Like nobody else before or since, Caracalla had it coming. On April 8, AD217, four days after his 29th birthday, appropriately on his way to a Moon Temple in modern-day Turkey, this irredeemable lunatic dismounted from his horse, pulled down his breeches and surrendered to the demands of diarrhoea. It was one of his own bodyguards who stepped forward and stabbed him to death.
Even for an emperor of Rome, it took some doing to inspire that kind of loyalty. The sculptors of his portrait busts found him as difficult to idealise as historians have done since, his face fixed in a stony scowl, prematurely aged by a lifetime of hate. He is chiefly remembered now for the Baths of Caracalla, the opulent bathhouse outside Rome that so inspired the imagination of the Victorian painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. To confront the true, unique awfulness of the man, however, it is necessary to do as Caracalla himself did in AD208, and make the journey northwards to York. It was here, in August 2004, that archeologists made one of the most disturbing finds in the entire Roman world. Beneath the former garden of an 18th-century mansion in Driffield Terrace, in the exclusive Mount area just outside the city wall, they dug up a large Roman cemetery of early 3rd-century date.
This in itself was no surprise. The site bordered an important Roman road, still the main route into York from the southwest. The existence of graves in the area was well known, and – though the cemetery was evidently of considerable size and importance – it was a routine sort of a dig, ordered by City of York Council to map the site and remove archeological finds before new houses were built. It did not stay routine for long. Ordinarily, Roman cemeteries are much like any other kind. They hold a roughly equal mix of men and women, with infants, children, adolescents, young and older adults all in their natural proportion. It soon became clear that this one was very, very different. Fifty-six skeletons or part skeletons were recovered, of which only seven were adolescent or younger. The rest were all prime-of-life adult males, none older than 45. More than this: by the standards of their time, they were giants, mostly around 174cm (approximately 5ft 10in) tall, at a time when the average was 5cm less. They were powerfully built, too, with arm bones showing evidence of extreme physical exertion. And they were not locals. Isotope analysis of minerals in their tooth enamel showed that they originated from every corner of the Roman empire – a couple from Britain, several from the Mediterranean, one from the Alps, one even from Africa. How could this be explained?
Legionaries killed in battle? But then you would expect their skeletons to show the imprint of war – shattered skulls, severed limbs, defence wounds on hands and arms where they had tried to ward off sword or axe. All these were conspicuously absent. For all the evidence to the contrary, you might suppose that they had died in their beds. Except…
More than half of them had had their heads cut off. In some cases the skull had been put back more or less where it came from. But in many others it lay in the shallow grave beneath its owner’s arm, between his knees or beside his feet. One had heavy iron bands forged around his ankles and lay alongside another man with whom he had exchanged heads. A couple had been buried face down. Others were crumpled as if they had been tossed or hastily crammed into the ground. Only a small minority had been accorded the dignity of coffins.
Although headless burials were not unknown, there was no precedent for so many to be found in the same place. And neither was this the end of it. Just a few yards away, in the summer of 2005, another 24 graves were found in a garden. All contained the remains of young or middle-aged men. Fifteen of these definitely, and another three probably, had been decapitated. Nothing like this had been found anywhere in the entire, intercontinental span of the Roman empire. Who were these men? What had befallen them?
One early theory, outlined in a BBC2 Timewatch programme due to be shown later this month, was that they had been subjected to some kind of pagan burial rite. A common belief at the time was that removing a person’s head would release magical powers that would speed them into the afterlife, or perhaps would prevent them rising to haunt the living. But there was a problem. Ritual beheading happened after death, using a thin blade that would cut down through the front of the neck and slice between the vertebrae. The result was surgically neat.
But the York bodies were not like that at all. The work on and around the necks looked more like the efforts of a lumberjack than of any kind of anatomist. Even a butcher would have done a tidier job. The executioners hacked again and again until, through sheer persistence, they smashed through the bone and the head rolled free. At the York Archaeological Trust’s (YAT’s) conservation laboratory near York Minster, bone expert Katie Tucker shows me their handiwork. One man has a deep, V-shaped slice missing from his jawbone. One had a molar sliced in half as the blade carved through his face. Another has had the back of his head lifted off like a lid. Others have cuts in as many as five of the seven neck vertebrae, with blows delivered mostly from behind but at varying angles as the victims twisted away from their killers. Most seem to have been face down on the ground, presumably held there, when they were killed, and one seems to have been felled by a swipe at the knee. In one case it took 13 blows to get the head off.
Archeology is often a matter of matching familiar evidence to known facts. The stuff that comes out of the ground is exactly like lots of other stuff that’s come out of the ground before. You know what it is. You can work out how, when and why it got there. If you’re lucky it may be a new chapter, but it’s seldom a whole new book. As the man in charge of the dig, YAT’s head of fieldwork, Patrick Ottaway, points out, these burials neither conform to precedent nor easily submit to analysis. Whatever happened here was driven by something stronger than the ordinary disciplines of army life. Humanity was set aside; calculation subsumed by fear or hatred into something close to derangement. Who would have ordained such an atrocity? And why?
