Domitian  

14 September 81 - 18 September 96



81

Domitian

Domitian
Domitian
Musées du Capitole, Rome

The beginning of Domitian's reign, A. D. 81, was universally acceptable to the people, as he was equally remarkable for his clemency, liberality, and justice. But he soon displayed the natural deformity of his mind.

Instead of cultivating literature, as his father and brother had done, he addicted himself wholly to meaner pursuits, particularly, archery and gaming. He was so very expert an archer, that he would frequently cause one of his slaves to stand at a great distance, with his hands spread as a mark, and would shoot his arrows with such exactness as to stick them all between his fingers. He instituted three sorts of contests to be observed every five years; in music, horsemanship, and wrestling; but he banished all philosophers and mathematicians from Rome.

No emperor before him entertained the people with such various and expensive shows. During these diversions he distributed great rewards, sitting as president himself, adorned with a purple robe and crown, with the priests of Jupiter, and the college of Flavian priests about him. The meanness of his occupations in solitude formed a contrast to his public ostentation. He usually spent his hours of retirement in catching flies, and sticking them through with a bodkin; so that one of his servants being asked if the emperor was alone, answered, that he had not so much as a fly to bear him company. His vices every day increased.

His ungrateful treatment of Agricola seemed the first symptom of his natural malevolence; always fond of a military reputation, and jealous of it in others. Domitian had marched sometime before into Gaul, upon a pretended expedition against the Catti, a people of Germany, and without ever seeing the enemy, resolved to have the honor of a triumph upon his return to Rome. He purchased a number of slaves, whom he dressed in German hahits, and at the head of this military procession, entered the city, amidst the apparent acclamations and concealed contempt of all his subjects.

The successes of Agricola in Britain affected him with envy. This admirable general pursued the advantages which he had already obtained. He subdued the Caledonians, and overcame Galgacus, the British chief, at the head of 30000 men; and sending out a fleet to scour the coast, first discovered Great Britain to be an island. He likewise discovered and subdued the Orkneys, and reduced the whole into a civilized province of the Roman empire.

When the account of these successes was brought to Domitian, he received it with uneasiness. He thought Agricola's rising reputation a reproach upon his own inactivity. He ordered him external marks of approbation, but at the same time removed him from his command, under a pretence of appointing him to the government of Syria.

Agricola surrendered up his province to Salustius Lucullus, but soon found that Syria was otherwise disposed of. Upon his return to Rome by night, he was coolly received by the emperor; and dying soon after in retirement, it was supposed his end was hastened by Domitian's direction.

Domitian soon found the want of so experienced a commander in the many irruptions of the barbarous nations that surrounded the empire. The Sarmatians in Europe, joined with those of Asia, made a formidable invasion, at once destroying a whole legion and a general of the Romans.

The Dacians, under the conduct of Decebalus their king, made an irruption, and overthrew the Romans in several engagements. At last the barbarians were repelled, by the assistance of money. But in whatever manner the enemy might have been repelled, Domitian was resolved not to lose the honors of a triumph. He returned in great splendor to Rome; and resolved to take the surname of Germanicus, for his conquests over a people with whom he never contended.

In proportion as the ridicule increased against him, his pride seemed every day to demand greater homage. He would permit his statues to be made only of gold and silver; he assumed to himself divine honors, and ordered that all men should treat him with the same appellations which they gave to the Divinity. His cruelty was not behind his arrogance; he caused numbers of the most illustrious senators, and others, to be put to death upon the most trifling pretences.

18 September 96

The death of Domitian

Lucius Antonius, governor of Upper Germany, knowing how much Domitian was detested at home, resolved upon striking for the throne, and accordingly assumed the ensigns of imperial dignity. As he was at the head of a formidable army, his success remained a long time doubtful; but a sudden overflowing of the Rhine dividing his army, he was set upon at that juncture by Normanius, the emperor's general, and totally routed.

Domitian's severity was greatly increased by this short lived success. In order to discover those who were of the adverse party, he invented new tortures; sometimes cutting off the hands, at other times thrusting tire into those whom he suspected of being his enemies. During his severities, he aggravated his guilt by his hypocrisy, never pronouncing sentence without a preamble full of gentleness and mercy. The night before he crucified the comptroller of his household, he treated him with the most seeming friendship, and ordered him a dish of meat from his own table.

He carried Aretinus Clemens with him in his own litter the day he had concluded upon his death. He was particularly terrible to the senate and nobility, the whole body of whom he frequently threatened to extirpate entirely.

He invited them to a public entertainment, and received them all very formally at the entrance of his palace; he conducted them into a spacious hall, hung round with black, and illuminated by a few melancholy lamps, that diffused light only sufficient to show the horrors of the place. All around were coffins, with the names of the senators written upon them, together with other objects of terror, and instruments of execution.

While the company beheld all these preparations with silent agony, several men having their bodies blackened, each with a drawn sword in one hand, and a flaming torch in the other, entered the hill and danced round them. After some time, when the guests expected nothing but instant death, well knowing Domitian's capricious cruelty, the doors were set open, and one of the servants came to inform them, that the emperor gave all the company leave to withdraw. These cruelties were rendered still more odious by his lust and avarice.

But a period was soon to be put to this monster's cruelties. Among the number of those whom he at once caressed and suspected, was his wife, Domitia, whom he had taken from AElius Lama, her former husband. It was the tyrant's method to put down the names of all such as he intended to destroy, in his tablets, which he kept about him with great circumspection. Domitia, happening to get a sight of them, was struck at finding her own name in the catalogue.

She showed the fatal list to Norbanus and Petronius, prefects of the praetorian bands, (who found themselves set down,) and likewise to Stephanus, the comptroller of the household, who came into the conspiracy with alacrity.

Upon preparing to go to the bath in the morning, Petronius, his chamberlain, came to inform him, that Stephanus desired to speak to him. The emperor having given orders that his attendants should retire, Stephanus entered with his hand in a scarf, which he had worn the better to conceal a dagger, as none were permitted to approach the emperor with arms.

He began by giving information of a pretended conspiracy, and exhibited a paper in which the particulars were specified. While Domitian was reading it with an eager curiosity, Stephanus drew the dagger, and struck him. The wound not being mortal, Domitian caught hold of the assassin and threw him upon the ground, calling out for assistance. But Parthenius, with his freedman, a gladiator, and two subaltern officers, now coming in, they all ran furiously upon the emperor, and despatched him with seven wounds.

Apollonius Tyaneus, whom some called a magician, and some a philosopher, but who more probably was an impostor, was, just at the minute in which Domitian was slain, lecturing in public at Ephesus, in Asia Minor. But stopping short, all of a sudden he cried out, Courage, Stephanus, strike the tyrant ! And, then, after a pause, Rejoice, my friends, the tyrant dies this day ! this day, do I say ! The very moment in which I kept silence, he suffers for his crimes; he dies !

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