consternation seized the people when they saw the emperor speeding on foot through the middle of the city in the early evening.
Rushing into the camp and into the temple where the standards and decorations of the guard were worshiped, Caracalla threw himself on the ground; in the chapel, he gave thanks and offered sacrifices for his safety. When this was reported to the praetorians, some of whom were in the baths, while others were already asleep, they hurriedly assembled in amazement.
When he appeared before them, Caracalla did not immediately reveal what had happened; instead, shouting that he had escaped the deadly plots of an enemy and rival, he identified his assailant as his brother. He cried out that he had with difficulty emerged victorious, after a severe struggle with his enemies; but when he and his brother had put everything at stake, Fortune had chosen him as sole emperor. His motive in thus distorting the facts was his desire to have them hear from him what had happened rather than from someone else.
In gratitude for his deliverance and in return for the sole rule, he promised each soldier 2,500 denarii and increased their ration allowance by one-half. He ordered the praetorians to go immediately and take the money from the temple depositories and the treasuries. In a single day he recklessly distributed all the money which Severus had collected and hoarded from the calamities of others over a period of eighteen years.
When they heard about this vast amount of money, although they were aware of what had actually occurred, the murder having been made common knowledge by fugitives from the palace, the praetorians at once proclaimed Caracalla emperor and called Geta enemy.
THE emperor spent that night in the temple in the praetorian camp; then, growing bold because he had won over the soldiers by gifts, he came from the senate house accompanied by the entire guard, which was more heavily armed that was customary for the imperial escort. After he had gone in and offered sacrifices, Caracalla mounted the imperial throne and addressed the senators as follows: "I am not unaware that every murder of a kinsman, immediately the deed is known, is despised, and that the name ‘kinsman-killer’ arouses harsh censure as soon as it falls upon the ear. Pity follows for the victims, hatred for the victors. In such cases it appears that the victim is abused, the victor abusing.
But if one were to consider the deed with sober judgment and not with sympathy for the fallen, and if he were to evaluate the victor’s motive and intent, he would find that sometimes it is both reasonable and necessary for the man about to suffer an injury to defend himself and not stand passively and submit. Censure for cowardice follows when a man succumbs to disaster, but the winner gains, together with his safety, a reputation for courage. As to the rest, all the plots he laid against me, using deadly poisons and every kind of treachery, these you can discover by the use of torture. For this reason I issued orders for Geta’s servants to be present here so that you may learn the truth. Several have already been examined, and the results of the examination are available. In his final act of treachery, Geta burst in upon me while I was with my mother, accompanied by swordsmen whom he had obtained for this attempt upon my life.
But I grasped the situation with great shrewdness and presence of mind and defended myself against an enemy who no longer displayed the attitude or feelings of a brother. Now to defend oneself against plots is not merely proper; it is a standard practice. Indeed, Romulus, the founder of this city, refused to allow his brother to ridicule what he had done.
And I pass over without comment Germanicus, brother of Tiberius; Britannicus, Nero’s brother; and Titus, brother of Domitian. Even Marcus himself, who professed to love philosophy and excellence, would not tolerate the arrogance of Lucius, his brother-in-law, and by a plot removed him from the scene. So I too, when poisons were prepared for me and a sword hung over me, defended myself against my enemy, for this is the name which describes his actions.
First of all, you must give thanks to the gods for having preserved at least one of your emperors for you; then you 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." After making these statements at the top of his voice, in a towering rage, he glared balefully at his brother’s friends and returned to the palace, leaving most of the senators pale and trembling.
