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Domitianus: Ruthless but effective

Date of news: 18 March 2022

Portret of Titus Flavius Domitianus

Titus Flavius Domitianus was born on the 24th of October 51 AD as the youngest son of Titus Flavius Vespasianus and Flavia Domitilla Major. The civil war of the first century led to the downfall of a big part of the great old aristrocracy of Rome. They were replaced by new Italian nobility among whom were the Flavians, who acquired wealth and power under the emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (Jones 1992).

Vespasianus (Domitianus' father, see family tree) won the title of emperor on the 20th of December 69. After 8 years of rule Vespasianus died in 79 and Domitianus' brother Titus took his place as emperor. Domitiatus had always lived in his brothers' shadows since Titus had acquired military fame during the Jewish-Roman war. However, in 81 Titus died due to a fatal disease and Domitianus in his turn took his place as emperor.

Business efficiency

During his reign Domitianus embarked on ambitious economic, military and cultural missions. He was determined to rebuild Rome after the Great fire of Rome in 64 and wanted to restore the Empire to the greatness it had seen in times of Augustus. He started by revaluing Roman coins and as a result boosting the Roman economy (Jones 1992). He also put an end to the nepotism practiced by his father and brother by rarely favouring family members in the distribution of public offices. Lastly he was the first emperor to leave Rome for longer periods of time. Hereby the seat of power changed from being in Rome to being wherever Domitianus was.

Tainted memory

Domitianus was also a despotic emperor. He became personally involved in all aspects of administration and according to Suetonius the imperial bureaucracy was amazingly effective as a result, since there was little possibility of corruption by provincial governors and officials. Juvenal refers to this efficiency in his fourth Satire, when a giant fish is presented to the emperor: "After all, who'd dare sell or buy such a thing when even the beaches were covered with spies?". Suetonius also states that Domitianus only wished to be addressed as "our master and our God" (Suetonius 2007). Domitianus' reign showed a lot of totalitarian aspects. He saw and portrayed himself as a descendant of Augustus. He believed himself to be an enlightened emperor destined to lead Rome into a new golden age. Through propaganda he created a cult of personality in which he idealized an heroic image of himself. He also appointed himself perpetual censor, thereby controlling public morality. As a result he was very popular with the army and the people, but not so much with the elites who thought of him as a tyrant (Jones 1992). In 96 he was assassinated. After his death, court officials punished him by excluding him from the official accounts, following the tradition of damnatio memoriae, which means "condemnation of memory". Elite authors such as Tacitus published works in which they portrayed him as cruel and paranoid.

As modern historians we should put these works in context and conclude that Domitianus probably was a ruthless but effective emperor whose reign formed the basis for those of the following centuries.

By: Livia Manusama
(student of the course Populism and Propaganda in the Roman World)


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Jones, B.W., The Emperor Domitian (Londen 1992).

    DG291 - .J66 1993
    Domitian, Emperor of Rome AD 81-96, has traditionally been portrayed as a tyrant, and his later years on the throne as a 'reign of terror'. Brian Jones' biography of the emperor, the first ever in English, offers a more balanced interpretation of the life of Domitian, arguing that his foreign policy was realistic, his economic programme rigorously efficient and his supposed persecution of the early Christians non-existent.