Emperor Domitian: Family, Reign of Terror, Assassination, & Succession
By 81 AD, the Flavian dynasty had transformed Rome. The earlier rulers under this dynasty, Vespasian and Titus, were regarded as successful rulers who expanded the empire, brought peace, and brought about many developments. It was a difficult act to follow, especially for the next in line, Domitian, who had lived most of his life in the shadows of his father and older brother.
Determined to make a name for himself, Domitian’s reign over Rome took off fairly smoothly. Although his reign was mostly filled with internal and external peace, it was his paranoia and desire for more power that brought a bitter end to the once powerful and promising dynasty.
Family and Early Life
Domitian was the youngest child of Titus Flavius Vespianus -also known as Emperor Vespasian- and Flavia Domitilla Major.
He had two older siblings: Titus Flavius Vespianus and Domitilla the Younger. The family was a prominent one, having acquired much of its wealth during the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
At the time of his birth in 51 AD, his father, Vespasian had held many political positions and was a high-ranking military officer, who had successfully invaded Britannia and captured most of its towns.
According to several historians, including Suetonius, Domitian did not have the upbringing that his older brother Titus Vespianus had growing up. He spent most of his early years living in poverty. Allegedly, during the time of Domitian’s upbringing, the Vespianus family had fallen on hard times due to Vespatian’s sour relationships with emperors Caligula and Nero.
However, other historians believe that these stories were circulated under the Flavian rule to make the rulers under the Julio-Claudian dynasty appear less successful compared to that of Emperor Claudius and his heir, Brittanicus.
Domitian lived in Rome with his uncle Flavius Sabinus while his father fought in the Jewish-Roman war. While there, he studied rhetoric and literature. And according to Suetonius, Domitian was gifted in quoting legendary writers and poets like Virgil or Homer wherever necessary.
He was an excellent conversationalist and wrote poems, as well as essays on law and administration. It’s not known if Domitian received military training like his older brother, but he was adept at using a bow and arrow.
As a representative of the Flavian family, Domitian received a lot of adulation from the Roman citizens mostly due to his father’s military conquests and achievements.
When Vespasian was crowned emperor in 70 AD, Domitian received many titles. However, he never really had any proper responsibilities nor did he receive any training from his predecessors. Perhaps, all these factors accounted for his soured relationship with the Roman Senate during his reign as emperor.
The reigns of his father and brother
The era of the Flavian dynasty began in 68 AD when Emperor Nero committed suicide. His death caused Rome to enter into a state of chaos and uncertainty. It also created a fierce scramble for the throne, which was a period known as the Year of the Four Emperors. Four men: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian battled for the throne.
Sensing that Vespasian was garnering a lot of support, Vitellius, during his short reign, placed Domitian under house arrest in Rome. He did this to mitigate the risk of an uprising against him.
However, Vespasian defeated Vitellius in the Second Battle of Bedriacum and the emperor was forced to negotiate terms of treaty, which included abdicating the throne. Vitellius backtracked on his terms and made one last attempt to hold on to power.
With Rome under attack, Domitian was able to escape by dressing up as a follower of the god, Isis. However the Vitellian siege did not last long and Vespasian’s army successfully defeated the last of the former emperor’s army. Shortly after, Vespasian was made Emperor of Rome.
After Vespasian’s death, Domitian’s older brother, Titus, ascended the throne. All throughout his brother’s reign, Domitian still largely remained in the background. Titus died unexpectedly of natural causes and had the shortest reign under the Flavian dynasty.
Reign of Terror: The Best and Worst Years
Upon his brother’s death, Domitian became the next emperor of Rome. He was acclaimed emperor by the very powerful Praetorian Guard.
However, it seemed Domitian’s reign of terror started right from the beginning. Domitian had been with Titus when he died. There were rumors that he might have poisoned his brother and these rumors were further fueled by Domitian’s alleged earlier plot to overthrow his brother.
Regardless, it seemed Domitian was thirsty for power because he did not wait for his brother to die before declaring himself emperor.
The Best Years
Domitian’s rise to power may have been questionable but in his earlier years, he was a good ruler who cared for his people.
During Titus’s reign, Rome, as well as other provinces had experienced numerous natural disasters and many of these places, especially Rome, needed to be rebuilt.
In line with the works of his brother, Domitian rebuilt many of the city’s public offices, including the Capitol. He also built a new temple dedicated to chief of the Roman god Jupiter, as well as a concert hall and stadium.
The emperor also completed the construction of the Colosseum, which his father had started and was later continued by his brother.
Domitian disliked the old palace, where former emperors had once lived. As a result, he decided to build the Flavian Palace for his official business.
The new emperor wasn’t particularly a moral person; however, he embarked on a project to moralize Rome. He appointed him to the position of censor to supervise both public and private morality. He abolished male castration, punished the senators who were homosexuals, and censured the Vestal Virgins for their sexual immorality.
Unlike his father and brother, Domitian did not have a military career, but he liked to think of himself as one. He constantly sent messages to army generals giving them suggestions and advice. To ensure that he was taken more seriously within the military, he embarked on a military campaign against members of the Chatti tribe in Germany around 83 AD. As a reward for this campaign, he gave himself the title “Germanicus.”
Military-wise, his most significant threat arose from the conflict between Rome and the Dacians and Sarmatians. In 85 AD, the Dacians and Sarmatians settled along the Danube River and crossed into the Roman empire, killing one of its army commanders.
Domitian was quick to counterattack and sent the Dacians out of Rome. He celebrated this achievement but it was short-lived. The following year, Domitian’s praetorian prefect, Cornelius Fuscus was killed during a trip to Dacia. Although the Romans successfully invaded Dacia and defeated its armies, there were fears of a growing war. To avoid a major war, Domitian declared a truce with the Dacian ruler, Decebalus.
