Caracalla’s Wrath

by Josephine Balmer

Two years before his death in 217AD (see my previous entry), the Roman emperor Caracalla had perpetrated an act of extreme savagery against the citizens of ancient Alexandria in revenge for their satires about him. In particular, the Alexandrians were said to be making gibes about the fact that Caracalla had murdered his brother – and then co-emperor – Geta in front of their own mother whom, it was rumoured, he then planned to marry. Caracalla’s revenge was not only brutal but, according to surviving accounts by ancient historians Dio Cassius and Herodian, reveals many chilling similarities with the actions of more modern despots. For instance, Caracalla’s duplicity and delight in tricking the Alexandrians into watching the massacre of all of the city’s young men, his lack of remorse at his bloodthirsty actions, his pretensions to culture, and his subsequent ‘walling-in’ of Alexandrian neighbourhoods, like an ancient version of the Warsaw Ghetto, all seem terrifyingly recognizable today. The poem appears in my collection, The Paths of Survival.

Caracalla’s Wrath

(Alexandria, A.D. 215)

We’d heard the rumours, knew his bad report,
still we welcomed him with music, torches,
threw petals under his feet as he walked:
the emperor known as ‘cut-price Oedipus’
(he’d killed his brother to marry mother)  –
we Alexandrians love gossip, satire.

Now he styled himself the new Achilles,
summoned our young men as his own phalanx.
We sneered in secret at his vanities,
as they lined for parade, dug trench on trench.
Yet still we watched in pride, picked out our own –
a flash of hair or cloak as they worked on.

Slumped over Aeschylus’s Myrmidons
I have heard so many insolent threats –
Caracalla skulked in the Serapeum.
And then scent of earth became stench of flesh.

From afar he gave the signal to slay
our sons. Then we knew; they’d dug their own graves.

and so had we. From afar we saw dead
packed on dead, rising in burial mounds,
some pushed in alive, crushed, suffocated.
Back in our gates, he placed armed guards around
each quarter, walled us up in our own streets,
burned our books, destroyed our academies.

How many slain I neither care nor know –
only that each last one deserved to die,

his wrote in his dispatches back to Rome.
For now the city has been purified.
He sacrificed cows to our temple gods

as he’d sacrificed us to his own wrath.

The jokes were over. We renamed him ‘the Beast’ –
a title he earned, role he revelled in.
We had thought we were such sophisticates,
shielded by our wit, our erudition,
safe in our city’s shining walls, aloof.
He dyed them black with the blood of our youth.

Josephine Balmer