Ancient History & Civilisation


Of Domitian it is harder to paint an objective portrait than even of Nero. Our chief sources for his reign are Tacitus and the younger Pliny; they prospered under him, but belonged to the senatorial party that engaged with him in a war almost of mutual extermination. To set against these hostile witnesses we have the poets Statius and Martial, who ate or sought Domitian’s bread and literally praised him to the skies. Perhaps all four were right, for the last of the Flavians, like many of the Julio-Claudians, began like Gabriel and ended like Lucifer. In this respect Domitian’s soul walked with his body: in youth he was modest, graceful, handsome, tall; in later years he had “a protruding belly, spindle legs, and a bald head”—though he had written a book On the Care of the Hair.103 In adolescence he composed poetry; in obsolescence he distrusted his own prose and let others write his speeches and proclamations. He might have been happier had not Titus been his brother; but only the noblest spirits can bear with equanimity the success of their friends. Domitian’s jealousy soured into a taciturn gloom, then into secret machinations against his brother; Titus had to beg his father to forgive the younger son. When Vespasian died, Domitian claimed that he had been left partner in the imperial power but that the Emperor’s will had been tampered with. Titus replied by asking him to be his partner and successor; Domitian refused, and continued to plot. When Titus fell ill, says Dio Cassius, Domitian hastened his death by packing him about with snow.104 We cannot assess the truth of these stories, nor of those tales of sexual license that have come down to us—that Domitian swam with prostitutes, made the daughter of Titus one of his concubines, and “was most profligate and lewd toward women and boys alike.”105 All Latin historiography is present politics, a partisan blow struck for contemporary ends.

When we come to the actual policies of Domitian we find him, in his first decade, surprisingly puritan and competent. As Vespasian had modeled himself on Augustus, so Domitian seemed to take over the policies and manners of Tiberius. Having made himself censor for life, he stopped the publication of scurrilous lampoons (though he winked at the epigrams of Martial), enforced the Julian laws against adultery, tried to end child prostitution and reduce unnatural vice, forbade the performance of pantomimes because of their indecency, ordered the execution of a Vestal Virgin convicted of incest or adultery, and put an end to the practice of castration, which had spread with the rising price of eunuch slaves. He shrank from any form of bloodshed, even the ritual sacrifice of oxen. He was honorable, liberal, and free from avarice. He refused legacies from those who had children, canceled all tax arrears more than five years old, and discountenanced delation. He was a strict but impartial judge. He had freedmen secretaries, but kept them on their good behavior.

His reign was one of the great ages of Roman building. The fires of 79 and 82 having caused much destruction and destitution, Domitian organized a program of public works to provide employment and distribute wealth.106 He, too, hoped to reanimate the old faith by beautifying or multiplying its shrines. He raised the Temple of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva once more, and spent $22,000,000 on its gold-plated doors and gilded roof; Rome admired the result and mourned the extravagance. When Domitian built for himself and his administrative staff an enormous palace, the Domus Flavia, the citizens reasonably complained of the cost; but they raised no voice against the expensive games with which he sought to moderate his Tiberian unpopularity. He dedicated a temple to his father and his brother; he restored the Baths and Pantheon of Agrippa, the Portico of Octavia, the temples of Isis and Serapis; he added to the Colosseum, finished the Baths of Titus, and began those that were completed by Trajan.

At the same time he did his dour best to encourage arts and letters. Flavian portrait sculpture reached its zenith in his principate; his coins are of outstanding excellence. To stimulate poetry he established in 86 the Capitoline games, which included contests in literature and music; and for these he built a stadium and a music hall in the Field of Mars. He gave modest help to the modest talent of Statius and the immodest talent of Martial. He rebuilt the public libraries, which had been destroyed by fire, and had their contents renewed by sending scribes to copy the manuscripts in Alexandria -another proof that the great library there had lost only a small part of its treasures in the fire started by Caesar.

