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Titus Flavius Domitianus(A.D. 81-96)

John Donahue
College of William and Mary

A bust of the Emperor Domitian

Early Career

Domitian was born in Rome on 24 October A.D. 51, the youngest son of Vespasian, Roman emperor (A.D. 69-79) and Domitilla I, a treasury clerk's daughter.[[1]] Despite a literary tradition that associated Domitian with Flavian poverty, the family's status remained high throughout his early years: Vespasian was appointed to the prestigious proconsulship of North Africa in A.D. 59, and seven years later was granted a special command in the East by the emperor Nero (A.D. 54-69) to settle a revolt in Judaea; Titus, Domitian's older brother by at least ten years and Vespasian's eventual successor as emperor, had married well in the 60's and was chosen as a legionary legate under Vespasian in the East.[[2]]

Unlike Titus, Domitian was not educated at the emperor's court, yet he received sound training in Rome in the same way as any member of the senatorial elite of his day. The imperial biographer Suetonius records that Domitian gave public recitals of his works, conversed elegantly, and produced memorable comments; as emperor, he would write and publish a book on baldness.[[3]] Domitian's adolescence was also marked by isolation. His mother had long been dead, he was considerably younger than his brother, and his father was away for much of his teenage years, first in Africa and then in Judaea.[[4]] An obvious outcome of all of this was his preference for solitude, a trait that would contribute significantly to his difficulties with various constituents as emperor.[[5]]

Little is known about Domitian in the turbulent 18 months of the three emperors, but in the aftermath of the downfall of Vitellius in A.D. 69 he presented himself to the invading Flavian forces, was hailed as Caesar, and moved into the imperial residence.[[6]] Guided by Gaius Licinius Mucianus, Vespasian's chief advisor, Domitian represented the family in the senate and suggested that other issues be postponed until Vespasian's arrival from the East. Eager for military glory himself, Domitian soon led reinforcements to Germany, where the Batavian auxiliaries of the Rhine legions had revolted. The uprising failed before he could arrive, however, and the literary accounts of his achievements are not to be trusted.[[7]] It was also during this period, perhaps in late A.D. 70, that he married Domitia Longina, daughter of the highly regarded general, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, whom Nero had forced to commit suicide in A.D. 66. For all appearances, it was an excellent choice. The name of Corbulo was synonymous with military achievement, and the general had left behind a substantial clientela. Even so, the marriage was troubled. An only child died young, and Domitia was probably exiled by her husband c. A.D 83. Later, she would be recalled to the palace, where she lived with Domitian until his death.[[8]]

Domitian's role in the 70's was determined largely by Vespasian's choice of Titus as his successor. To him fell a series of ordinary consulships, the tribunician power, the censorship, and the praetorian prefecture. Domitian, on the other hand, was named six times to the less prestigious suffect consulship, retained the title of Caesar, and held various priesthoods. He was given responsibility, but no real power. Nothing changed when Titus acceded to the throne, as Domitian received neither tribunician power nor imperium of any kind. The brothers were never to become close, and as Titus lay dying in September 81, Domitian hastened to the praetorian camp, where he was hailed as emperor. On news of Titus' death, the senate chose first to honor the dead emperor before elevating his brother, an early indication perhaps of Domitian's future troubles with the aristocracy. At any rate, after waiting an extra day, Domitian received imperium, the title Augustus, and tribunician power along with the office of pontifex maximus and the title pater patriae, father of his country.[[9]]


