previous next


or with his full name T. FLAVIUS DOMITIANUS AUGUSTUS, was the younger of Vespasian's sons by his first wife Domitilla. He succeeded his elder brother Titus as emperor, and reigned from A. D. 81 to 96. He was born at Rome, on the 24th of October, A. D. 52, the year in which his father was consul designatus. Suetonius relates that Domitian in his youth led such a wretched life, that he never used a silver vessel, and that he prostituted himself for money. The position which his father then occupied precludes the possibility of ascribing this mode of life to poverty, and if the account be true, we must attribute this conduct to his bad natural disposition. When Vespasian was proclaimed emperor, Domitian, who was then eighteen years old, happened to be at Rome, where he and his friends were persecuted by Vitellius; Sabinus, Vespasian's brother, was murdered, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that Domitian escaped from the burning temple of the capitol, and concealed himself until the victory of his father's party was decided. After the fall of Vitellius, Domitian was proclaimed Caesar, and obtained the city praetorship with consular power. As his father was still absent in the east, Domitian and Mucianus undertook the administration of Italy until Vespasian returned. The power which was thus put into his hands was abused by the dissolute young man in a manner which shewed to the world, but too plainly, what was to be expected, if he should ever succeed to the imperial throne: he put several persons to death, merely to gratify his desire of taking vengeance on his personal enemies; he seduced many wives, and lived surrounded by a sort of harem, and arbitrarily deposed and appointed so many magistrates, both in the city and Italy, that his father with a bitter sarcasm wrote to him, "I wonder that you do not send some one to succeed me." Being jealous of the military glory of his father and brother, he resolved upon marching against Civilis in Gaul, in spite of the advice of all his friends to remain at Rome; but he did not advance further than Lugdunum, for on his arrival there he received intelligence of Cerealis having already conquered the rebel.

When his father at length arrived at Rome, Domitian, who was conscious of his evil conduct, is said not to have ventured to meet him, and to have pretended not to be in the perfect possession of his mind. Vespasian, however, knew his disposition, and throughout his reign kept him as much as possible away from public affairs; but in order to display his rank and station, Domitian always accompanied his father and brother when they appeared in public, and when they celebrated their triumph after the Jewish war, he followed them in the procession riding on a white warsteed. He lived partly in the same house with his father, and partly on an estate near the Mons Albanus, where he was surrounded by a number of courtezans. While he thus led a private life, he devoted a great part of his time to the composition of poetry and the recitation of his productions. Vespasian, who died in A. D. 79, was succeeded by his elder son Titus, and Domitian used publicly to say, that he was deprived of his share in the government by a forgery in his father's will, for that it had been the wish of the latter that the two brothers should reign in common. But this was mere calumny : Domitian hated his brother, and made several attempts upon his life. Titus behaved with the utmost forbearance towards him, but followed the example of his father in not allowing Domitian to take any part in the administration of public affairs, although he was invested with the consulship seven times during the reigns of his father and brother. The early death of Titus, in A. D. 81, was in all probability the work of Domitian. Suetonius states that Domitian ordered the sick Titus to be left entirely alone, before he was quite dead; Dio Cassius says that he accelerated his death by ordering him while in a fever to be put into a vessel filled with snow; and other writers plainly assert, that Titus was poisoned or murdered by Domitian.

On the ides of September, A. D. 81, the day on which Titus died, Domitian was proclaimed emperor by the soldiers. During the first years of his reign he continued, indeed, to indulge in strange passions, but Suetonius remarks that he manifested a pretty equal mixture of vices and virtues. Among the latter we must mention, that he kept a very strict superintendence over the governors of provinces, so that in his reign they are said to have been juster than they ever were afterwards. He also enacted several useful laws: he forbade, for example, the castration of male children, and restricted the increasing cultivation of the vine, whereby the growth of corn was neglected. He endeavoured to correct the frivolous and licentious conduct of the higher classes, and shewed great liberality and moderation on many occasions. He further took an active part in the administration of justice; which conduct, praiseworthy as it then was, became disgusting afterwards, when, assisted by a large class of delatores, he openly made justice the slave of his cruelty and tyranny; for, during the latter years of his reign he acted as one of the most cruel tyrants that ever disgraced a throne, and as Suetonius remarks, his very virtues were turned into vices. The cause of this change in his conduct appears, independent of his natural bias for what was bad, to have been his boundless ambition, injured vanity, jealousy of others, and cowardice, which were awakened and roused by the failure of his undertakings and other occurrences of the time. In A. D. 84 he undertook an expedition against the Chatti, which does not seem to have been altogether unsuccessful, for we learn from Frontinus (Strateg. 1. 3), that he constructed the frontier wall between the free Germans and those who were subject to Rome, so that he must at any rate have succeeded in confining the barbarians within their own territory. After his return to Rome he celebrated a triumph, and assumed the name of Germanicus. In the same year Agricola, whose success and merits excited his jealousy, was recalled to Rome, ostensibly for the purpose of celebrating a triumph; but he was never sent back to his post, which was given to another person. [AGRICOLA.] The most dangerous enemy of Rome at that time was Decebalus, king of the Dacians. Domitian himself took the field against him, but the real management of the war was left to his generals. Simultaneously with this war another was carried on against the Marcomanni and Quadi, who had refused to furnish the Romans with the assistance against Decebalus, which they were bound to do by a treaty. The Romans were defeated by them, and the consequence was, that Domitian was obliged to conclude peace with Decebalus on very humiliating terms, A. D. 87. [DECEBALUS.] Another dangerous occurrence was the revolt of L. Antonius in Upper Germany; but this storm was luckily averted by an unexpected overflow of the Rhine over its banks, which prevented the German auxiliaries, whom Antonius expected, from joining him; so that the rebel was easily conquered by L. Appius Norbanus, in A. D. 91. An insurrection of the Nasamones in Africa was of less importance, and was easily suppressed by Flaccus, the governor of Numidia.