He managed the Empire well. He had Tiberius’ grim resolution as an administrator, pounced upon peculation, and kept strict watch on all appointees and developments. As Tiberius had restrained Germanicus, so Domitian withdrew Agricola from Britain after that enterprising general had led his armies, and pushed the frontier, to Scotland; apparently Agricola wished to go farther, and Domitian demurred. The recall was attributed to jealousy, and the Emperor paid a heavy price for it when the history of his reign was written by Agricola’s son-in-law. He was equally unfortunate in war. In 86 the Dacians crossed the Danube, invaded the Roman province of Moesia, and defeated Domitian’s generals. The Prince took command, planned his campaign well, and was about to enter Dacia when Antoninus Saturninus, Roman governor of Upper Germany, persuaded two legions at Mainz to proclaim him emperor. The revolt was suppressed by Domitian’s aides, but it disconcerted his strategy by allowing the enemy time to prepare. He crossed the Danube, met the Dacians, and apparently suffered a reverse. He made peace with Decebalus, the Dacian king, sent him an annual douceur, and returned to Rome to celebrate a double triumph over the Chatti and the Dacians. He contented himself thereafter with the building of a limes, or fortified road, between the Rhine and the Danube, and another between the northward turn of the Danube and the Black Sea.

The revolt of Saturninus was the turning point in Domitian’s reign, the dividing line between his better and worse selves. He had always been coldly severe; now he slipped into cruelty. He was capable of good government, but only as an autocrat; the Senate rapidly lost power under him; and his tenacious authority as censor made that body at once subservient and vengeful. Vanity, which flourishes even in the humble, had no check in Domitian’s status: he filled the Capitol with statues of himself, announced the divinity of his father, brother, wife, and sisters as well as his own, organized a new order of priests, the Flaviales, to tend the worship of these new deities, and required officials to speak of him, in their documents, as Dominus et Deus Noster—“Our Lord and God.” He sat on a throne, encouraged visitors to embrace his knees, and established in his ornate palace the etiquette of an Oriental court. The Principate had become, through the power of the army and the decay of the Senate, an unconstitutional monarchy.

Against this new development rebellion rose not only in the aristocracy but among the philosophers and in the religions that were flowing into Rome from the East. The Jews and the Christians refused to adore the godhead of Domitian, the Cynics decried all government, and the Stoics, though they accepted kings, were pledged to oppose despots and honor tyrannicides. In 89 Domitian expelled the philosophers from Rome, in 95 he banished them from Italy. The earlier edict applied also to the astrologers, whose predictions of the Emperor’s death had brought new terrors to a mind empty of faith and open to superstition. In 93 Domitian executed some Christians for refusing to offer sacrifice before his image; according to tradition these included his nephew Flavius Clemens.107

In the last years of his reign the Emperor’s fear of conspiracy became almost a madness. He lined with shining stone the walls of the porticoes under which he walked, so that he might see mirrored in them whatever went on behind him. He complained that the lot of rulers was miserable since no man believed them when they alleged conspiracy, unless the conspiracy succeeded. Like Tiberius he listened more readily to informers as he grew older; and as the delatores multiplied, no citizen of any prominence could feel safe from spies, even in his home. After Saturninus’ revolt indictments and convictions rapidly increased; aristocrats were exiled or killed, suspected men were tortured, even by having “fire inserted into their private parts.”108 The terrified Senate, including the Tacitus who recounts these events most bitterly, was the agent of trial and condemnation; and at each execution it thanked the gods for the salvation of the Prince.

Domitian made the mistake of frightening his own household. In 96 he ordered the death of his secretary Epaphroditus because, twenty-seven years before, he had helped Nero to commit suicide. The other freedmen of the imperial household felt themselves threatened. To protect themselves they resolved to kill Domitian, and the Emperor’s wife Domitia joined in the plot. On the night before his last he leaped from his bed in fright. When the appointed moment came, Domitia’s servant struck the first blow; four others took part in the assault; and Domitian, struggling madly, met death in the forty-fifth year of his age and the fifteenth of his reign (96). When the news reached the senators they tore down and shattered all images of him in their chamber, and ordered that all statues of him, and all inscriptions mentioning his name, should be destroyed throughout the realm.

