Domitian

DOMITIAN də mĭsh’ ən. When the popular Titus died at the untimely age of forty-two, after only two years and a few months as emperor, he was succeeded by his thirty-year-old brother Domitian whom neither Titus, nor their father Vespasian, had expected to be called to the task. Domitian was no trained soldier like his two predecessors, and he came to office, a despised younger brother, embittered by his elders’ contempt, a resentment all the deeper for his keen intellect. He was shrewd enough to note the parallel of his case with that of Tiberius, who succeeded the first emperor, Augustus, after being similarly passed by, humiliated, and embittered. The documents of Tiberius were his favorite reading (Suetonius, Dom. 20), and played some part in bringing out the worst in Domitian. It is difficult to ascertain the truth behind the distortions of writers who belonged to, or spoke for, the upper section of Rom. society, on whom the prince vented his spite, i.e., Juvenal, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny.

Sensitive about his absence of military glory, a conspicuous advantage in his two predecessors, Domitian ordered an attack on the Chatti of the Main Valley, and celebrated his victory in a great triumphal celebration. The campaign salutarily removed an awkward salient in an essential frontier. It revealed, too, that Domitian, like Augustus and Claudius, had a faculty for picking able men.

Roman historiography is Rome-centered and aristocratic. It failed to record in detail that the provinces were content and well governed at the time when the pathological fears and suspicions of Domitian were reviving in Rome the hated cult of delation—that pernicious system of the common informer and the law of treason that so played into his hands. Both Tacitus (Agricola 45.2) and Pliny (Pan. 48) spoke with horror of those days when aristocracy and Senate were decimated by the jealous suspicions of the prince.

Among Domitian’s victims were the Christians. He was heir to a policy and legislation established by Nero, and sporadically pursued under Vespasian and Titus both of whom had links with Pal., and entertained some fear of any movement initiated there. But Domitian, with a sharp eye for treason and enthusiastic for the Caesar-cult justly ranks with Nero as a systematic persecutor. According to Irenaeus (Iren. Her. V. xxx. 3), the Apocalypse of John was written during the reign of Domitian and reflected the emperor’s anti-Christian attitude. Suppression extended to the family of the emperor, so high had Christianity penetrated. It seems even to have destroyed Domitian’s arrangements for the succession. Domitian was murdered in a.d. 96, after a plot supported by his wife, who felt the insecurity of her own position. The abiding significance of his somber fifteen years as emperor is that a sharp advance was made toward complete autocracy and monarchy.

Bibliography

W. M. Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire, ch. XI (1893); E. M. Blaiklock, The Century of the New Testament (1962), 116-126.