Domitian - Roman Emperors

Emperor Domitian

Domitian (Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus) was Roman Emperor from 81 to 96 AD. His reign is notable for peace and stability, but at the same time for fear and paranoia. He was the younger brother of Titus, the son of Vespasian and the last representative of the Flavian dynasty.

Early Life

Domitian was born in Rome on 24 October in 51 AD. He was the youngest son of Titus Flavius Vespasianus and Flavia Domitilla Major. In compare to Titus, Domitian did not share in the court education. After the civil war in the 1st century, the old aristocracy of Rome was replaced with a new Italian nobility. Among these families was the Flavians one, which acquired wealth and status under the emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. 

According to historians, the Flavian family experienced poverty at the time of Domitian’s upbringing and claim that Vespasian gained ill fame under the emperors Caligula and Nero. However, modern history refuses these claims and suggests that it was part of a propaganda campaign to diminish success under the less popular emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and to highlight success under the rule of emperor Claudius.

Apparently, during the 40s and 60s, the Flavians enjoyed great imperial authority. While Titus received judicial education in the company of Britannicus, Vespasian continued his successful political and military career. After a long retirement period in the 50s, he returned to the public office under Nero, in 63 AD he was proconsul in the province of Africa and accompanied Emperor Nero during an official visit to Greece in 66. This is the case of the First Jewish-Roman War. Vespasian was assigned to to lead the Roman army against the rebells along with Titus.

By the time he was 16, Domitian’s mother and sister had long since died, while his father and brother were most of the time in the Roman forces, commanding armies in Germany and Judea. This is why much of Domitian’s youth was held in the absence of his close relatives. During the Judeo-Roman wars, most probably he was taken under the care of his uncle Titus Flavius ​​Sabine II, who at that time served as the city prefect of Rome; or even Marcus Coxeus Nerva, the Flavian friend and the future successor of Domitian.

Private Life

Despite the fact that Domitian’s political and military career wasn’t enough successful, his private affairs were in a much better plight. In 70 AD, Vespasian tried to arrange a marriage between Domitian and the daughter of Titus, Julia Flavia, but Domitian was in love for Domitia Longina. However, Domitia was married and tried to divorce her husband to marry Domitian. Moreover, Domitia was the younger daughter of Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, a respected general and politician, famous for his leadership and achievements in Armenia. But because of the Pisonian conspiracy against emperor Nero in 65 AD, he had been forced to commit suicide. This new marriage re-established ties to senatorial opposition.

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In 80 AD, the son of Domitia and Domitian was born, but he died in childhood in 83 AD. The death of their son affected their marriage by causing crisis in it. For unknown reasons, Domitian exiled Domitia and soon recalled her back. Then, during the whole Domitian’s reign she lived in the palace without incident. Domitia also had an influence on the emperor’s government, but it was limited. It is not known if Domitian had other children, but despite the fact of their divorce, the marriage seems to have been happy.

Emperor

After the death of Titus, Domitian was declared emperor by the Praetorian Guard. He ruled for 15 years and it was the longest period since that of Tiberius. The emperor was successful in the strengthening of economy by revaluing the Roman coinage and he expanded the border defenses of the empire. Moreover, Domitian started a massive building program to restore the damaged city of Rome.

Domitian moved the centre of government to the imperial court and rendered the Senate’s powers obsolete. He thought that the Roman Empire was to be ruled as a divine monarchy with himself as the benevolent despot. He tried to influence the economic, military and cultural programs with the intention of restoring the whole Empire by following the example of Emperor Augustus. Moreover, the emperor was personally involved in all branches of the administration.

Military Career

Important wars were fought in Britain with the general Agricola, who tried to conquer Caledonia (Scotland), and in Dacia, where the emperor failed to achieve a decisive victory against king Decebalus. Religious, military and cultural propaganda contributed to the development of the personality cult, and, appointing himself a permanent censor, he sought to control state and private morality. As a result, Domitian was popular among the people and the army, but was considered a tyrant by the members of the Roman Senate.

Domitian saw himself as the new Augustus, an enlightened despot intended to lead the Roman Empire into a new era of brilliance

The Stadium of Domitian

Domitian liked games, in particular, chariot races, even implementing two new factions – Golden and Purple. The emperor enjoyed public entertainments of any kind, but mostly with dwarves and women. Domitian founded a festival of music, horsemanship, and gymnastics that took place every five years. However, despite the fact that both the emperor and public enjoyed such kind of events, their cost eventually influenced the empire’s finances.

One of the most significant monuments left from the rule of the emperor is the Stadium of Domitian. Domizian stadium (Stadio di Domoziano) was built in Rome as a gift to Roman citizens and was used for conducting different sport events. Here, the second name of the stadium is Agons arena and Navona Square got its name thanks to this term. In the 1st century AD,  the stadium was called “Campus Agonis”, while closer to the Middle Ages this form transformed into “n’agone”. Lastly, the name of the place was simplified to “navona”.

Interesting Facts

  1. During the rule of Domitian and under his personal use, several monumental buildings as the Villa of Domitian were constructed
  2. The Stadium of Domitian was dedicated in 86 AD as a gigt to the people of Rome. Today, we all know it as Piazza Navona
  3. While he was in Rome, he used to live in the Palace of Domitian, located on the Palatine Hill
  4. Vespasian tried to arrange a marriage between Domitian and the daughter of Titus, Julia Flavia, but Domitian was in love with another woman
  5. No one exactly knows if there are any heirs of Domitian
  6. Much of Domitian’s youth was held in the absence of his close relatives
  7. Domitian saw himself as the new Augustus
  8. More than any emperor since Tiberius, Domitian spent long periods of time away from the capital
  9. His child died in less than three years after the birth
  10. His way of rule maintained historically low levels of corruption among provincial governors and elected officials

Death

Domitian was ruling the ancient Roman Empire until 96 AD. He was assassinated by court officials. Moreover, at the same day of his death, Domitian was succeeded by his advisor Nerva. Senatorial authors as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger and Suetonius described the view of Domitian as a cruel and paranoid tyrant. However, modern historians claim that he was successful autocrat with cultural, economic, and political programs that led to the foundation of the peaceful 2nd century.

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Author: Kate Zusmann

For the last five years I live in Rome, Italy. Recently, I've graduated from the American university of John Cabot with major in communication and minor in entrepreneurship. I have a passion for writing, traveling, and exploring new things.

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