Emperor Domitian (51–96) - a great constructor and a despot hated by the Senate

Domitian, bust, Musei Capitolini

Domitian, bust, Musei Capitolini

History treated Domitian unceremoniously. As early as Antiquity, the figure of a ruler-criminal with an absolutist nature, was created. Two important historians of the time – Tacitus and Suetonius, had a lot do to with it, as they accused him of lust for power, brutality and arrogance, but most of all not taking into account the opinion of the Senate. As proof of this, Suetonius pointed out the fact of sentencing twelve senators to death.

Domitian, bust, Musei Capitolini
The Arch of Titus on Forum Romanum
Remains of the Domus Flavia, nymphaeum, Palatine Hill
Remains of the so-called stadium, meaning the garden complex finished during the reign of Emperor Domitian, Palatine Hill
Domitian, bust, Musei Capitolini
Model of Domitian’s Stadium, Museo Stadio di Domiziano
Forum of Nerva
Bust of Domitian, Musei Capitolini
Remains of the garden arrangements, the so-called stadium, Palatine Hill
Remains of the garden arrangements, Palatine Hill
Domus Augustana, a tract of private quarters
Remains of Domus Augustana
Remains of a fountain found in the arrangements of Domus Flavia – representative complex
Peristyle of Domus Augustana

History treated Domitian unceremoniously. As early as Antiquity, the figure of a ruler-criminal with an absolutist nature, was created. Two important historians of the time – Tacitus and Suetonius, had a lot do to with it, as they accused him of lust for power, brutality and arrogance, but most of all not taking into account the opinion of the Senate. As proof of this, Suetonius pointed out the fact of sentencing twelve senators to death.

Domitian was the son of the valued Emperor Vespasian and the brother of the equally valued Emperor Titus. For years he remained in his shadow, but when suddenly Titus died without leaving an heir, not waiting for his funeral, he went to Rome, and announced himself, with the help of his personal guard, as emperor, which was confirmed by the surprised with the haste Senate. This rapid assumption of the mantle after Titus, contributed to Domitian having declared enemies. He himself, did not exhibit courtly manners, he strayed from people and night banquets. As Suetonius claimed, the emperor was tall, but his face of reddish color was farther marred by his baldness, which he tried to hide. In order to complete the unattractive image of the ruler, the historian did not fail to mention his crooked toes (bunions) and weak sight.

The emperor considered himself to be the most virtuous and pious of all Romans, while his ambition was to restore old Roman values, and this included the fight against homosexualism and the castration of boys. This piousness included, memory of ancestors and honoring their name. He showed it by funding an honorific arch (The Arch of Titus) for the deified Titus. It commemorated the victorious conquest of Jerusalem by the emperor and thus the end of the Jewish rebellion. Domitian was most likely a conservative, he sought the restoration of the worship of the old gods and religion, discarding the hedonist lifestyle, while his uncompromising attitude on this issue bordered on despotism. As Pontifex Maximus (the greatest pontiff) in accordance with a forgotten Roman tradition, he condemned to death (by being buried alive) the immoral high priestess  of the Vestals, Cornelia, while her lovers were publicly flogged to death. The other Vestals who were faced with similar accusations were exiled from Rome, but they were able to choose the kind of death they wished to die. Domitian was equally principled in relation to his own family. Domitia Longina whom he married, enjoyed his respect, until the moment she betrayed him with an actor named Paris. She was temporarily banished while her lover was assassinated.

Accusations of ruthlessness and uncompromising attitude of Domitian, were however, mainly formulated by the aristocratic caste, from which the senators came. They desired a share of the power and when they did not approve of the emperor’s opinion, they were unceremoniously accused of insulting his name. It is no wonder that after a few years of his reign, Domitian began to be disliked. The senators were afraid for their life, while the emperor in fear of conspiracies and enemies became more and more suspicious and distrustful. The situation worsened each year, which was compounded by financial problems and external threats. Fuel to the fire was added by the imperial decree to confiscate the fortunes of the richest citizens in order to repair the imperial treasury, which was also emptied due to numerous construction projects of the emperor and his love of erecting statues in his own honor.

First conspiracies on the life of Domitian occurred six years after he took power (87 A.D.), and as a consequence the most important senators were tried for treason and executed. The ruler’s paranoid distrust gradually led to a reign of terror, while the wave of fear was felt even among his family, his closest collaborators and his household. Together with this fear rumors of his secret obsessions spread, interestingly almost always the same, when it came to effective slandering. He was accused of sexual excesses with youths, paid sex during his youth with the Consul Nerva (the later emperor), yet at the same time it was widely known that the emperor was a declared opponent of these types of pleasures he did not tolerate them and eliminated them very restrictively, especially in the army. At the same time he was accused of lustful sex with a horde of prostitutes and even of having relations with his own niece.

After a fire which took place during the reign of his predecessor , the city along with its most important temple dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus, required rebuilding. After the reconstruction, Domus Flavia on Palatine Hill was modernized and further expanded, but most importantly, right next to it, an imposing imperial palace complex (Domus Augustana) was erected, where the walls were embellished with marble, mosaics and wall paintings. With summer leisure in mind, the imperial residence (Villa Albana) at via Appia Antica, located far from the city, was expanded along with the theatre and hippodrome adjacent to it.

As opposed to his contemporaries, whose greatest form of entertainment came in the form of horse races (Circus Maximus) or fights in the Flavian Amphitheatre (Colosseum), funded by his father Vespasian, Domitian wished to encourage Romans to enjoy other types of entertainment. In order to achieve this aim he built an enormous stadium designed for athletics – the Stadium of Domitian (Stadio di Domiziano), of which the shape is reflected in the present-day outline of Piazza Navona, as well as the Odeon adjacent to it, devoted to literary competitions. Yet, it seems that he did not completely appeal to the tastes of Romans, since in order to increase the popularity of this type of games, in the Hellenic spirit, he introduced a new kind of entertainment – fights of midgets and women in the arena.

The emperor also, did not forget to commemorate his own dynasty. For this purpose another forum (Forum Transitorium) was to be built, where a huge tombstone monument of the Flavians was to be placed. This did not come to pass, as the emperor was assassinated in his palace to the joy of the Senate, which posthumously condemned him to the most humiliating punishment an emperor could incur – damnatio memoriae, meaning eternal oblivion. His statues throughout the whole empire were destroyed, including the enormous equestrian statue commemorating his victories over the Germans and Dacians in Rome itself. The only thing that remained was the gigantic pedestal reflecting the size of the monument itself (12x19 meters). However, the Senate could not refuse him a proper burial and placing the urn with his ashes in a temple dedicated to the Flavian dynasty, but only because his nurse, wanting to prevent their desecration, mixed his ashes with those of his niece Julia. Along with the passing of Domitian, the Flavian dynasty came to an end.

Contemporary researchers trying to separate propaganda from facts, saw in Domitian, a ruler who was just to his subjects (in the judiciary dimension), an above-average military strategist, a good manager who fought corruption, and thanks to whom Rome enjoyed a period of peace and stabilization in the following decades. He was also an outstanding patron of poetry, theatre and the arts, but above all the funder of structures which have left their mark on the present-day city.

Structures built in Rome at the initiative of Domitian:

  •     Stadium and Odeon on Field of Mars, present-day Piazza Navona
  •     The Arch of Titus at Forum Romanum
  •     Domus Flavia – expansion of the Flavian palace complex on Palatine Hill
  •   Commencement of the construction of Forum Transitorium, completed by his successor, Emperor Nerva in 97 A.D. and subsequently named in his honor – Forum of Nerva