GETA’S friends and associates were immediately butchered, together with those who lived in his half of the imperial palace. All his attendants were put to death too; not a single one was spared because of his age, not even the infants. Their bodies, after first being dragged about and subjected to every form of indignity, were placed in carts and taken out of the city; there they were piled up and burned or simply thrown in the ditch. No one who had the slightest acquaintance with Geta was spared: athletes, charioteers, and singers and dancers of every type were killed. Everything that Geta kept around him to delight eye and ear was destroyed. Senators distinguished because of ancestry or wealth were put to death as friends of Geta upon the slightest unsupported charge of an unidentified accuser. He killed Commodus’ sister, then an old woman, who as the daughter of Marcus had been treated with honor by all the emperors. Caracalla offered as his reason for murdering her the fact that she had wept with his mother over the death of Geta. His wife, the daughter of Plautianus, who was then in Sicily; his first cousin Severus, the son of Pertinax; the son of Lucilla, Commodus’ sister; in fact, anyone who belonged to the imperial family and any senator of distinguished ancestry, all were cut down to the last one. Then, sending his assassins to the provinces, he put to death the governors and procurators friendly to Geta. Each night saw the murder of men in every walk of life. He burned Vestal Virgins alive because they were unchaste. Finally, the emperor did something that had never been done before; while he was watching a chariot race, the crowd insulted the charioteer he favored. Believing this to be a personal attack, Caracalla ordered the Praetorian Guard to attack the crowd and lead off and kill those shouting insults at his driver. The praetorians, given authority to use force and to rob, but no longer able to identify those who had shouted so recklessly (it was impossible to find them in so large a mob, since no one admitted his guilt), took out those they managed to catch and either killed them or, after taking whatever they had as ransom, spared their lives, but reluctantly.
AFTER committing such crimes as these, hounded by his conscience and finding life in Rome intolerable, the emperor decided to leave the city to see to matters in the garrison camps and visit the provinces.
Leaving Italy, he journeyed to the banks of the Danube, where he concerned himself with the northern part of his empire; at the same time he exercised by driving in chariot races and by fighting at close quarters with wild animals of every kind. Only occasionally did he sit as judge, although he was quick to grasp the essentials of a case in court and quick to pass judgment on the basis of the arguments presented.
He grew especially fond of the Germans in those regions; after gaining their friendship, he entered into alliances with them, and selected for his personal bodyguard the strongest and most handsome young men. He frequently put off the Roman cloak and donned German dress, appearing in the short, silver-embroidered cloaks which they customarily wear, augmented by a yellow wig with the locks arranged in the German style.
Delighted with the emperor’s antics, the barbarians became very fond of him, as did the Roman soldiers also, particularly because of his lavish gifts of money but also because he always played the soldier’s part. If a ditch had to be dug anywhere, the emperor was the first man to dig; if it were necessary to bridge a stream or pile up a high rampart, it was the same; in every task involving labor of hand or body, the emperor was first man to the job.
He set a frugal table and even went so far as to use wooden dishes at his meals. He ate the bread that was available; grinding with his own hands his personal ration of grain, he made a loaf, baked it in the ashes, and ate it.
Scorning luxuries, he used whatever was cheapest and issued to the poorest soldier. He pretended to be delighted when they called him fellow soldier instead of emperor. For the most part he marched with the troops, carrying his own arms and rarely using a chariot or a horse.
Occasionally he even placed the standards of the legions on his shoulders and bore them along; these standards, tall and decorated with many gold ornaments, were a heavy burden for even the strongest soldiers. For these actions Caracalla won the affection of the soldiers by his military prowess and gained their admiration by his feats of strength. And it is certainly true that the performance of such strenuous tasks by a man of small stature was worthy of admiration.
CARACALLA, after attending to matters in the garrison camps along the Danube River, went down into Thrace at the Macedonian border, and immediately he became Alexander the Great. To revive the memory of the Macedonian in every possible way, he ordered statues and paintings of his hero to be put on public display in all cities. He filled the Capitol, the rest of the temples, indeed, all Rome, with statues and paintings designed to suggest that he was a second Alexander. At times we saw ridiculous portraits, statues with one body which had on each side of a single head the faces of Alexander and the emperor. Caracalla himself went about in Macedonian dress, affecting especially the broad sun hat and short boots. He enrolled picked youths in a unit which he labeled his Macedonian phalanx;
its officers bore the names of Alexander’s generals. He also summoned picked young men from Sparta and formed a unit which he called his Laconian and Pitanate battalion.
After doing this, he arranged matters in the cities in that region to his satisfaction and then proceeded to Pergamum in Asia Minor, to try the healing treatments of Aesculapius.
