Book Review: Caracalla: A Military Biography


by Ilkka Syvänne

Barnsley, Eng.: Pen & Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2017. Pp. xx, 350. Illus., maps, diagr., appends., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1473895243

Monster and Military Genius?


Prof. Syvänne (Haifa), a rather iconoclastic scholar who has written extensively on the military history of the late Roman and early Byzantine empires, including The Military History of Late Rome AD 361-395, has produced a thought-provoking life of the Emperor Caracalla (r. A.D. 211-217). An important theme of this work is that Caracalla is one of several emperors who were on the receiving end of historians from a hostile Senatorial class, among them Domitian and Gallienus, both of whom have in recent years undergone some rehabilitation. Syvänne does an excellent job of reevaluating the traditional sources, consulting additional materials not necessarily available to past generations of scholars, such as ancient Armenian and Georgian histories, and critically comparing them, covering many critical issues in several appendices.

Syvänne contends that much of the hostility toward Caracalla stemmed from his tolerance of Christians, Jews, and homosexuals, and, of course, his alleged crimes. This is not a white-wash, as Syvänne makes clear Caracalla had as much blood on his hands as any emperor – even much-admired Hadrian had a high body count. Syvänne puts Caracalla’s “crimes” into context. His murdered brother Geta, for example, was hardly blameless in the bad-blood between the two, and was likely plotting violence as well, and the massacre of the Alexandrians was in response to violent protests against his initially relatively mild penalties for a perceived insult.

Naturally, Caracalla’s military career, as described in much of Syvänne's book, offers evidence that he was an able commander. Using numerous maps and battle diagrams, Syvänne gives us a thoughtful analysis of Caracalla’s campaign in Caledonia during the latter part of his father’s reign (A.D. 209-211), and his operations in Germania (A.D. 212-214), during which he appears to have reached the Elbe. The treatment of Caracalla’ preparations for and execution of his campaigns against the Armenians and Parthians (A.D. 215-217) is particularly good, and it was while engaged in these operations that he was assassinated.

Caracalla: A Military Biography is an excellent, thought-provoking look at a much maligned character, and while Syvänne may not have fully made his case, it is a critical read for any serious student of the period.


Note: Caracalla: A Military Biography is also available in several e-editions.



Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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