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.
Domitian was born in Rome on 24 October 51 AD. He was the youngest son of Titus Flavius Vespasianus and Flavia Domitilla Major. In comparison 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, 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 highlight success under emperor Claudius’s rule.
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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 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 lead the Roman army against the rebels 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 served as the city prefect of Rome, or even Marcus Coxeus Nerva, the Flavian friend and the future successor of Domitian.
Even though Domitian’s political and military career wasn’t successful enough, his private affairs were in a much better plight. In 70 AD, Vespasian tried to arrange a marriage between Domitian and Titus, Julia Flavia, but Domitian was in love with 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.
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 a crisis. 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 influenced the emperor’s government, but it was limited. It is not known if Domitian had other children, but despite their divorce, the marriage seems to have been happy.
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 strengthening the 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 center 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 to restore the whole Empire by following the example of Emperor Augustus. Moreover, the emperor was personally involved in all branches of the administration.
Important wars were fought in Britain with general Agricola, who tried to conquer Caledonia (Scotland), and in Dacia, where the emperor failed to achieve a decisive victory against king Decebalus. In addition, religious, military, and cultural propaganda contributed to developing 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
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, although both the emperor and the public enjoyed such events, their cost eventually influenced its finances.
One of the most significant monuments left from the rule of the emperor is the Stadium of Domitian. Domitian Stadium (Stadio di Domoziano) was built in Rome as a gift to Roman citizens and used to conduct different sports 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.”
Domitian was ruling the ancient Roman Empire until 96 AD. Then, he was assassinated by court officials. Moreover, on 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 a 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 10 years, I live in the Eternal City. Traveling, exploring new things, writing blogs, and shooting vlogs are my main hobbies, but the thing that I like even more is sharing my experience and thoughts with you! Explore Rome with Us :)
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