Domitian has gone down in history as one of Rome’s worst emperors. When he met his violent end in AD 96, subsequent writers did everything they could to demolish his reputation, but during his reign between AD 81 and 96, this last ruler of the Flavian dynasty presented his own image of himself. A new exhibition at Leiden’s Rijksmuseum van Oudheden displays the results of recent research into this image, comparing it, and Domitian’s posthumous reputation, to the patterns of expectation held by the inhabitants of the Roman Empire regarding their emperor, his military activities, and his policies. We have used a broad palette of sources for these analyses, ranging from literary texts from antiquity, to coins, inscriptions, and, above all, archaeological sources of diverse nature and quality. The picture of Domitian and his day that emerges from these sources is considerably more layered and varied than the exceedingly negative portrayal of the emperor after his death.
While God on Earth: Emperor Domitian questions this dark view of Domitian, the intention is not to belatedly rehabilitate him, but to demonstrate that in many respects he was not so very different from the emperors before and after him. It should certainly be emphasised that all Roman emperors, including those deemed ‘good’, were autocrats whose primary concerns were maintaining their power and promoting their own interests. The reputations of such absolute rulers could be made and broken within antiquity, which partly explains why some emperors come off better than others in the historical record. By shedding light on the mechanisms of image-creation in ancient times, while simultaneously presenting a much broader source base for Domitian and his world, we hope to make clear the extent to which an individual’s image could be determined by more than just facts and deeds.
So, who was Domitian? Born in Rome in AD 51, he was the second son of soldier and politician Titus Flavius Vespasian (AD 9-79; emperor 69-79) and Flavia Domitilla (died before AD 69). His brother Titus (AD 39-81; emperor 79-81) and sister Flavia Domitilla the Younger (died before AD 69) also lived in Rome, while their father Vespasian was often away on campaign in his capacity as a high-ranking military officer. The Flavians were a family of modest status from outside Rome who had climbed the social ladder chiefly via the army. No one in this period could have suspected that Vespasian and his two sons would eventually form the second dynasty of Roman emperors.
Rome had been ruled until AD 68 by emperors from the Julio-Claudian dynasty, whose members all descended, directly or indirectly, from Augustus, the first emperor (63 BC-AD 14; emperor 27 BC-AD 14). When political pressure forced Nero (AD 37-68; emperor 54-68) to end his own life, unleashing a year and a half full of power struggles and bloodshed, Vespasian was able to seize the throne thanks to the backing of a large section of Rome’s armies. This soldierly support was a direct consequence of Vespasian’s own military successes and those of his son Titus. In AD 69-70, the latter had brutally suppressed a revolt in Judea, amassing lavish booty in the process. The plundering and destruction of the rich Jewish temple in Jerusalem, in AD 70, inspired great loyalty in their troops. Eventually, Vespasian’s support among the armies made the Senate in Rome realise that he was the most suitable candidate to rule the empire. After 18 months of civil conflicts and bloodshed, affecting even the Italian peninsula, the time had come for peace and the restoration of order. Viewed from this perspective, supporting the now all-powerful Vespasian seemed their best option.
During his ten years of rule, Vespasian largely succeeded in transforming the negative mood that had developed between emperor and Senate under Nero. A forceful leader in both the military and political sphere, Vespasian took measures to restore order, increase public safety, and ensure economic prosperity. Whenever possible, he treated senators with consideration, paving the way for cooperation, and showed respect for the Senate, even though he awarded key positions in the administration and army to supporters from the upper middle classes and freedmen.
In all Vespasian’s doings, he presented his modest, provincial origins as a positive quality, yet – despite this long-maintained unpretentious façade – he and his sons implemented an impressive agenda. One of their goals was to mark a clear break with the reign of the hated Nero, taking Augustus as their great role model. Vespasian, followed by his sons Titus and Domitian, was keen to employ the first emperor’s methods of ruling as a means of anchoring their claims to power. Under the guise of collaborating with the Senate, he consolidated the Flavians’ position of strength and introduced administrative reforms; in the city of Rome itself, the family celebrated its successes with an ambitious building programme. While Titus only ruled for two years (AD 79-81), too short a period in which to add much to Vespasian’s achievements, he followed in his father’s footsteps in securing a positive image.
When Domitian ascended the throne, an unexpected event made necessary by the sudden death of his brother, he found himself in a stable political situation. In the comparatively calm period between AD 70 and 81, he had built up administrative and military experience. He also devoted himself to literary activities in his spare time – hobbies that he abandoned on his accession.
