Clothes Make the Man: Caracalla, Romanitasand Imperial Self-Presentation
Julie Langford-Johnson (University of South Florida)Recent scholarship has underscored the cohesive role of the emperor and identified him as the only real commonality for all inhabitants of the empire (e.g. C. Ando, 2000). Because the emperor was the ruler of the ruling nation (the most Roman of Romans), and because he was in control of himself and all others (the mark of masculinity for the Romans), the emperor was considered the avatar of all things Roman and masculine. 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 by participating in the imperial cult, a provincial subject displayed his romanitas. Such displays were rewarded by emperors: by the mid-2nd century AD, about fifty percent of the senate was composed of non-Italians.
This paper will examine a moment when this tidy model of enculturation unraveled. Under Caracalla, romanitas and masculinity became far more contested categories. This emperor, I will argue, rejected the dominant ethnoculture (romanitas) and instead promoted a vision of the empire which recognized and celebrated the various cultures of the empire but nonetheless envisioned them as a part the political whole of the empire. Caracalla’s chief means of promoting this vision was through his self-presentation, especially his attire. While on campaign in Germany, Herodian reports, the emperor delighted his German troops by throwing off his Roman cloak and donning a blonde wig and trousers, that is, by dressing like a German (4.7.3). While traveling through Macedonia, Caracalla dressed as a Macedonian, complete with kausia and crepidae. Finally, both the HA and Dio report that Caracalla created a new garment whence he derived his nickname: the caracallus, a patchwork cloak that stretched from the wearer’s head to toes and was distributed to the military (79.3.3) and the plebs of Rome (HA V. Car. 9.7.). I will argue that this garment was a clever metaphor for the emperor’s vision of an empire that was diverse, indeed, but one unified political entity nonetheless. The quirkiness of the emperor’s wardrobe provided ample fodder for the emperor’s critics who undermined his policies of inclusion by mocking his appearance.
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. Not surprisingly, Dio paints a very hostile picture of Caracalla, harping on his choice of attire as either effeminate or culturally off-base. Thus, Caracalla’s policy to wear the attire of the people he was visiting was pilloried by Dio. Rather than recognizing the intelligence behind Caracalla’s philosophy of “When in Rome…”, Dio mocks it as misguided: “In Syria, however and in Mesopotamia, he used German clothing and shoes” (79.3.3). Likewise, the caracallus was for Dio just another quirky garment that undermined the emperor’s masculinity: it was both foreign and covered the legs – how effimate! (C. Williams, 2001). 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. Perhaps it is for this reason that few question Dio’s damning commentary on the emperor’s universal grant of Roman citizenship as little more than a cheap attempt to collect more taxes (78.9.5). Instead I see it as the strongest evidence of Caracalla’s attempt to rethink the dominance of romanitas.