But it is the cruelty and tyranny of Domitian that have given his reign an unenviable notoriety. His natural tendencies burst forth with fresh fury after the Dacian war. His fear and his injured pride and vanity led him to delight in the misfortunes and sufferings of those whom he hated and envied; and the most distinguished men of the time, especially among the senators, had to bleed for their excellence; while, on the other hand, he tried to win the populace and the soldiers by large donations, and by public games and fights in the circus and amphitheatre, in which even women appeared among the gladiators, and in which he himself took great delight. For the same reason he increased the pay of the soldiers, and the sums he thus expended were obtained from the rich by violence and murder; and when in the end he found it impossible to obtain the means for paying his soldiers, he was obliged to reduce their number. The provinces were less exposed to his tyranny, and it was especially Rome and Italy that felt his iron grasp. The expression of thought and sentiment was suppressed or atrociously persecuted, unless men would degrade themselves to flatter the tyrant. The silent fear and fearful silence which prevailed during the latter years of Domitian's reign in Rome and Italy are briefly but energetically described by Tacitus in the introduction to his Life of Agricola, and his vices and tyranny are exposed in the strongest colours by the withering satire of Juvenal. All the philosophers who lived at Rome were expelled; from which, however, we cannot infer, as some writers do, that he hated all philosophical and scientific pursuits; the cause being in all probability no other than his vanity and ambition, which could not bear to be obscured by others. Christian writers attribute to him a persecution of the Christians likewise; but there is no other evidence for it, and the belief seems to have arisen from the strictness with which he exacted the tribute from the Jews, and which may have caused much suffering to the Christians also.

As in all similar cases, the tyrant's own cruelty brought about his ruin. Three officers of his court, Parthenius, Sigerius, and Entellus, whom Domitian intended to put to death (this secret was betrayed to them by Domitia, the emperor's wife, who was likewise on the list), formed a conspiracy against his life. Stephanus, a freedman, who was employed by the conspirators, contrived to obtain admission to the emperor's bed-room, and gave him a letter to read. While Domitian was perusing the letter, in which the conspirators' plot was revealed to him, Stephanus plunged a dagger into his abdomen. A violent struggle ensued between the two, until the other conspirators arrived. Domitian fell, after having received seven wounds, on the 18th of September, A. D. 96. Apollonius of Tyana, who was then at Ephesus, at the moment Domitian was murdered at Rome, is said to have run across the market-place, and to have exclaimed, "That is right, Stephanus, slay the murderer!"

There are few rulers who better deserve the name of a cruel tyrant than Domitian. The last three years of his reign forn one of the most frightful periods that occur in the history of man; but he cannot be called a brutal monster or a madman like Caligula and Nero, for he possessed talent and a cultivated mind; and although Pliny and Quintilian, who place his poetical productions by the side of those of the greatest masters, are obviously guilty of servile flattery, yet his poetical works cannot have been entirely without merit. His fondness and esteem for literature are attested by the quinquennial contest which he instituted in honour of the Capitoline Jupiter, and one part of which consisted of a musical contest. Both prose writers and poets in Greek as well as in Latin recited their productions, and the victors were rewarded with golden crowns. He further instituted the pension for distinguished rhetoricians, which Quintilian enjoyed; and if we look at the comparatively flourishing condition of Roman literature during that time, we cannot help thinking that it was, at least in great measure, the consequence of the influence which he exercised and of the encouragement which he afforded. It is extremely probable that we still possess one of the literary productions of Domitian in the Latin paraphrase of Aratus's Phaenomena, which is usually attributed to Germanicus, the grandson of Augustus. The arguments for this opinion have been clearly set forth by Rutgersius (Var. Lect. iii. p. 276), and it is also adopted by Niebuhr. (Tac. Hist. iii, 59, &c., 4.2, &c., Agric. 39, 42, 45; Suet. Domitian. ; Dio Cass. lib. lxvi. and lxvii.; Juvenal, Satir. ; Quint. Inst. 4.1.2, &c., 10.1.91, &c.; Niebuhr, Lectures on Roman Hist. ii. pp. 234-250.)


hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
81 AD (3)
96 AD (1)
91 AD (1)
87 AD (1)
84 AD (1)
79 AD (1)
52 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: