“Reputation is,” as William Shakespeare noted in Othello, “an idle and most false imposition.” Not only is it “oft got without merit”, it is frequently also “lost without deserving”.
Few figures in history have seen their reputation rise and fall quite like Domitian (AD 51-96). The third and final ruler of the dynasty founded in AD 69 by his father Vespasian, he became one of the longest-serving emperors, praised during his 15-year reign as a living god, but later remembered as another Nero: corrupt, murderous and deeply depraved.
Domitian’s rule has long been characterised as a reign of terror – marked by purges of the Senate and shocking acts of personal cruelty. So it comes as no surprise that senators are said to have celebrated when the man who insisted on being addressed formally as ‘lord and god’ (dominus et deus) was finally assassinated in his imperial chambers on the Palatine Hill.
As we learn this week on The Past, however, Domitian’s age-old reputation as one of Rome’s worst emperors may not wholly be deserved. Indeed, it turns out that his rule was marked by considerable achievements, including building programmes and economic and social reforms, and that two thousand years on, his overwhelmingly negative image may largely reflect how hostility from within the Senate set the tone for later historians such as Tacitus and Suetonius.
As Nathalie de Haan and Eric M Moorman, curators of a major new exhibition about Domitian, ask in the latest issue of Minerva and on this week’s edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast: has the time now come to reconsider our opinion of this reviled Roman emperor?
Elsewhere this week, we’ve also been digging into the archives in search of more clues about the Flavian dynasty: Mary Beard explained what a priceless set of gilded silver treasures can tell us about the ‘Twelve Emperors’, from Julius Caesar to Domitian; we visited the small Roman town of Alchester, 10 miles north of Oxford, to see what life was like after the AD 43 invasion of Britain led by Vespasian; and we travelled to the Colosseum itself to find out what happened to the Flavians’ great architectural masterpiece after the brutal public fights and barbaric contests were over for good.
And if all that is still not enough to quench your thirst for The Past, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed quiz, which this week is also designed to boost your knowledge of Roman emperors. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!
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