Friday 9 January 2015


Tony 'the Hoodie'
If the earliest Greeks invented satire, it was the Greeks of Alexandria in Egypt who kept the vital practice alive under the Roman Empire. The Greek historian Herodian reports how the Emperor Caracalla murdered thousands of Alexandrians just because they had used laughter to criticise his regime.

Caracalla’s real name was Antony (his nickname was taken from the distinctive hoodie he wore). After murdering his brother Geta, he became sole ruler of the empire in 211. In 215, exactly eighteen centuries ago, he decided to visit Alexandria. This was ostensibly to visit the tomb of Alexander the Great, but (according to Herodian) he had another motive:

caracalla: a Gaullish tunicwith a hood
“While he was still residing in Rome, both while his brother was alive and after he was murdered, reports came to Caracalla that the Alexandrians were continually poking fun at him. The Alexandrians are naturally inclined to mockery at the expense of those at the top of the tree. Although these clever jests may seem very funny to those who produce them, they inflict severe pain on those who are ridiculed.

“The most acute pain is caused by jokes which expose one’s defects.  So they cracked jokes about the emperor murdering his brother. They called his elderly mother 'Jocasta' [because Julia Domna was old enough to be, as Oedipus’ wife Jocasta actually had been, her children’s grandmother]; they mocked him because, despite his own short stature, he aspired to be like the most courageous and tallest heroes, Alexander and Achilles.”

So the short, humourless but “naturally brutal and irascible Caracalla” invited all the young men of the city to a military festivity, and had his own troops systematically execute every single one. The Nile ran with their blood, but still Caracalla’s malice was not assuaged, and he slaughtered thousands of the other citizens.

Caracalla  Tramples Crocodile representing Egypt?
Two years later Caracalla was himself assassinated, while urinating beside a Syrian highway, by his own bodyguard. But neither the shortness of his life, nor the ignominy of his undignified death, will have been any comfort to the Alexandrians. They had not only lost innumerable family members, but had suffered this blow simply because of their their skill at expressing themselves freely about abusive practices, as a proud citizenry “naturally inclined to mockery at the expense of those at the top of the tree.”



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