As emperor, Domitian was to become one of Rome's foremost micromanagers, especially concerning the economy. Shortly after taking office, he raised the silver content of the denarius by about 12% (to the earlier level of Augustus), only to devaluate it in A.D. 85, when the imperial income must have proved insufficient to meet military and public expenses.[[10]] Confiscations and the rigorous collection of taxes soon became necessary. On another front, he sought to promote grain production by calling for empire-wide limitations on viticulture, but the edict met with immediate opposition and was never implemented.[[11]] On the other hand, there were notable successes. The great fire of A.D. 64, the civil wars of A.D 68-69, and another devastating fire in A.D. 80 had left Rome badly in need of repair. Domitian responded by erecting, restoring, or completing some 50 structures, including the restored Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol and a magnificent palace on the Palatine. The building program, ambitious and spectacular, was matched by hardly any other emperor.[[12]] He was also able to maintain the debased currency standard of A.D. 85, which was still higher than the Vespasianic one, until the end of his reign. The economy, therefore, offered a ready outlet for Domitian's autocratic tendencies. There were failures, but he also left the treasury with a surplus, perhaps the best proof of a financially sound administration.

Domitian's reach extended well beyond the economy. Late in A.D. 85 he made himself censor perpetuus, censor for life, with a general supervision of conduct and morals. The move was without precedent and, although largely symbolic, it nevertheless revealed Domitian's obsessive interest in all aspects of Roman life. An ardent supporter of traditional Roman religion, he also closely identified himself with Minerva and Jupiter, publicly linking the latter divinity to his regime through the Ludi Capitolini, the Capitoline Games, begun in A.D.86. Held every four years in the early summer, the Games consisted of chariot races, athletics and gymnastics, and music, oratory and poetry. Contestants came from many nations, and no expense was spared; the emperor himself awarded the prizes.[[13]] In the same manner, Domitian offered frequent and elaborate public shows, always with an emphasis on the innovative: gladiator contests held at night; female combatants and dwarves; food showered down upon the public from ropes stretched across the top of the Amphitheater.[[14]] Thus did the emperor seek to underscore not only Rome's importance but also his own and that of the Flavian regime.

Beyond Rome, Domitian taxed provincials rigorously and was not afraid to impose his will on officials of every rank. Consistent with his concern for the details of administration, he also made essential changes in the organization of several provinces and established the office of curator to investigate financial mismanagement in the cities. Other evidence points to a concern with civic improvements of all kinds, from road building in Asia Minor, Sardinia and near the Danube to building and defensive improvements in North Africa.[[15]] Less easy to gauge is Domitian's attitude toward Christians and Jews, since reliable evidence for their persecution is difficult to find. Christians may have been among those banished or executed from time to time during the 90's, but the testimony falls short of confirming any organized program of persecution under Domitian's reign. On the other hand, there is clear evidence that Jews were made to feel uneasy under Domitian, who scrupulously collected the Jewish tax and harassed Jewish tax dodgers during much of his rule. As with Christians, such policies did not amount to persecution, but it does help to explain the Jewish fears of expulsion present in the sources.[[16]] On balance, the tradition of Domitian as persecutor has been greatly overstated, yet given his autocratic tendencies and devotion to Roman pagan religion, it is easy to see how such stories could have evolved and multiplied.