When he arrived in that city he made what use he wished of the dream treatments and continued on to Troy.
He visited all the ruins of that city, coming last to the tomb of Achilles; he adorned this tomb lavishly with garlands of flowers, and immediately he became Achilles. Casting about for a Patroclus, he found one ready to hand in Festus, his favorite freedman, keeper of the emperor’s daily record book. This Festus died at Troy; some say he was poisoned so that he could be buried as Patroclus, but others say he died of disease.
Caracalla ordered a huge pyre of logs to be erected and the body of Festus placed in the center. After sacrificing animals of all kinds, the emperor set fire to the funeral pile; then, taking a bowl and pouring a libation, he offered prayers to the winds. Since he was almost entirely bald, he made himself ridiculous when he wished to place his curls upon the blaze; he did, however, shear off what little hair he had. Among generals, Caracalla admired the Roman Sulla and the Carthaginian Hannibal, and set up statues and paintings of these two.
The emperor then left Troy and traveled through the rest of Asia, Bithynia, and the remaining provinces. After tending to affairs in these regions, he came to Antioch. Given a warm welcome there, he remained for some time. While in the city he sent letters to Alexandria, pretending to be eager to visit the city founded by Alexander and to pay his respects to the god whom the Alexandrians worship above all other deities.
He pretended that the two compelling reasons for his proposed visit were the worship of the god and the memory of his hero Alexander. He therefore ordered a number of hecatombs of cattle to be prepared, together with offerings of every kind. When these matters were reported to the people of Alexandria, who are by nature carefree and very easily aroused on the slightest provocation, they were overjoyed to learn of the emperor’s enthusiastic interest and his great affection for them.
They prepared a superlative reception for the emperor. Everywhere bands were performing on all kinds of musical instruments and playing a variety of melodies. Billows of perfume and the smoke of incense spread sweet aromas throughout the city. The emperor was honored with torchlight parades and showers of floral bouquets. When he entered the city, accompanied by his entire army, Caracalla went first into the temple, where he sacrificed many hecatombs of cattle and heaped the altars with frankincense. Leaving the temple for the tomb of Alexander, he removed there his purple robe, his finger rings set with precious gems, together with his belts and anything else of value on his person, and placed them upon the tomb.
WHEN they saw what the emperor was doing, the people rejoiced and celebrated, making merry the whole night long, but they did not know his secret intent. In all his actions Caracalla was playing the hypocrite; his true plan was to destroy most of them. The source of the enmity he was concealing was this.
While he was still living in Rome, both during his brother’s lifetime and after his murder, it was reported to him that the Alexandrians were making endless jokes about him. The people of that city are by nature fond of jesting at the expense of those in high places. However witty these clever remarks may seem to those who make them, they are very painful to those who are ridiculed.
Particularly galling are quips that reveal one’s shortcomings. Thus they made many jokes at the emperor’s expense about his murdering his brother, calling his aged mother Jocasta, and mocking him because, in his insignificance, he imitated the bravest and greatest of heroes, Alexander and Achilles. But although they thought they were merely joking about these matters, in reality they were causing the naturally savage and quick-tempered Caracalla to plot their destruction.
The emperor therefore joined the Alexandrians in celebrating and merrymaking. When he observed that the city was overflowing with people who had come in from the surrounding area, he issued a public proclamation directing all the young men to assemble in a broad plain, saying that he wished to organize a phalanx in honor of Alexander similar to his Macedonian and Spartan battalions, this unit to bear the name of the hero.
He ordered the youths to form in rows so that he might approach each one and determine whether his age, size of body, and state of health qualified him for military service. Believing him to be sincere, all the youths, quite reasonably hopeful because of the honor he had previously paid the city, assembled with their parents and brothers, who had come to celebrate the youths’ expectations.
Caracalla now approached them as they were drawn up in groups and passed among them, touching each youth and saying a word of praise to this one and that one until his entire army had surrounded them. The youths did not notice or suspect anything. After he had visited them all, he judged that they were now trapped in the net of steel formed by his soldiers’ weapons, and left the field, accompanied by his personal bodyguard. At a given signal the soldiers fell upon the encircled youths, attacking them and any others present. They cut them down, these armed soldiers fighting against unarmed, surrounded boys, butchering them in every conceivable fashion.
