Who was Emperor Domitian?

Known for being one of the worst Roman emperors in history, how much do you know about Emperor Domitian? Learn all about his ruthless reign and assassination in our latest article…

When people think of the emperors of Ancient Rome, they probably think of Augustus, Claudius or Nero. Reigning for over 10 years, is it not curious that Domitian is often missed off the list? With the Roman Empire lasting for almost 2,000 years, Rome saw many different emperors, many of whom enjoyed a stable and peaceful reign. However, Rome also saw times of crisis which was made worst by improper rulers whose reigns led to great turmoil. It then comes as no surprise that Domitian’s name has become overlooked throughout history along with other less-known emperors. But, unlike other less-known rulers, Domitian’s name had a little help in being forgotten. After his death, Domitian’s memory was excluded from official documents by the Roman Senate, with senatorial authors writing only about his cruel and paranoid nature which governed his rule. In order to try and determine our own account of this condemned emperor, learn a little more about him below.

Domitian was the Roman Emperor during year 81 to 96 CE. He was known for being one of the worst Roman emperors in history. With his narcissism and suspicion controlling his thoughts and decisions, making his actions cruel and unjust. The last of the Flavian dynasty his ruthless nature and curtailment of the Roman senate is what eventually led to a great betrayal which cost his his life.

Becoming Emperor

Domitian was the son of Titus Flavius Vespasianus, commonly known as the general who restored stability and normality to the public after the chaos of Nero’s fall. After Vespasian’s death, Domitian’s older brother, also known as Vespasian, became ruler, being the first emperor to get the throne after their biological father. Unfortunately, Domitian did not have his father’s charm or his brother’s court education, although he was considered quite bright. Vespasian suffered an untimely death due to natural causes, with Domitian quickly proclaiming to be the new emperor. Rumours soon began that Domitian had a hand in his brother’s death, most likely using poison to kill him. As Vespasian’s last words; “I have made but one mistake,” caused speculation that the mistake was referring to Domitian. This unsettled beginning of Domitian’s reign was made even more unpopular by the fact that he moved the seat of government to the Imperial Court. This was a significantly symbolic move as it demonstrated that Domitian had little interest in sharing power with the Senate. Like Augustus, Domitian strove to renew Rome and reform the morals of the general population. Taking on such a momentous and philanthropic task along with such power does sound like an unhealthy mix for a an emperor to take on, but does this mean the senatorial writers were right about their ruler? Or just bitter at his interruption of normal but corrupt order?

His Accomplishments

During Domitian’s early reign, the Roman capital was in decay, due to numerous fires and crumbling ruins to some public buildings. Domitian built a new temple to Jupiter the Guardian and a new stadium and concert hall. His best-known accomplishment was building the Imperial Palace on Palatine Hill. During his early years, Domitian was known as a generous leader, and fair when dispensing justice. His rocky relationship with the senate worsened when he began to promote members of the Equestrian Order (Knights) to high office, valuing merit and ability over anything else. He was also very interested in the economy and was prudent in fiscal matters, paying much attention to the city’s food and water supply, building projects, military matters and the overall preservation of the Empire. Although Domitian did not personally lead his legions into battle, he regularly visited battle zones, successfully defeating an attack from the Dacians (Thracian people).

The Decline of Domitian

So far, if we take an unbiased viewpoint, it doesn’t sound like Domitian was all that bad. Providing his citizens with their basic needs, stopping attacks on the empire and correcting the city’s finances. However, his unstable relationship with the senate caused Domitian to suffer great paranoia throughout his reign, which became increasingly worse in his later years, having several Senators executed for treason. His paranoia became so bad that even free speech was banned. Seeing himself as a just moral force who should intervene to promote the wellbeing and morals of the population, Domitian became drunk with power. Under him the Imperial government became more autocratic, and he signed himself Dominus or master.

The Death of Domitian

This only caused him greater dislike, and slowly, even those most loyal to him began to plot against him. Domitian’s reign finally came to an end in December 96 AD when his conspirators attacked, stabbing him to death. They brought him down by a scheme arranged by his wife, Domitia, as she feared for her life. Stephanus, a member of Domitian’s imperial staff, was to fake an arm injury, using an arm wrapping to be used to store a knife. Stephanus then stabbed Domitian in the groin, with other conspirators hacking the emperor to death after the first initial stab. His murder overjoyed the senates, with the city celebrating Domitian’s death by tearing down his statues and arches. A bloody end for an emperor who sought moral triumph with his ascent to power.

Hours after his death the Senate acclaimed Nerva as Emperor, which suggests he was also heavily involved in the conspiracy. Whether you believe Domitian deserved what he got or not, Rome’s Empire owes part of its financial and constructive developments to him. You can see his impact at Palatine Hill even now. To see them for yourself check out our Ancient Rome & Colosseum Tour to experience Rome’s rich history today.

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