Caracalla: The Years 213-214

In 213, Caracalla was consul for the fourth time. He left Rome for the northern border provinces, and for the next two years he would fight to keep these safe and even strengthen them against Germanic incursions. Again, as with Severus’ Caledonian campaign, very few details have survived. It seems that the emperor first fought the Alemanni tribe, although the term ‘Alemanni’ may have been used anachronistically by later authors. If we are to believe Aurelius Victor, Caracalla won a great victory here (“Alamannos, gentem populosam ex equo mirifice pugnantem, prope Moenum amnem devicit”). The Moenus refers to the river Main, a tributary of the Rhine. Caracalla himself must have considered the campaign a success. He pressed the Senate into granting him the title of Germanicus Maximus, which can be seen on his coins.

Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus; Romans defeating ‘barbarian’ tribes (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome).

Cassius Dio also mentions a campaign against a Germanic tribe called the Cenni (unknown, but possibly the Chatti), whose warriors were so fierce that they used their teeth to pull out the arrows that the emperor’s eastern archers had shot at them. Although a confused fragment of the epitome of Dio’s Book 78 states that Caracalla “devastated the whole land and the whole sea”, it seems that the emperor mixed violence with diplomacy and bribes in order to ensure peace. At any rate, Caracalla seems to have been popular with the Germanic tribes. They gave him a large number of auxiliary forces and allowed him to recruit a personal elite bodyguard from their best young men, who became part of the equites singulares Augusti. It may have been during these northern campaigns that the emperor acquired the nickname by which he is usually known: Caracalla, which is a Gallic robe with a hood. Evidence for this can be found the Epitome De Caesaribus, where it is stated that:

“he had brought very many garments from Gallia and had made ankle-length tunics and forced the urban population to enter dressed in such clothing for the purpose of saluting him, he was from this garment given the cognomen Caracalla.”

Bust of Julia Domna, Caracalla’s mother (Museo Palatino, Rome).

Caracalla certainly did a lot to endear himself to the army. Remembering the second part of his father’s deathbed advice – “enrich the soldiers” – he made his soldiers happy with lavish gifts. But the emperor also impressed his men by living the same, simple life as they did. Caracalla marched and ran with his soldiers, exercised with them, ate the same food and suffered the same hardships as they did. If they could not bathe or change clothes, neither did the emperor. He dug trenches, built bridges, baked his own bread and carried his own weapons. All in all, the soldiers considered the emperor as one of their own and he was very popular.

Moving east

After fighting the Alemanni and Cenni, the emperor moved east towards the Danube. He seems to have fought some battle in Rhaetia (probably 214), with the Historia Augusta claiming that he killed a lot of barbarians there (“non paucos barbaros interemit”). The emperor visited the troops on the Danube and made his way to Dacia and Thracia. There will have been conflicts and skirmishes along the way, but it is very difficult to reconstruct them. In the epitome of Dio’s Book 78 we find another confused fragment that states that Caracalla:

“took pride in having stirred up enmity with the Vandili [Vandals] and the Marcomani, who had been friends, and in having executed Gaïobomarus, the king of the Quadi, against whom accusation had been laid. And when one of the king’s associates, under accusation with him, hanged himself before he could be punished, Antoninus [Caracalla] delivered his body to the barbarians to be wounded, in order that the man might be thought to have been sentenced to death and executed rather than to have died by his own hand, which was deemed an honourable act among them.”

Book 79 adds that during the reign of Macrinus – Caracalla’s successor – the Dacians got back some hostages that “Caracallus” [Caracalla] had taken from them. So something did happen here, although it probably was not important enough to be recorded in great detail.

Becoming Alexander

Alexander the Great (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

The Historia Augusta relates how Caracalla at a young age had been a sweet and clever child, who even wept when criminals were thrown to the wild animals and who, as a seven-year-old, was shocked when his playmate was flogged because of his Jewish faith. This all changed when the young Caracalla learned of Alexander the Great. Caracalla became obsessed with the legendary Macedonian king and sought to imitate his deeds. So when he entered the Roman province of Macedonia in 214 after his visit to Thrace, he was on Alexander’s home soil, and once again, Caracalla wanted to become Alexander the Great. He selected a group of young men and started training them as a Macedonian phalanx, giving them the linen linothorax, the long sarissa pike, a short sword and a bronze shield, exactly the same battle gear that Alexander’s soldiers carried over 500 years previously. He is also reported to have ordered the unit’s commanders to take on the names of Alexander’s generals.

Caracalla now crossed the Hellespont into Asia Minor. It was apparently a dangerous journey and the emperor was almost shipwrecked. He had to leave his own ship when it got into trouble and had to climb into a lifeboat with some of his bodyguards before he could be moved to another ship. In Asia Minor, the emperor visited Pergamum and the ruins of Troy. Like Alexander, he also visited Achilles’ grave, held sacrifices and games there with his soldiers and had a bronze statue of the hero from the Trojan War erected. He is said to have also honoured his own “Patroklos”, an imperial freedman named Festus who was allegedly poisoned so that the emperor could have him buried as if he were the real Patroklos, Achilles’ closest friend. Herodianus claims that Caracalla made quite a fool of himself. He built a huge funeral pyre for Festus, placed his body on top of it and set fire to the logs. “Since he was almost entirely bald, he made himself ridiculous when he wished to place his curls upon the blaze”, according to Herodianus. It is a rather strange claim, as surviving images of Caracalla do not portray him as a balding man.

After his actions at Troy, Caracalla moved further east and made his winter quarters at Nicomedia in Bithynia. Here, in December, he celebrated the traditional Saturnalia.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 74;
  • Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 578-579.

Updated 31 December 2022.


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