Some did the killing while others outside the ring dug huge trenches; they dragged those who had fallen to these trenches and threw them in, filling the ditch with bodies. Piling on earth, they quickly raised a huge burial mound. Many were thrown in half-alive, and others were forced in unwounded.
A number of soldiers perished there too; for all who were thrust into the trench alive, if they had the strength, clung to their killers and pulled them in with them. So great was the slaughter that the wide mouths of the Nile and the entire shore around the city were stained red by the streams of blood flowing through the plain. After these monstrous deeds, Caracalla left Alexandria and returned to Antioch.
NOT long after this, Caracalla, desirous of gaining the title "Parthicus" and of being able to report to the Romans that he had conquered all the Eastern barbarians, even though there was peace everywhere, devised the following plan. He wrote a letter to the king of Parthia (his name was Artabanus) and sent to him an embassy laden with gifts of expensive materials and fine workmanship.
He wrote to the king that he wished to marry his daughter; that it was not fitting that he, emperor and son of an emperor, be the son-in-law of a lowly private citizen. His wish was to marry a princess, the daughter of a great king. He pointed out that the Roman and the Parthian empires were the largest in the world; if they were united by marriage, one empire without a rival would result when they were no longer divided by a river.
The rest of the barbarian nations now not subject to their authority could easily be reduced, as they were governed by tribes and confederacies. Furthermore, the Roman infantry were invincible in close-quarter combat with spears, and the Parthians had a large force of highly skilled horse-archers.
The two forces, he said, complemented each other; by waging war together, they could easily unite the entire inhabited world under a single crown. Since the Parthians produced spices and excellent textiles and the Romans metals and manufactured articles, these products would no longer be scarce and smuggled by merchants; rather, when there was one world under one supreme authority, both peoples would enjoy these goods and share them in common.
At first the Parthian king did not approve of the proposals in Caracalla’s letters, saying that it was not proper for a barbarian to marry a Roman. What accord could there be when they did not understand each other’s language and differed so radically in diet and dress? Surely, the king said, there are many distinguished Romans, one of whose daughters he could marry, just as for him there were the Arsacids; it was not fitting that either race be bastardized.
THE Parthian’s initial replies were of this type, and he declined Caracalla’s offer of an alliance. But when the emperor persisted and with many gifts and oaths swore to his enthusiasm for the marriage and his good will toward the Parthians, Artabanus was won over; addressing Caracalla as his future son-in-law, he promised him his daughter in marriage. When the news was made public, the barbarians prepared for the reception of the emperor of the Romans and rejoiced in the hope of permanent peace.
Having crossed the rivers unopposed, Caracalla entered the barbarians’ land as if it were already his. Sacrifices were offered to him everywhere; the altars were decked with wreaths, and perfumes and every kind of incense were scattered in his path.
Caracalla pretended to be delighted by the barbarians’ attentions and continued his advance. He had now completed the greater part of his journey and was approaching the palace of Artabanus. The king did not wait to receive the emperor but came out to meet him in the plain before the city, welcoming his son-in-law, the bridegroom of his daughter.
All the Parthians, crowned with the traditional flowers and wearing robes embroidered in gold and various colors, celebrated the occasion, dancing wildly to the music of flutes and the throbbing of drums. They take delight in such orgiastic dancing, especially when they are drunk. Abandoning their horses and laying aside their quivers and bows, the whole populace came together to drink and pour libations. A huge mob of barbarians gathered and stood about casually, wherever they happened to be, eager to see the bridegroom and expecting nothing out of the ordinary. Then the signal was given, and Caracalla ordered his army to attack and massacre the spectators. Astounded by this onslaught, the barbarians turned and fled, wounded and bleeding. Artabanus himself, snatched up and placed on a horse by some of his personal bodyguards, barely escaped with a few companions. The rest of the Parthians, lacking their indispensable horses, were cut down (for they had sent the horses out to graze and were standing about). They were unable to escape by running, either; their long, loose robes, hanging to their feet, tripped them up. Naturally they did not have their quivers and bows with them; what need for weapons at a wedding? After slaughtering a great number of the enemy and taking much booty and many prisoners, Caracalla marched away from the city unopposed. En route he burned the towns and villages and permitted his soldiers to carry off as much as they could of anything they wanted.
