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🏛Quo Usque Pro Roma Ibis?🏛  This page is dedicated to the mighty Roman Army. From the Kingdom of Rome to the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire! c. 753 BC - 1453 AD 📜

Its unclear why Martialis was so eager to accept the risky assignment of murdering Caracalla, with Dio and Herodian again disagreeing on his motives. According to Dio, Martialis accepted a position in the conspiracy because Caracalla had refused to promote him to the rank of Centurion. According to Herodian however, Martialis already was a Centurion and the reason he accepted Macrinus' offer was because Caracalla had executed his brother without sufficient evidence to convict him in a sham trial three days earlier. Caracalla was indeed known for his insecurity and paranoia but to be fair here he also was known for his skill and patience in the courts.
Whatever the reality Martialis clearly was part of the growing anti-Caracallan conspiracy. However despite his closeness to Caracalla, it wasn't as simple of a matter as just walking up to him and killing him. Caracalla was at all times accompanied by a bodyguard of Germans and Scythians, who would defend the emperor against any perceived dangers. These bodyguards were non-Romans, and considered loyal specifically because of that as they were disconnected from Roman politics and also had no, or at least less, motive to turn on emperors. Caracalla was not unique in this regard, as for centuries non-Romans had been employed as bodyguards for these same reasons and would continue to be employed for them.
Martialis was given his chance when on April 8, 217 AD, Caracalla and his bodyguards were stopping near Carrhae. The emperor was suffering from a stomach ache, and stopped momentarily to relieve himself. With the other bodyguards turning around to respect the emperor's privacy and with nobody at his side, Martialis seized the opportunity and struck. Coming under the pretense that he had comething important to say, Martialis plunged a dagger into Caracalla while he was lowering his breeches. Caracalla's bodyguards were too late to save him, but they were not too late to avenge him: as Martialis rode for his life, he was pursued and shot by a Scythian cavalryman. Thus ended the life of Caracalla, an emperor of controversy driven to cruelty by guilt and insecurity.

Caracalla made Edessa the headquarters for his Parthian campaign, and spent the winter of 216/217 AD there chariot-racing, hunting and planning future operations against the Parthians. According to Dio, Caracalla learned of a signifigant Parthian mobilization over the winter which caused him to panic and blatantly calling Caracalla a coward who scorned from any other fighting save for easy pickings and raids, but Herodian makes no mention of this and this episode was probably just hostility towards the emperor. As 217 AD dawned, Caracalla received a letter from Flavius Maternianus in Rome, an officer of the Praetorian Guard, regarding a conspiracy against the emperor's life.
In the letter that Maternianus sent Caracalla he was warning him that the Praetorian Prefect Marcus Opellius Macrinus was plotting against him and planning to seize the throne, either because he wanted to remove Macrinus as a threat or because he actually discovered proof; we simply dont know for sure. The letter was deviated to Julia Domna, Caracalla's mother, who was at Antioch at the time, who likewise suspected Macrinus as a ring-leader. The letter reached Caracalla while he was marching from Edessa to Carrhae in the spring.
Caracalla did not suspect Macrinus at all, and as he was preparing himself for a chariot race, he forwarded the letter to Macrinus and asked him to inform him of anything important there. Macrinus obviously was not too pleased to find out that the letter contained his death warrant, and this discovery drove him to plot against Caracalla and plan his assasination. Macrinus would have to act quickly and efficiently, before Maternianus wrote again to the emperor. Fortunately for Macrinus, Caracalla's own bodyguards provided him with the perfect assasin for the job: a young soldier named Julius Martialis. The man was close to Caracalla, and thus in a perfect position to strike at him, however the emperor was accompanied by other bodyguards, loyal only to him. The trick would be finding the right time to strike.

