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Was Caracalla guilty of human sacrifice?

By Jasper Burns
(First published in THE CELATOR: Journal of Ancient and Medieval Art and Artifacts, Vol. 11, No. 2, February 1997, copyright by Jasper Burns)

FIGURE 1. Alexander's and Caracalla's Routes

The Roman Emperor Caracalla (sole reign 211-217 C. E.) was thoroughly obsessed with Alexander the Great. He identified with Alexander so completely that he informed the Roman Senate that he was a reincarnation of the Macedonian conqueror. And when he marched east in 214 with the intention of conquering the Parthian Empire (as Alexander had conquered the Persian), he followed almost exactly in the footsteps of his hero. (See Figure 1)

Alexander's route had taken him to Egypt, where he laid out the plan for the city of Alexandria and consulted the oracle of Zeus-Ammon. Caracalla also marched his army to Egypt before attacking the Parthians, and he also visited an important Egyptian shrine - the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria. But rather than founding a new city, as Alexander had done, he nearly destroyed one. He ordered his troops to massacre a large number of the people of Alexandria.

The reasons for this brutal act are unclear, but the way in which the deed was done, plus a few facts about Caracalla's background and character, raise an interesting and horrifying question: Was the murder of the Alexandrians a ritualistic human sacrifice ordered by Caracalla in hopes of obtaining deliverance from a disease and a guarantee of victory over the Parthians?


There are two main versions of the story of the massacre. According to the ancient historian Herodian, as Caracalla approached the city, he sent orders for "large public sacrifices of cattle and all kinds of offerings to the dead to be made ready." The unsuspecting Alexandrians greeted the Emperor with music, incense, and torch processions and "showered him with flowers." Caracalla went directly to the Temple of Serapis, which became his headquarters, and made lavish offerings to the god. From there, he went to the tomb of Alexander and laid all of the valuables on his person - rings, belts, and purple cloak - upon the grave.

The jubilant city, swelling with visitors as well as residents, celebrated Caracalla's arrival throughout the night. The Emperor joined the festivities, then ordered all of the young men to assemble in an open area (possibly near the Temple of Serapis). To their delight, he announced his plan to enroll those who passed muster into a special phalanx in his army, to be named after Alexander himself.

Caracalla inspected the assembled men, giving an encouraging word to each one. Meanwhile, his army quietly surrounded the gathering. At the Emperor's command, after he and his German bodyguard had left the field, the soldiers annihilated the unarmed "recruits." Meanwhile, other troops dug huge pits into which the dead bodies were thrown. When full, the pits were covered with earth, forming a huge communal burial mound. Herodian claims that so many men were killed that the mouths of the Nile and the seashore near Alexandria "grew red from the streams of blood which flowed through the plain."

The historian Cassius Dio's version is different in several respects. He reports that the leading citizens of Alexandria, "bearing mystic and sacred symbols," went to meet Caracalla as he approached the outskirts of the city. The Emperor greeted then cordially, even gave them a banquet, and then had them put to death. Then he marched into Alexandria, ordered the inhabitants to remain in their homes, and stationed his men throughout the city. The soldiers began a killing spree, murdering civilians indiscriminately and pillaging Alexandria's valuables as if it was a conquered city. Caracalla sometimes participated in the carnage, which continued for some days and nights; at other times he issued orders from his headquarters at the Temple of Serapis. Dio states that he now dedicated the sword with which he had killed his brother and co-emperor Geta to the god. He agrees with Herodian that the dead bodies - and some not quite dead - were thrown into deep trenches. He says that Caracalla's army "all but utterly destroyed the whole population of Alexander's city."

According to Dio's version, Caracalla sent word to the Senate in Rome while the killing was in progress that he was "performing rites of purificationů when he was in reality sacrificing human beings to himself at the same time that he sacrificed animals to the god [Serapis]." After the massacre, Caracalla banned all spectacles and public feasts and divided Alexandria with a guarded wall. These measures may be seen as precautions against reprisals, but a prolonged punishment of the city is suggested by the fact that no coins were minted there during the following year.

The writer of the so-called "Historia Augusta" seems to combine the two accounts by stating that the army first murdered the men who were being enrolled for military service in a gymnasium, and then attacked the people of the city at large.


