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The Curse of Caracalla

A Roman hoodie and his blood bath

    Written by - Samuel Jay Keyser, author of "I Married a Travel Junkie and the children's book "The Pond god and Other Stories", for which he received the Lee Bennett Hopkins Awards for children's poetry in 2004.


caracalla looking mean as normalOn 27 February 212AD, Caracalla, born Lucius Septimius Bassianus, became joint Emperor of Rome with his brother Geta. He was called Caracalla after the hood that he wore and made famous. In fact, like some present-day hoodies he was a sinister character. The brothers came to power on the death of their illustrious father, Septimius Severus, Emperor of Rome from 193 to 211.Today, the family’s legacy is still visible in Rome at Caracalla’s Baths and in the Roman Forum.

Severus died of an illness in York, England while fighting the Scots. His wife and soon-to-be widow, Julia Domna, was with him. It was her unusual custom to accompany her husband on his campaigns. The two were that rarity in ancient times, a happy imperial couple but unfortunately, that did not rub off on their two sons.

Caracalla and Geta each hated the other with a passion. At one point after their father’s death they even contemplated splitting the empire in two, ruling the halves separately. Julia Domna, wise woman that she was, dissuaded them. Their animosity was so great that at one point the brothers agreed to meet in their mother’s apartments in an effort to reconcile their differences.

Julia Domna’s apartments were in her husband’s palace on the Palatine Hill, just opposite the Circus Maximus and the Jewish cemetery. The cemetery, by the way, is now a rose garden. If you bring it up on Goggle Earth and view it from, say, 1,000 feet, you can see that it is laid out like a giant menorah. Another must see menorah in Rome is in the Roman Forums but that is another story.

I once had the pleasure of being a houseguest in a villa just above the Jewish cemetery. Every morning I breakfasted on a terrace that overlooked the Palatine Hill and Septimius’ palace. Mutatis mutandis, I would have had a front row seat on events that took place in Julia Domna’s apartments just across the way 1800 years earlier.

While Caracalla and Geta were talking, Caracalla’s henchmen, members of the Praetorian Guard loyal to him, leaped from hiding and hacked Geta to pieces. Caracalla joined in. Julia Domna tried to protect her younger son and she was wounded in the hand.

Geta died in her arms covered in her blood as well as his own. The event is celebrated in Jean-Antoine Julien de Parme’s neo-classical painting, which is found in Aux-en-Provence. Caracalla visited his mother in the days following the murder. She feigned approval for the fratricide and received her son’s embrace. She must have told him how nice it was to see him.

In a murderous follow up Caracalla slaughtered 20,000 countrymen whom he suspected of being friends of Geta. The year after the assassination, he left Rome and proceeded to spread murder and mayhem throughout his Empire. This is what Gibbon says about Caracalla’s Alexandrian massacre in his monumental Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire:

“From a secure post in the Temple of Serapis, he viewed and directed the slaughter of many thousand citizens, as well as strangers, without distinguishing either the number or the crime of the sufferers; since, as he coolly informed the senate, all the Alexandrians, those who had perished and those who had escaped, were alike guilty. (p. 118)”

Rome has a street called the Via delle Terme di Caracalla. On that street you will find the ruins of the Caracalla baths, public baths that Caracalla ordered built the same year that he slaughtered his brother. He was, in fact, completing a project conceived by his father. Today the Caracalla Baths is one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions and the home of Rome’s summer opera season.

Not only are the baths a popular tourist site, but thanks to McKim, Mead and White, the famous New York architectural firm of the early 20th century, the baths formed the inspiration for their design of the main waiting room of New York’s Pennsylvania Station.

 pennwaitingcaracalla baths

The White of McKim, Mead and White was none other than Stanford White, the man who was shot to death in June 1906 by the insanely jealous coal baron, Harry Kendall Thaw. White had, according to the story, seduced Evelyn Nesbit, the early 20th century precursor of Gisele Bündchen. The seduction happened long before she married Harry K. Thaw, but Thaw bore an ineradicable grudge.

The whole affair was the subject of the movie The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955) starring Joan Collins, Ray Milland and Farley Granger as Nesbit, White and Thaw respectively. (Cornelia Otis Skinner played Evelyn’s mother.) The title of the movie came from a red velvet swing that White actually had installed in his New York townhouse.

Unfortunately for White, on June 26, 1906 and on a whim, he decided not to take a planned trip to Philadelphia, but rather to join his son for dinner and an evening at the Madison Square Garden roof top theatre in New York City. White’s son, long after his father’s death, carried the guilt of having been the cause of his father’s change of plans and his chance encounter with Thaw, who took out a revolver and, at point blank range during the finale of Mam’zelle Champagne, blew White’s head off.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar Marc Anthony says, in his famous funeral oration,

“The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones.”

The evil that Caracalla did was interred not in his bones but in the baths he left behind. Poor Stanford White - a victim of the Caracalla curse - should never have designed that waiting room. If you would like the get to know the Rome sites and people mentioned in this article, why not book a tour?


Written by...

Stephen content writer Rome

By Stephen Wheeler Licensed Tourism translator