Caracalla and His Motives

This page sheds more light on Caracalla’s character and addresses the murder of his brother Geta and possible motives for proclaiming the Constitutio Antoniniana.

Image: Caracalla MAN Napoli, by Marie-Lan Nguyen [cc by 2.5 Generic], from Wikimedia Commons

Caracalla was the nickname of Emperor Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus, who was born Lucius Septimius Bassianus in 188 AD. His nickname referred to a hooded tunic that he liked to wear, in a style he had himself altered slightly from its original form.

The information on Caracalla presented here is limited to aspects considered particularly relevant to the Constitutio Antoniniana. For further reading, the Wikipedia article on Caracalla is a worthwhile resource.

The following section on Caracalla includes unconfirmed or speculative parts, because the accounts written by the few historians who were contemporaries of Caracalla cannot be considered factual reports. The writings of Cassius Dio (Roman History, 79,9,5) are thought to be the most precise, but it must be kept in mind that Cassius Dio was a political opponent of Caracalla.

The murder of Caracalla’s brother

Caracalla and his brother Geta jointly succeeded their father, the old emperor Septimius Severus, after his death. Competition between the two brothers had long since turned into hatred, and presumably each one sought to take the other’s life and then rule the Roman Empire alone. To justify murdering Geta in December 211, Caracalla accused his brother of harboring such intentions. Caracalla’s expression of gratitude to the gods for saving him from great danger in the text of the Constitutio Antoniniana (line 3) very likely referred to this deadly conflict.

Consolidation of power

To consolidate his power after this deed, seen by many as a breach of imperial taboo, Caracalla first had all of his brother’s suspected followers executed—about 20,000 people. Substantial raises in soldiers’ pay and gifts of money secured the loyalty of the military but also lead to a financial crisis. It is possible that construction of the famous Baths of Caracalla in Rome was also intended to win the favor of the city’s population.

Some historians believe that the Constitutio Antoniniana was also politically motivated by Caracalla’s interest in consolidating power (see below).

Motives behind the Constitutio Antoniniana

Gratitude to the gods

In the edict, the emperor emphasizes his gratitude to the gods for salvation from a danger (see above). Caracalla worshipped and idolized the deities and frequently brought them sacrifices and sacred offerings; this may have motivated him to integrate foreigners by granting them the rights of citizenship. The new Roman citizens could then become familiar with and encouraged to engage with the Roman religious cult. In this way, they could also be “introduced to the gods” (see the edict starting on line 6).

Political motives

The granting of citizenship rights created a close and personal bond between the imperial population and the emperor, making him a key figure in the process of integrating Rome’s many provinces and their inhabitants into the Empire (Kuhlmann and Barnes 2012, 50). Caracalla knew that, by issuing the Constitutio Antoniniana, new citizens in particular would regard him as a benefactor whose edict endowed them with new dignity (Piepenbrink 2018). An indication of the widespread positive response was the spread of the imperial family name Aurelius, which many assume to show their gratitude after becoming citizens (Pferdehirt/Scholz 2012, 67ff.).

Piepenbrink points out that political and religious aspects were closely interwoven here. Participation in the imperial cult and citizenship proved to be effective instruments of Romanization.

Tax revenues

Cassius Dio believed that Caracalla’s real reason for granting citizenship was to increase tax revenues. New Roman citizens became subject to inheritance taxes and to vicesima libertatis (a tax levied on owners who set slaves free), in addition to their previous tax obligations. Caracalla raised inheritance taxes from five to ten percent and abolished tax exemptions (Pferdehirt/Scholz 2012, 62). These measures financed his generous pay increases for soldiers and other benefits.

You will find more detailed information on the Constitutio Antoniniana on the >>next page<<.