Both Dio and Herodian, while disagreeing on the specifics of the marriage, do agree on one thing: Parthia was badly prepared for an invasion from Rome. Parthia had no standing army, and thus whenever Rome did invade it meant that there were no immediate troops to be deployed against them, and it wasn't until after the Romans were pillaging their cities that an effective army might be mobilized. There was also the delicate issue of the loyalty of Greek towns and cities in Mesopotamia, who hated the Parthians and could prove a source of inside help to the Romans, that or ambitious nobles seeking to gain the throne for themselves. Roman armies thus were not always likely to face a proper Parthian army, since their assembly took time. In this case however the Parthians were not expecting to have to fight the Romans at all.
According to Herodian, the Parthians were jubillant at Caracalla's arrival, welcoming the prospect of eternal peace with the Romans, and everywhere where the emperor went he found the Parthians submitting to him en-masse and offering sacrifices for his goodwill. It was no wonder, then, that Caracalla came to regard the lands he and his army marched through as his own already. Artabanus came to meet Caracalla in the plains before "the city" (Ctesiphon?) with his royal court and a large crowd of spectators, who began dancing and celebrating wildly.
Caracalla ended the pretense of coming in peace swiftly and made it clear that he was here for war: at a given signal, the Roman troops attacked and slaughtered signifigant numbers of Parthians, including many royal courtiers, several of whom were imprisoned. Dio makes no mention of this disaster but there's no reason to assume this means it didn't happen. Whatever the reality, Caracalla had managed to capture the Parthians off-balance. With no army, Artabanus was powerless to stop the Romans from pillaging his lands across a wide swathe of territory. When the Senate back in Rome heard of this, they voted to give Caracalla Triumphal honors, more out of a fear of his temper and retribution.

We have two different versions on the reasons Caracalla invaded Parthia, one from Cassius Dio and another from Herodian, the latter having the best known version. According to Dio, Caracalla offered his hand in marriage to the daughter of Artabanus in order to seal an alliance between the Roman and Parthian Empires, but he was refused. Caracalla took this as a pretext to launch an invasion into Parthia, and war swiftly began. Herodian repeats the offer of alliance via marriage, and adds that Caracalla claimed that the united strength of both empires would be utterly unstoppable, and that if combined as one their formidable armies could complement one another: Rome with its infantry, Parthia with its cavalry. He also added that he didn't wish to be married to some Roman noble, but the daughter of a great king instead. Artabanus was sceptical and for good reason: this was an unprecedented offer from Rome, and the king at first replied trying to politely decline. However Caracalla nagged at Artabanus constantly and sent him lavish gifts and oaths of friendship, and thus finally won him over and had the marriage arranged to take place in Mesopotamia.
There deffinetly was a marriage at least discussed of between Rome and Parthia, and Caracalla did deffinetly invade as a result of this arrangement regardless of which version is more true. Either way Caracalla had no intention of keeping his side of the bargain, and had only planned out the marriage to ensure he was warmly received into Parthia without opposition, granting him the element of surprise: crude, but good strategy. Dio and Herodian once again disagree on another, factor: Artabanus' realization of the impending Roman invasion. Dio claims that Artabanus did not believe Caracalla's offer was genuine, or at least so its implied, and thus rejected it. Herodian claims that, while perhaps suspicious at the beginning, Artabanus eventually let his guard down completely and even addressed Caracalla as his son-in-law in letters between the two. Whatever the reality, Caracalla deffinetly did invade as a result of this marriage deal, and Artabanus was very unprepared for an invasion either way.

The Parthian army was a feudal militia, composed mostly of the rural poor who provided the army with its famous horse archers, and the nobility who provided the heavy cavalry. We do not have any evidence pointing to Parthian infantry aside from in forts and cities, but signifigant numbers of these were likely fielded anyway. Parthian armies could be formidable when well led, on open ground and in its home territory, however it was incapable of prolonged campaigning since the non-professional soldiers became easily restive when they were far from their homes for long, and unless progress was made quickly a Parthian army could lose its spirit, and it was usually poorly balanced in regard to its composition of troop types. They also were often lead by rudimemtary generals, with skilled commanders being rare since the murderous politics of the Parthian court discouraged the emergance of any.
The horse archers were the backbone of every Parthian army, unarmored and armed with powerful composite bows, but poorly equipped and trained for close quarters. They were trained for shoot-and-scoot tactics, presenting a very difficult target to hit for their enemies. They were skilled bowmen, but the image of Parthian horse archers being superbly accurate and killing vast numbers of enemies with each arrow is a highly distorted one: rate of fire was favored over accuracy, and the bows could not pierce shields or solid metal armor.
More prestigious and intimidating were the cataphracts provided by the feudal nobility. They were armored from head to toe, and their mounts were also armored, granting them excellent protection. They were shock cavalry, armed with two-handed lances thrust forward at a charge, and when employed with the horse archers and used correctly could be highly effective. However like all ancient cavalry -due to a lack of stirrups- they lacked the momentum to punch through lines of heavy infantry, as their charge was just a slow trod due to their weight.

