Domitian: Revising Roman Tyranny

Condemned in antiquity as a ruthless tyrant, who was the emperor Domitian?

Mar 22, 2022By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History
domitian coin cancelleria relief
Panel A of the Cancelleria Reliefs, depicting Mars and Minerva with Domitian, 81-96 CE, via Musei Vaticani; with an aureus of Domitian, 77-8 CE, via British Museum


Late in the 1st century CE, an atmosphere of fear and mistrust clouded the palace atop the Palatine hill in Rome. Befitting the wealth of the inhabitant, this paranoia took on a particularly ostentatious appearance. Within the halls of his palace, the emperor Domitian had reputedly taken to lining the walls of his colonnaded walkways with a gleaming stone, known as phengite. Discovered in Cappadocia during the reign of Nero, the brilliant stone acted as a mirror, in theory allowing Domitian to skulk the corridors of his palace safe in the knowledge that he would see the assassin’s blade long before the fatal blow was struck.


The question is, how had it come to this? What was it that left this man fearing assassination within his own palace? Understanding the life of the Roman Emperor Domitian is an exercise in looking beyond the effusive praise of the poets and the scathing critiques and opprobrium of the ancient historians. Adulatory verses of imperial splendor and tales of cruelty and tyranny obscure the realities of a 15-year reign – the longest since Tiberius – and the effective administration of the empire on the cusp of its Golden Age.


Rise of a Dynasty: Domitian and the Flavian Emperors

Gold aurei of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius (left to right), via British Museum


In 68 CE, there was a power vacuum in the Roman Empire. Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, had committed suicide. After the conflagration that had seen swathes of Rome lost to the Great Fire in 64 CE, patience with the emperor had stretched to breaking point with the opulent construction of the Domus Aurea (Golden House). A revolt broke out in Gaul, led by Gaius Vindex the provincial governor, prompting Nero’s flight and suicide. The civil war that erupted to establish who would succeed Nero was the first in the empire since Augustus had defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BCE. Four competitors emerged in quick succession – Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian.


Head of a statue of Vespasian, possibly re-carved from a portrait of Nero, 70-80 CE, via British Museum


It was the last of these, the commander of Rome’s legions in Egypt, Syria, and Judaea, who would triumph. From the chaos of the civil war, Vespasian was able to restore order: “the empire, which for a long time had been unsettled… was at last taken in hand and given stability”, describes Suetonius. As emperor, many of Vespasian’s policies were aimed at restoring order to the empire, and the succession of power was central to this. Throughout his reign, Vespasian ensured that his two sons – Titus and Domitian – would be recognized as his heirs. Through the establishment of the Flavian dynasty, Vespasian was effectively aspiring to ensure that his legacy for restoring order to Rome endured.

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Sibling Rivalry: Titus and Domitian

Relief from the Arch of Titus, depicting a triumphal procession with spoils from the Temple in Jerusalem, ca. 81 CE, via Wikimedia Commons


Life as a younger brother in ancient Rome appears to have frequently been traumatic. The city itself was founded on an act of fratricide, with Romulus cutting down his brother in Rome’s mythic past. Later stories abounded of sibling rivalry spilling over into bloodshed, infamously with Caracalla’s murder of Geta in 212. After his father became emperor, Domitian watched on as his elder brother, Titus, the heir, enjoyed the limelight. Domitian’s father and brother headed up the procession as part of the Triumph awarded after the crushing of the Judaean revolt. The arch erected in the south-east corner of the Roman Forum contains famous representations of the Roman soldiers looting Jewish treasures. As Domitian followed behind this procession, his place in the Flavian hierarchy was clear. Although he held a few honorific titles and priesthoods, his brother’s superiority was clear, sharing the tribunician power with Vespasian and commanding the Praetorian guards.