Military Affairs

While the military abilities of Vespasian and Titus were genuine, those of Domitian were not. Partly as an attempt to remedy this deficiency, Domitian frequently became involved in his own military exploits outside of Rome. He claimed a triumph in A.D. 83 for subduing the Chatti in Gaul, but the conquest was illusory. Final victory did not really come until A.D. 89. In Britain, similar propaganda masked the withdrawal of Roman forces from the northern borders to positions farther south, a clear sign of Domitian's rejection of expansionist warfare in the province.[[17]] The greatest threat, however, remained on the Danube. The emperor visited Moesia in A.D. 85 after Oppius Sabinus, the Moesian governor, had been killed by invading Dacians. In the First Dacian War, initial success against the aggressors by Domitian's praetorian prefect, Cornelius Fuscus, allowed the emperor to celebrate his second triumph at Rome in A.D. 86. Fuscus was subsequently killed trying to avenge Sabinus' death, however, and Domitian soon returned to the Danube, where Roman forces, under the newly appointed governor of Upper Moesia, Tettius Julianus, defeated the Dacians at Tapae in the Second Dacian War, most likely in A.D. 88. Matters remained far from settled. In January, A.D. 89, the governor of Upper Germany, L. Antonius Saturninus, mutinied at Mainz. The revolt was promptly suppressed and the rebel leaders brutally punished. Later that same year, Domitian attacked the Suebian Marcomanni and Quadi in the First Pannonian War, while offering the Dacian king Decebalus a settlement to avoid conflicts on two fronts. Compelled to return to the Danube three years later, Domitian fought the combined forces of the Suebi and the Sarmatians in the Second Pannonian War. Few other details are available beyond the fact that a Roman legion was destroyed in a campaign that lasted about eight months. By January, A.D. 93, Domitian was back in Rome, not to accept a full triumph but the lesser ovatio, a sign perhaps of unfinished business along the Danube. In fact, during the final years of Domitian's reign, the buildup of forces on the middle Danube and the appointment and transfer of key senior officials suggest that a third Pannonian campaign directed against the Suebi and Sarmatians may have been underway. Even so, there is no testimony of actual conflicts and the evidence does not extend beyond A.D. 97.[[18]]

The Emperor's Court and His Relationship with the Aristocracy

Domitian's autocratic tendencies meant that the real seat of power during his reign resided with his court. The features typically associated with later courts - a small band of favored courtiers, a keen interest in the bizarre and the unusual (e.g., wrestlers, jesters, and dwarves), and a highly mannered, if somewhat artificial atmosphere, characterized Domitian's palace too, whether at Rome or at his Alban villa, some 20 kilometers outside of the capital.[[19]] Courtiers included family members and freedmen, as well as friends (amici), a group of politicians, generals, and praetorian prefects who offered input on important matters.[[20]] Reliance upon amici was not new, yet the arrangement underscored Domitian's mistrust of the aristocracy, most notably the senate, whose role suffered as Domitian deliberately concentrated power in the hands of few senators while expanding the duties of the equestrian class. Senatorial grievances were not without basis: at least 11 senators of consular rank were executed and many others exiled, ample attestation of the emperor's contempt for the body and its membership.[[21]] The senate's enthusiastic support for the damning of Domitian's memory, therefore, came as no surprise. Nevertheless, the situation must be placed in its proper context. By comparison, the emperor Claudius(A.D. 41-54) executed 35 senators and upwards of 300 equestrians, yet he was still deified by the senate![[22]] Domitian's mistake was that he made no attempt to mask his feelings about the senate. Inclined neither by nature nor by conviction to include the body in his emperorship, he treated the group no differently than any other. Revenge would come in the form of an aristocratically based literary tradition that would miss no opportunity to vilify thoroughly both emperor and his rule.

Death and Assessment

On 18 September, A.D. 96, Domitian was assassinated and was succeeded on the very same day by M. Cocceius Nerva, a senator and one of his amici. The sources are unanimous in stressing that this was a palace plot, yet it is difficult to determine the level of culpability among the various potential conspirators.[[23]]

In many ways, Domitian is still a mystery - a lazy and licentious ruler by some accounts, an ambitious administrator and keeper of traditional Roman religion by others.[[24]] As many of his economic, provincial, and military policies reveal, he was efficient and practical in much that he undertook, yet he also did nothing to hide the harsher despotic realities of his rule. This fact, combined with his solitary personality and frequent absences from Rome, guaranteed a harsh portrayal of his rule. The ultimate truths of his reign remain difficult to know.


The bibliography on Domitian is too vast for thorough treatment here. The works listed below are either main accounts of the emperor or pertain directly to issues raised in the entry above. For a comprehensive listing of sources, see Jones, The Emperor Domitian, 238-255.

Anderson, J.C."Domitian's Building Program. Forum Julium and Markets of Trajan." ArchN 10 (1981):41-48.

Atti congresso internazionale di studi Flaviani, 2 vols. Rieti, 1983.