Such was the nature of the disaster which the barbarians suffered when they were not anticipating anything of the kind. After harassing most of the Parthian empire, Caracalla, since his troops were weary by now of looting and killing, went off to Mesopotamia. From there he sent word to the senate and the Roman people that the entire East was subdued and that all the kingdoms in that region had submitted to him.
The senators were not unaware of what had actually happened (for it is impossible to conceal an emperor’s acts); nevertheless, fear and the desire to flatter led them to vote the emperor all the triumphal honors. Thereafter, Caracalla spent some time in Mesopotamia, where he devoted himself to chariot-driving and to fighting all kinds of wild animals.
CARACALLA had two generals in his army: Adventus, an old man, who had some skill in military matters but was a layman in other fields and unacquainted with civil administration; and Macrinus, experienced in public affairs and especially well trained in law. Caracalla often ridiculed Macrinus publicly, calling him a brave, self-styled warrior, and carrying his sarcasm to the point of shameful abuse.
When the emperor learned that Macrinus was overfond of food and scorned the coarse, rough fare which Caracalla the soldier enjoyed, he accused the general of cowardice and effeminacy, and continually threatened to murder him. Unable to endure these insults any longer, the angry Macrinus grew dangerous.
This is the way the affair turned out; it was, at long last, time for Caracalla’s life to come to an end. The emperor, always excessively curious, wished not only to know everything about the affairs of men but also to meddle in divine matters. Since he suspected everyone of plotting against him, he consulted all the oracles and summoned prophets, astrologers, and entrail-examiners from all over the world; no one who practiced the magic art of prophecy escaped him. But when he began to suspect that these men were not prophesying truthfully but were flattering him, Caracalla wrote a letter to Materianus, to whom he had entrusted control of affairs at Rome. This Materianus he considered the most trustworthy of his friends, the only one with whom he shared the imperial secrets. He ordered Materianus to locate all the most highly skilled prophets and to make use of their magic arts to discover whether anyone was plotting to seize the empire. Materianus obeyed the emperor’s orders to the letter, and whether because the spirits actually revealed these things to him or because he was eager to remove Macrinus, he sent Caracalla a dispatch informing him that Macrinus was conspiring to seize control of the empire and must be eliminated.
Sealing this letter, he gave it routinely with the other dispatches to the couriers, who did not, of course, know what they were carrying. Completing the journey with their usual speed, the messengers approached Caracalla after he had already donned his racing uniform and was about to climb into the waiting chariot, and gave him the whole bundle of dispatches, including the letter concerning Macrinus. Caracalla, about to drive off, and intent upon the coming race, ordered Macrinus, who was standing nearby alone, to examine the dispatches and, if they contained anything urgent, to inform him. If, however, there was nothing pressing in them, he was to handle them himself in the usual manner, in his capacity as praetorian prefect. The emperor frequently ordered Macrinus to do this. After giving these directions, Caracalla turned to his race. Macrinus withdrew and opened the dispatches in private; when he found the one containing his own death sentence, he saw clearly the danger which threatened him. Knowing the emperor’s nature, and realizing that the death sentence contained in the letter would give the emperor legitimate cause for putting him to death, Macrinus removed this letter from the pile and reported that the rest were of the routine sort.
THE prefect, fearing that Materianus might send this information to the emperor a second time, decided to act now rather than wait and suffer the consequences. This is what he did. In Caracalla’s bodyguard was a centurion named Martialis, who was always in the emperor’s escort. A few days earlier, Caracalla had executed the centurion’s brother on an unproved charge. Moreover, the emperor continually insulted the man, calling him cowardly, effeminate, and Macrinus’ darling.
