Caracalla, the nickname of M. Aurelius Severus Antoninus Bassianus, son of Lucius Septimius Severus, born April 4, 188, declared Caesar a.d. 196, three years after his father's accession; succeeded to the empire in conjunction with his brother Geta, Feb. 211, sole emperor after slaying his brother in his mother's arms a.d. 212, in Gaul 213, in Germany and on the Danube 214, at Antioch and Alexandria 215, marched against Parthia 216, killed on the way from Edessa to Carrhae, April 8, 217. His mother, according to contemporary authorities, was Julia, a Syrian woman, whom Severus had married because of certain prophecies. Spartianus, in the time of Constantine, assures us that Julia was his stepmother, and that his mother was Severus's first wife Marcia. This would make his story somewhat less horrible, but compels the historian at the cost of some inconsistency to refer his birth to 174, or earlier.
The principal authorities are Tertullian, addressing Scapula, governor of Africa, in 211; the sober, contemporary, and apparently impartial, narrative of Herodian (bks. vii. viii.); the abridgment, by the very late compiler Xiphilinus, of the 77th book of the contemporary historian Dion Cassius, with which the compiler seems to have incorporated fragments of other works of a like early date; the narrative written for Constantine by Lampridius Spartianus in the Historia Augusta; laws, coins, inscriptions (see Clinton), and especially a record in the Digest, bk i, tit. 5, l. 17, from the 22nd book of Ulpian.
Dion charges him with inheriting all the worst features of the races from which he sprang; on his father's side, the braggart levity of the Gaul and the truculence of the African; on his mother's, the tricksiness of the Syrian. Tertullian (ad Scap. c. 4) calls him Antoninus, and informs us that "his father Severus had a regard for Christians; . . . and Antoninus . . . was brought up on Christian milk. And, moreover, Severus knew most illustrious men and most illustrious women to be of this sect, and not only did not hurt, but honoured [ exornavit or, more probably, exoneravit, exonerated] them by the witness he bore them, and withstood the raging populace." It has been inferred that the young prince was not only brought up amid Christian influences, but had a Christian wet-nurse.
We can easily conceive how injurious it must have been for the child to find the Christians in the palace screened, while yet he was taken to see shows of wild beasts where Christians were thrown to them to devour. Spartianus tells us that he was a most charming child, quick at learning, engaging with his prattle, and of a very tender heart. "If he saw condemned criminals thrown to the beasts, he cried, or looked away, which more than won the hearts of the people. At seven years of age, when he heard that a boy that was his playmate had been severely beaten for Jewish superstition, it was a long while before he would look at his own father or the boy's father again, or at the people who had him flogged. By his own intercession he restored their ancient rights to the people of Antioch and Byzantium, who had helped Niger against his father. It was for his cruelty that he took an aversion to Plautianus. But all this was only while he was a boy [sed haec puer ]." The "Jewish superstition" has been interpreted, with great probability, to mean Christianity. The Plautianus mentioned was, teste Herodian, a vile tyrant, all-powerful with Severus, whose daughter Caracalla was compelled to marry, much against his will, in the hope of reforming him from certain low tastes, such as won him the favour of the city populace.
Spartianus tells us that when Caracalla emerged from boyhood, before his accession, he was so changed, so stern, that no one would have known him; whereas his brother Geta, who had been an unpleasing child, was very much improved as he grew up. His narrative, and the abridgment of Dion, afford no clue to the enmity that sprang up between the brothers, and deeper principles seem to have been involved than mere fraternal jealousy. Caracalla's early life was such as to teach him heart-hardening dissimulation; Tertullian, while the brothers yet ruled jointly, urges at once the uncertainty of human life, and the probability that Caracalla would favour the Christians; and it is the fact that his victory coincided with a general and prolonged cessation of a long and cruel persecution.
