Few of Rome’s early emperors have such an undeservedly damning reputation as Domitian (81 – 96 AD).
He comes down to us as the black sheep of the Flavian dynasty. A cruel, ruthless autocrat. A powerful, paranoid psychopath who purged the Senate and impregnated – and subsequently murdered – his niece.
Such was Domitian’s sadism that one of his favourite alleged pastimes was to stab flies with a stylus (sharp pen) before plucking their wings out one by one.
Our sources for Domitian describe depths of depravity unseen in Rome since the reign of Nero some thirty years earlier. In fact, such were the parallels Rome’s senators drew with the all-singing, all-dancing emperor Nero that even during his reign people would refer to Domitian as calvus Nero (the “Bald Nero”).
Behind his back, of course.
When Domitian was murdered, stabbed to death by his freedman in the imperial chambers on the Palatine Hill, the Senate celebrated. In the practice of what we now call Damnatio Memoriae (the damnation of one’s memory), they pulled down his statues, removed all images of him from public spaces, and carved his name out of inscriptions – both in Rome and across the Empire.
Pliny the Younger, the author we have to thank for our historical account of the eruption of Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii in 79 AD, describes the joy with which senators attacked his statues:
“How delightful it was, to smash to pieces those arrogant faces, to raise our swords against them, to cut them ferociously with our axes, as if blood and pain would follow our blows.”
But while the Senate revelled in his demise, the army and the people did not.
The Roman people had little reason to hate Domitian. He had furnished ancient Rome with many of its most famous monuments today, including the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill, the stadium underlying Piazza Navona, much of the Colosseum and many obelisks in Rome.
Through a mixture of micromanagement and authoritarianism, he had established the conditions of peace and prosperity of which Rome’s good emperors would reap the rewards during the course of the second century.
So where does Domitian’s terrible reputation come from?
In the shadow of his family
As the youngest son of the emperor Vespasian, Domitian was never meant to rule the Roman Empire. His father, the first of the Flavian dynasty, had come to power largely by accident in the political vacuum and subsequent civil war that followed Nero’s suicide in 68 AD.
When Vespasian died in 79, he was succeeded by his eldest son, Titus.
Titus was the darling of the Roman people. He was the man who had led Rome’s legions to victory in Judea, destroying Jerusalem and enriching Rome with its treasures. It was Titus who completed and inaugurated the Colosseum (built from the proceeds of the war in Judea); Titus who carried Rome through a quick succession of natural disasters – the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD and a devastating fire in 80.
When Titus died suddenly and unexpectedly two years into his reign, leaving Rome in mourning, Domitian found himself thrust into the imperial limelight.
Our sources generally portray two phases to Domitian’s 18-year reign: moderation and good governance followed by a descent into despotism.
Suetonius, a biographer writing under the emperor Hadrian (117 – 138), seems to delight in detailing Domitian’s cruelty. To give you a taste of what the ancient biographer writes:
After his victory in the civil war he became even more cruel, and to discover any conspirators who were in hiding, tortured many of the opposite party by a new form of inquisition, inserting fire in their privates; and he cut off the hands of some of them.
(Suetonius, Life of Domitian, 10.5)
Nor did Domitian limit his cruelty only to the men of the Roman elite. Suetonius tells us Domitian would continually harass the wives of men of high reputation, following a precedent set by Augustus, Caligula, and Nero.
He was also sexually depraved, removing the hair from his lovers’ bodies with his own hands (something seen as particularly repugnant in ancient Rome) and swimming in the baths with common prostitutes. He even committed adultery with his niece, Julia Flavia. Forcing her to abort their child and, ultimately, killing her.
Domitian’s litany of misdeeds goes on (for the full list, check out Suetonius’ short biography). But even the ancient biographer had to concede that Domitian also ruled with efficiency and success: political and financial – both at home and abroad.
Modern historians credit Domitian with running an effective administration. He protected the Empire from economic inflation, embraced foreign diplomacy instead of costly expansionism, and oversaw two decades in which persecutions against minority groups like the Christians and Jews were practically non-existent.
As well as embarking upon an impressive building project in Rome, he constructed an imperial residence at Castel Gandolfo, where the papal estate now stands. Visit Castel Gandolfo today, in fact, and you can still wander the Cryptoporticus of Domitian – a covered walkway where the emperor could promenade in peace and anonymity.
Where does this negative image of Domitian come from?
Like the emperor Nero, to whom Domitian is often compared, Domitian was always going to be reviled as the last ruler of a dynasty by the propaganda of the next. It was in the interest of the next imperial dynasty – and the senatorial authors writing under them – to blacken the reputation of the predecessors who came before to enhance the reputations of their own.
And dead dynasts have no way of defending allegations against them.
We should also keep in mind who was writing the history that comes down to us today.
Rome’s literate class were senators or equestrians, and these were precisely the people who lost power under Domitian.
Domitian ruled Rome with a mixture of micromanagement and authoritarianism which really riled the senatorial class. The question of how much power an emperor should wield was still a hot topic in the first century AD, and Domitian was perhaps the first emperor to center imperial power around his own figure. To the extent that when he travelled and toured the provinces the entire court – and thus the centre of Roman power – was seen to travel with him.
Domitian also established a cult of personality at odds with the politics of the Roman Republic, which at least pretended that real power lay with the Senate. A modern parallel might be the cult of the Kim dynasty in North Korea, and it’s hard to imagine that once that dynasty has passed, the Korean politicians writing the histories will have much positive to say.
So where does the truth lie with Domitian?
As an emperor, he was certainly ruthless: at least by today’s standards. But while the senators hated him, his policies and reforms went a long way in setting the tone for the next century of peace.
Written by Alexander Meddings