Who was the least likely Roman emperor?

1,800 years agoThe assassination of the Roman emperor Caracalla

Death came during the pee break. On the march from Edessa to Karrhae in the southeast of today's Turkey, Rome's emperor is said to have thrown himself into the bushes in order to follow "the needs of nature" according to the words of his biographers. On April 8, 217, that was the occasion his killer had been waiting for. Four days earlier, Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, known as Caracalla, had turned 29.

His mother, the widow of the empress Julia Domna, committed suicide when the news of her death occurred. In Rome's better circles, grief was limited, as the deceased had been feared and notorious.

"He never gave his heart to anyone. Rather, he hated everyone who stood out in some way, especially those he pretended to love the most."

This is what the Roman senator and chronicler Cassius Dio wrote about him, who knew Caracalla well and put the number of his victims in tens of thousands. The Majesty also murdered in her own family, having his brother, wife, brother-in-law and father-in-law killed.

"He is certainly one of the tyrants on the imperial throne, but it has to be said that this is nothing unusual in Roman imperial history, but that emperors, who have a much more positive image of history, also did things like this before him. "

The archaeologist and ancient historian Martin Kemkes heads the Limes Museum in Aalen and has organized an exhibition there about Caracalla's Germanic campaign in 213. He refers to the traumatic childhood experiences of the boy, whose father Septimius Severus had to fight for the throne in a four-year civil war - also at risk of death for his relatives.

"If you look at his whole life, from this childhood on, when he practically (...) from an early age, also through the civil war to which his father was subject, (...) saw: In Rome, you are actually only - can hold out as emperor if you are ready to get your competitors and their families out of the way. ... He got to know that from an early age and then implemented it brutally. "

The father was a North African, born in what is now Libya. The mother is Syrian, daughter of a priest in Emesa, today's Homs. There was a younger brother, Geta.

Septimius Severus had wished that both sons should rule the empire together after his death. When he died in February 211, his advice was:

"Remain amicable, enrich the soldiers and don't care about all the other things."

But just ten months later, Geta was also dead, murdered on behalf of Caracalla. The subsequent wave of purges in Rome is said to have killed 20,000 of his sympathizers.

Turbulent times in the Roman Republic

After a long period of stability, the Roman Empire became increasingly turbulent in the third century. Inside, the army became the decisive power factor. New threats formed beyond the borders. Against this background, Caracalla's advance in southwest Germany, where the balance of power between the indigenous peoples had become unstable.

"The campaign was therefore probably not just a pure propaganda campaign, but Caracalla really - for propaganda reasons, of course, which was always important for a Roman emperor to win against Teutons - reacted to a current threat, at least in the Main area, if didn't even take place further north. "

Caracalla's expedition in the late summer of 213 brought peace to the border area on the Limes for two decades.

Epoch-making course

The rule of this emperor was also linked to an epoch-making course: in 212 he granted all free residents of his empire Roman citizenship. In the eastern provinces in particular, the majority had previously been excluded. Only now did the empire become a unified legal area. For the beneficiaries, the new law not only had advantages, because it brought new taxes with it, but:

"The fact that we find emphasis on this civil right in many inscriptions, especially in the east of the empire after Caracalla, shows that the positive aspects probably outweighed the citizens."

Caracalla was ultimately fatally committed to the murder of his prefect of the guards. He had heard that an Egyptian fortune teller had seen him as the future emperor. It was clear to him that if Caracalla knew the prophecy, he was a dead man. A contract killer solved the problem for him.