Domitian saw himself, like Augustus, as a supervisor of the morals and beliefs of his subjects. His moral stance is illustrated by his treatment of the Vestal Virgins, the daughters of the community for whom a moral transgression was considered incest. Domitian, unlike Vespasian and Titus, did not cast a blind eye on their behavior (Dom. 8). Vestals were tried twice before Domitian, as pontifex maximus, for incest. In the first trial, three Vestals were found guilty but were allowed to select the method of their deaths and their lovers suffered only exile. In the second trial, the chief Vestal, Cornellia, was found guilty and sentenced to the traditional punishment of being buried alive. Her lovers, except one who confessed, were beaten to death.

Domitian's reign was a period when justice was generally dispensed with impartiality if with severity. His penchant for following the traditional approach is demonstrated when the flamen Dialis, an important state priest, wished to divorce his wife. Domitian granted the request but insisted that it be done in the time-honored way using horrendous rites and incantations.[1]



The Censorship

As coins inform us, Domitian assumed the censorship in 85 becoming CENSOR PERPETUUS later that year. The office had been held by Vespasian and Titus in 73-4 but Domitian's assumption for life and that this fact was advertised widely by his coinage was a new and startling development in the powers of the emperor, which no later ruler went so far to assume. Aside from supervising morality the censorship allowed the emperor to control admission and expulsion of the senatorial and equestrian orders.

Domitian performed his duties as censor with his usual concern for administrative detail. Such minutiae as expelling an ex-questor from the Senate for acting and dancing and punishing corrupt jurors underwent his scrutiny (Dom. 7-9). The assumption of the censorship was Domitian's most serious threat against the aristocracy. Vespasian had consulted the Senate as a matter of form but Domitian took the office of emperor to the conclusion implicit in the position itself but not openly declared: the power of the state was vested solely in the emperor. Even Martial, who is usually enthusiastic about Domitian's actions, hardly mentions the censorship (1.4 and 5.8).

It was not until the reign of Septimius Severus (following the defeat of Clodius Albinus) that the Senate found itself merely assenting to the emperorís will and its members excluded from important posts.[2]


Dominus et Deus

Suetonius relates (Dom. 13) that Domitian dictated a letter that began, "Our Master and God orders" and that this became a regular form of address. Statius (Silvae 6.83-84), on the other hand, says that Domitian rejected the title dominus, as Augustus had done (Aug. 53), on the grounds that it was the form of address slaves used to their masters. Slaves did address Domitian in this way on inscriptions but there is no other epigraphic evidence to support the regular use of dominus et deus. Later writers insisted that Domitian had ordered the use of this form of address (Aurelius Victor, De Caes. 11.2) while Suetonius mentions that the imperial couple was saluted as dominus et domina upon entering the amphitheater (Dom. 13).

Terms of flattery used to secure imperial favor like that of Juentuius Celses, who wished to persuade Domitian he was not part of a conspiracy (Dio 67.13.3-4), or used by Statius and Martial (Mart. 5.8 and 10.72) does not prove they were forced to adopt it. Domitian did not develop a cult around himself as Caligula is alleged to have done (Gaius 22) and the use of "Dominus et Deus" cannot be proven to have been common usage beyond his courtiers.

Pliny addressed Trajan using the word domine, and because of the emperorís popularity may have used deus in public address.[3] Martial used the word dominus in regard to Titus (De Spectaculis Liber 2.10-12.) Ultimately the use of the phrase dominus et deus was not what caused hard feelings but the demand of Domitian for respect and reverence that reminded people of his high status.

Games and Entertainment

In 86, Domitian inaugurated the Ludi Capitolini based on the games Nero had held (Nero 12) which had been discontinued. They were held every four years in the summer and attracted competitors from many nations. Like our modern Olympic games great sums of money were spent on new buildings, such as the Odeum and Stadium in the Campus Martius.

The games were divided into three general types: chariot racing and athletics, gymnastics, music and singing and oratory and poetry in Greek and Latin. Domitian kept the Greek influence of the games evident by dressing in a purple toga and wearing a golden crown with representations of Jupiter, Minerva and Juno (Dom. 4). He personally awarded each victor an oak wreath. Domitian was not content to be a spectator, especially during the gladiatorial portion when he could not hide his loathing of Thracians (Dom. 10) and would express his annoyance if someone he did not favor won a competition (Dom. 13). Many moralists frowned upon the injection of Greek culture into Roman society. Pliny approved the abolition of similar games held in Vienna, wishing the same could be done at Rome. (Letters 4.22).