When Caracalla gave all free-borns in the empire Roman citizenship, the final distinction between the Legions and the Auxiliaries vanished. At the time, the training and equipment of Legionaries and Auxiliary heavy infantry was already the same and their equipment was essentially identical. At first nothing changed, and the Auxiliary units which had stood before continued to exist, however over time the two types of troops blended together, as there already was no longer anything to distinguish Legions from Auxiliaries. Eventually the traditional Auxiliary corps abolished completely, and everyone instead joined the Legions, with recruits also being admitted from non-citizens. Its unclear if by the time Caracalla invaded Parthia this change had come about, but it certainly was starting.
A Roman Legion had a paper strength of 5,240 infantry and cavalry. It was divided into ten Cohorts each 480 men strong, except for the first Cohort which was 800. Each Cohort was divided into six Centuries lead by a Centurion, with each Century having 80 men except for the first Cohort which had six Centuries of 160. Finally, each Century was divided into ten Contubernia lead by a Decanus, a Contubernia numbering 8 men again with the exception of the first Cohort which had 16 men per such unit. Each Legion was also accompanied by a unit of 120 Legionary cavalry, mainly used for scout tasks.
A Legionary's primary weapon at this time was a thrusting spear, with Herodian remarking that Roman infantry was "invincible in close quarters combat" with them. Swords were however still carried and used, with the longer Spatha sword probably by now being standard issue over the somewhat shorter Gladius. Javelins were also used to be hurled at the enemy before close combat, with conventionally shaped javelins probably by now being more popular than the more famous Pilum heavy javelin. An oval shield was standard issue, which was far more effective with an army that primarily fought with a spear. For protection, helmets with large cheek pieces were used, and chainmail was the primary form of body armor along with scaled cuirass', though segmented plate armor was also still in use.

Caracalla's mania of Alexander did not extend to him just murdering people or building statues, he considered himself his equal as a conqueror too. In the early 4th century BC, Alexander had invaded and conquered the Persians, and then pressed on as far as India: Caracalla wanted to emulate this success by staging an invasion against the Parthian Empire. Preparations had already been made for the campaign since 214 AD, with lines of communication being improved, troops concentrated at Antioch, Syria, and with new mints for coins to fund the campaign being made. By the summer of 216 AD, Caracalla was preparing to march out. The timing for the invasion was also good, as not only were the Parthians not expecting one, they had been dealing with internal weaknesses.
Back In 208 AD, Vologases V had died after a chaotic reign since 191 AD, probably not being missed by any as its unlikely he was very popular any longer at the time of his death. His failure to defend northern Mesopotamia resulted in the greatest loss of territory to Rome in Parthia's history, and the capital of Ctesiphon had been thoroughly plundered by the Romans who also captured the entire Parthian royal treasury. When kings in societies like Parthia failed to safeguard their people and suffered such humiliating losses, their prestige was undermined badly. The king was succeeded by his son Vologases VI, but before his reign had even begun he was faced with a revolt lead by his brother Artabanus V.
The civil war barely lasted a year, as Vologases was driven into Babylonia where he was confined to for the next years to come, while Artabanus went on to seize Ctesiphon and the rest of the Parthian Empire for himself. He must have had substantial backing from the Parthian aristocracy to do this so quickly, but even so he would likewise come to suffer from a major revolt in Pers from the powerful Sassanid clan. Whatever the specifics of his takeover, Artabanus would have to contend with the looming Roman threat, a threat that was within marching distance of Ctesiphon.

