Bad Emperors: Domitian


With Domitian we reach the end of a string of 2 good emperors, which if you've been paying attention, you'll know is actually pretty good. An unprecedented streak actually. Titus Flavius Domitianus, who becomes Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus, better known as Domitian, follows his father, Vespasian and his brother Titus to be the last of the short lived Flavian dynasty. These two were personally responsible for the subduing of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Great Temple so naturally the Romans thought they were great.


Daddy Vespasian came to power on the back of this victory after a year long civil war following Nero's suicide when Domitian is about 14. Unfortunately, at the time Vespasian was in Jerusalem and only Domitian was in Rome so teenage Domitian ended up being accidental emperor for a bit. Which, given that four emperors had been brutally and publicly murdered in the preceding 11 months was probably simultaneously brilliant and terrifying.(1) What he did with this was allegedly shag some ladies and attempt to march into Germany. This is obviously very bad. Romans have long given up on Germany - too many trees - but also explicable.


Here's the key to Domitian, and it's ludicrously simple: he's unbearably, all consumingly jealous of his big brother. Titus is the big brother of every little brother's nightmares. He's kinda handsome, he's smart, he's funny, he's a great general who has won spectacular, history changing battles alongside his dad, he's banging Berenice, the daughter of Herod Agrippa and queen of Judea. He's got a whacking great arch with his and their dad's faces on it in the Forum Romanum. What's Domitian got? Nothing. Titus is the prom king, football star, who scored the winning goal against the arch rivals in the homecoming game and is banging the head cheerleader, but is also top of his class and really nice and kind to animals, and funny and well dressed and can give a thoughtful opinion on New Yorker articles and David Foster Wallace. And he's also very openly your parents' favourite. You, on the other hand, play Call of Duty a lot, and only have two friends and have a bass guitar that you learnt to play Come As You Are on once and haven't touched since because your dad mentioned it and you hate your dad for being the ex prom king, football star but you also want him to love you as much as he loves your brother even though you will never be your brother. Domitian's 14 year old attempt to start a war in Germany is every unhappy little brother's attempt to try out for the football team despite being chubby, small and fundamentally unsuited. Everything Domitian does is that.


As punishment for this attempt, Domitian is forced by his dad to follow him everywhere, in order to remind him that he was a child. Domitian finds this just unbearable. Worst of all, Vespasian makes him follow behind his brother wherever they go. So, more than anything we should be impressed that Domitian didn't just up and stab Titus at any point. This is possibly because Domitian is a bit wet. He's the kid who would totally talk about doing a school shooting and scream homophobic abuse at you on CoD if you sniped him wrong, but cry if you showed him an actual gun.

Anyway, Domitian is insignificant and fully marginalised during both dad and brother's reigns, but finally, after Titus dies after just two years of ruling (including presiding over the Vesuvius disaster), Domitian gets to be emperor. Again. As a grown up. Here's where things get fun, because we have first person accounts of Domitian's reign from various people, most notably Tacitus. And my god does Tacitus hate Domitian. Or he pretends to. because he didn't actually publish anything during Domitian's 14 year reign, he waited til he was dead to start declaring that Domitian was evil and writing super creepy hagiographic accounts of his father-in-law.  Plus a lot of his criticisms are...a bit weird. Everyone had to be sycophantic apparently. Which - I don't about you - I don't find highly surprising in an imperial system. Especially not as I've read Pliny the Younger's absolutely revolting panygeric to the supposedly great emperor Trajan, which Pliny read aloud to his face in the senate and is unbearable to anyone with a jot of self awareness.(2) On top of that Tacitus uses the classic old "Domitian hated me and my father in law and proved it by giving him loads of honours, two triumphs and two extremely important governorships and letting us both live very comfortably" line. Which, given that Domitian did kill at least 10 named, distinguished senators, seems a bit unlikely.  So basically, everything that Tacitus says about Domitian can maybe be taken with a pinch of salt. On top of that, by the time he got round to writing about Domitian Suetonius had been exiled by Hadrian and didn't have any sources to work from so his biography is only 23 chapters long and somewhat vague. It's a list at best to be honest.

Here's what we do know about Domitian: he was a big fan of games and building things. For just about every other emperor having games and building things is good, it shows investment in the city and a desire to glorify Rome and that you care about the people. For Domitian however, games and buildings are bad for some unclear reason. Probably that he was murdered. He also undertook a moral crusade in Rome, removing people of low moral character from the senate, for example expelling a quaestor who was too fond of singing and acting (remember Nero), and enacting the proper punishment for a Vestal Virgin who had been caught shagging: burying her alive. This is one of the very very few times this ever occurred in Roman history. Now, I feel this moral crusading would have gone down better if he hadn't got himself a reputation for being a total shagger himself. One of my favourite bits of Suetonius is when he claims Domitian called sex "bed-wrestling, as if it were a sport".(3) Which is obviously brilliant and is a term that should be more widely used. But it makes his moralising look a bit like when the Tories went all "family values" in the 90s and then it turned out they were massive hypocrites who were all shagging each other in horrible ways.(4) Even if Domitian wasn’t a shagger, apparently people thought he was and so his holier than thou thing apparently doesn't go down well.  Finally, he wrote a book called the Care of the Hair, which contained poems and classical references and is my number three on my personal "books I wish weren’t lost to time" list.