Breeze, D. J. The Northern Frontiers of Roman Britain. London, 1982.

Carradice, I.A. "Coinage and Finances in the Reign of Domitian, AD 81-96", BAR International Series, 178, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1983.

Coleman, K. M. "The Emperor Domitian and Literature." ANRW II.32.5: 3087-3115.

Friedländer, L. Roman Life and Manners under the Early Empire (trans. of Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms in der Zeit von August bis zum Ausgang der Antonine, 7th ed. by L. A. Magnus), London, 1968.

Garnsey, P. and Saller, R. The Early Principate: Augustus to Trajan,[Greece and Rome New Surveys in the Classics No. 15], Oxford, 1982.

Girard, J-L. "Domitien et Minerve: une prédilection impériale." ANRW II.17.1: 233-245.

Griffith, J. G. "Juvenal, Statius and the Flavian Establishment." Greece and Rome 16 (1969): 134-150.

Heintz, Florent. "A Domitianic Fleet Diploma." ZPE 120 (1998): 250-252.

Jones, B. W. The Emperor Domitian. London, 1992.

Levi, M.A. "I Flavi." ANRW II.2: 177-207.

Levick, B. M. "Domitian and the Provinces." Latomus 41 (1982): 50-7.

Liebeschuetz, J. H. W. G. Continuity and Change in Roman Religion. Oxford, 1979.

McGinn, Thomas A. J. "Feminae Probosae and the Litter" CJ 93 (1998): 241-250.

McCrum, M. and Woodhead, A. G. Select Documents of the Principates of the Flavian Emperors, Including the Years of Revolution, AD 68-96. Cambridge, 1966.

Millar, F. The Emperor in the Roman Word. Ithaca, 1992.

Platner, M. and Ashby, T. A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Oxford, 1929.

Southern, Pat. Domitian: Tragic Tyrant. Indiana University Press, 1997.

Syme, R. Tacitus. Oxford, 1958.

________. "Domitian, the Last Years." Chiron 13 (1983): 121-146.

________. The Augustan Aristocracy. Oxford, 1986.

Talbert, R. J. A. The Senate of Imperial Rome. Princeton, 1984.

Vinson, M. "Domitia Longina, Julia Titi, and the Literary Tradition." Historia 38 (1989): 431-450.

Wallace-Hadrill, A. Suetonius: The Scholar and His Caesars. London, 1983.

Waters, K. H. "The Character of Domitian." Phoenix 18 (1964): 49-77.


[[1]] Ancient sources: Tac. Agr.; Cass. Dio 67; Plin. Pan.; Statius, Silv.; McCrum, M. and Woodhead, A.G. Select Documents of the Principates of the Flavian Emperors (Cambridge, 1966).

[[2]] Compare, however, Suetonius' claim at Dom.1: "He is said to have spent a poverty-stricken and rather degraded youth: without even any silver on the table." The passage is typical of the hostility directed toward Domitian in the literary sources.

[[3]] Suet. Dom. 18, 20; in praise of his literary talents, see also: Plin. NH Praef 5; Statius, Achil. 1.15; Silius Italicus, Pun.3.621. But there were just as many hostile accounts of his literary prowess: Tac. Hist. 4.86; Suet. Dom. 2.2. Since none of this evidence survives, there is no way to judge the validity of these conflicting assessments. That the controversy even exists, however, helps to confirm that Domitian was well educated.

[[4]] Domitian was likely left in the care of his uncle, Sabinus II. See Tac. Hist. 3.75. Whether he resided in Rome with his uncle during this period is less clear.

[[5]] Domitian's preference for solitude finds particularly cruel expression in Suetonius, who portrays him as spending hours alone every day catching flies and stabbing them with a needle-sharp pen while emperor. See Dom.3. Dio (66.9.5) also cites Domitian's predilection for his own company.

[[6]] Tac. Hist. 4.86; 4.2.

