Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Villains of History – Septimius Severus and his son Caracalla

The past century provides us with three of the greatest villains of all time based on the number of human beings killed. Mao, Stalin, and Hitler used modern technology to murder millions and protect their positions of power. Hitler was probably the oddest case as he used racial purification to justify murder using a corruption of  the theory of Eugenics. It is estimated that Mao is responsible for 40-70 million deaths, Stalin 50 million, and Hitler 12 million.

The Roman Empire had its share of villains also. We have seen psychotics like Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and Commodus, sprinkled throughout its history, but with Septimius Severus and his son we reach a new definition of evil and villainy. Here are the father and son.

As Gibbon puts it:

The unforgiving temper of Severus, stimulated by avarice, indulged a spirit of revenge where there was no room for apprehension..

And so his cruelty became a mask for misrule as he allowed the army to take on a new form which would threaten the future of the empire.

Severus possessed a considerable share of vigor and ability; but the daring soul of the first Caesar, or the deep policy of Augustus, were scarcely equal to the task of curbing the insolence of the victorious legions. By gratitude, by misguided policy, by seeming necessity, Severus was reduced to relax the nerves of discipline.

Elated by success, the army became enervated by luxury, and felt themselves raised above their subjects by their dangerous privileges, so that they became incapable of military fatigue, oppressive to the country, and impatient of a just subordination.

As Severus ruled Rome as his possession and the army became a threat, he was also faced with the conflict between his two sons Caracalla and Geta, who despised each other.

Severus foretold that the weaker of his two sons would fall a sacrifice to the stronger; who would in his turn, be ruined by his own vices.

Severus died in York, England after a foolish expedition north of the Antonine Wall, outliving Caracalla’s attempts to create a mutiny designed to murder him. With Severus’ death, and by his recommendation, the army named Caracalla and Geta co-emperors in 211 A.D. For a while the brothers tried to make their relationship work, dividing the imperial palace into two parts and putting up walls to separate them. Later, they sought to divide the empire in two: one brother in the east and the other in the west. Before this plan was implemented, however, Caracalla had Geta murdered in front of their mother.

Caracalla rushed to the praetorian camp and lay prostrate on the ground begging the guard to understand he killed his brother in self-defense. One of his first acts as sole emperor was to kill 20,000 persons who were guilty of association with Geta. The reason given for this atrocity was that he might encounter them on the street and be reminded of his brother! Even some who uttered Geta’s name in public were struck down.

A year after Geta's death Caracalla left Rome never to return. He traveled throughout the eastern provinces overseeing the murder of thousands.  In Alexandria, for example, he ordered a general massacre killing several thousand for no reason. And so the empire under Caracalla degraded further as Gibbon tells us:

The liberality of the father has been restrained by prudence, and his indulgence to the troops was tempered by firmness and authority. The careless profusion of the son was the policy of one reign, and the inevitable ruin both of the army and  the empire. The vigor of the soldiers, instead of being confirmed by the severe discipline of camps, melted away in the luxury of cities.

But Caracalla would come to his end soon enough. Hearing a prophesy that the Praetorian Prefect Macrinius would become emperor, members of Caracalla’s contingent sent warning letters to the emperor. Caracalla, in the midst of watching a chariot race when he received them, gave the dispatches to Macrinius unopened and asked him to see if they contained anything important. Upon reading the dispatches, Macrinius realized his life was in danger and had the emperor assassinated.

The next 67 years would see 23 emperor rise and fall. The empire had become a military dictatorship with the choice of emperor dictated by the capriciousness of the army.


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