In 214 AD, Caracalla was in Thrace continuing his tour of the provinces, when he suddenly developed a mania that would lead Rome down the path of war with Parthia. As soon as he reached the area, he began to develop an immense obsession with Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king who had conquered the Achaemenid Persians in the 4th century BC. The state of mind for the emperor seems to have come very suddenly, who took his hero worship of Alexander to rather ludicrous levels, such as commemorating statues with two half faces, one Alexander's and the other Caracalla's, in this way portraying himself as a second Alexander. He also travelled with elephants in his entourage and built countless statues of Alexander in Rome and other cities.
He also levied a selection of handsome boys from Sparta to his service which he called his "Laconian and Pitanate battalions", and he had a selection of other boys form a unit labelled as "Alexander's Phalanx", and its officers were given new names: the names of Alexander's generals. He also set up statues of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the first Roman general to lead an army against Rome, and Hannibal Barca, the great Carthaginian general who inflicted many heavy defeats on Rome in the Second Punic Wer. He then went to Ilium, the site of ancient Troy in Asia Minor, where he visited the tomb of Achilles and arranged a funeral for one of his dead secretaries in the fashion of Patroclus' burial.
The winter of 214/215 AD was spent at Nicomedia, and early next year Caracalla continued his tour to Syria, from where he travelled to Alexandria in Egypt, burial place of Alexander the Great. The visit began well, however something -perhaps criticism for murdering Geta- enflamed Caracalla's temper which resulted in the mass murder of thousands of Alexandrians, so that the river Nile itself was soon running red with blood. He also had members of the Aristotelian school of philosophers massacred, because of an obscure conspiracy theory that Aristotle had had Alexander murdered. The slaughter obviously did little to improve his reputation.

In early 213 AD, Caracalla travelled to the Danube Frontier to review the army units stationed there, the beginning of his grand tour of the empire. It was important for an emperor to gain military recognition and victories, and while triumphs won under subordinates away from the emperor would result in the emperor receiving credit for the victory, triumphs done in person obviously were better. And furthermore, Rome was filled with a Senate that disliked Caracalla strongly, and the only safe place for him now was among the army. Caracalla had campaigned before in Caledonia under his father Severus, but had done nothing of note there and had indeed abandoned the campaign when Severus died. A proper victory over a foreign people might help his reputation.
Caracalla developed good relations with many German tribes beyond the Danube, and according to Herodian he recruited many of the fittest Germans to his Imperial bodyguard, and even donned the dress of German nobility. In the summer, Caracalla also campaigned around the Rhineland and the Agri Decumates, a heavily fortified frontier located around the provinces of Raetia and Germania Superior. The Senate granted him the title of Germanicus Maximus for his victorious campaigns, either because he genuienly did impress them enough or because the Senate was afraid of his murderous tendencies and thus gave him a title to appease him. His German wars were concluded by early 214 AD.
More importantly however, Caracalla developed strong ties with the Legions. This wasn't because he was of any particular bravery or genius, but rather because of how he shared in the hardships of his men. "If a ditch had to be dug anywhere, the emperor was the first man to dig; if it were neccessary to bridge a stream or pile a high rampart, it was the same; in every task involving labor of hand or body, the emperor was the first man on the job." Herodian quotes. Caracalla also ate the same food as his soldiers, grinding his own rations. He also occasionally carried the Eagle standards of his Legions while they marched, these being the golden and decorative standards that served as the badge of office of every Legion, with one per such unit.

Geta had friends in high places, and Caracalla certainly knew his death would cause problems and its aftermath would be bloody. He first began by securing the loyalty of the Praetorian Guard, for no emperor can hope to maintain the throne without their support. He threw himself at their mercy, and told them that Geta had attacked him, forcing him to defend himself. The soldiers were suspicious, but they were eventually convinced to side with the emperor when he offered them a handsome pay raise. Caracalla then addressed the Senate the day after this, offering the same excuse.
Caracalla then got the Senate to pass a Damnatio Memoriae on Geta, where his memory was intended to be erased by removing his statues and inscriptions etc. Caracalla then began a systematic purge of Geta's loyalists and other men he considered to be a threat. In the ensuing streak of political butchery that followed, Geta's friends and supporters were murdered in their homes, the streets and even at public baths. Among the dead were Papinian; Severus' old Praetorian Prefect; Cornificia; elderly daughter of Marcus Aurelius, who was found weeping for Geta; and Publia Fulvia Flautilla; Caracalla's ex-wife. There were protests to all this, but they were suppressed by force. By early 212 AD, over 20,000 Romans had died in political purges.
The massacre of Geta's followers permanently soured Caracalla's relationship with the Senate, and Geta's murder loomed over him for the rest of his reign and cemented his reputation as a tyrant. In 212 AD, Caracalla seemingly tried to be more conciliatory when he issued the "Edict of Caracalla", where he gave nearly all free-borns within the Roman Empire Roman citizenship, however he only did this to increase tax revenue: Roman citizens had to pay a 5% death duty. The edict changed the lives of provincials little to nothing, with only their legal status and obligations shifting somewhat, and the edict would have more important consequences for the Roman military - we will return to this in a future chapter. Either way, this moved didn't help improve his popularity, and in 213 AD he left Rome never to return there again.