The Ludi Saeculares or Secular Games were held in 88. The celebrations have an Etruscan origin and the ceremonies are recorded in the Sibylline Books, marking the end of one age or saeculum and the beginning of a new one. A saeculum was a cycle of the universe defined as 110 years, the longest span of human life. When a new cycle began the planets returned to their original positions and the same people, who had lived in the prior cycle, would return to repeat their exploits. During the Republic an official known as the quindecimviri, who under the empire was relegated to assisting the emperor, conducted the ceremonies. Like many such events the Secular Games were not held precisely each 110 years. Domitian calculated his games from the year Augustus should have held his games (23/22 BC) instead of the postponed date of 17 BC.

The ceremonies were performed for three successive nights and days. The night sacrifices were held at the Terentum, a volcanic cleft in the Campus Martius near the Tiber and the day events had different locations. On the third day 27 girls and 27 boys whose parents were living would sing a hymn composed for the games. Augustus included a further seven days of entertainment at the circus and theater. Domitian commemorated his games with a series of bronze coins that provide a virtual record of events.

The ceremonies began with the distribution of purifying elements (torches and sulfur) to the people. This is identified by the reverse inscription: SVF(FIMENTA) P(OPULO) D(EDIT) and depicts the people receiving the elements from the emperor (RIC-376). Another reverse type shows the reception of wheat, oats and beans (fruges) from the people by Domitian and is identified by: FRVG(ES) AC(CEPIT) (RIC-375).

The sacrifices are represented beginning with the first night offering of a black sheep and goat to the Fates (RIC-381, BMC-430). A white ox was sacrificed to Jupiter on the Capitol on the first day (RIC-382 & 386, BMC-438). On the second night cakes were offered to the Ilithyiae (the daughters of Juno) (RIC-383, BMC-434) and on the second day, Domitian is depicted dictating a prayer to Juno (RIC-377, BMC-424). On the third night a sow with young are shown as a sacrifice to Terra Mater (RIC-378, BMC-425) and the choral procession of boys and girls, abbreviated to three, is found on another reverse (RIC-379, BMC-426). The sacrificial scenes follow a general pattern of showing the emperor with flute and harp players with the sacrificial victim. The architectural features may represent actual buildings but cannot be identified with certainty.

Lavish public entertainment was ordered by Domitian (Dom. 4) who innovated the proceedings by introducing naval contests and scheduling gladiatorial contests at night (Dio 67.8.4). That these events were costly is demonstrated by the Saturnalia of 88 at which Domitian provided the audience with figs, plums, dates, cakes and partridges (Silvae 1.6). For the circus, he added two new teams, gold and purple (Dom. 7).

The Provinces

Domitian's good administration of the provinces is attested by Suetonius (Dom. 8), who says the emperor took care to control his officials ensuring they were honest and intent on work. The judgment of Suetonius is sound as he had first hand knowledge as Hadrian's secretary. The scope of extortion among officials was vast and nearly impossible to control, but with Domitian's interest in the minute details of governing a brake was put on such illegalities.

What Domitian expected from his administrative appointees is illustrated by a letter sent to the procurator of Syria, Claudius Athenodorus, instructing him in authoritarian language. The letter differs from the polite exchange between Pliny and Trajan by being bluntly to the point and shows Domitian intent on orders being followed.[4]

Domitian was fond of Greek culture and was the first emperor to be elected eponymous archon at Athens. He also restored the temple of Apollo at Delphi at his own expense and extended the temple of Artemis at Ephesus. On the basis of surviving town charters, Domitian promoted the Romanization of Spain by granting Latin rights to about 129 towns. The charters gave local communities latitude in maintaining ambassadors and sources of revenue without the interference of Roman officials.[5]


At the conclusion of the Judean War, Vespasian imposed a tax on the Jews known as the fiscus Iudaicus. This tax was one formerly paid by the Jews to the Temple (first a third, then a half- shekel) and would henceforth be paid to Rome to maintain the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter. The diversion of funds to a pagan temple was particularly offensive and humiliating to the Jews who, in effect, were paying for the right to worship.[6] Tax liability was also extended to women and there was no age limitation. However, Vespasian did not cancel any of the privileges of exemption from participating in the Roman state cult.

Domitian sought to extend the tax to those who lived a Jewish life without admitting it and those who concealed their national identity to dodge the tax. Suetonius recorded seeing an old man stripped naked to prove he was not circumcised (Dom. 12). There is no evidence that Domitian forced the Jews to commit idolatry, especially since Nerva was later credited with halting only the method of the tax collection and not restoring Jewish liberties (commemorated by the issuance of a sestertius (RIC-58)). However, the threat existed and made many Jews uneasy.

Domitian resented converts to Judaism regarding such actions as "atheism" by neglecting the State religion, and he prohibited such conversions. In 95, Flavius Clemens, his wife Domitilla and Acilius Glabrio were charged, according to Dio (67.14.2), with atheism leading to the exile of the Domitilla to Pandateria and execution of the men. Suetonius mentions no religious charges and describes Clemens as a "contemptibly lazy man...killed on the slightest suspicion" (Dom. 15). The execution of Clemens for political reasons does not exclude sympathies to Judaism and atheism could have been one of the lesser charges.

