I could apply this title to every update, tbh. #historyiscyclical
Welcome back! When we last left Severus, he was busy uprooting any restraint to his unchecked power over every branch of government. It seems like several of his predecessors had already done this, making you wonder what checks or balances were left; but every time a new megalomaniac in our story ascends to power, he finds some hitherto-untouched hindrance to his unilateral control that he can dig up and throw on the fire. Severus was not the first to do this, and unfortunately he won’t be the last.
Now it’s time to see how much bigger of a mess his son Caracalla can make. Caracalla’s pre-rule exploits were hinted at in the previous chapter, which I did not cover for brevity’s sake. Suffice it to say, he was not pleased with the wife that was foisted upon him in order to advance her dad’s political career; so he, already not much of a diplomat, informed them both that they were as good as dead the minute he was crowned Emperor.
He’ll outgrow this youthful impetuosity, right?
Chapter 6 Part 1
As the last days of Severus approached, he began to recognize the futility of (his) life. He’d raised himself from an obscure African family and a remote military command to the pinnacle of the ancient Near Eastern world, and he now saw how meaningless it ultimately all was. See also: the entire book of Ecclesiastes (except Severus’ dying epiphany about the meaning of life stopped at “family” and never reached the rest of the way to “God”).
As far as family goes, his wife Julia was pretty cool and intellectual, if not exactly faithful (seems to come with the position); but his two sons were a piece of work. They made “sibling rivalry” sound like a gameshow compared to their increasingly life-endangering struggles, and they showed far greater inclinations toward luxury and entertainment than learning the art of government.
BOY, WHO DOES THAT REMIND YOU OF?
As you’ll notice from Daniel Voshart’s chart of imperial faces a few entries back, Caracalla emerged victorious from this fraternal struggle. However, that was not his real name. At birth he was called the much more dignified Bassanius Antoninus. He’s known to history by the derogatory nickname “Caracalla,” a pun on a style of dress he favored … one of many sobriquets which the Romans bestowed on him because of his vanity and cruelty.
Things are not looking up, are they?
Severus was afraid of what would happen to all of his carefully consolidated power if his sons’ mutual hatred succeeded in splitting the empire, so he groomed them both for the throne in the exceedingly sanguine hope that sharing power might placate them both. Who gave him that idea? Odin?
A Scottish rebellion on the northern frontier gave Severus the perfect excuse to unplug the Xbox and take the boys on a wilderness expedition, hoping the scent of dew on their sleeping bags and the sight of a real battle would wake them up to the rigors of being an emperor.
The Scots — called “Caledonians” at this point in history — feigned a retreat and surrender until Severus & co. were well on their way back to Rome … then it was business as usual, as the British still hadn’t learned over a thousand years later.
Gibbon (and Milman) sidetrack here to ponder whether the Scottish folktales of the hero Fingal defeating the “King of the World, Caracul,” refer to this event. After a Rousseauian musing by Gibbon on the Noble Savage Celtic warriors versus the society-weakened Romans, we move on.
Rather than settle the boy down, Severus’ attempt to bootcamp Caracalla only made him more impatient, such that he made several attempts to hasten his father’s demise. Severus realized too late that Marcus Aurelius, whom he had always derided for not giving the throne to someone more deserving than his worthless son Commodus, was no more able to stand and face the fruit of his poor parenting than he himself was when it came to the point. He died a natural but hopeless death.
The army, apparently still satisfied with the pay allotted them by the dearly departed emperor, respected his last wishes enough to continue playacting as if both princes could be co-emperors. Thanks to the mediation of their mom, this worked briefly, as long as they both surrounded their respective ends of the palace complex with armies and big “KEEP OUT” signs.
An uncredited would-be peacemaker suggested that the brothers divide the empire into separate capitals and territories. Then they could both rule independently of each other. Julia was no more a fan of this than anyone else, as the geopolitical ramifications would be devastating; but being their mom, she begged them to take this chance to leave each other in peace. Caracalla craftily agreed to sign the treaty in her presence, knowing that everyone would expect him to go through with the ceremonies and then launch a civil war from the comfort of his newly reduced empire. Instead, in a scene straight out of Hamlet, he pre-stocked the negotiation room with assassins and joined them in dispatching his younger brother Geta, even as the latter sought refuge in their mother’s arms.
Knowing that everyone’s favorite kingmakers, the Praetorians, had favored Geta, Caracalla headed their way (dragging several wagonloads of gold), pretending that he had just survived a brutal attack on the empire and was prepared to stand by his men to the end. The soldiers jingled their newly laden pockets and decided to accept his version of the story. While the victor shamelessly eulogizes his brother with a showy funeral, having him declared a god while laying him to rest, Gibbon reminds us that Geta would likely have been no better than Caracalla. We only remember him more favorably, as an innocent victim of the elder’s schemes, because he was disposed of in this underhanded way before anyone had a chance to see what crimes he would have committed.
