Caracalla’s Slash

by Josephine Balmer

This week in 217 AD, the Roman emperor Caracalla was murdered by one of his guards as he crouched to urinate by the side of the road near Carrhae in Mesopotamia during a journey to visit the temple of the moon goddess Selene. It was an ignominious end for a tyrannical ruler. Even by the standards of later emperors, Caracalla seems particularly blood-thirsty, at least according to ancient sources; for instance, the  historian Herodian reports how, two years earlier, aggrieved by reports that he was being mocked by the citizens of Alexandria, Caracalla had slaughtered all the young men of serviceable age in the city, until the plains of the Nile and even the sea itself, ran with blood. In today’s climate, with recent events in the Middle East coming to mind in particular, Caracalla’s fate serves as a warning to all tyrants – wherever they are, whatever they might be doing, justice is on its way…

Caracalla’s Slash

(Mesopotamia, April, 217 AD)

The night he halted our convoy –
the night I turned assassin –
a huge moon hung above us
as if there were no distance
between earth and inked sky.

At his nod the Praetorians
withdrew, deferent, polite,
leaving him to his own ablutions
and I to my one wild chance
(I knew he would not fight).

I smiled at him as if summoned,
an intimate to watch him piss:
I stroked the tiny, jewelled dagger
hidden in the crease of my palm
like a secret sign or betrayer’s kiss –

revenge for my wronged brothers,
for 20,000 fallen in Alexandria.
He’d thought he was a hero, god.
As the blade sunk into his shoulder
he was just another slain dictator.

This is how tyrants meet their end:
arse down, cock out, hunched
by the side of a dirt-track, shrunk
to their own size like all other men.

Josephine Balmer