The Triumph of Titus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1885, via The Walters Art Museum


It seemed, however, that not all was as rosy as it appeared. When Vespasian died in June 79 CE (with characteristic wry wit), his previous efforts in emphasizing Titus’ status ensured there was little disruption to previous Flavian policy, including the ongoing un-importance of Domitian. Titus’ reign, though brief, was significant. Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE burying the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Alongside this, Titus’ reign was also marked by celebrations at Rome: the Flavian Amphitheatre (the Colosseum), was inaugurated with a vast spectacle, with games that lasted one hundred days, and work began on the Baths of Titus. Titus’ reign was short lived, however. He was struck down by a fever in 81 CE, bringing the end to a two-year reign and cementing one of the most exemplary legacies of any Roman emperor (although Cassius Dio notes that the brevity of the reign stopped any wrongdoing by the emperor!). Nevertheless, the rule of the empire passed to Domitian and the ancient historians would not be so kind to the new emperor.


Ruling Rome: Domitian the Emperor

Portrait bust of Domitian, c. 90 CE, via Toledo Museum of Art


Domitian’s approach to ruling the empire was made clear almost immediately. Whereas his father and brother had previously sought to engage with the senate – despite Vespasian’s use of Roman law to codify his supremacy – Domitian dispensed with such charades. It was clear that his power was absolute. Despite this, a picture emerges of a man apparently born to be a bureaucrat. Suetonius provides a portrait of a scrupulous judge, with a keen eye kept on public morality and a commitment to integrity (to begin with at least). In emphasizing his commitment to Roman morality and traditions, Domitian consciously invoked the memory of Augustus, most clearly evidenced in his celebration of the Saecular Games. Domitian’s inability to leave the management of the empire to others likewise extended to the imperial economy. The emperor’s interventions here resulted in Domitianic coinage being characterized by a consistently high metal quality.


An Emperor at War? Domitian and the Roman Army

Bronze sestertius of Domitian (top), with reverse depiction of the emperor spearing a German warrior from horseback, minted 85 CE, via British Museum; another bronze sestertius (bottom) of the same emperor and year, with reverse depiction of the emperor accepting the surrender of a German, via American Numismatic Society


Although the ancient historians do not paint a portrait of Domitian as a particularly bellicose emperor – “he took no interest in arms” according to Suetonius, despite his fearsome proficiency with a bow – the reign of Domitian was marked by several military campaigns. These were generally defensive in nature. This included the emperor’s development of the imperial frontier (the limes) in Germania, an excursion that Cassius Dio claims passed without much in the way of hostilities. However, perhaps recognizing how military glory had been so important to his father and brother, Domitian launched a campaign against the Chatti in Germania in 82-3 CE. The events of the campaign are not well recorded, but it is known that the emperor celebrated a pompous triumph and took the title Germanicus as an expression of his military might. The reality was rather different, according to Tacitus: in his Agricola, the historian describes that the triumph was a farce, and the “captives” in the procession were nothing more than actors in make-up!


Equestrian statue of Domitian, by Adriaen Collaert, ca. 1587-89, via Met Museum


It was similarly during the reign of Domitian that the Roman conquest of Britain continued apace. As governor of Britain between 77 to 84 CE, Gnaeus Julius Agricola (the father-in-law of the historian Tacitus), launched campaigns into the far north of the island. The most famous moment of the campaign was the Battle of Mons Graupius in 83 CE; Agricola’s victory, though spectacular, was inconclusive. Agricola was recalled, and Tacitus was under no illusions that this was done out of Domitian’s jealousy at his military successes. Domitian’s reign was also notable for the emergence of the threat posed by the Dacians. In 84-85 CE, the King Decebalus crossed the Danube into the province of Moesia, causing destruction and killing the governor. A counteroffensive led by Domitian and his praetorian prefect, Cornelius Fuscus, was successful in 85 CE (allowing the emperor to celebrate a second Triumph), but success was short-lived. Standards were lost in 86 CE, along with Fuscus himself, and although another Roman invasion of Dacian territory in 88 CE led to the defeat of Decebalus, it remained inconclusive.