Caracalla, not yet devoid of all conscience, was so tormented by visions of Geta’s and Severus’s ghosts chastising him that he set about purging the empire of anyone suspected of disloyalty. (“Disloyal” in this context means “reminiscent of Geta.”)
“It was computed that, under the vague appellation of the friends of Geta, above twenty thousand persons of both sexes suffered death. His guards and freedmen, the ministers of his serious business, and the companions of his looser hours, those who by his interest had been promoted to any commands in the army or provinces, with the long connected chain of their dependents, were included in the proscription; which endeavored to reach every one who had maintained the smallest correspondence with Geta, who lamented his death, or who even mentioned his name. … The particular causes of calumny and suspicion were at length exhausted; and when a senator was accused of being a secret enemy to the government, the emperor was satisfied with the general proof that he was a man of property and virtue. From this well grounded principle he frequently drew the most bloody inferences. … Dion says, that the comic poets no longer durst employ the name of Geta in their plays, and that the estates of those who mentioned it in their testaments were confiscated.”
Anyone who had the misfortune to have been named from the same baby-name book as the late prince was out of luck when Grandpa was making his will.
Are we sure Twitter only started in 2006?
“Caracalla reproached all those who demanded no favors of him. ‘It is clear that if you make me no requests, you do not trust me; if you do not trust me, you suspect me; if you suspect me, you fear me; if you fear me, you hate me.’ And forthwith he condemned them as conspirators, a good specimen of the sorites in a tyrant’s logic.”
This last quote, an addition from Milman, does not sound at all like any emperors we just got rid of two chapters ago …
Chapter 6 Part 2
Of all the casualties of Caracalla’s Great Purge, Gibbon takes special note of the lawyer Papinian. Even though he was technically part of the problem fueled by Severus, in that he accepted an appointment to an inordinately powerful military position that he was not entirely qualified for, he was still a man of character who refused to help the new emperor put a nice political spin on Geta’s murder.
Strangely, Gibbon gives three of Caracalla’s predecessors in brutality (Tiberius, Nero, and Domitian) props for not inflicting their presence on the rest of the empire, so that only Rome proper suffered the brunt of their depradations; while Caracalla’s reign was a perpetual road trip of murder and mayhem. (Severus’ attempt to teach him a love of campaigning worked a little too well.) Whole cities, most notably Alexandria, were turned into Hunger Games arenas for his personal amusement. Like the IOC, he had luxurious housing and entertainment venues built to host him and his entourage wherever he went; unlike former Olympic host cities, he had them bulldozed as soon as he left.
Severus, while he lost some of his disciplinary backbone upon his rise from general to emperor, had still retained the awareness that the mystique of the throne must be maintained by holding oneself at a respectful distance from the soldiers. Caracalla, meanwhile, fancied himself just one of the guys, and thought he could supplement their affection for his ongoing pay raises by playing dress-up as a foot soldier and loitering around the camp.
(Gibbon treats us to a long footnote here on the exact size of the cash bonuses administered during this time, and how they would convert from drachmae to Regency-era British currency. It was a lot of money.)
“It was impossible that such a character, and such conduct as that of Caracalla, could inspire either love or esteem; but as long as his vices were beneficial to the armies, he was secure from the danger of rebellion.
A secret conspiracy, provoked by his own jealousy, was fatal to the tyrant.”
The following episode is why, no matter how important you get, you should always open your own mail. If Caracalla hadn’t been so glued to the outcome of chariot NASCAR, he might have seen a letter containing a fortune-teller’s prediction that one of his Praetorian prefects (and personal assistant), Macrinus, was next in line for the throne.
Caracalla: “Ooh, that was a tight turn. My driver nearly lost a wheel. Just tell me if any of them say anything important, Macrinus.”
Macrinus: “Oh, I will …”
Finding a disgruntled employee whom the emperor had slighted was easy to do, and Macrinus’ chosen assassin took his opportunity to strike while the imperial entourage was en route to a moon temple, where Caracalla wanted to dig for rupees in the dungeons and learn a new song for his ocarina or something.
Gibbon is too discreet to tell us exactly why the opportunity arose. All he says is, “having stopped on the road for some necessary occasion, his guards preserved a respectful distance,” long enough for the appropriately-named Martialis to come within melee range.
The emperor was having a potty break, wasn’t he.
“Such was the end of a monster whose life disgraced human nature, and whose reign accused the patience of the Romans. The grateful soldiers forgot his vices, remembered only his partial liberality, and obliged the senate to prostitute their own dignity and that of religion, by granting him a place among the gods.”