Emperor Domitian’s military campaigns were not entirely as successful as his predecessors. Nonetheless, the Roman army respected him, especially after he gave them pay raise.
His Worst Years
So, it seemed Domitian had had a fairly decent start to his rule. But he eventually became power drunk, and fueled by greed and paranoia, his attitude completely changed.
Cassius Dio, a historian, noted that the Roman ruler had a short temper and was said to only have a soft spot for women. He was also very vain and his baldness made him feel self-conscious.
The longer he ruled with all the internal and external pressures, the more fearful and paranoid Domitian grew. He lived lavishly, spending most of the Roman coffers on extravagant entertainment events. As a result, he enforced stricter tax laws and seized most of the wealth from Rome’s elite groups, including the Roman senators.
His fear also affected his relationship with wife Domitia Logina. The emperor had pursued her when she was still married to a Roman senator called Lucius Aelius Lamia Plautius Aelianus. Domitian had rejected his father’s suggestion of him marrying his niece, Julia Flavia. Eventually, Domitian succeeded in taking Logina from her husband and married her. During his reign, he accused her of committing adultery and plotted to sentence her to death. This accusation led to a brief separation between the two, with Domitian leaving her to stay with Julia for some time. Some reports say that Domitian had a relationship with Julia, most likely because Domitia had failed to produce an heir after their first child died. Domitian would later impregnate Julia, force her to abort the baby and kill her.
In his later years, Domitian’s power overtook him and he preferred to be called god or master. So big was his ego that he renamed the months of September and October after himself, Germanicus and Domitianus, respectively. He took away much of the Senate’s power, especially since he didn’t trust them and was constantly fearful for his life.
Domitian’s death sentences were petty and ridiculous. He went as far as having the governor of Britannia, Sullustius Lucullus, killed after the latter named a weapon after himself.
The emperor took all steps to ensure that he was abreast with all possible plots or threats to his life. He hired informants to gather important information of any possible threat to his reign or life. He saw to it that anyone caught scheming against him had their hands cut off or their genitals burned.
It’s said that Domitian had a had in the death of one of his nieces’ husband, Flavius Clemons after accusing him of being an atheist because he sympathized with the Roman Jews.
Despite his paranoia, there were valid threats to the ruler’s life. In 87 AD, several senators were executed for plotting against Domitian. Two years later, Domitian’s forces successfully stopped a mutiny led by Lucius Antonius Saturnius, who was the then-governor of Upper Germany. Towards the end of his reign, Domitian was hated by the majority of Romans.
How did Domitian die?
It appeared that Domitian had been right about threats on his life. While his earlier fears had possibly spared his life, he wasn’t so lucky in 96 AD, when he was assassinated by court officials.
According to Suetonius, the ruler’s chamberlain called Parthenius was one of the key figures in the assassination plot, along with Maximus and Stephanus. Other suspected plotters included his wife Longina, as well as some members of his family.
It is likely that Domitian had been warned of his impending death, first by the Germanic soothsayer called Larginus Proclus. Sadly, the ruler sentenced Larginus to death for his prophecy. Again, it is alleged that the goddess Minerva (Athena in Greek mythology) visited Domitian in his dream, where she told him that Jupiter had power over her and she could no longer protect the ruler. This revelation caused Domitian great worry, and on the day he died, he frequently asked his servant for the time. The servant, being one of plotters, lied about the time in order for him to lower his guard. No sooner had he relaxed than did Stephanus enter his office and stab the emperor to death.
Emperor Domitian’s body was cremated by his nurse and his ashes were interred in Temple of Flavian, along with that of Julia’s. His death fulfilled Larginus’ prophecy. Domitian was 44 years old and he died at midday just as the soothsayer had said.
Following his death, Domitian was succeeded by his chief advisor Marcus Cocceius Nerva. It was an odd choice, especially given that Nerva was old and had no children. He was also not very well known in Roman circles; however, it’s likely he was aware of the plot to kill Domitian and bring an end to the Flavian dynasty.
Emperor Domitian: Fast Facts
Born: 24 October, 51 AD, Rome, Italy
Died: 18 September, 96 AD, Rome, Italy
Reign: 81 – 96 AD
Siblings: Titus, Domitilla the Younger
Spouses: Domitia Longina
Parents: Emperor Vespasian and Domitilla
Other interesting facts about Emperor Domitian
Here are some facts about Emperor Domitian:
Compared to Vespasian and Titus, Domitian ruled the longest, from 81-96 AD.
Domitian was described as a sadist, often deriving immense pleasure from harming people and torturing animals. Growing up, it was said that he tortured flies for fun. He also charged several of Rome’s wealthiest men of treason just so he could seize their properties.
While alive, Domitian declared himself god, refusing to wait until his death to receive that honor. He put up images of himself and ordered the Romans to worship him.
Domitian also interacted with John the Apostle when the latter arrived in Rome to evangelize. He exiled John to the island of Patmos, where John wrote the Book of Revelations. Later, Domitian would be the one to order the execution of John. The apostle was killed after being thrown into a pot of boiling oil.
According to Roman historian and politician Cassius Dio, Domitian was largely intrigued by the topic of death. The emperor hosted dark and often disturbing parties to traumatize his senators. He was known for inviting Roman nobility those parties, where their names were engraved on slabs designed to resemble tombstones.
Emperor Domitian was vain and obsessed with himself, so much so that he wrote a book about hair care. The irony of it was that the ruler was bald!
Domitian’s rule was said to be so bad that after his death, the senate elected to have his memory erased and released the “damnatio memoriae”, an act created to permanently erase a person’s entire existence from public records.