Learning that Martialis was exceedingly grieved by his brother’s death and could no longer endure the emperor’s insults, Macrinus summoned the centurion (in whom he had confidence because the man had served him before, and had received many favors from him). The prefect persuaded Martialis to be on the watch for a suitable opportunity to carry out a plot against the emperor. Won over by Macrinus’ promises, Martialis, since he hated the emperor and was eager to avenge his brother, gladly promised to do the deed when the proper occasion arose.
Not long after they made this agreement, it happened that Caracalla, who was spending the time at Carrhae in Mesopotamia, conceived a desire to leave the imperial quarters and visit the Temple of the Moon, for Selene is the goddess whom the natives particularly adore. The temple was located some distance from Carrhae, and the journey was a long one. Therefore, to avoid involving the entire army, Caracalla made the trip with a few horsemen, intending to sacrifice to the goddess and then return to the city.
At the halfway point he stopped to relieve himself; ordering his escort to ride off, he went apart with a single attendant. All the horsemen turned aside and withdrew for some distance, respecting the emperor’s modesty. But when Martialis, who was looking for just such an opportunity, saw Caracalla alone, he ran toward him as if the emperor had summoned him by a gesture to question him or receive some information. Standing over Caracalla after he had uncovered himself, Martialis stabbed the emperor from behind with a dagger he had concealed in his hand. The blow under the shoulder was fatal, and Caracalla died, unsuspecting and undefended.
When the emperor fell, Martialis leaped upon his horse and fled. Those favorites of Caracalla, the German cavalry who served as his bodyguard, were closer to the scene than the rest, and hence were the first to realize what had happened. These horsemen set out in pursuit of Martialis and cut him down.
When the rest of the army learned what had occurred, they hurried to the spot, and Macrinus was the first to arrive; standing over the body, he pretended to wail and lament for the emperor. The whole army was grieved and distressed by the affair; they felt they had lost a fellow soldier, a comrade-in-arms, rather than their emperor. And yet they never suspected that it was a plot of Macrinus; they believed that Martialis had done it because of his personal hatred for the emperor. Then the soldiers retired, each to his own tent. After burning the body on a pyre and placing the ashes in an urn, Macrinus sent it for burial to the emperor’s mother in Antioch. As a result of these similar disasters which befell her two sons, Julia died, either by her own hand or by the emperor’s order. Such was the fate suffered by Caracalla and his mother Julia, who lived in the manner I have described above. Caracalla had served as emperor without his father and brother for eleven years.
AFTER Caracalla’s death, the bewildered soldiers were at a loss as to what to do. For two days they were without an emperor while they looked for someone to fill the office. And now it was reported that Artabanus was approaching with a huge army, seeking a legitimate revenge for the Parthians whom Caracalla had murdered under a truce and in time of peace.
The army first chose Adventus as their emperor because he was a military man and a praetorian prefect of considerable ability; he declined the honor, however, pleading his advanced age. They then decided upon Macrinus, influenced by their tribunes, who were close friends of the general and were suspected of having been involved in the plot against Caracalla. Later, after Macrinus’ death, these tribunes were punished, as we shall relate in the pages to follow.
Macrinus thus received the office of emperor not so much because of the soldiers’ affection and loyalty as from necessity and the urgency of the impending crisis.
While these events were taking place, Artabanus was marching toward the Romans with a huge army, including a strong cavalry contingent and a powerful unit of archers and those mail-clad soldiers who hurl spears from camels.
When the approach of Artabanus was reported, Macrinus called the soldiers together and addressed them as follows: "That all of you regret the passing of such an emperor, or, more accurately, fellow soldier, is hardly surprising. But to endure misfortunes and disasters with equanimity is the part of intelligent men.