All in all, Domitian can’t catch a break. Nothing he does is technically bad, or would be given a positive spin if his brother had done it. If Titus had refilled the libraries and built a forum and insisted that the rules concerning the Jewish tax and all morality laws were followed rigidly, these would have been evidence if his fine moral character and learning.(5) But because Domitian did them, and he wasn't good with people, they were evidence that he was an unbending, hypocritical dick. Domitian is the kind of guy who reads poetry and people call him pretentious. He thwarts an army revolt and people say its luck. He doesn't come out for a day and people claim he spends his time sitting in a closed room stabbing flies with a pen. Really. They said that.(6) That is not the behaviour of anyone real. That's mean rumours. Domitian could have literally been Augustus reincarnated and people would have been pissed at him for something. Domitian is the kind of guy who has a wart on his forehead and that’s all anyone talks about (according to Suetonius, it’s a festering wart) Domitian is the rubbish brother, the guy you wish you liked but you just don’t. The guy who’s done nothing wrong, but you’re terrified of getting stuck in a room with. The guy who wore suits to university lectures. The guy you can't even make up weird sex rumours about so you have to resort to the flies thing. There’s nothing wrong with Domitian, he’s just dislikable. And it’s still true. Domitian is no one’s favourite emperor. No one writes books or films about Domitian. No one loves Domitian because Domitian never actually did anything awful or interesting.

After years of being poorly tolerated Domitian is assassinated in a deeply embarrassing way, a way that just encapsulates his whole life. Domitian was murdered by a dude called Stephanus because Stephanus had been caught embezzling the imperial fisk and feared execution. So he faked an arm injury and hid a knife in the sling, then stabbed Domitian in his bedroom. Pleasingly, Suetonius claims that the 44 year old emperor fought his assassin like an animal, which I’d like to believe but as Suetonius wasn't in that room, and at the time of writing was had lost his job and was possibly in exile, then I’m not necessarily going to take his word on it. Even though I would really like to. Because I am a good historian. And that’s how Domitian dies: stabbed by an embezzler in a fake sling for no good reason.  Such is Domitian’s life.

Domitian is said to have been extremely insecure, which I can definitely believe, and was terrified of being assassinated. Which again, given what he grew up around, I can totally believe.  When he was alive, Domitian was roundly loathed by the senatorial class, without ever really doing anything wrong. He was ignored and marginalised by his father and brother for the crime of being not as cool as Titus. He wrote a book about hair care  - hair care! - and this wasn’t enough to get him remembered. Domitian tried everything he could to be a good emperor and to be his brother – who let us not forget shacked up with an Eastern Queen and tried to bring her to Rome, making him essentially Mark Antony – and somehow completely failed. And so, Domitian, eternally disappointing little brother, is forgotten when even Tiberius got remembered. So maybe he should be Poor Domitian.



(1) Galba, who overthrew Nero was pulled from his litter and beheaded by Otho in the Forum Romanum; Otho lose sa battle and kills himself. Vitellius is also brutally beheaded.

(2) Turns out, that even for the "good emperors" what you do if you don't want to get a bit forced-suicided is violently slag off their predecessor (unless they were the current emperor's dad) and list off off basically a description of a mythical Augustus, replacing Augustus's name with the name of the emperor in front of you. Shocking right?

(3) clinopalen. Which sounds so unsexy that I love it even more. Suetonius calls this "constant sexual intercourse". Constant!

(4) I'm so sorry for making you all think about John Major and Edwina Curry again.

(5) Jews were allowed to practice monotheism and were exempt from sacrificing to the emperor but had to pay a tax. This led to sometimes complicated trials where magistrates had to "check" whether people were really Jewish or were pretending to get out of sacrificing. For men this meant checking whether they were circumcised. This leads to Suetonius's one and only personal anecdote in his Lives, for Domitian's reign: Dom: 12 "Besides other taxes, that on the Jews was levied with the utmost rigour, and those were prosecuted who without publicly acknowledging that faith yet lived as Jews, as well as those who concealed their origin and did not pay the tribute levied upon their people. I recall being present in my youth when the person of a man ninety years old was examined before the procurator and a very crowded court, to see whether he was circumcised."

(6) Suet, Dom: 3: "At the beginning of his reign he used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly-sharpened stylus. Consequently when someone once asked whether anyone was in there with Caesar, Vibius Crispus made the witty reply: "Not even a fly." Notably comedy is not a great strength of the Roman people.