Caracalla was not his real name. He was born Septimius Bassianus, later changed to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, at Lyons (Roman Lugdunum) on April 4, 188, though for reasons of his own he would later lie about his age. His father was the North African-born senator and future emperor of Rome, Lucius Septimius Severus. His mother, Julia Domna, came from what is now Syria. Eleven months after the birth of Antoninus, and with consequences that would ultimately horrify her, Julia gave birth to a second son, Publius Septimius Geta.
It is fair to say that the Roman military and political classes were not unaccustomed to the sight of blood. Spilling it was no big deal – in context, it was no more than the ultimate step in a recognised process of hard bargaining. Young Antoninus took to killing as naturally as others might have taken to poetry or music. By the time he made his fatal comfort stop in 217, he would bear direct responsibility for upwards of 20,000 deaths. He started young. At 14 he was pressed into marriage with a girl called Plautilla, daughter of a powerful friend of his father’s. “But,” says Professor Anthony Birley, a biographer of Septimius Severus and expert on the Romans in Britain, “he hated her. Not only did he refuse to sleep with her but he wouldn’t even eat with her, and he particularly hated his father in law.” His remedy, aged 16, was to frame the man on a false charge of plotting against the emperor and to have him killed by guards. The unwanted bride was then banished. If one were to plead mitigation on the young man’s behalf, one might point to the influence of his father, Septimius Severus, whose idea of statesmanship was to fight anyone who opposed him. He executed 29 political opponents in the senate and replaced the old praetorian guard with a new 10,000-strong elite unit recruited largely from the Balkans and the Danube. In 208, aged 60, he decided it was time to visit the north of his empire and kill the resistance of Caledonian tribesmen north of the Forth and Clyde.
Prominent among the imperial retinue were his sons Antoninus, then aged 20, and Geta, 19. No two brothers have ever hated each other more than these two. As the contemporary Roman historian Cassius Dio put it: “The sons of Severus… went to all lengths in their conduct. They outraged women and abused boys, they embezzled money and made gladiators and charioteers their boon companions, emulating each other in the similarity of their deeds, but full of strife in their rivalries; for if the one attached himself to a certain faction, the other would be sure to choose the opposite side…”
Always, up ahead, lay the ultimate point of collision – their father’s death and the inheritance of an empire. By the time they reached York, the gap between ambition and destiny was narrowing fast. Severus was in poor health, gout-ridden and unable to walk. To his sons nevertheless he continued to offer the same malevolent example. Enraged by the hit-and-run tactics of an enemy that would not engage his army, he resolved to make Scotland unliveable, destroying its crops and slaughtering without mercy. Cassius Dio records him quoting Homer: “Let no one escape sheer destruction, No one our hands, not even the babe in the womb of the mother…”
Unsubtle though he might have been, Severus well understood the basics of human nature. He knew where the raw enmity between his sons was leading, and tried to bring peace by making them co-emperors with himself. Yoking them in power, however, served only to sharpen their rivalry. It was at about this time that the elder son, Antoninus, became known by the nickname that would stay with him throughout history – Caracalla. It derived from the local style of hooded tunic – a bit like a duffel coat – that he wore while in Britain and later made fashionable in Rome. He also began to exhibit the behaviour that would forge his reputation as a monster. It began with a failure – failure, that is, to assassinate his own father, against whom he drew his sword while they were riding to negotiate the Caledonians’ surrender. Alerted by his guards, Severus faced the young man down.
For the younger son, Geta, however, there was to be no such escape. Severus’s last words before he died in 211 were to his sons: “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers and scorn all other men.” Caracalla evidently took to heart the second and third of these injunctions but stopped his ears to the first. The flames from Severus’s pyre had barely died down before both heirs were heading back to Rome. For some time Caracalla had been lying about his age, advancing his birth date by two years to exaggerate the superiority of his birthright over Geta’s. But he was not going to rely on primogeniture alone. Within a year, Geta was dead. There was no subterfuge; no plot or alibi. Offering neither excuse nor apology, Caracalla chased his brother through the palace and stabbed him in the arms of their mother. The new emperor also put to death his estranged wife, Plautilla, and her brother, and continued as he had begun – purging the high command of everyone who had ever told him “no”.
