The Tyranny(?) of Emperor Domitian in Ancient Rome
Domitian (51-86 AD), is viewed as one of the most tyrannical Emperors in Roman history. Historical sources from the Roman era painted him as a vicious tyrant. However, over time, the view of Domitian has shifted. He is no longer seen as some monster but is regarded by many as contributing to the stability and prosperity of the Roman Empire.
Domitian’s reign was not only a tale of repression but also one of reform and good government. Domitian was an undoubtedly an authoritarian figure who marginalized the Senate and the Roman elite and sought to become an absolute ruler. Despite his authoritarianism, he was also an able administrator, who secured the frontiers of the Empire and helped to lay the foundations for the peace and prosperity of the Roman Empire during the 2nd century.
Domitian was born in Rome in 51 AD, the youngest son of Vespasian, the future Emperor. His older brother was the future Emperor Titus. Vespasian held many important offices including that of Consul and was in favor with several successive Emperors, and indeed Domitian was educated at the Imperial Court. Domitian’s father was always absent, and in 66 AD, Vespasian was appointed to lead the campaign to end the Jewish Revolt. In 68 AD Nero committed suicide after a conspiracy ousted him from power and there followed a period of anarchy in Rome and the provinces. The following year, 69 AD, the Empire saw no less than four separate Emperors. Galba first ascended the throne, after Nero and he was rapidly succeeded by Otho, who was later deposed by Vitellus.
In the meantime, Vespasian took some of the legions that were concluding the war in Judea and marched on Rome. During 69 AD, Domitian was placed under house arrest and his life was regularly in danger. Vespasian’s army defeated the legions of Vitellus at the Second Battle of Cremona and made their way to Rome. At the time, Domitian was forced to go about in disguise in fear for his life as Vitellus still controlled the city. In December 69 AD, Vespasian entered Rome and was acclaimed Emperor by the Senate and this was the beginning of the Flavian Dynasty. Domitian did not play an essential role in the government of Vespasian and he was denied any military commands, unlike his elder brother Titus. After the triumphant reign of Vespasian (79 AD), the elder son became Emperor and like his father, he was an effective ruler. Domitian was a somewhat peripheral figure throughout this period. However, Titus died in 81 AD and Domitian was pronounced suddenly declared Emperor as he was the only surviving male member of the House of Flavius. There were whispers that Domitian had a hand his brother Titus’s death.
Reign of Domitian
When Domitian became emperor, he moved the seat of government to the Imperial Court. This was a very important symbolic move, and it demonstrated that Domitian had little interest in sharing power with the Senate. He made it clear that he wanted to rule as an autocrat He quickly moved to reform the Senate and expel corrupt senators. Like Augustus, he wanted to renew Rome. Had appointed himself censor and sought to reform the morals of the general population.
He was deeply concerned by the decline in observance of the old Roman religion, and he patronized the cult of Minerva. Domitian appeared to have favored members of the Equestrian Order (Knights) and promoted them to high office. This infuriated many in the Senate. Domitian valued both merit and ability and opposed nepotism. He selected men primarily based on their abilities. Unlike previous Emperors, Domitian was often out of Rome, and he regularly visited the Provinces.
However, he did not neglect the welfare of Rome and its citizens, and he paid attention to the food and water supply. He was also a lavish builder, and he constructed several villas and palaces in Rome, and their ruins are still extant. He also built a stadium for the use of the public and rebuilt large areas of the city that had been destroyed in fires. Domitian was a very able administrator, and he took a personal interest in affairs of state and personally monitored the bureaucracy. 
The third Flavian ruler was interested in the economy and was prudent in fiscal matters. Like every other Emperor, his first duty was the preservation of the Empire and the security of its frontiers. Domitian did not personally lead his legions into battle although he regularly visited battle zones. During his reign, his legions campaigned in Germany, Britain and the Balkans. Domitian was faced with a grave threat from the Dacians, and his legions were able to beat back their attempted invasion. The Flavian Emperor was disliked by many in the Senate. The disdain was mutual, Domitian loathed the Senate and was very suspicious of the Senators.
During the later years of his reign, he became increasingly paranoid, and he had several Senators executed for treason. There was no free speech in Rome towards the end of his reign. The historian Tacitus claimed that there was a reign of terror in the city and throughout the Empire. As a result, many elites wanted to replace Domitian, but Domitian was very popular with the average Romains and the legionnaires.
Despite his popularity, Domitian’s paranoia increased, and he had one of his most-loyal officials executed for treason. This led other court officials to intrigue with Senators and the Praetorian Guard to assassinate him. In December 96 AD the conspirators attacked and stabbed Domitian to death. Hours after his death the Senate acclaimed Nerva as Emperor, which suggests that he was involved in the conspiracy.
Domitian and the Conception of the Imperial Office
Domitian had a very different conception of the role of the Emperor than his father and his brother. He saw the Emperor as a moral force who should intervene to promote the wellbeing and the morals of the population, just as Augustus had. For example, Domitian passed laws limiting luxury and extravagant spending in the city. He enforced the laws against adultery, mutilation, and public immorality for the first time in decades. Domitian saw himself as the embodiment of Rome, and his duty was to the people and not to the Senate. He was eager to marginalize the Senate, and his frequent absences increasingly meant that the assembly was irrelevant. His policy of promoting Equestrians was also designed to keep the Senatorial elite from many high offices.