Truly the memory of Caracalla is locked in our hearts, and to those who come after us will be handed down this memory, which will bring him everlasting fame for his great and noble deeds, his love and affection for you, and his labors and comradeship with you. But now it is time for us, since we have paid the last of the prescribed honors to the memory of the dead and have performed his funeral rites, to look to the present emergency. You see the barbarian with his whole Eastern horde already upon us, and Artabanus seems to have good reason for his enmity. We provoked him by breaking the treaty, and in a time of complete peace we started a war. Now the whole Roman empire depends upon our courage and loyalty. This is no quarrel about boundaries or river beds; everything is at stake in this dispute in which we face a mighty king fighting for his children and kinsmen who, he believes, have been murdered in violation of solemn oaths. Therefore let us take up our arms and our battle stations in the customary Roman good order. In the fighting, the undisciplined mob of barbarians, assembled only for temporary duty, may prove its own worst enemy. Our battle tactics and our stern discipline, together with our combat experience, will insure our safety and their destruction. Therefore, with hopes high, contest the issue as it is fitting and traditional for Romans to do. Thus will you repel the barbarians, and by winning a great and glorious reputation you will make it clear to the Romans and to all menó and you will likewise confirm that previous victoryóthat you did not deceive the barbarians by fraudulently and treacherously breaking your treaty with them, but that you conquered and won by force of arms."
After this speech the soldiers, recognizing the necessity of the matter, took up battle stations and remained under arms.
ARTABANUS appeared at sunrise with his vast army. When they had saluted the sun, as was their custom, the barbarians, with a deafening cheer, charged the Roman line, firing their arrows and whipping on their horses. The Romans had arranged their divisions carefully to insure a stable front; the cavalry and the Moroccan javelin men were stationed on the wings, and the open spaces were filled with light-armed and mobile troops that could move rapidly from one place to another. And so the Romans received the charge of the Parthians and joined battle.
The barbarians inflicted many wounds upon the Romans from above, and did considerable damage by the showers of arrows and the long spears of the mail-clad camel riders. But when the fighting came to close quarters, the Romans easily defeated the barbarians; for when the swarms of Parthian cavalry and hordes of camel riders were mauling them, the Romans pretended to retreat and then they threw down caltrops and other keen-pointed iron devices. Covered by the sand, these were invisible to the horsemen and the camel riders and were fatal to the animals.
The horses, and particularly the tender-footed camels, stepped on these devices and, falling, threw their riders. As long as they are mounted on horses and camels, the barbarians in those regions fight bravely, but if they dismount or are thrown, they are very easily captured; they cannot stand up to hand-to-hand fighting. And, if they find it necessary to flee or pursue, the long robes which hang loosely about their feet trip them up.
On the first and second days the two armies fought from morning until evening, and when night put an end to the fighting, each side withdrew to its own camp, claiming the victory. On the third day they came again to the same field to do battle; then the barbarians, who were far superior in numbers, tried to surround and trap the Romans. The Romans, however, no longer arranged their divisions to obtain depth; instead, they broadened their front and blocked every attempt at encirclement.
So great was the number of slaughtered men and animals that the entire plain was covered with the dead; bodies were piled up in huge mounds, and the camels especially fell in heaps. As a result, the soldiers were hampered in their attacks; they could not see each other for the high and impassable wall of bodies between them. Prevented by this barrier from making contact, each side withdrew to its own camp.
Macrinus knew that Artabanus was making so strong a stand and battling so fiercely only because he thought that he was fighting Caracalla; the barbarian always tires of battle quickly and loses heart unless he is immediately victorious. But on this occasion the Parthians resolutely stood their ground and renewed the struggle after they had carried off their dead and buried them, for they were unaware that the cause of their hatred was dead. Macrinus therefore sent an embassy to the Parthian king with a letter telling him that the emperor who had wronged him by breaking his treaties and violating his oaths was dead and had paid a richly deserved penalty for his crimes. Now the Romans, to whom the empire really belonged, had entrusted to Macrinus the management of their realm. He told Artabanus that he did not approve of Caracalla’s actions and promised to restore all the money he had lost. Macrinus offered friendship to Artabanus instead of hostility and assured him that he would confirm peace between them by oaths and treaties. When he learned this and was informed by envoys of Caracalla’s death, Artabanus believed that the treaty breaker had suffered a suitable punishment; as his own army was riddled with wounds, the king signed a treaty of peace with Macrinus, content to recover the captives and stolen money without further bloodshed.
The Parthian then returned to his own country, and Macrinus led his army out of Mesopotamia and hurried on to Antioch.