24 October 2020

Domitian - Roman emperor

Authoritarian ruler was last of the Flavian dynasty

Domitian succeeded his brother Titus as emperor in 81AD
Domitian succeeded his brother Titus
as emperor in 81AD
The emperor Domitian, the last of three members of the Flavian dynasty to rule Rome, was born on this day in 51AD.

He was the son of Vespasian and the younger brother of Titus, during whose reigns he had a minor role in the government of the empire that was largely ceremonial. Yet when Titus died suddenly only two years after succeeding his father in 79AD, Domitian quickly presented himself to the Praetorian Guard to be proclaimed emperor.

The official record was that Titus, who had spent virtually the whole of his period on the throne dealing with the aftermath of the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD and a devastating fire in Rome, succumbed to a fever on a trip to the Sabine territories north of the city, but there were suspicions that he had been poisoned by his brother, perhaps in revenge for not having been given the position of power he had anticipated when Titus succeeded Vespasian. At the same time, there were rumours of an affair between Titus and Domitian’s wife, Domitia.

Vespasian and Titus had governed as the heads of a republic, but Domitian decided immediately that he wanted absolute power, moving the centre of government to the imperial court and making it clear that, in his view, Rome should be ruled as a divine monarchy. This put him at odds with the Senate from the outset.

Domitian’s best-known accomplishment was to build the Flavian Palace on the Palatine Hill, which was not the only sumptuous home he lavished on himself. He also ordered the construction of the Villa of Domitian, a vast palace situated 20 km (12 miles) outside Rome in the Alban Hills.

How the Flavian Palace complex would have looked after its completion in 92AD
How the Flavian Palace complex would have
looked after its completion in 92AD
Yet he did much to restore the many buildings in Rome that had fallen into disrepair even before Vespasian came to power, due to fire and decay. He rebuilt the Capitol, which had been gutted by fire, built a new temple to Jupiter, a new stadium on the site of what is now Piazza Navona, and a concert hall for musicians and poets. 

He sought to raise the standards of public morality by forbidding male castration, also taking action against the homosexuality that was not rare among senators. He was nonetheless seen as a generous leader and was viewed among those around him, at least early in his reign, as considerate towards his friends and fair while dispensing justice.

Domitian strengthened the economy by revaluing the Roman coinage and enhanced the empire’s borders and fought significant wars in Britain, where his general Agricola attempted to conquer Caledonia (Scotland), and in Dacia, in the area now known as Romania.

The Roman population did not mind the authoritarian nature of Domitian’s rule and he was popular too with the army, whose numbers he considerably strengthened. But he was considered a tyrant by members of the Roman Senate.

Rome's senators saw Domitian as a despot and tyrant
Rome's senators saw Domitian as
a despot and tyrant
Domitian was only too aware of this and his relationship with the senate caused him to become increasingly paranoid during his 15-year reign. He had a number of Senators executed for treason and banned free speech in an effort to silence opposition to him.  Seemingly out of jealousy, he had Sullustius Lucullus, governor of Britannia, executed for naming a new type of lance after himself.

What really pushed the senate over the edge, historians surmise, was his insistence on being addressed as dominus et deus - master and god.  Senators and their supporters began to plot against him, culminating in his assassination in September 96, apparently instigated by Domitian's chamberlain Parthenius, possibly with the connivance or at least approval of his wife, who feared for her life because of her husband’s increasing lack of trust in even those closest to him.

Several days before the plot reached its bloody conclusion, Domitian claimed that Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, had appeared to the him in a dream, from which the emperor emerged convinced his death would take place at midday. He became anxious at around that time each day.

On the day he was killed, Domitian repeatedly asked Stephanus, a servant, to tell him what time it was. Unbeknown to him, it was Stephanus who had been charged with carrying out the attack and he lied to the emperor, telling him that it was already late in the afternoon.

Reassured, Domitian went to his desk to work, only for Stephanus, who had been wearing a bandage on his arm for several days, pretending he had been injured, to appear at his side, claiming to have uncovered a plot. He handed the emperor a document, which Domitian read eagerly. While the emperor was distracted, Stephanus ripped off the bandage, under which he had been concealing a knife, and stabbed Domitian in the groin. 

Domitian fought back, drawing his own knife and inflicting a fatal wound on his assailant, but others appeared to finish the job.  His body was taken away and cremated, his nurse Phyllis taking his ashes away to be buried at the Flavian Temple. 

Senators could not contain their delight at his death, proclaimed Marcus Cocceius Nerva, a senior consul, as the new emperor,  and soon ordered that statues and arches Domitian built to celebrate his power were pulled down, his coins melted and his name erased from public records. There was said to be indifference among the public, but the army, who remained loyal to him, grieved his loss, and though their demands that the plotters be punished were initially refused, in time a number of trials and executions took place.

Roman historians such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius portrayed Domitian as a cruel and paranoid tyrant in their writings. Yet the view among many modern historians is that Domitian was a ruthless but efficient autocrat whose cultural, economic, and political policies laid the foundations for a period of peace and stability.

A section of the visible remains of the  Domus Augustana on Rome's Palatine Hill
A section of the visible remains of the 
Domus Augustana on Rome's Palatine Hill
Travel tip:

The Flavian Palace,  also known as the Domus Flavia, was completed in 92 AD, its design attributed to Domitian’s master architect, Rabirius. Domus Flavia is the name for the northwestern section of the palace, which contained large rooms for official business, entertaining and ceremonial purposes. The domestic wing to the southeast, where the emperor lived, was called the Domus Augustana.  Running along the eastern side of the Domus Augustana was Domitian’s so-called Hippodrome or Stadium, which was actually an elaborate garden with the appearance of a Roman stadium, although it was too small to accommodate the chariot races of which Domitian was an enthusiastic spectator.  The remains sit atop the Palatine Hill.

The Villa of Domitian enjoyed commanding  views over beautiful Lago Albano outside Rome
The Villa of Domitian enjoyed commanding 
views over beautiful Lago Albano outside Rome
Travel tip:

The Villa of Domitian was a vast and sumptuous villa, built between 81 and 96AD, situated 20km (12 miles) outside Rome, in the Alban Hills, in the ancient territory of Ager Albanus, which contained the city of Alba Longa, overlooking the Lago Albano lake. The remains of the villa are located mostly within the estate of the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo, the traditional summer residence of the popes, with other relics in the towns of Castel Gandolfo and Albano Laziale. Some are visible in the gardens of the Villa Barberini. 

Also on this day:

1784: The birth of philanthropist and businessman Sir Moses Montefiore

1913: The birth of operatic baritone Tito Gobbi

1925: The birth of the avant-garde composer Luciano Berio


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