Domitian displayed a thirst for action in various fields, primarily military. In Britain, his generals penetrated north into present-day Scotland but, to avoid exhausting military resources, secured the border on the narrowest stretch of land between the North Sea and the Atlantic, where Hadrian would later build his wall around 120-125. In north-western and central Europe, Domitian successfully reinforced the frontier, or limes, along the Rhine and Danube rivers. In what is now the Netherlands, he erased the traces of the Batavian Revolt of AD 69 and established a set of fortified limes castles. On a number of these campaigns, Domitian even served in the field as commander-in-chief, becoming the first emperor since Augustus to take active command and not simply bear the title. The victories Domitian claimed were indeed his, contrary to his posthumous reputation, which immediately played down these successes.
Domitian’s tense relations with the Senate appear to be the main reason for such a negative portrayal after his death. The emperor was accused of appointing members who did not come from the traditional ‘old boy network’, of showing little respect for the senators’ ideas, and of failing to treat them personally in a manner they deemed appropriate: they had not been invited to his palace and he had even had a number of them murdered. This picture derives from Tacitus and Pliny the Younger, both of whom were senators, and Suetonius, a ‘knight’, the social class immediately below that of senator. Senators and knights apparently had the most to suffer from a poor relationship with the emperor. Yet it was chiefly their writings which, literally, defined his image.
To crown it all, Domitian no longer presented himself as the ‘first among equals’ (that is, the senators), but insisted on the title ‘lord and god’ (dominus et deus). This was unprecedented. While a good emperor might be deified after his death by order of the Senate (as had happened with Vespasian and Titus), to be required to address the emperor as a god during his lifetime was completely at odds with the Roman mindset – as was the title dominus, which stressed the emperor’s omnipotence and the unequal balance of power.
On assuming power in Rome, Domitian faced several concrete problems. In AD 80, a raging fire incinerated large sections of the city. Titus had made a start on rebuilding work and Domitian now seized this opportunity to make his mark on the city’s new image. Stepping back in time, a large area in the centre of Rome had been used by Vespasian’s predecessor Nero to create a vast park, in which he had constructed his residence, comprising palaces, baths, and pavilions. This Domus Aurea, or ‘Golden House’, had been a thorn in the side of the elite, not because they felt any compassion for the residents of Rome evicted from their homes to make way for the project, but because Nero, in building such an enormous private palace, had overstepped the boundaries of what was considered seemly.
Vespasian, the ‘country bumpkin’, subsequently exploited these anti-Nero sentiments by erecting an amphitheatre, a monumental venue par excellence for public entertainment, in the centre of the old park. Financed by the booty from Jerusalem and partly built by enslaved Jews, the amphitheatrum Flavium, better known as the Colosseum, was a tremendous attraction. The Colosseum was inaugurated by Titus with a series of games lasting a hundred days. The building was only completed under Domitian, with the construction of the highest tier for standing spectators and quarters beneath the arena to accommodate animal cages and waiting areas for gladiators, as well as a sort of elevator so animals and men would ‘pop up’ in the arena. This system would become a feature of other amphitheatres too. Flavian expansion of the old Circus Maximus, used to host highly popular chariot races, was also appreciated by the Roman elite and people. Domitian thus continued the building policies initiated by his father and brother.
To accommodate other forms of entertainment – theatrical productions and Greek-style athletic competitions – Domitian had a small covered theatre (odeion) built, immediately beside a stadium on the Campus Martius. The contours of these venues can still be discerned in the form and dimensions of Piazza Navona and the curved façade of the nearby Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne. They hosted all kinds of games, following precedents set by popular events held under Augustus and Nero. Among those taking part was a young talent in poetry, Quintus Sulpicius Maximus, whose career was cut short when he died at the age of 11, as the moving tombstone erected by his parents in the necropolis of Via Salaria tells us.
In his novel The Comedians: A Story of Ancient Rome, the Dutch author Louis Couperus (1863-1923) draws a lively picture of Rome in the last year of Domitian’s reign, AD 96. It is the tale of a successful troupe of actors, who perform for the imperial court, and ends with their departure from Rome on the day of Domitian’s assassination. Couperus must have read up thoroughly on the subject and many of his details ring true. In this extract, the ‘comedians’ – newly arrived from Alexandria – experience the hustle and bustle of the working-class neighbourhood of Subura where they have rented scruffy digs:
The tiny rooms were stacked like cages over and above each other in the new district’s houses. It was a speculative building project, since the Baths of Titus had almost been completed, to provide dwelling for thousands of lesser citizens and freemen, whose means of sustenance depended on the New Baths: masons, carpenters, plumbers, wood sellers, mosaic setters, masseurs and perfume workers… When carts full of weighty stone blocks lumbered judderingly over the dirt road turned swampy by the rain, in the direction of the Baths and Colosseum, both inaugurated, both in use, but not completed, the entire house in which the comedians had found accommodation seemed to shake on its dubious foundations and shuddered as if during an earthquake…
The building in which the troupe is housed later collapses, and many of its residents die as a result. Sadly, this must have been a common occurrence in ancient Rome. While construction was regulated by laws introduced by various emperors, this legislation did not lead to strict control of the tenements erected by speculators in the already crowded centre of Rome.
