Author: Marian Vermeulen 

Today, the name of Caracalla is most often associated with the magnificent baths in Rome that bear his name. However, in his own era, Caracalla was known as an unpredictable and dangerous ruler. Some of his opponents nicknamed him “beast.” Though they gave him the name in derision, Caracalla embraced it eagerly. Even the name by which we know him, Caracalla, is a nickname referring particular cloak that he wore. The nickname remained more closely associated to the man because after his death his contemporaries refused to continue calling him Antoninus, finding him unworthy of the name that had first belonged to one of Rome’s most gentle and beloved emperors.

The only citizens who maintained a fondness for Caracalla were those of the African provinces, to whom Caracalla granted Roman citizenship, as can be seen in the Arch of Caracalla in Volubilis, addressed in honor of the “pious, fortunate Augustus.” Volubilis is itself an extraordinary site, a Berber city believed to be the ancient capital of Mauretania. It was a thriving city under Roman rule, as easily evidenced by the stunning ruins and beautiful mosaics that remain.

A Tragic Fratricide

CarCaracalla was the eldest son of Septimius Severus. Severus had been a well-respected leader, ruthless when needed but decidedly fair, and a devotedly hard worker. Even on his deathbed, he reportedly gasped, “come, give it to us, if we have anything to do!” Severus died in Eboracum in Britain, and his last words were advice to his sons, “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, scorn everybody else.” Unfortunately his sons could not manage to follow the first suggestion. Caracalla had wanted to murder his brother, Geta, for some time, but was unable to do so before Severus and the army, who were quite fond of the young man. Now, as joint leaders of the world, the two brothers circled one another cautiously, both suspecting plots on the part of the other.

Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus. Aureus struck in 201 AD. Obverse: Draped bust of Julia Domna. reverse: Confronted busts of Caracalla, left, and Geta, right. Source: Numismatica Ars Classica NAC AG, Auction 100 Lot 549. Used by Permission of NAC.

The suspicion prove