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Domitian, Roman emperor

Domitian (Titus Flavius Domitianus), son of the emperor Vespasian, was born on 24 October 51 ce, and remained in Rome during his father's campaign against A. Vitellius. Surrounded on the Capitol with his uncle, Flavius Sabinus, he managed to escape and on Vitellius' death was saluted as Caesar by the Flavian army, though the real power lay in the hands of C. Licinius Mucianus until Vespasian's arrival. In 71 he participated in the triumph of Vespasian and Titus, and between 70 and 80 held seven consulships, being twice ordinary consul (73 and 80). Although Domitian exercised no formal power, he was clearly part of the dynastic plan, and there is no convincing evidence that he was kept in the background or consumed by jealousy of his brother, whom he succeeded smoothly in 81.

The literary sources, especially Tacitus (1) and Pliny (2) the Younger, represent a senatorial tradition hostile to Domitian. But this is a legitimate and important viewpoint, illustrating the tension between aristocratic officials and autocrat. Suetonius' account, though basically hostile, is more balanced and suggests that a more favourable view did exist, apart from the flattery of poets like Statius and Martial.

Domitian was conscientious in the performance of his duties, adopting a stance of moral rectitude, maintaining public decency at shows, and showing respect for religious ritual; three Vestal virgins (see Vesta) suffered capital punishment for breaking their vows of chastity; later, Cornelia, the chief Vestal, was buried alive. He promoted festivals and religious celebrations, showing particular devotion to Jupiter and Minerva, and performed the Secular Games; many public buildings were erected, completed, or restored, including the Capitol, the Colosseum, and a great palace on the Palatine. For the people there were frequent spectacles and banquets, though his cash grants were restrained. He raised military pay by a third, and bestowed by edict additional privileges on veterans and their families; he remained popular with the army and praetorians.

Domitian administered legal affairs diligently and tried to suppress corruption. Suetonius' contention that he achieved equitable provincial administration through careful supervision of officials and governors (Dom. 8. 2) has been challenged, but other evidence indicates that Domitian, although authoritarian in his attitude to the provinces (e.g. his abortive order to cut down at least half the provincial vineyards), tried to impress probity and fairness on his appointees; he sensibly granted rights of ownership to those who had appropriated tracts of unused land (subseciva); Pliny (2) the Younger's letters to Trajan show that Domitian's administrative decisions were generally endorsed. The role and influence of equestrians in the administration increased in his reign, but as part of a continuing trend rather than deliberate policy. The effectiveness of his management of imperial finances is disputed, but he probably left a surplus in the treasury; his confiscation of the property of his opponents was for political rather than financial reasons.

Domitian was the first reigning emperor since Claudius in 43 to campaign in person, visiting the Rhine once, and the Danube three times. Frontinus in his Strategemata reports favourably on Domitian's personal control of strategy and tactics. In 82/3 he fought a successful war against the Chatti on the middle Rhine, brought the Taunus area under Roman control, and accepted a triumph and the name ‘Germanicus’. But the military balance was shifting towards the Danube, and in 85 the Dacians, under king Decebalus, invaded Moesia killing its governor, Oppius Sabinus. Domitian came in person in 85 and 86; and after the defeat and death of Cornelius Fuscus (praetorian prefect), Tettius Iulianus, governor of Upper Moesia, won a victory at Tapae in 88. Since Domitian was facing trouble from the Marcomanni and Quadi in Pannonia, he made peace with Decebalus before launching a campaign against them (spring 89); at the end of 89 he celebrated another triumph. Then early in 92 a legion was destroyed in Pannonia by an incursion of the Sarmatian Iazyges and the Suebi, which was eventually contained under Domitian's personal direction. There was also considerable military activity in Britain, where Cn. Iulius Agricola continued the invasion of northern Scotland; his recall in 84 after an unusually long governorship of seven years, probably reflects military needs elsewhere rather than imperial jealousy.

Domitian failed to find a working relationship with the senate. He was sometimes tactless and did not conceal the reality of his autocracy, holding ten consulships as emperor, wearing triumphal dress in the senate, having 24 lictors, and becoming censor perpetuus in 85, symbolically in charge of the senate; his manner was arrogant, and he allegedly began an official letter: ‘Our lord god orders that this be done’. There was a conspiracy in 87, and a rebellion in 89 by L. Antonius Saturninus, governor of Upper Germany. He apparently had little support among his troops and was easily crushed, but Domitian thereafter forbade two legions to be quartered in one camp. He became more ruthless against presumed opponents, and factions in the aristocracy produced many senators willing to act as accusers. The executions of at least twelve ex-consuls are recorded in the reign, mainly for dissent or alleged conspiracy, and not because they were Stoics (see Stoicism), although Domitian did expel philosophers. The emperor himself observed: ‘no one believes in a conspiracy against an emperor until it has succeeded’. The execution in 95 of Flavius Clemens, his cousin, whose sons he had adopted as heirs, was a mistake since it seemed that no one now was safe. A plot was formed by intimates of his entourage possibly including his wife, Domitia, and he was murdered on 18 September 96; his memory was condemned by the senate.


Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, s.v. “Flavius 77.”Find this resource:

    Ancient sources

    Suetonius, Domitianus (ed. F. Galli (1991)).Find this resource:

      Tacitus, Agricola.Find this resource:

        Cassius Dio 67.Find this resource:

          Pliny. Panegyricus.Find this resource:

            Statius, Silvae.Find this resource:

              Martial.Find this resource:

                M. McCrum and A. G. Woodhead, Select Documents of the Principates of the Flavian Emperors (1961).Find this resource:

                  Modern works

                  K. H. Waters, Phoenix 1964, 49.Find this resource:

                    B. W. Jones, Domitian and the Senatorial Order (1979).Find this resource:

                      B. W. Jones, The Emperor Domitian (1992).Find this resource:

                        B. Levick, Latomus 1982, 50.Find this resource:

                          J. C. Anderson, Historia, Zeitschrift für alte Geschichte 1983, 93.Find this resource:

                            R. Syme, Chiron. 1983, 121, reprinted in Roman Papers 4. 252.Find this resource:

                              P. M. Rogers, Historia, Zeitschrift für alte Geschichte 1984, 60.Find this resource:

                                A. J. Boyle and W. J. Dominik, Flavian Rome (2003).Find this resource:

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