The Emperor and the Architect: Domitian and the Rebuilding of Rome

The ruins of the Forum of Nerva, Rome, seen from the South-West, by Matthjis Bril the Younger, ca. 1570-80, via Met Museum


When thinking about the cultural legacies of Roman culture, the philosophizing of Marcus Aurelius might spring to mind first, or perhaps the philhellenism of Hadrian, but it’s unlikely many would think of Domitian. Nevertheless, and despite the criticisms leveled against the emperor by the literary sources, it could be argued that few emperors ever left so wide an architectural legacy on Rome and the empire at large. The imperial capital itself was in urgent need of restoration; another fire had broken out in Rome in 80 CE and destroyed a number of the city’s prestigious public structures.


The most important of Domitian’s efforts centered on an opulent restoration of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill. He also completed the temple of Vespasian and Titus and the Arch of Titus in the Forum. His lasting legacies in Rome are slightly harder to discern for modern visitors. The emperor oversaw the start of a new forum – today called the Forum Transitorium or Forum of Nerva – which connected the Roman Forum with the Subura district and housed a temple of Minerva. Similarly, taking a bird’s eye view of the modern Circus Agonalis in the north of the Campus Martius will reveal a tell-tale shape; the modern piazza is built atop the former Stadium of Domitian, dedicated in 86 CE.


Landscape with ruins on Palatine Hill, by Peter Paul Rubens, via Musée de Louvre


Despite this, architecture also remained a medium for exposing the vices of this emperor. This was manifest most evidently in his apparent penchant for palatial residences. These were scattered all over Italy, including at the Villa of Domitian, located in the Alban Hills outside of Rome. In the imperial capital itself, the emperor orchestrated the construction of a vast palace complex atop the Palatine Hill. The Palace of Domitian was a massive structure that even included its own stadium for entertaining the emperor and guests. It was within the mirrored marble corridors of this structure that the increasingly paranoid emperor reputedly retreated late in his reign. Domitian’s reign is also notable in that the identity of his leading architect is known: Rabirius.


Domitian and His Deities: Emperor and Religion

The Head of Minerva, by Giulio Clovio, ca. 1540, viaRoyal Collection Trust


As part of his reverence for Roman tradition, Domitian is notorious for his religious devotions to the gods and goddesses of the Roman pantheon. His reverence is evidenced in his architecture, especially in Rome. The cult of Jupiter was prominent in Domitian’s reign, with the emperor establishing a shrine to Jupiter Custos (Jupiter the Guardian) on the site of a house where he sought safety during the civil war after Nero. This accompanied the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline, the most visible part of Domitian’s religious policy. Domitian’s patron deity, worshipped with the most zeal, was Minerva.


The goddess was prominent on the emperor’s coinage, and was celebrated as the protector of a legion – the legio I Minervia (literally the legion devoted to Minerva) – established in 82 CE for the campaign against the Chatti in Germania. A Temple of Minerva was also incorporated into the Forum Transitorium with fragments of a narrative frieze depicting the myth of Minerva and Arachne, the woman who foolishly challenged the goddess to a weaving contest.


Death and Disgrace: the Assassination of the Emperor Domitian

Equestrian Statue of Domitian (re-cut to show likeness of Emperor Nerva), 81-96 CE, via


The emperor Domitian was assassinated on 18th September 96 CE, bringing an end to a 15-year reign that, despite its longevity, was evidently marked by tensions. Suetonius records that a number of omens foretold the emperor’s death. One Germanic soothsayer – an unfortunate Larginus Proclus – even predicted the date of the emperor’s death. This was a foolish piece of information to reveal. When he learned of it, Domitian sentenced Larginus to death to try to avoid his apparent fate. By a stroke of luck, the emperor delayed and was murdered in the meantime, so Larginus escaped by the skin of his teeth.


