Why Was Emperor Domitian Hated by the Elite but Loved by the People?
Domitian was a Roman emperor who lived during the 1 st century AD. He was the son of Vespasian, and the younger brother of Titus, whom he succeeded as emperor. Together, these three emperors form the Flavian Dynasty, which was established after the chaos of the Year of the Four Emperors. Domitian is remembered negatively by future generations, partly because the ancient sources were written by members of the empire’s aristocracy who hated the emperor. This is clearly evident in the passing of the damnatio memoriae on his memory after his death.
When Was Domitian Born?
Domitian was born as Titus Flavius Domitianus on the 24 th of October, 51 AD. He was the second son of the future emperor Vespasian and Flavia Domitilla and was the brother of Titus. Nothing is known about Domitian’s childhood, as his family was not part of the ruling Julio-Claudian dynasty, and hence did not receive any attention from ancient writers. In fact, Domitian’s family were of the equestrian rank and his father only achieved senatorial rank later in his lifetime.
The Year of the Four Emperors
In 68 AD, the Julio-Claudian dynasty ended when its last emperor, Nero, committed suicide. This resulted in a brief civil war and the following year became known as the Year of the Four Emperors, as Rome saw four emperors ruling in succession that year. The last of these four was Vespasian, who brought stability back to the Roman Empire by establishing the Flavian dynasty.
- Red-painted numbers helped Romans find their seats in the Colosseum
- Where do the names of our months come from?
- Money Does Not Stink: The Urine Tax of Ancient Rome
Roman Emperor Nero sends Vespasian with an army to put down the Jewish revolt, 66 AD. (National Library of Wales / Public Domain)
Vespasian died in 79 AD and was succeeded by his eldest son Titus. The second Flavian emperor, however, died unexpectedly in 81 AD and the throne passed to his younger brother Domitian. According to the Roman writer Suetonius after the death of Vespasian, Domitian constantly plotted against Titus. Although Domitian was expected to succeed his brother, he was not accorded the powers that the heir to the throne could expect to have. When Titus contracted a dangerous illness, Domitian allegedly ordered that the emperor be left for dead thus hastening his death.
The Triumph of Titus, the composition suggests a love affair between Titus and Domitian's wife Domitia Longina. (artrenewal.org / Public Domain)
The Flavian Dynasty
By the time of the Flavian dynasty political power in Rome had long been concentrated in the hands of the emperor. Nevertheless, the republican façade, most notably the Roman Senate, had been kept. Domitian, however, was contemptuous of the Senate and therefore earned their hatred. As many of the ancient sources describing Domitian were written by members of the aristocracy, Domitian is remembered chiefly as a blood-thirsty tyrant. For instance, Cassius Dio wrote that:
“Domitian was not only bold and quick to anger but also treacherous and secretive; and so, deriving from these two characteristics impulsiveness on the one hand and craftiness on the other, he would often attack people with the sudden violence of a thunderbolt and again would often injure them as the result of careful deliberation.”
Domitian was recorded by the establishment as a blood-thirsty tyrant. Emperor Domitian by Domenico Fetti circa 1610. (Public Domain)
Domitian Was Despised by the Elite but Popular with the People
Although the elite detested the emperor Domitian, he was popular with the common people. This was due to the fact that he funded numerous building works and provided entertainment for the masses. For instance, while the construction of the Colosseum began during Vespasian’s reign and was completed by Titus, Domitian made further additions to the monument. The army loved the emperor as well. Apart from raising the pay of his soldiers, he also personally led the army on several military campaigns, the first emperor to do so since Claudius.
Colosseum, Rome. (lucazzitto / Adobe)
The Cost of Love
Although Domitian succeeded in maintaining his popularity with the people and the army, it strained the imperial coffers and the emperor took drastic measures to ease this financial burden. According to Suetonius, the emperor, “had no hesitation in resorting to every sort of robbery” and that, “The property of the living and the dead was seized everywhere on any charge brought by any accuser.” Such actions would have been regarded as tyrannical by those who stood to lose the most, i.e. the wealthy and elite. Moreover, towards the later part of his reign Domitian grew increasingly paranoid and many senators were executed for treason.
The Assassination of Domitian
Eventually, the Senators could no longer tolerate Domitian’s tyranny and plotted to have the emperor assassinated. In 96 AD Domitian was assassinated thus ending the Flavian dynasty. Although the Senate rejoiced at the news of the emperor’s death, the people were indifferent, while the army was greatly grieved. Suetonius states that the army was prepared to avenge him but failed to do so as they lacked leaders at the time. Although they demanded the execution of Domitian’s assassins later on, the perpetrators of the crime were not punished. The army also called for the emperor to be deified immediately after his death. Instead, the Senate passed a damnatio memoriae on his memory.
According to Suetonius, Domitian worshipped Minerva as his protector goddess with superstitious veneration. In a dream, she is said to have abandoned the emperor prior to the assassination. (Marie-Lan Nguyen / Public Domain)
Top image: Emperor Domitian by Domenico Fetti. Musee du Louvre. Source: Shonagon / Public Domain.
By Wu Mingren
Cassius Dio, Roman History [Cary, E. (trans.), 1914-27. Cassius Dio’s Roman History.] [Online] Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/home.html
Chilver, G. E. F., 2018. Domitian. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Domitian
Griffiths, R., 2016. The Emperor Domitian, AD 51-96. [Online] Available at: https://www.historytoday.com/rhys-griffiths/emperor-domitian-ad-51-96
Lendering, J., 2018. Domitian. [Online] Available at: http://www.livius.org/articles/person/domitian/
Sandbrook, D., 2016. 18 September AD 96 – Domitian is stabbed. [Online] Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/roman/18-september-ad-96-domitian-is-stabbed/
Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: The Life of Domitian [Rolf, J. C. (trans.), 1914. Suetonius’ The Lives of the Caesar: The Life of Domitian.] [Online] Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Domitian*.html