The huge blocks that housed the lower income groups were accompanied by large public bath complexes, or thermae, which could be accessed at very little cost or possibly even no cost at all. Augustus was the first emperor to have large and lavishly decorated baths built for the people. Nero’s baths must have been even more splendid, and new imperial baths were added to the city under Titus (mentioned by Couperus). Construction of Trajan’s Baths on the Oppian Hill, close by the Colosseum, probably began under Domitian and should be counted as one of his major building projects.
Domitian’s large-scale construction programme provided him with an excellent opportunity to present himself as a good ruler, for he was building for the public’s benefit and creating employment at the same time. This was also the case with the temple honouring his deified father and brother on the Forum Romanum, and the combined temple and mausoleum complex dedicated to himself and Titus on the Quirinal, known as the Templum Gentis Flaviae (‘Temple of the Flavian Family’). In emulation of the Forum Romanum and fora laid out by Julius Caesar and Augustus, Domitian had an ancient street connecting the Forum Romanum and the Subura district turned into another forum, known as the Forum Transitorium. He commenced construction of one more forum, too, on the site of what is now Trajan’s Forum.
The gigantic palace complex he commissioned on the Palatine, the palatium, was much less well received, although its grandeur and flamboyance were praised in poems by his contemporaries Statius and Martial. But this was during Domitian’s lifetime. After his death, he was vilified for this palace, its critics now including the same Martial.
A striking feature of architecture in this period is the sumptuous finish to buildings, which featured column capitals carved in deep relief and cornices topping façades. The chambers in Domitian’s palace were often original in their design, no longer based on rectangular floorplans, but on variations of circles, ovals, and squares. They featured embrasures of varying width accommodating windows and niches in which statues could be displayed, and interior walls were clad with expensive marble veneer. The story goes that the paranoid Domitian demanded that these marble plates were polished to a shine, so that he could see himself, but above all possible assassins, reflected in the walls. On display in the exhibition are samples of resplendent worked marble building components, including a corbel decorated with an owl. This creature alludes to Minerva, one of Domitian’s favourite goddesses.
Sculpture from Domitian’s time is of a similarly high standard. The exhibition features several statues from the emperor’s palace on the Palatine, as well as art treasures from his villa in Albanum (modern Castel Gandolfo). Portraits are a rich source of information for learning about the imperial family’s image; statues representing the emperor stood in public buildings in every town and village across the empire. Titus and Domitian much resembled each other: both were stocky and had little hair, though they tried to conceal their baldness. The women at court and in elite circles dressed their hair in what the poet Martial mockingly described as beehives: a style in which hair was coiffed extravagantly upwards from the forehead with curls forming series of small holes. Just as in our time, certain hairstyles were fashionable and imitated at all levels of society.
Thanks to the condemnation of Domitian’s memory (damnatio memoriae), by order of the Senate, many people walking through the heart of Rome nowadays are scarcely aware of how many of the Roman edifices still visible were presented to the city at his behest. If we allow ourselves to be less influenced by the negative tone of authors like Tacitus and Suetonius, and simply list Domitian’s achievements, it certainly seems that in many respects he was not so very different from his predecessors. But in building his palace Domitian does appear to have overplayed his hand: the man who wished to emulate Augustus was ultimately condemned as a Nero, with his claim to divinity as dominus et deus a contributory factor. His increasingly poor relations with the Senate appear to be the main reason for Domitian’s historical image as a cruel emperor. The question of who exactly is to blame for this can no longer be answered and is of minor interest anyway. Two thousand years later, however, it is certainly fascinating to explore where the limits to displays of power lay in the Roman world and how, why, and by whom the reputations of those in power were made and broken.
God on Earth: Emperor Domitian runs at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden/National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden between 17 December 2021 and 22 May 2022. See www.rmo.nl for details.
A book is also available: Aurora Raimondi Cominesi, Nathalie de Haan, Eric M Moormann, and Claire Stocks (eds) God on Earth: Emperor Domitian – the re-invention of Rome at the end of the 1st century AD (PALMA: Papers on Archaeology of the Leiden Museum of Antiquities, 24). It is published by Sidestone Press in paperback (ISBN 978-9088909542) and hardback (ISBN 978-9088909559) at www.sidestone.com/books/god-on-earth-emperor-domitian.