Sigh. These meatheads never learn.
Rome, which really should have been used to this by now, was on the edge of its collective seat to see which military strongman the Praetorians would put into power next. The prefecture of the guard had been split into two positions; but unlike Caracalla and Geta, neither official evinced any cutthroat ambitions to eliminate competition for the throne by having his co-prefect scratched. Macrinus’ co-prefect, Adventus, knew he was too old and unknown to throw his hat in the ring for such a dangerous job and expect any support, so he gracefully yielded the field to Macrinus (and probably patted himself on the back for having dodged such an assassin-rich situation).
Macrinus was little better, however; as soon as the novelty of Caracalla’s demise had worn off, everyone started finding something wrong with him. His attempts to reform the army by hiring new soldiers at a lower pay scale than their predecessors, and by requiring a little more discipline and decorum from the group as a whole, won him few friends — especially since he was clearly more comfortable in an office than on a battlefield, and his reserved demeanor did not endear him to the macho men who surrounded him. Rumors of another planned coup started circulating almost immediately.
Meanwhile, we cut to the fortunes of Caracalla’s aunt and two lady cousins, one of whom was the mother of the newly promoted high priest of the Sun. Thanks to his family resemblance to Caracalla, their shared name of Bassanius, the royal family’s well-known penchant for sordid love affairs, and the precocious stateliness with which the young priest performed his rituals, the army was easily persuaded that this kid was, in fact, the true heir. They proclaimed him Macrinus’ replacement as soon as services were over.
Macrinus, like Pescennius Niger before him, wasted too much time assuming that the new self-styled emperor posed no real threat to him, even as more soldiers joined the camp of Bassanius (now calling himself by the imperial name of Antoninus) every day. The latter took clever advantage of the army’s hatred for Macrinus by promising a military promotion and a brand-new McMansion to any soldier who showed up bearing the severed head of his former commanding officer.
Well, that’s one way to thin your opponent’s ranks. Finally Macrinus was forced to admit that a real-life battle would have to decide the contest.
“Antoninus himself, who, in the rest of his life, never acted like a man, in this important crisis of his fate, approved himself a hero, mounted his horse, and, at the head of his rallied troops, charged sword in hand among the thickest of the enemy; whilst the eunuch Gannys, whose occupations had been confined to female cares and the soft luxury of Asia, displayed the talents of an able and experienced general.”
(Gibbon’s backhanded compliments for this “conspiracy of women and eunuchs” are absolutely sublime, if you’re a connoisseur of passive-aggressive commentary.)
The hapless Macrinus ditched his army, which was the last straw for the already disillusioned Praetorians, and they all joined forces with the newcomer after ushering Macrinus and his son to an early grave. Back in Rome, which had been effectively replaced by Antioch as the working capital during Caracalla’s reign, the Senate issued a toothless censure of the victor’s gaucherie. He had had the temerity to bestow upon himself all of the ceremonial titles and authorities without meeting with the senators first. Despite this violation of established protocol, he met with no real resistance when he finally deigned to grace the imperial city with his presence. He had an official portrait made and sent for display in the Senate ahead of his arrival in Rome, where the senators (and Edward Gibbon) lamented its vibe of “effeminate luxury” and “Oriental despotism.”
The new emperor assumed the ruling name of Elagabalus, after the sun deity (represented by a meteorite) which he had served in his previous job. This chunk of space rock was so important to the emperor that, in what has to be the weirdest triumphal entry on record so far, he personally escorted it into the city, walking backwards so as not to have to look away from it. His coronation ceremonies were full of the Eastern-style entertainment to which Elagabalus was accustomed, introducing more culture shock to the indulgent but formal Roman upper class. The high-ranking officials whom he forced to dress up and serve as his living lookbook during the party were not amused.
We’re not done with Elagabalus yet, so I’ll spare you Milman’s footnote containing his research into the etymology of this name. We’ll save the story of this emperor’s most infamous dinner party (and the truckloads of rose petals it involved) for next time …
Quotations that stood out to me:
“The ascent to greatness, however steep and dangerous, may entertain an active spirit with the consciousness and exercise of its own powers: but the possession of a throne could never yet afford a lasting satisfaction to an ambitious mind.”
(Yes, I link to TVTropes a lot. Will I stop? Probably not.)
“His enemies asserted that he was born a slave, and had exercised, among other infamous professions, that of Gladiator. The fashion of aspersing the birth and condition of an adversary seems to have lasted from the time of the Greek orators to the learned grammarians of the last age.”
Oh, don’t worry, Gibs. We’re still digging into people’s past for dirt today, too.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.