12. Caracalla and Geta were meant to rule Rome together, but their fierce rivalry meant only one could be Emperor – and only one would get to live
Emperor Septimius Severus died in 211AD whilst campaigning in Britain. His two sons, Caracalla and Geta were there when he died. But far from bringing the two young men together, their father’s demise ensured their long-standing sibling rivalry exploded. Both rushed back to Rome in order to assume the top job for themselves. While Septimius Severus had decreed that they should rule together as co-emperors – a plan their mother heartily approved of – this was never going to work. Both were not only determined to undermine the other politically, but they were also ready to kill so that they could rule on their own.
Upon returning from Britain to Rome, Caracalla and Geta immediately divided the Imperial Palace in two. Each had their own allies and their own supporters among the plebs. They constantly plotted to get the upper hand, much to the dismay of their mother. In December of 211, their mother had had enough. She arranged a meeting for her two boys. But while she hoped this would give them the chance to find a way of ruling together, Caracalla had other plans. He had the Praetorian Guard show up at the meeting and kill Geta. According to the contemporary accounts, he died in his mother’s arms, leaving his brother the sole Emperor.
The Roman historian Herodian portrayed Geta as a wise and virtuous man, lamenting what might have been if he had lived and ruled. In comparison, he portrayed his brother as brutish, vulgar and ambitious. Almost certainly, this was an exaggeration. Almost all the sources suggest that the pair were equally ambitious. What’s more, Geta was also plotting to kill his own brother. In the end, Caracalla simply beat him to it. But he wasn’t finished there. Soon after killing his own sibling, he ordered the execution of 20,000 people, most of them supporters of his dead brother. He also ruled that all coins, paintings and statues bearing the image of Geta should be destroyed.
Caracalla owed his power to the Praetorian Guard. In return for their killing of his brother, he gave the elite group of soldiers a massive pay rise. In the end, however, even this wasn’t enough. In April of 217, the Emperor was stabbed to death by one of his own bodyguards whilst using the bathroom. Backed by the Roman Army, Macrinus declared himself Emperor, though he would only hold onto power himself for a single year.