In Christian tradition Flavius Clemens and Domitilla have been portrayed as Christians singled out for persecution (the first to make the claim was Symcelles in the 8th century). It is unlikely that Clemens was a convert as members of the Christian sect avoided public life and Clemens was executed following a consulship. Nor could a high Roman magistrate reconcile the practice of the Jewish faith with such service.[8] The famous catacombs of St. Domitilla was once considered as archaeological evidence that she had been a Christian but the cemetery cannot be dated before 150 CE and contains pagan as well as Christian burials. The martyr Domitilla was actually transmogrified from Domitianís niece and was a virgin who laid down her life for her faith. The real Domitilla was the mother of at least seven children. Likewise, there is no evidence that Domitian persecuted Christians and efforts by later Christian writers to portray Christians as having suffered during his reign are legends.[9]

The term "Philosophic" or "Stoic Opposition" is misunderstood as neither Vespasian nor Domitian had a quarrel with philosophers. In fact, Domitian gave 100,000 sestertii to Flavius Ardeppus to allow him to purchase a farm describing him as a "philosopher, an honest man, his character in accord with the profession" (Letters 10.58). Stoicism itself had no quarrel with monarchy. Instead, the so-called "Stoic Opposition" were several generations of a closely related group of aristocrats known for their devotion to Stoic philosophy.

Nero executed two members of this group, Barca Soranus and Thrasea Paetus, for advocating, but not actively pursuing, the overthrow of his government. When Vespasian became emperor he was openly criticized by the "Stoic Opposition" for turning the monarchy into a hereditary possession. This proved to be too much for Vespasian, who was determined to found a new dynasty, and in spite of his past friendship with Soranus and Paetus (Hist. 4.7) he refused to be conciliatory. There followed an order to expel philosophers from Italy and Helvidius Priscus, a leading member of the opposition, was executed.[10] Titus held the same view as his father. When Soranus and Paetus were executed he promptly divorced his wife, Marcia Furnilla, the niece of Soranus, and did not return to her after Nero's death when it was safe to do so.[11] Because his reign was so short and fraught with disasters, Titus never had to deal with the "Stoic Opposition."

What has come to be regarded as Domitian's "reign of terror" began in 93 when seven members of the "Stoic Opposition" were brought to trial for making derogatory remarks on the Flavians or the principate (Letters 3.11; Agr. 45). Of the accused, three were executed: Herennius Senecio and two senators, Arulenus Rusticus and Helvidius Priscus (whose father had been executed by Vespasian). The remaining four were exiled and their property confiscated. They were, Arulenus's brother, Junius Mauricus, and his wife Gratilla, Arria, wife of Thrasia Paetus and Fannia, wife of the elder Priscus (and her third exile (Letters 7.19)).

Unlike his father, Domitian made the conciliatory gesture of granting suffect consulships to Priscus and Rusticus the year before their trial and awarded one to T. Avidus Quitus, a friend of Arria and Fannia in 93. Before this, in 85, Priscus's son-in-law, Herennius Pollio, had held the office (Letters 6.29, 9.13). The reporting of this trial reflects the bias of Dio who spends much time defending Vespasian's execution of Priscus (65.12-13) calling the condemned man "a turbulent fellow who cultivated the favor of the rabble." Yet, Dio condemns Domitian for executing Senecio for writing a biography of the seditious elder Priscus (67.13).

Following the trial, Domitian issued a decree banishing philosophers from Rome and Italy, which included Epictitus and Dio Chrysostom. There was only a single banishment, not two as has been asserted, which is supported by Suetonius (Dom. 10), Pliny (Letters 3.11.2) and Apollodorus (Vita Apoll. 7.3).

Relations with the Aristocracy

Early in his reign Domitian made his autocracy clear to the aristocracy. Whereas Vespasian and Titus had consulted the Senate as a matter of form, Domitian had no wish to disguise the nature of the monarchy and did not attend meetings of the Senate with any frequency. Giving no less offense was the conversion of the house where he was born into the Templum Gentis Flavie and renaming the month of September "Germanicus" (in honor of his German victory) and October (his birth month) to "Domitianus." However, Augustus had set the precedent when he renamed a month after himself and July for Julius Caesar.

Pliny describes the atmosphere of the Senate saying that no senator dared open his mouth and a single man expressed the viewpoint for all of them to follow. When Domitian was present he put on an attitude of respect for the Senate but once outside the curia he was a autocrat (Pan. 76). Those who were not his favorites, Domitian hated and treated them like slaves. Pliny also speaks of an invasion of privacy, when spies would even listen to prayers at the family shrine (Pan. 62 & 68). Apparently, informers would hope for a slip of the tongue however slight. Domitian dealt sternly with the aristocratic members of the Senate but there exists evidence that he made some concessions.

