“Antoninus wished to murder his brother at the Saturnalia" - Caracalla, Geta and a family tragedy

19 December 211 CE in Rome, Emperor Caracalla had his brother Geta murdered during the celebrations of the Saturnalia at the home of their mother.
“Antoninus wished to murder his brother at the Saturnalia, but was unable to do so; for his evil purpose had already become too manifest to remain concealed, and so there now ensued many sharp encounters between the two, each of whom felt that the other was plotting against him, and many defensive measures were taken on both sides. Since many soldiers and athletes, therefore, were guarding Geta, both abroad and at home, day and night alike, Antoninus induced his mother to summon them both, unattended, to her apartment, with a view to reconciling them. Thus Geta was persuaded, and went in with him; but when they were inside, some centurions, previously instructed by Antoninus, rushed in a body and struck down Geta, who at sight of them had run to his mother, hung about her neck and clung to her bosom and breasts, lamenting and crying: "Mother that didst bear me, mother that didst bear me, help! I am being murdered." (Cassius Dio)

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s imagination of the happy Imperial family during games at the Circus Maximus, with Geta standing between the two women at the balcony rail and Caracalla leaning brooding to a column in the background to the right of their seated parents Septimus Severus and Julia Domna (1907)

The odd family crisis is very probably a common feature of high holidays and festivals since time immemorial. And neither does the Roman Empire nor its Imperial families make an exception. Admittedly, the sons of Emperor Septimus Severus hated each other with a vengeance since they could crawl. And the emperor did his best not to give undue preferences to one of his sons, but then, Caracalla was the older, by just a year, though, and he was made Caesar and then Augustus first, got the military command in Britain, while younger Geta had to do the boring administration job in Eboracum and probably Caracalla always got the more expensive presents on Saturnalia anyway. The emperor had corresponding forebodings on his mind about how this would end after his death and planned a partition of the empire, the west for Caracalla and the east for Geta, but Septimus Severus got a cold fighting the Caledonians in the deep of winter and died in February 211 and Caracalla and Geta were proclaimed joint emperors.

Contemporary portrait of Emperor Septimus Severus (Glyptothek, Munich)

Trying to hold the family wealth together, the young emperors’ mother Julia Domna spoke out against dividing up the empire between her sons and the two, back in Rome, continued to intrigue against each other and then the holiday season came and Caracalla finished first again. Geta did rather not expect his brother to plan mischief during family celebrations with their mother present, but far from it. As soon as family and friends laid down at the set table, Caracalla’s hirelings gatecrashed the party, Geta, then 22 years old, fled into the arms of his mother and was stabbed down nonetheless, Julia Domna was injured at the hand while trying to ward of the blows from her son. Immediately afterwards, Caracalla ordered a damnatio memoriae against his brother, his images were painted over, coins with his likeness melted down and what not. Caracalla’s relationship towards his mother was, quite understandably, damaged beyond repair and Saturnalia celebrations with the Severans would never be the same again.

Contemporary portrait of Publius Septimius Geta (Louvre)

A political purge followed and hundreds, maybe thousands of Geta’s former followers were executed by the new sole emperor. Those who survived finally managed to assassinate Caracalla when he began to campaign in Parthia, allegedly while the emperor answered the call of nature. By then however, Caracalla probably had ruined another celebration, again. This time to provide for the actual casus belli with the Parthian empire. According to the contemporary historian Herodianus, the emperor had plagued the Parthian king Artabanus to give him the hand of his daughter and when the Middle Eastern monarch finally agreed and the guests assembled for the royal wedding in the palace at Arbela, Caracalla ordered his household troops to slaughter the assembled company including the bride. If the story is true or not, Caracalla’s death during the campaign forced his immediate successor Macrinus, who was at least co-responsible for his assassination, to abandon the war and pay huge reparations to Artabanus. But by then, the doors were wide open for the coming Rome’s Crisis of the Third Century anyway.

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