In the Timewatch programme, Anthony Birley argues that the bloodshed began even before Caracalla left York, and that the cemetery at Driffield Terrace was the resting place of his victims. Among the first to go was his father’s chamberlain, Castor, who had made the mistake of barring him from the imperial chamber. His childhood tutor Euhodus – formerly his accomplice in framing his father-in-law – was killed for the crime of promoting harmony between the brothers. Even Severus’s doctors were murdered, for having denied Caracalla’s request to shorten the old man’s life. Also unwanted on the journey home, Birley suggests, were other courtiers and officers who had favoured Geta.
This would explain various things – the choice of an important burial place on high ground next to a main road; the method of execution (beheading was the privilege of Roman citizens, while lesser breeds were crucified, burned or thrown to animals); and the hasty disposal of the bodies. The executions would have been in public and, says Miranda Green, an expert on Celtic Britain, would have been “extremely theatrical”.
“The idea would have been a kind of performance, where maybe the entire community was there to see it happen. It would have been very bloody, but you mustn’t just think about things being highly visual. Sound and smell would have been very important as well.” One’s imagination here begins to do peculiar things to the stomach, especially when Green suggests that spectators would have made a day out of it with a picnic. A number of things still need explaining, however – most obviously the male exclusivity of the cemetery, the narrow age range and physical size of its denizens. There is also the awkward fact that many of the burials overlie each other, thus making it unlikely that the deaths all occurred in the same incident.
I try a theory of my own. Where in the Roman empire, outside the battlefield, might you find unusually large, physically fit young men being killed in batches? Is it possible that they were victims not of the executioner but of each other, as gladiators? Surprisingly, Birley does not dismiss the idea out of hand – funeral games, he says, might well have been staged after the old emperor’s death and, as Patrick Ottaway acknowledges, there must have been an amphitheatre somewhere in the city, though nobody knows where. In the end, however, Birley rejects it on the same grounds that Ottaway and Katie Tucker rejected the idea of deaths in battle – the absence of fresh bone fractures.
“All our sources, so far as I know them, ive the impression that gladiators were killed by the sword or in some cases trident of their opponents, or being gored by wild beasts, and the impression is that there was horrific wounding and lots of blood. So it seems to me very unlikely that they would have just soft flesh wounds. Besides, I can't think of any cases of gladiators being given the coup de grâce with the axe, let alone a few dozen of them.” Nevertheless, it is a subject that gives insight into the character of the new emperor. “For what it’s worth, Cassius Dio says that Caracalla killed large numbers of the elite at Rome after disposing of his brother Geta, then ‘veering from murder to sport, he showed the same thirst for blood in this field too. It was nothing, of course, that elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers etc were killed in the arena, but he took pleasure in seeing the blood of as many gladiators as possible. He forced one, Bato, to fight three men in succession on the same day, then, when Bato was killed by the last one, he honoured him with a brilliant funeral’.”
Miranda Green’s theory is that the executions might have been punishment for a military unit found guilty of cowardice, when “every 10th man is killed in front of their fellows”. It offers, too, an alternative explanation for the beheadings. “Their bodies might well have been treated in a humiliating way so that they wouldn’t actually enter the spirit world.”
Timewatch continues to favour Birley’s picture of an irascible and possibly unbalanced young dictator slaying his father’s favourites. Given that nothing is known of these people’s ages, and that their privileged diets would have made them tall, there is no reason why they should not have conformed to the physical pattern of the Driffield skeletons. Nevertheless, Birley proposes an alternative theory of his own. Given that pottery dating is accurate only to within ten years or so, it is entirely conceivable that the deaths occurred at a slightly later date – not in February 211, as everyone has assumed, but some time during 213 or 214. The Roman governor of Britain then was Gaius Julius Marcus, a self-proclaimed loyalist who advertised his devotion to Caracalla in numerous inscriptions along Hadrian’s Wall. Tellingly, however, he seems to have been worried that he and his men were suspected of having favoured Geta in 211, and his fears may have been justified. “This mass protestation of loyalty didn’t work,” says Birley, “since Julius Marcus’s name was systematically deleted from the inscriptions. But in some cases it is still legible, and they forgot to delete his name from a milestone. Clearly he copped it.”
In this scenario, the bodies in York are those of Julius Marcus and members of his bodyguard or singulares, an elite troop. “Roman history,” says Birley, “is full of examples of men who had fallen foul of an emperor being disposed of, usually by a centurion sent for the purpose. Equally, Julius Marcus’s successor could have turned up with a secret commission to kill him off.”
From a distance of nearly 1800 years, the truth lies tantalisingly half in and half out of our grasp. Some things are certain – the reality of these men’s horrible deaths; their age and stature; the chaos of their burials; the mix of nationalities. Some things are highly probable – that they were victims of execution; that they belonged to an elite group of some kind; that the group itself was military. Other things are educated guesses – that they were killed for disloyalty or cowardice; that they were loyalists of Geta. All are consistent in their depiction of nihilistic cruelty in the service of a man whose own murder was his only experience of justice.