Domitian’s death was the result of a plot orchestrated by a number of his courtiers. Suetonius asserts that Domitian’s chamberlain, Parthenius, was the chief plotter, while it was Maximus (a freedman of Parthenius) and Stephanus (the steward of Domitian’s niece) that carried out the act. As the emperor busied himself at his desk, Stephanus crept up behind him and drew the dagger he had been hiding in his bandaged arm for several days. In the melee that ensued, Stephanus also died, but he had fatally wounded Domitian. He died, struck down by the conspiracies he had so feared, at the age of just 44.


Dedication to the Domitian made by the colony of Puteoli, the text has been totally erased after the emperor’s damnatio memoriae; the block was subsequently re-carved as a relief panel for a monumental arch dedicated to Trajan, via Penn Museum


Domitian’s body was carried away and cremated by his nurse, Phyllis. Although his ashes were interred in the Flavian Temple, mixed with those of his niece, his legacy came under almost immediate assault. Domitian’s memory was denigrated in a practice commonly known by the term damnatio memoriae: statues of the emperor were attacked and re-carved, inscriptions were erased. The Senate led the celebrations at the news of Domitian’s death, recorded most evocatively by Pliny the Younger: “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.”


Despite this, it is clear that Domitian’s legacy was more complex than that; the people of Rome were seemingly indifferent, while the death of the emperor angered the legions to the extent that some legions rioted. These tensions must be kept in mind when approaching the ancient sources of Domitian: the senatorial historians provide only one perspective on a much more complex individual.


Aftermath: From Domitian to the Optimus Princeps

Portrait of the Emperor Nerva (left), viaJ. Paul Getty Museum; and portrait bust of Trajan(right), viaBritish Museum


The death of a Roman emperor typically posed a number of political quandaries. With Domitian, the Flavian dynasty had come to end and the question, therefore, was one of succession: who would be the next emperor? The Fasti Ostienses, the calendar of the harbor city of Ostia, records that on the very day of Domitian’s assassination, the Senate proclaimed Marcus Cocceius Nerva as emperor. Intriguingly, Cassius Dio alleges that Nerva had previously been approached by the conspirators as a potential successor to Domitian.


Regardless, the anger of the Roman armies at the death of their emperor left Nerva in a precarious position, and one that could not be so easily assuaged by the minting of coins proclaiming the loyalty of the armies (concordia exercituum) to their new emperor. This was compounded by circumstance: elderly and without children of his own, there was little about Nerva that suggested stability. Things reached a nadir in 97 CE when Nerva was taken hostage by members of his own guard. He acquiesced to their demands, turning over the killers of Domitian to sate the soldier’s thirst for revenge.


To gain support of the armies, Nerva sought out Marcus Ulpius Traianus as his designated successor. Acting at the time as the governor in the north, perhaps in either Pannonia or Germania, Trajan’s reputation bolstered the ailing legitimacy of Nerva’s regime. Recognized as Caesar, i.e. as Nerva’s heir and junior partner, Trajan was in place to succeed Nerva, who died early in 98 CE. Nerva’s ashes were interred in the Mausoleum of Augustus, the last emperor to be laid to rest there. As for Trajan, his reign marked the start in earnest of a new period of imperial history. A series of emperors would follow Trajan, each adopted by their predecessor, as the empire entered its so-called ‘Golden Age’.


Hidden behind the ire of the ancient historians, the senators who found their prestige curtailed by the emperor’s attitude to power, it is increasingly clear to modern historians that there was more to Domitian than the image the ancients left of a despot. Recreating this emperor remains a difficult endeavor, in no small part a result of the assault against his legacy in text and material, but it seems likely that the period of sustained stability that followed him was given a solid foundation by the administrative competence of Domitian.

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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK-based independent researcher with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explore the representation of imperial status during the reigns of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the ancient world. He is currently writing his first book.