History has been unfair to this “age of despots” because it has spoken here chiefly through the most brilliant and most prejudiced of historians. It is true that the gossip of Suetonius often confirms—or follows—the invective of Tacitus; but the study of literature and inscriptions has condemned them both as mistaking the vices of ten emperors for the record of an empire and a century. There was something good in the worst of these rulers-devoted statesmanship in Tiberius, a charming gaiety in Caligula, a plodding wisdom in Claudius, an exuberant aestheticism in Nero, a stern competence in Domitian. Behind the adulteries and the murders an administrative organization had formed which provided, through all this period, a high order of provincial government. The emperors themselves were the chief victims of their power. Some disease in the blood, fired by the heat of loosed desire, had pursued the Julio-Claudians as fatally as the children of Atreus; and some flaw in the system had debased the Flavians in one generation from patient statesmanship to terrified cruelty. Seven of these ten men met a violent end; nearly all of them were unhappy, surrounded by conspiracy, dishonesty, and intrigue, trying to govern a world from the anarchy of a home. They indulged their appetites because they knew how brief was their omnipotence; they lived in the daily horror of men condemned to an early and sudden death. They went under because they were above the law; they became less than men because power had made them gods.

But we must not absolve the age or the principate of its ignominy and its crimes. It had given peace to the Empire, but terror to Rome; it had injured morals by the high example of cruelty and lust; it had torn Italy with a civil war more ferocious than that of Caesar and Pompey; it had filled the islands with exiles and had killed off the best and bravest men. It had suborned the treachery of relatives and friends by rewarding avaricious spies. It had, in Rome, replaced a government of laws with a tyranny of men. It had raised gigantic edifices by accumulating tribute, but it had dwarfed the soul by frightening talented or creative minds into servility or silence. Above all, it had made the army supreme. The power of the prince over the Senate lay not in his superior genius, nor in custom, nor in prestige; it rested upon the pikes of the Guard. When provincial armies saw how emperors were made, how rich were the donatives and spoils of the capital, they deposed the Praetorians and themselves entered upon the business of making kings. For a century yet the wisdom of great rulers chosen by adoption rather than by heredity, violence, or wealth would hold the legions in check and keep the frontiers safe. But when, through a philosopher’s love, idiocy would again reach the throne, the armies would run riot, chaos would break through the fragile film of order, and civil war would join hands with the waiting barbarians to topple down the noble and precarious structure of government that the genius of Augustus had built.

I All further dates will be A.D. unless otherwise noted.

II The Senate should have taken him at his word and divided the year into thirteen months of twenty-eight days each, with an intercalary holiday (in leap years two) at the end.

III Agrippina, daughter of Julia by Agrippa, was Tiberius’ stepdaughter through his marriage with Julia, and his daughter-in-law through his adoption of Germanicus. Her son Nero was the uncle, her daughter Agrippina the Younger the mother, of the Emperor Nero.

IV Ferrero 56 and Bury 57 have tried to explain away Messalina’s bigamy, but Tacitus vouches for the story as “well attested by writers of the period, and by grave and elderly men who lived at the time, and were informed of every circumstance.”58

V Suetonius claims to have seen the royal manuscripts, with text and corrections in Nero’s hand.77

VI Tacitus (xv, 38), Suetonius (“Nero,” 38), and Dio Cassius (LXII, 16) all agree in accusing Nero of starting and renewing the fire in order to rebuild Rome. There is no proof of his guilt or innocence.

VII The figure given by Suetonius is often rejected as incredible; but probably it was reckoned in a depreciated currency.

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