[[7]] Poetic embellishment of Domitian's military achievements: Statius, Theb. 1.21; Martial, 9.101.13; 9.10.15-16; Jos. BJ 7.85; Silius Italicus, Pun.3.608.

[[8]] Long after Domitian's memory had been damned, Domitia still referred to herself as the emperor's wife, perhaps an indication that she maintained at least some degree of affection for her husband. The evidence is preserved on brick stamps datable to A.D. 123; CIL 15.548a-9d.

[[9]] On honoring of Titus: Suet. Tit. 11.

[[10]] On the raising of the currency standard: Walker, D.R. , "The Metrology of the Roman Silver Coinage. Part I; From Augustus to Domitian," BAR Supplementary Series 5, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 120, 115; Carradice, I.A. "Coinage and Finances in the Reign of Domitian, AD 81-96," BAR International Series 178, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 9-56.

[[11]] Suet. Dom. 7.2; 14.2.

[[12]] For an excellent discussion of Domitian's building program, see Jones, B. W. The Emperor Domitian London, 1992, 79-98.

[[13]] Capitoline Games: Censorinus, De Die Natali 18.5. In A.D. 93, Domitian also established the Ludi Saeculares (Secular Games), a celebration under the supervision of the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, an aristocratic priestly college. See Suet. Dom. 4.3; Stat. Silv. 1.4.17; 4.1.37; Martial, 4.1.7; 10.63.3.

[[14]] Night time shows and unusual combatants: Dio 67.8.4; Amphitheater celebration: Stat. Silv. 1.6.75-78.

[[15]] On improvements in the different provinces: Garzetti, A. From Tiberius to the Antonines: A History of the Roman Empire, 14-192 (London, 1974),278, 652; Leglay, M. "Les Flaviens et l'Afrique," MEFR 80 (1968):221-22, 230-232.

[[16]] For a careful and balanced treatment of difficult evidence: Jones, The Emperor Domitian, 114-119.

[[17]] That the Chatti were not subdued in A.D. 83 is revealed by their role in Saturninus' revolt (Suet. Dom. 6.2) and by their interference with the Cherusci (Dio 67.5.1). On the Roman withdrawal to the south in Britain, see Hobley, A.S. "The Numismatic Evidence for the Post-Agricolan Abandonment of the Roman Frontier in Northern Scotland," Britannia 20 (1989): 69-74. Numismatic evidence (ibid., 73) indicates that the arch at Richborough was erected at this same time. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the monument served to mask the Roman retreat.

[[18]] The presence of five Roman legions in Pannonia, for example, is unusual and points to genuine Roman concern with the region. See Dusanic, S. and Vasic, M. R. "An Upper Moesian Diploma of AD 96," Chiron 7 (1977): 291-304; Jones, The Emperor Domitian, 153-155.

[[19]] Domitian did not hesitate to conduct a variety of imperial duties outside of the domus Flavia in Rome. For some of his activities at Alba: Plin. Ep. 4.11.6; Suet. Dom 4.4; Dio 67.1.2; Juv. 4.99. Tacitus (Agr. 45) and Juvenal (4.145) refer to it as the arx Albana, "the Alban fortress," implying the residence of a despot.

[[20]] On the emperor's amici, Jones, The Emperor Domitian, 50-71.

[[21]] On the execution of ex-consuls: Suet. Dom.10 and Jones, The Emperor Domitian, 182-188; exiles: ibid., 188-192.

[[22]] Claudius and executions: Suet. Claud. 29.2; Apocol. 13.

[[23]] For a collection of the ancient sources stressing a palace plot: Gephardt, R. F. C. "C. Suetonii Tranquilli Vita Domitiani: Suetonius' Life of Domitian with Notes and Parallel Passages," dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1922, 89. For the most complete account: Suet. Dom. 14.

[[24]] Domitian as lazy and lustful: Suet. Dom. 19; 22.

Copyright (C) 1997, John Donahue. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: John Donahue.

Updated: 10 October 1997

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