Under him, the Imperial government became more autocratic, and he signed himself as ‘Dominus’ or master. Under Domitian the Republican façade that was established by Augustus was torn away. He extended the law of treason and any criticism of him was treasonous, and this was unprecedented. After his assassination, Nerva and his successors at least respected the façade of the Republic. However, Domitian’s tyrannical reign was a forerunner of those 3rd and 4th-century Emperors who ruled without any regard to the Senate and the Roman constitution.
The Economy and the Administration
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Domitian was in his administration of the Empire. Even his biographer Suetonius who wrote an unflattering portrait of the last of the Flavians admitted that he was a great administrator and that the Imperial government was run very efficiently during his reign. Moreover, his efforts to remove the Senators from high office seems to have led to a reduction in corruption and led to the establishment of a very professional bureaucracy. Domitian helped to lay the foundation for an administration that was to serve the Empire very well and contributed much to the stability of the Roman World after his death.
Moreover, his reform of the coinage and the tax system was significant. He raised the value of silver in the Roman coinage and this increased trust in it, and this stimulated trade and commerce. Moreover, the strong currency ensured that inflation was kept in checked and this benefitted the entire economy. Domitian’s reform of the tax system helped to generate more revenues for the Empire, and this helped to finance in future years the campaigns of Trajan and the many construction projects Hadrian. Without the last of the Flavians fiscal reforms the achievements of the Roman World in the 2nd century AD many have never occurred.
Military Achievements of Domitian
The Emperor had himself acclaimed as Imperator or victor at least twenty times. During his reign, there were important campaigns against in Britain, Germany, and the Balkans. Initially, his general Agricola conquered a large area of northern Britain and Scotland. However, Domitian ordered him to abandon most of his gains. This was because he was conscious of the need to establish a rational defensive line in Britain. Tacitus, the great Roman historian, believed that Agricola could have conquered all of Scotland and even Ireland with the support of the Emperor.
However, Domitian followed the policy of Augustus he was focused on protecting and strengthening the Imperial frontier, rather than expansion. This was also the case with his campaigns in Germany where he sought only to counter the threat posed to the frontier by German tribes such as the Chatti. These defensive campaigns were often regarded as defeats in the sources who were all hostile to the last of the Flavian Emperors. However, the most controversial of Domitian’s campaigns were in the Balkans where he had to deal with the threat posed by the powerful Dacian kingdom. In 85 the Dacians, led by King Decebalus, invaded the province of Moesia and they killed the governor. Domitian ordered a counter-attack, and this drove the Dacians back, but a punitive invasion of their territories resulted in the defeat of a large Roman army. Domitian rushed to the Danube frontier and reorganized the frontier provinces. He also ordered another invasion of Dacia, and in 88 AD, the legions inflicted a heavy defeat on King Decebalus and even threated his capital, Sarmizegetusa. It seems that Domitian was about to conquer the Dacians, but trouble on the Rhine forestalled this.
A treaty was signed, and Dacia became a client kingdom of Rome, but the Empire was obliged to pay Decebalus a subsidy. This was a curious arrangement and many of the sources, including Suetonius and Tacitus, claim that the payments made to the Dacians were a form of tribute and indicated that Domitian was defeated on the Danube. The Roman Emperor had neutralized the Dacians, and they were reduced to the status of clients of the Emperor. The Domitian strategy in the Balkans was a success, and it helped to secure the Danube frontier. What is more, according to many modern historians, believe that the last of the Flavian Dynasty laid down the foundation for the eventual conquest of Dacia by Trajan.
Domitian was portrayed in the Roman sources as a tyrant whose paranoia and viciousness eventually led to his assassination. The Flavian was an autocrat, and he did ignore the Senate and rendered it powerless. His conception of the rights as an enlightened autocrat who was there to guide the Empire was one that was to be very influential over time. His military achievements were not significant. Domitian largely followed the example of Augustus and sought only to secure the frontiers from invaders and raiders.
He did not seek conquest, but security and he did strengthen all the frontiers of his sprawling Empire. This was a considerable achievement. Perhaps his great achievement was his economic policies and his management of the Empire; these helped to stabilize the Empire. Domitian was in many ways a tyrant. However, only the Senators suffered his wrath. In the main, he was an effective leader of the Roman Empire who helped to lay the foundation for the Roman achievements in the second century AD.
- Tacitus, The Histories, 1 i
- Tacitus, The Histories, 1 I
- Suetonius, Life of Domitian, xiv, iv
- Suetonius, Life of Domitian, xiv, iv
- Jones., Brian, The Emperor Domitian (London: Routledge, 1992), p 14
- Suetonius, Life of Domitian, xiv, iv
- Jones, p 113
- Suetonius, Life of Domitian, xiv, iv
- Jones, p 178
- Jones, p 201
- Jones, p 301
- Syme, Ronald “The Imperial Finances under Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan”. The Journal of Roman Studies. 20 (1930), pp 55–70
- Syme, p. 67
- Tacitus, The Agricola, xv
- Tacitus, Agricola, xv
- Suetonius, xiv, iii
- Adrian Goldsworthy, In the Name of Rome (London, Orion, 2004), p. 298
- Pat, Southern, Pat. Domitian: Tragic Tyrant (London, Routledge. 1972)
- Syme, Ronald (1930). “The Imperial Finances under Domitian, Nerva and Trajan”. The Journal of Roman Studies. 20: 55–70.
- Brian W. Jones. The Emperor Domitian (London: Routledge, 1992)
- Brian Jones. Domitian and the Senatorial Order: A Prosopographical Study of Domitian’s Relationship With the Senate, A.D. 81-96 (New York, Amer Philosophical Society, 1979)
- David Corson. Domitia and Domitian (London, Writer’s Showcase Press, 2000).
Originally published by DailyHistory.org under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.