We cannot tell whether he had any higher motives than a mean malice and uneasy envy in his murder of his brother, and whether the mother, for whose sake he claimed to have done it and whom he would not allow to utter or even listen to a complaint, ever forgave him. The incredible charge of incest was afterwards brought against them. But there is little doubt as to the results of the deed. He did not become a Christian, and the ancient gods of the state were the last to whom he had recourse. He patronised Philostratus, who wrote for his mother and for him the Life of Apollonius of Tyana. He thus fostered one of the chief counterfeits of Christianity. He gathered round. him all who professed to read the future, and he worshipped the spirits of the dead. But they could not rid his ears of his brother's dying cry, μῆτερ, μῆτερ, τεκοῦσα, τεκοῦσα, βοήθει, σφάζομαι . He continued to court the city populace, and enriched Rome with magnificent baths, which even in ruins are the most superb monuments of refined luxury. But his fits of savagery must have made it hard for him to continue a favourite of the populace. Henceforth he relied mainly on his army, and sought ease of mind in excitement. Both necessities involved expense. Whatever impulse he gave to the corruption of the capital, he himself contentedly shared the roughest privileges of the soldiers. But that alone could not secure their affection. In the first day of his crime he had lavished the wealth his father had been eighteen years in acquiring. New sources of revenue were needed.
It is the method that Caracalla adopted to raise a revenue that gives him his main claim to a place in the catalogue of men whose lives affected the Christian church. His act, as Gibbon has shewn, marked an era in the decline of the empire. But more than that, it affected very greatly the position of Christians in all future persecutions. It is this indeed mainly that enables us to pronounce with certainty that the act was his, and belonged to no earlier date. "All who are in the Roman world," says Ulpian, "have been made citizens of Rome by an institution of the emperor Antoninus." "A most grateful and humane deed!" exclaims Augustine (de Civ. Dei , v. 17, vol. vii. 161), and immediately subjoins the proviso that made the boon so equivocal. At a stroke the Roman world was pauperized. Every citizen resident in the capital was entitled to receive every month, at a cheap rateâ€”the indigent quite gratuitouslyâ€”a certain amount of corn or bread. This was one of the chief drains upon the revenue, and one of the main causes of extortion in the provinces. But Augustus laid a tax on citizens from which aliens were exempt, a tax which made the franchise in many cases a burden to be declined rather than a boon to be coveted, a duty of five per cent. on all bequests. Nerva and Trajan, however, exempted the passage of moderate inheritances from parent to child, or vice versÃ¢ (Plin. Paneg. 37, 38). Caracalla, by raising the provincials to the franchise, did not free them from the tribute they owed before, but imposed this additional burden, which he doubled in amount, and which involved the odious intrusion of the tax-gatherer in seasons of domestic bereavement. The act seems to synchronize with a congiarium or largess to the populace in a.d. 214. Thenceforward Caracalla's laws, wherever promulgated, seemed to be dated at Rome. Oppressive as were the effects of the act, it seems yet to have been welcomed. It was but fair, thought Augustine, that rustics who had lands should give food to citizens who had none, so long as it was granted as a boon and not extorted as a right.
But besides its effects as a financial measure, Caracalla's act broke down the barriers of society; annulled, as far as any imperial institution could, the proud old sovereign commonwealth, the queen of nations, whose servants and ministers the emperors had ever professed to be; opened the command of armies to unlettered barbarians; removed the bars to the influx of Greek and Syrian and Egyptian corruption into Rome; reduced the subjects to a level, above which only the emperor, the minion of the army, towered supreme.
In earlier times St. Paul's Roman citizenship had stood him in good stead; and in the story of the martyrs in Gaul under M. Aurelius the Roman citizens had been reserved till the emperor's will was known. A boon now so widely diffused could scarcely retain the same value. But we hear no more of Christians being crucified, unless they were slaves, or first reduced to slavery. Unutterably horrible as the tortures devised against them were, they were no longer commonly thrown to the beasts as a show. They suffered by the sword at last, and all their tortures were such as might befall any citizen of Rome who transgressed the mandate of the emperor. [D. C. A. Persecution; Torture.] Thus martyrdom, instead of the obstinacy of an abject alien superstition, became the bold and cheerful resistance of free citizens to the arbitrary will of one who, when he began to torture, became a barbarous tyrant.