Any attempt to understand Caracalla's motives for murdering the people of Alexandria must include a look at his personal history and the influences which helped to form his character. He was born in 188 C. E. at Lugdunum (Lyons) in Roman Gaul. His father, the future emperor Septimius Severus, was from the African city of Lepcis Magna and his mother, Julia Domna, was from Syrian Emesa. Severus was a singularly superstitious man and was particularly devoted to the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis. During the latter part of his reign, he was often assimilated to this deity, as is shown on coins and statues by the distinctive corkscrew curls on his brow and his long, forked beard.

Sestertius of Julia Domna

Serapis was a hellenized version of the native Egyptian deity Osiris-Apis. He was generally identified with Zeus, but he had a broad range of attributes and affinities. As a solar deity, he was identified with Apollo and with the Semitic Baal, but as a chthonic god of the Underworld, he was associated with Pluto and Osiris. He was clearly the tutelary god of the family of Septimius Severus and was the only god represented on Imperial coins during every year of Caracalla's reign.

Severus was also intensely interested in all forms of secret lore and magic. He confiscated secret books from temples during his travels through the Empire and outlawed divination and magic in Egypt before he would venture to go there. Given Severus's well-documented fascination with the occult, his actions seem to have been precautionary - if magic powers existed, he preferred to be the one who controlled them.

When he visited Egypt in 199 with his family, Severus visited the tomb of Alexander the Great. After viewing the corpse of the conqueror, who had died more than 500 years before, Severus had the tomb sealed off so that no future visitor could gaze on the hero's form.

Caracalla became co-emperor with his father in 198, when he was nearly ten, and campaigned with him in northern Britain and Scotland from 209 until Severus's death at Eboracum (York) in 211. Caracalla and his younger brother Geta succeeded as co--emperors, but Geta was murdered in December of that year, either by Caracalla or by his soldiers. The new emperor had received a "thorough intellectual training" from Severus, and he inherited his father's devotion to Serapis and Alexander as well his keen interest in arcane religious practices. Caracalla's great respect for Rome's ancient enemy, the Carthaginian general Hannibal, may reflect some pride in his father's African roots.

In 213, Caracalla waged war against the German tribes. He was in his element with the army and won the loyalty of the troops by sharing their food and labors - and by increasing their pay by fifty percent or more. Caracalla was greatly impressed by the ways of the German and Celtic "barbarians." He took to wearing German clothes and derived his nickname from the "caracallus," a Gallic or German hooded cloak which he wore. He even sported a blond wig styled in the German fashion. For this, and perhaps for financial subsidies made to secure peace, Caracalla was loved by many of the Germans, on both sides of the frontier.

His German campaigns had been successful, but the Emperor was now suffering from a mysterious disease with both physical and mental symptoms. He was tortured by frightening visions and was rumored to have become impotent. Cassius Dio tells us that his illness was caused by spells cast by the Germans and that members of the Alamanni tribe had claimed responsibility. Caracalla made repeated prayers and sacrifices to the gods, especially Serapis and the healing god Aesculapius, but without relief. He even appealed unsuccessfully to Grannus, a Celtic deity identified with Apollo who was worshiped by the Germans and Dacians.

By the spring of 214, Caracalla had assembled a great army at the Danube camps for the invasion of the Parthian Empire. Finally, the "new Alexander" was ready to move east. After barely surviving a shipwreck during his crossing from Europe into Asia Minor, he visited the supposed tomb of Achilles at Troy (as Alexander had done) and "took the cure" without much effect at the Pergamene shrine of Aesculapius. Caracalla was in no hurry. A full year after he and his army had begun their march, they finally arrived at Antioch in northern Syria, the logical place to launch an invasion of the east. Instead, Caracalla led his troops south to Egypt, reaching Alexandria sometime between June and September of 215.

Why did Caracalla go to Egypt? Was it simply because Alexander had done so? Or was he still in search of relief from his illness and hoping that the combined powers of Alexander's tomb and the famous Temple of Serapis could cure him? According to Herodian, Caracalla said that he was going to Alexandria because "he longed to see the city founded in honor of Alexander and to sacrifice to the god [Serapis] whom the people there hold in special veneration."

