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.
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
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.
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".
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.