Who the Romans were needn't be much emphasized, but its worth reviving the history of the Parthians for the sake of the story. Parthia was the most powerful kingdom to emerge from the wreck of the Seleucid Empire's eastern territories in the mid 2nd century BC, and had conquered or annexed a broad swathe of territory of the weakened Successor state, originating from what is today north-eastern Iran. Culturally and ethnically Parthia was highly diverse; Mesopotamia was dotted by Greek settlements, and even the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon was heavily Hellennized; there were also semi-nomadic peoples and pastoral communities littered everywhere in the empire, living in small villages and huts. Parthia was essentially a feudal society, with much of the power that was theoretically held by the king in reality held by the noblemen of the seven Parthian noble families.
From outside Parthia may appear magnificent, and in sheer scale her empire certainly is impressive. However internally Parthia was like a powderkeg, and was highly unstable. The Parthians attracted little loyalty from their varried population, Greeks and Iranic peoples alike, who intensely hated one another. Parthian politics were very murderous, and often boiled over into civil wars that often weakened the empire more than any foreign invasion, with Parthia's countless numbers of nobles unable or unwilling to cooperate. As a result, the Parthian Empire was not properly centralized, as the king had to consistently try to balance his own power with that of the noble families to prevent them from overthrowing him. Internal weakness, rudimentary understanding of siege warfare and inability to properly cope with the professional Roman army, meant that Parthia was never a serious threat to Rome. She was a power, but not a superpower like Rome, with nowhere near the capacity and influence that the Eagle's wings covered.

It was the reign of the soldier emperor Septimius Severus that set Rome and Parthia on a collison course for the final showdown between the two empires at Nisibis. Defeating all of his rivals in a succession of bloody civil wars (Pescennius Niger in 193 AD and Clodius Albinus in 197 AD), Severus powered his way to the position of sole emperor and immediately got about extending the frontiers of the Roman Empire. These conquests need not distract us for long, as only two were important in regards to this story: his campaigns against Parthia beyond the Euphrates river, and the Caledonian tribes beyond Hadrian's Wall in northern Britain.
Severus invaded Parthia in 197 AD, and proved successful in it too. Northern Mesopotamia was conquered and permanently held by Rome, extending the frontier in the East to the Tigris river, and he sacked many important Parthian cities including their capital of Ctesiphon. In terms of how much territory was conquered and held, Severus was the most successful Roman commander against Parthia. In 208 AD, Severus was in Britain to oversee a war against the Caledonians, and to conquer what is today Scotland. The campaign was again successful, and by 211 AD Severus had decimated the tribes badly, albeit with heavy losses.
But old age took over, and even the great soldier emperor was not immune to the power of nature. Severus died at Eboracum, modern-day York, on February 4, 211 AD. He was succeeded by his sons Caracalla and Geta, who abandoned their father's conquests beyond Hadrian's Wall and returned to Rome. Severus' dying wish that the two brothers would rule well together was proven ultimately futile, when Caracalla had Geta murdered within their first year as co-emperors and took up the purple alone; such was their loathing for one another. Caracalla was thuggish and unelegant to say the least, and he started his reign with low popularity especially among the Senate where he had many murderous opponents. His saving grace was his popularity with the army, whose pay he increased and with whom he would spend almost his whole reign.

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