The Roman Emperor Domitian (51-96) had a distrustful nature and feared conspiracies, but he enjoyed to play cruel jokes upon this subjects. He always lived in the shadows of his famous father and brother, trying to outdo them in splendour. He insisted on being addressed as "master and god".

Domitian of Rome was born the second son of Vespasian (9-79) and his wife, Flavia Domitilla the Elder. In AD 66, Vespasian had fallen into disfavour by falling asleep while the Emperor Nero (37-68) was singing. After Nero's death, four Emperors rapidly succeeded each other, among them the Emperor Vitellius "the Glutton" (15-69, to the right). Vitellius had spent his youth as one of the Emperor Tiberius' male prostitutes on the isle of Capri. His thigh was deformed as a result of being run over by a chariot driven by the Emperor Caligula. By the time he became Emperor, Vitellius was a notorious glutton. He lived for food1; banqueting three or four times a day, routinely vomiting up his meals, using a long feather to induce the process, and starting over. Vitellius was especially fond of the rarest delicacies, like pike livers, pheasant brains and flamingo tongues. The Imperial Navy was given the task of searching the seas for rare ingredients. One of his banquets involved no fewer than 2000 fish and 7000 birds. Soon Vitellius horrified the Romans with his overly extravagant lifestyle and stupid appointments.

In July 69, the legions of the East declared their support for Vespasian and Emperor Vitellius ordered 18-year-old Domitian's arrest. Domitian fled and made his way to the advancing units of his father's army, while Vitellius' supporters murdered his uncle. During Vespasian's reign, Domitian stayed in the shadow of his famous brother Titus (39-81). Titus suppressed the Jewish revolt, made love to the beautiful Jewish princess Berenice, and succeeded Vespasian in 79, but Domitian was never allowed to pursue any military glory. When Titus lay dying in 81, Domitian had himself proclaimed Emperor.

Historians have described Domitian as "crazy and unbalanced". He suffered from social inadequacy and preferred solitude to the company of people. He had a distrustful nature and was constant in fear of conspiracies; the pillars of his palace were made of white reflective marble, so that he could see what was going on behind him. Like Caligula, Domitian was very sensitive of his baldness and official portraits continued to show him with flowing locks of hair. Domitian was also notorious for his cruelty. He is supposed to have invented a new method of torture: burning the sexual organs of his victims. Domitian was capable of inviting an erring official to supper, dismissing him in such a way that the man retired happy and carefree. Nevertheless, the next day he was executed. Domitian also enjoyed asking senators to dinner-parties at which all the equipment was black, so that the guests were numb with fright. Like Vespasian, Domitian persecuted Stoic philosophers and Jews. He had all Jews, who claimed descent from King David, tracked down and killed. Very peculiar was Domitian's pleasure in catching flies, stabbing them with the point of a pen and tearing their wings out.

Despite his cruelty, Domitian was an energetic Emperor who paid careful attention to every department of administration. He was also an enthusiastic patron of the arts. He finished the Colosseum, constructed several temples and built the Imperial palace. Under Domitian detailed records were kept on army personnel and the fate of soldiers improved. In 83 AD, his armies defeated the Chatti and extended the frontier to the rivers Lahn and Main. Domitian forbade the castration of boys and attempted to revive an unpopular law against homosexual intercourse with boys of free birth. He had three Vestal Virgins executed in 83 on grounds of immorality and, in 90, he had the Chief Vestal buried alive, although she protested her innocence to the end. Her presumed lovers were beaten to death with rods.

Domitian himself was a great lover of women. In 70 AD, he carried off his wife, Domitia Longina (to the right), from her husband. She was a daughter of the great general Corbulo. They had a son, who died in infancy. Beside his wife, Domitian kept several women for his pleasure and it was said that he depilated them with his own hand. When his wife had an affair with the actor Paris2 in 83, Domitian divorced her and had Paris killed. The next year Domitian became interested in his niece, Julia Flavia (64-91), and promptly executed her husband. She moved into the palace and it was said that she became Domitian's mistress. Nevertheless, Domitian took Domitia Longina back shortly afterwards, because he could not bear to be separated from her. Julia Flavia became pregnant and died in 91, allegedly as a result of an abortion that Domitian had forced upon her. He had her deified.

Domitian attempted to outdo his father and brother in splendour. He built an arena for thirty thousand spectators and staged costly public shows. He took special pleasure in gladiator fights between women and dwarfs. The aristocracy hated him, for Domitian was not only cruel but also autocratic and pretentious, wearing the dress of a triumphant general in the Senate3 and insisting on being addressed as "master and god". After an army revolt in Upper Germany in 89, Domitian became even more autocratic and in 93 he instituted a reign of terror. Seeing conspiracies everywhere, he cracked down on all perceived threats. Domitian's niece, Flavia Domitilla the younger, had married Domitian's cousin, the consul Flavius Clemens. Their sons were Domitian's heirs. In 95 AD, Domitian accused them of sympathising with the Christians and the Jews. He had his cousin killed and his niece banished. Domitian executed senators and Imperial officials who opposed his policies and had their property confiscated. Suetonius estimated the casualties among former consuls alone at no less than twelve.

Domitian advanced his own death by replacing his Praetorian Prefects. Worried that their career would be brief, too, the new Prefects recruited a former slave of Flavia Domitilla the Younger to kill the Emperor. Domitian's wife Domitia Longina was also involved in the plot. The first blow was not fatal and a hand-to-hand struggle followed until the other conspirators burst into the room and hacked the Emperor to death.

Copyright 1997, 2000, 2007 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.


1 His enemies accused Vitellius of starving his mother to death.
2 This actor is another person than the actor of the same name, who was murdered by Nero in 67 AD.
3 His military accomplishments were not impressive.


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