As the only commonality for all their subjects, Roman emperors were the mortar that held together the diverse peoples of the empire (Millar 1977; Ando 2000). Because the emperor was in control of himself and all others (the mark of masculinity for the Romans) and because he was the ruler of the ruling nation (the most Roman of Romans), he was considered the avatar of all things Roman and masculine (Williams 1999; Langford 2009). He was the role model for ambitious provincials who wished to rise through the ranks to political power. By patterning himself after the model of the emperor, adopting Rome’s language and dress, and participating in the imperial cult, a provincial subject displayed his loyalty to the emperor, but also a degree of Roman enculturation. Such displays were rewarded by emperors: by the mid-2nd century AD, about fifty percent of the senate was composed of non-Italians (Alföldy 1968; Eck 2000; pace Talbert 1984).
This paper will examine a moment when this tidy model of enculturation unraveled. Under Caracalla, Roman ethnicity and masculinity became far more contested categories. This Emperor rejected the dominant Roman ethnoculture (my periphrasis for romanitas)and instead promoted a model of empire that recognized and celebrated important subject peoples and cultures while still envisioning them as a part of the political whole. Caracalla’s chief means of promoting this vision was through imitatio Alexandri, though not through modeling himself after the historical Alexander so much as the literary figure presented in Plutarch’s de Fortuna Alexandri.
For contemporary authors, Caracalla was obsessed with Alexander the Great and went to ridiculous lengths to imitate his idol. Thus, we hear of Caracalla establishing a hopelessly anachronistic Macedonian phalanx, erecting grotesque statues that featured the faces of both Alexander and Caracalla on one head, and seeking the hand of the Parthian king’s daughter “unite the entire inhabited world under a single crown” (Herodian 4.8.2-4.10.4). Cassius Dio ridiculed Caracalla for collecting Alexander memorabilia, addressing his idol as the “Augustus of the East”, claiming that he was the reincarnation of Alexander and traveling with several elephants so that “he might seem to be imitating Alexander, or rather, perhaps, Dionysus” (78.7).
Seen through Plutarch’s characterization of Alexander, however, the odd behavior ascribed to Caracalla begins to make more sense. Caracalla dressed in accordance with native traditions while traveling through the empire, even donning a blond wig and trousers in Germania (4.7.3). Herodian’s Caracalla argued that a mixed marriage between himself and the Parthian king’s daughter would “unite the entire inhabited world under a single crown” (4.10.4). This echoes the actions of Plutarch’s Alexander who promoted mixed marriage between his subject peoples. In fact, the language of the Constitutio Antoninana in which Caracalla granted citizenship to nearly all free inhabitants of the Empire, I will argue, owes much linguistically and conceptually to Plutarch’s treatise.
Though Caracalla surely undertook this strategy in order to strengthen his position among certain populations in the provinces, his manipulations of ethnicity were politically destabilizing and exclusionary since they changed the rules by which prominent provincials achieved success in Rome. One of Caracalla’s most outspoken critics was the contemporary senator and historian Cassius Dio. Hailing from Bithynia, Dio was a successful product of the enculturation who, under Caracalla, suddenly found his finely honed self-presentation rendered ineffective. Since Dio is our best source for the period, it comes as little surprise that his hostility has significantly shaped our own view of Caracalla. Plutarch’s de Fortuna Alexandri is thus a useful corrective for better understanding Caracalla’s self-presentation and inclusive model of empire.
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