Despite the fact that Alexandria was his hero's city, his feelings for its citizens must have been mixed. A recent procurator of the city, Flavius Titianus, had been executed for insulting Caracalla's close friend and advisor, the former dancer Theocritus. Twenty-two years earlier, Alexandria had sided with Pescennius Niger against his father in the civil wars, and it had been mentioned as a possible capital for Geta when the brothers had contemplated dividing the Empire between them.

Perhaps of more significance were the reports that Caracalla and his mother had become the objects of ridicule in the city. Besides condemning the murder of Geta, the Alexandrians were charging Caracalla and Julia Domna with incest and comparing them to Oedipus and his mother/wife Jocasta. Further, they were laughing at the Emperor for presuming to emulate such tall, god-like heroes as Achilles and Alexander though he himself was a small man. For Herodian and Cassius Dio, Caracalla's anger at these insults was the reason for his punishment of Alexandria. But similar comments were surely being made in other parts of the Empire as well - ridiculing the Emperor must have been a widespread pasttime.

That Caracalla may have attempted to justify the atrocity in Alexandria as a reaction to an incipient rebellion is suggested by issues of sestertii (Figure 2) and aurei minted shortly after the event. These show Caracalla in military attire with his right foot on a crocodile, which certainly represents Egypt, and seem to imply that an uprising has recently been subdued. The Emperor holds a spear with its point toward the ground. Approaching Caracalla is a female figure usually identified as the goddess Isis, the wife of Serapis and one of Caracalla's favorite deities, holding ears of corn in one hand and a sistrum in the other. These offerings suggest that Caracalla may represent Serapis himself, or Horus as the king of Egypt.

FIGURE 2. Coin of Caracalla (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) 215 C. E.
Drawing by Jasper Burns copyright 1997


Why should the incident in Alexandria be interpreted as anything more than the violent outburst of a brutal, vindictive, possibly deranged tyrant? First there are Caracalla's own words, as reported by Herodian: He went to Alexandria to "sacrifice to the god..." This intent is underscored by his report to the Senate that, while the killing was going on, he was performing rites of purification." Even Dio interprets the massacre as an act of "sacrificing human beings." And there are certain ritual-like aspects of the killing.

According to Herodian's version, the victims were young men in the prime of life. Before being murdered, they were dedicated en masse as a military unit to Caracalla's hero and alter ego, the demi-god Alexander. In Dio's account, the giving of a banquet to the victims before their murder is also suggestive of ritual sacrifice. In both stories, the burial of victims in deep pits or trenches, explained by Dio as being an attempt to disguise the scale of the massacre by hiding the evidence, would have a different meaning in a sacrifice to the god of the Underworld.

Dio's claim that Caracalla dedicated the sword with which he had killed his brother is perplexing because he also states that Geta was murdered by Caracalla's centurions, not by the Emperor himself. If Caracalla did participate physically in the Alexandrian slaughter, as Dio claims, then perhaps he offered his sword to Serapis as an instrument of sacrifice.

There were other occasions on which Caracalla ordered the execution of large numbers of people. After Geta's murder, as many as 20,000 of his friends and supporters were killed. Cassius Dio implies that he perpetrated another massacre during his visit to Pergamum. Dio also describes an incident that is very reminiscent of Herodian's account of the Alexandrian disaster. He writes that in 213 during his German wars, Caracalla assembled a gathering of German men of military age who were friendly to Rome, claiming that he intended to enroll them as mercenaries in his army. Then he gave the signal for them to be surrounded and killed by his soldiers.

Yet another mass execution preceded by a show of false pretenses occurs in Herodian's version of Caracalla's attack on the Parthians, which came in 216. He says that the Emperor pretended to be marrying the daughter of the Parthian king Artabanus, but then signalled his troops to attack and kill the large number of unarmed Parthians who had assembled for the wedding.

But what would Caracalla have hoped to accomplish by sacrificing human beings? To answer this, we must recall his fascination with the occult, with Celtic and German customs, and even his family roots in Africa and Syria.

Both of Caracalla's parents came from parts of the Empire with a strong Phoenician heritage. In fact, a Phoenician-based dialect was still spoken in both areas and Septimius Severus's native tongue was Punic. Julia Domna was the daughter of the high priest of Elagabalus, a sun god with distinct Phoenician origins. The Phoenician religion belonged to a Semitic tradition in which human sacrifice was a prominent feature. According to the ancient custom, kings would sacrifice their sons as a ransom to malevolent demons and as offerings to the gods. This practice may even be reflected in the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.

