DOMITIAN (81 - 96 AD)



Domitian - an unpleasant, but effective emperor. With his assassination came the end of dynastic rule - his successor, Nerva, was 66 and childless.


Titus Flavius Domitianus Augustus: born 24 October AD 51 in Rome. Became emperor in AD 81. Married Domitia Longina (no children). Murdered on 18 September AD 96.

Both his father and his brother had kept Domitian at a distance from playing any part in the administration. So when supreme power finally came his way, he accepted it as his right and gloried in it, especially after having himself elected to the office of censor for life. The usual methods of address were not for him: he preferred to be known as “our master, our god”.

Under the Flavian emperors, the economy of the empire was rationalized still further, to the extent that expenditure could be projected. Dependent kingdoms were converted to provinces. Rome and its aristocracy became more cosmopolitan. Domitian helped the processes by efficient administration, combined with a refreshing pedantry.

toga praetexta

Domitian insisted that spectators at public games came properly dressed in togas. These men in procession in a first-century AD fresco are wearing the toga praetexta of senators. (VRoma: Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples: Barbara McManus)

Domitian was, however, often unsure when handling measures that required initiative. He attempted to resolve the problem of the Italian “wine lake” by forbidding any new vines to be planted and ordering the destruction of vineyards on the far side of the Alps. Though he was popular with the army - he raised their pay, the first emperor since Augustus to do so - and he had a successful campaign in Germany in AD 83, two or three years later he allowed himself to be deceived into leading his army into battle against a combined force of German tribes who were merely creating a diversion on the Danube, and was heavily defeated.

To bolster his forces for these campaigns he drafted in troops from Britain, thus ensuring that the initiative of Agricola in extending the frontiers of the empire into Scotland was largely dissipated. Though Agricola’s son-in-law, the historian Cornelius Tacitus (c. AD 56 - after 117) suggests that Domitian’s recall of Agricola was a disaster, it could be justified from both a military and an economic point of view, and Agricola had served as governor for seven years, more than two full terms, a long time for the holder of such a post.


Domitian, by all accounts, was a bad person, but a reasonably effective ruler. When he was dead, he was denied a state funeral, and his name was obliterated from all public buildings. (Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples: René Seindal)

Under Domitian, widespread execution returned. He used a vague charge of maiestas (treason) to justify all manner of persecutions and killings, from which members of his own family were not exempt. Conspiracies, real and imaginary, abounded, but Domitian’s ultimate murder was not political. It was engineered by his former wife, Domitia, whom he had divorced but was later reconciled with. He was stabbed by a steward, ironically while reading the report of yet another fictitious plot.

The senate, no doubt relieved that none of its members was openly involved, was at last in a position to make its own choice of ruler. It nominated a respected lawyer, Marcus Cocceius Nerva (AD 32 - 98), to take over the government.


Nerva was 65 when he became emperor. He was also childless. These two factors must have weighed with a senate which did not want to be ruled by another family dynasty. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)


domitian coin

Gold aureus (AD 87) of Domitian, with on the reverse Minerva, goddess of crafts and industry, and also of war.The inscription, which begins under the neck and goes clockwise, continuing on the reverse, reads in full: “The emperor Caesar Domitian Augustus Germanicus, Pontifex Maximus, with powers of a tribune for the sixth time / Imperator for the fourteenth time, Consul for the thirteenth time, perpetual Censor, Father of the Country”. ( Photo © Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

Pen portrait of Domitian

“From his boyhood he was scarcely polite, being insolent and arrogant in his conversation and behaviour. Once when his father’s mistress Caenis came back from Istria and bent forward to kiss him as usual, he offered her his hand instead. . . . He was tall, with a red face, an unassuming expression, and large eyes, though his sight was weak. For all that, he was good-looking, and, especially when he was young, well proportioned all over, except for his feet; for his toes were slightly deformed. Later on he went bald and developed a paunch.” (Suetonius, Domitian 12, 18)

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Believe it or not:

Domitian used extortion to fund his development programmes and his military campaigns. He was especially ruthless towards the Jews, on whom Vespasian had imposed a tax after the fall of Jerusalem. Suetonius recalls as a boy attending a court session at which the imperial agent had a 90-year-old man examined to establish whether he was circumcised.

“[Domitian] used to say that it was a rotten life being an emperor; no-one believed in rumours of conspiracies until you were dead” (Suetonius, Domitian 21).
People were executed on the flimsiest of pretences: “A woman was tried and executed for undressing in front of a painting of Domitian, and a man for consorting with astrologers” (Cassius Dio LXVII. 14. 2).