During the reigns of Vespasian and Titus only 6 of 24 ordinary consulships were held by non-Flavians. It is understandable why Vespasian was criticized for turning the principate into a hereditary office. Pliny praised Trajan, who seemed reluctant to assume the consulship, for opening the office of consul to ordinary people (Pan. 58). However, Domitian had essentially accomplished this. After 82/83, when he adhered to Vespasian's practice of holding the consulship with a family member, he abandoned it allowing family members to hold 5 of 10 available posts. From 89 through 96 only 4 of 16 ordinary consulships went to Flavians, although Domitian held the consulship for all but four years.

Pliny also praises Trajan for honoring old Republican families with the consulship, whose distinguished ancestors had held the office before them (Pan. 69). However, of all consulships held during Domitian's reign all but 7 were had consular fathers. Despite his autocracy, Domitian did not ignore the senatorial establishment by refusing what was due them.[12]

For example, on January 13, 87, C. Calpurnius Piso Crassus Frugi Licinianus became suffect consul replacing Domitian. In the following year, Calpurnius's brother, Libo Frugi, was granted a similar consulship. This is remarkable in that both were descendants of Pompey and Crassus with a turbulent family history. Their father was one of four sons born to M. Licinius Crassus Frugi, consul in 27, who was executed by Claudius with one of his sons for conspiracy. Of the three surviving sons, M. Licinius Crassus Frugi, consul in 64 (and the father of Domitian's consuls), was executed by Nero. Another son, L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinius was the Piso adopted by Galba. Clearly, a dangerous pedigree did not prevent Domitian from granting honors. The consul of 87 lived up to his family reputation for getting into trouble with the principate. Nerva exiled him for conspiracy (Dio 68.3) and Trajan sent him to an unknown island (Dio 68.16).

Even following the revolt of Saturninus, Domitian persisted in his practice of granting honors to potential enemies despite the inauguration of a "reign of terror." An example is Pliny who, although he was associated with the opposition, received a post at the military treasury from Domitian. Later, he was allowed to become praetor without waiting the obligatory year following military service. Even though Pliny says he feared he could be placed on trial (Letters 3.11), like Tacitus, he prospered during Domitian's reign.

The Senate felt most threatened as Domitian created in new members who were loyal to him. As censor, he had the power to revise the Senate membership by directly admitting new men. Many of these men came from the east so the composition of the Senate changed with an increase of non-Italians from the reign of Vespasian (33% to 38%). Domitian added as many as 24 easterners whereas Trajan added from 6 to 13. He also appointed an easterner, Ti. Julius Candidus Marius Celsus, as proconsul of Cappadocia-Galatia, which was unprecedented. Domitian also angered the Senate by showing a preference toward the equestrian order. Without exception, army commanders had been a senatorial officer, such as Vespasian when he assumed command in Judea. As his commander in Dacia Domitian selected his praetorian prefect Cornelius Fuscus, an equestrian (Dom. 6). In 87/88, he appointed C. Minicus Italus, also an equestrian, procurator of Asia after the incumbent had been executed.[13]

Domitian executed 10 former consuls (named by Suetonius (Dom. 10)) and exiled many others. He took no notice when the Senate passed repeated decrees that an emperor should not execute anyone of his own rank (Dio 67.2). Dio cites numerous occasions when senators were executed but names none of them (67.3 (83 CE), 67.4 (84 CE), 67.9 (before 89 CE), 67.11 (89 CE), 67.12 (91/92 CE), 67.3 (93 CE) and 67.14 (95 CE). 29 Stressing the number of senators Domitian executed does not give a balanced view of his reign. Every emperor found it necessary to carry out political executions. If the number of executions is used to define a tyrant, Claudius would rank ahead of Domitian as he executed 35 senators and about 300 equestrians (Claud. 29). Claudius, however, had a successor who deified him.

(C) David A. Wend 1994, 1999


1 Jones, op. cit., p. 102.

2 Nilsson, op. cit, pp. 69-70.

3 Walters, K. H., op cit., p.67.

4 Jones, op. cit., p. 111.

5 Jones,ibid., pp. 112-113.

6 Smallwood, E. Mary,"Domitian's Attitude Toward the Jews and Judaism:,Classical Philology 51, 1956, p. 2.

7 Grant, Michael, The Jews in the Roman World,(Dorset Press),1973, p. 205.

8 Smallwood,ibid,p.9.

9 Grant,op.cit.,p. 227; Jones,op. cit.,pp. 114-117.

10 Jones,ibid.,pp. 123-124.

11 Jones,ibid.,p. 34.

12 Jones,ibid.,p. 164.

13 Jones,ibid.,pp. 169-179.

14 For biographies of each of the executed consular senators, see Jones,ibid,pp. 182-188.