Domitian ruled as Roman emperor between 81 and 96 AD. He was the second son of emperor Vespasian and the last of the Flavian Dynasty. His 15-year reign was marked by his strengthening of the Roman economy, a building programme which included finishing the Colosseum, and defending the empire’s fringes.
His personality is also inextricably linked with tyranny, and his power to humiliate senators generated disapproving headline anecdotes in Suetonius’ The Lives of the Caesars. A paranoid megalomaniac who once hosted a macabre party to embarrass his guests, he was assassinated in 96 AD. Here are 10 facts about emperor Domitian.
1. Domitian became Emperor in 81 AD
Domitian was the son of emperor Vespasian (69-79). He had ruled between 69 and 79 AD and achieved a reputation for shrewd management in contrast to his profligate predecessor Nero. Domitian’s elder brother Titus succeeded Vespasian first, but died barely two years later.
It’s possible Domitian had a hand in slaying Titus, who is otherwise recorded as dying from fever. The Talmud, by contrast, includes a report that a gnat chewed on his brain, having flown up his nostril after Titus destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.
2. Domitian had a reputation for sadism
Domitian was a paranoid bully with a reputation for sadism, said to torture flies with his pen. He was the last emperor to be a subject of Suetonius’ moralistic biography, which depicts Domitian as capable of “savage cruelty” (Suetonius, Domitian 11.1-3). Meanwhile Tacitus wrote that he was “by nature a man who plunged into violence.” (Tacitus, Agricola, 42.)
Gleeful with arbitrary power, Suetonius records that Domitian used charges of treason to set up prominent men so that he could claim their estates. To fund his building programme and propagandistic performances, Domitian seized “the property of the living and the dead […] on any charge brought by any accuser” (Suetonius, Domitian 12.1-2).
3. He was a megalomaniac
Where emperors often continued the charade that the Empire really was just like the Republic it had supplanted, Domitian eroded the traditions of the senate and ruled openly as a despot. He claimed he was a living god and made sure priests worshipped the cults of his father and brother.
Domitian insisted on being addressed as “Lord and God” (dominus) and built so many statues and architectural features ornamented with chariots and triumphal emblems, “that on one of them,” writes Suetonius, “someone wrote in Greek: ‘It is enough.’” (Suetonius, Domitian 13.2)
4. He completed the Colosseum
Domitian was intent on ambitious economic and cultural programs that would restore the Empire to the magnificence attributed to Augustus. This included an extensive construction program numbering over 50 buildings. They included projects begun by predecessors like the Colosseum, as well as personal buildings like the Villa and Palace of Domitian.
The Stadium of Domitian was dedicated as a gift to the people of Rome and in 86 he founded the Capitoline Games. Games were used to impress people with the Empire and its ruler’s might. Pliny the Younger remarked on Domitian’s extravagance in a later speech, in which he was compared unfavourably with the ruling Trajan.
5. He was a capable, if micromanaging, administrator
Domitian involved himself throughout the administration of the Empire. He showed concern for the grain supply by forbidding the further planting of vines in certain areas, and was meticulous in administering justice. Suetonius reports that the city’s magistrates and provincial governors’ “standard of restraint and justice was never higher” (Suetonius, Domitian 7-8).
He revalued the Roman currency and ensured rigorous taxation. His pursuit of public order did, however, extend to executing three unchaste Vestal virgins in 83 AD, and burying Cornelia, the chief Vestal priestess, alive in 91. According to Pliny the Younger, she was innocent of the charges.
6. He constructed the Limes Germanicus
Domitian’s military campaigns were generally defensive. His most notable military endeavour was the Limes Germanicus, a network of roads, forts and watchtowers along the river Rhine. This consolidated frontier divided the Empire from Germanic tribes for the next two centuries.
The Roman army was devoted to Domitian. As well as personally leading his army on campaign for as long as three years in total, he raised the army’s pay by one third. When Domitian died, the army was greatly affected and supposedly spoke of “Domitian the God” according to Suetonius (Suetonius, Domitian 23).
7. He held a macabre party to terrorise senators
One of the scandalizing behaviours attributed to Domitian is one very strange party. Lucius Cassius Dio reports that in 89 AD, Domitian invited notable Romans to a dinner party. His guests found their names inscribed on tombstone-like slabs, the décor entirely black, and their host obsessed by the topic of death.
They were convinced they would not make it home alive. When they did return home, they received gifts including their own name slab. What did it mean, and did it really happen? At the very least, given the event is cited as an example of Domitian’s sadism, it hints towards the disapproval senators had for the emperor.
8. Domitian wrote a book on the subject of hair care
Suetonius describes Domitian as tall, “handsome and graceful”, yet so sensitive about his baldness that he took it as a personal insult if anyone else was teased for it. He apparently wrote a book, “On the Care of the Hair”, dedicated in sympathy to a friend.
9. He was assassinated
Domitian was assassinated in 96 AD. Suetonius’ account of the assassination gives the impression of an organised operation undertaken by lower class members of the imperial court concerned for their own safety, while Tacitus could not pinpoint its planner.
Domitian was the last of the Flavian Dynasty to rule Rome. The senate offered the throne to Nerva. Nerva was the first of a series of rulers (98-196) now known as the ‘Five Good Emperors’, thanks to Edward Gibbon’s influential History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire published in the 18th century.
10. Domitian was subject to ‘damnatio memoriae’
The senate immediately denounced Domitian upon his death and decided to condemn his memory. They did this by the decree of ‘damnatio memoriae’, the deliberate removal of an individual’s existence from public record and reverential spaces.
Names would be chiselled from inscriptions while faces were eradicated from paintings and coins. On statuary, damned figures’ heads were replaced or scrubbed to obscurity. Domitian is one of the more famous subjects of ‘damnationes’ that we know about.