When the Phoenicians colonized the northern coast of Africa and Spain, they brought the custom of human sacrifice with them. The stories of child sacrifice in Carthage, particularly during the Punic Wars with Rome, are well known. Though the Romans outlawed this practice in 97 B. C. E., it continued in secret. Tertullian, writing at the end of the second century A. D., says that it was not finally stopped until the "pronconsulship of Tiberius," but we are not certain when that was or whom he is referring to.

It seems unlikely that human sacrifice was prevalent either in Julia Domna's Syria or Septimius Severus's Africa. Still, there can be little doubt that the antiquarian emperor and his son, with their interest in secret lore and magic, were familiar with the traditional practices and their supposed powers.

Caracalla's fascination with Celtic and German culture and religion would also have exposed him to customs of human sacrifice. In his "Gallic Wars," Julius Caesar wrote that, among the Celtic Gauls, people suffering from "grievous maladies and who are engaged in the perils of battle... sacrifice human victims. " Tacitus tells us of the practice among the Germans and we find evidence of its existence in the remains of the so-called "bog people" of northern Europe. Most of these sacrificial victims, preserved in peat bogs throughout Germany, the British Isles, and elsewhere, were buried between 100 B. C. E. and 500 C. E., so the practice was still thriving while Caracalla campaigned in Germany.

It is possible that Caracalla's knowledge of Phoenician, Celtic, and German rituals could have led him to believe that human sacrifice could deliver him from his disease and insure military success against the Parthians. As his ambitions were nothing less than adding the vast dominions of Alexander's empire to his own, a very large number of sacrificial victims may have seemed necessary.

Harold Mattingly states that the Imperial coins issued by Caracalla in 214 and 215 reflect his preoccupation with religion and his desire for healing. Various reverses depict Apollo, Aesculapius, Serapis, and Serapis as Pluto (the god of the Underworld who was often associated with magic). Other coins show Minos and the Minotaur and scenes of sacrifice in front of the Temple of Vesta.

The theme of Minos and the Minotaur is interesting for its reference to yet another tradition of human sacrifice, on the island of Crete. In legend, Minos was the judge of the Underworld, and young men and women from Athens were sacrificed to the Minotaur in the labyrinth until he was killed by Theseus.

The scene of sacrifice in front of the Temple of Vesta is ironic as Caracalla had recently ordered the execution of four Vestal Virgins on the contested charge of breaking their vows of chastity. Three of the priestesses were buried alive - one of less than ten occasions that we know of in Roman history when this ancient punishment was invoked.

The very idea of human sacrifice being practiced in the Roman Empire may seem incredible. Livy wrote that nothing could be less Roman. But there are other hints of its existence. There were charges that the secret rites of Mithras, especially popular in the Roman army, sometimes involved human sacrifice. At Nemi in Italy, at least until the second century C. E., a runaway slave was made a sham priest-king and then murdered by his successor, apparently as part of a fertility rite. The elder Pliny (first century C. E.) mentioned the burial alive of Gauls and Germans, possibly by Caligula in preparation for his proposed war with Germany, and two Gauls and two Greeks were sacrificed in Rome during the struggle with Hannibal. Some Christian writers claimed that a criminal was sacrificed each year at the celebration of the feriae Latinae. Ramsay MacMullen points out that a passage in the Historia Augusta implies that the Emperor Aurelian (reigned 270-275) recognized the value of human sacrifice as a way to win the favor of the gods. And Cassius Dio charges Septimius Severus's predecessor, the Emperor Didius Julianus, with "killing many boys as a magic rite" during his struggle with Severus.

Whatever Caracalla was up to in Alexandria, his offerings to Serapis did not avail him for long. In April 217, during a successful but inglorious war with Parthia, the "Ausonian Beast," as he liked being called, was stabbed to death while relieving himself on his way to the temple of the Moon god in Carrhae, about 150 miles east of Antioch. He was only twenty-nine years old. Caracalla's gains against the Parthians were soon relinquished by his successor Macrinus, and his grandiose plan to repeat the accomplishments of Alexander the Great came to nothing.

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