Why Domitian? Why am I so obsessed by him?
I think anyone who has to study Tacitus’ Annals feels the hand of Domitian. All the books tell you Tacitus’ depiction of Tiberius’ reign of terror was influenced by Domitian’s reign which he had lived through.
Reading Suetonius’ 12 Caesars comes as somewhat of a disappointment . Domitian as a ‘bad’ emperor can’t compete with eunuch Marrying/ mother murdering Nero. Nor with the sadistic glee of Caligula.
In fact the most memorable Suetonian anecdote is of Domitian’s habit of spending his time alone stabbing flies with a pen. It’s hardly on a par with Nero’s spectacular cheating at the Olympics.
So then you dig a little deeper and you find a whole list of Domitian’s successes. The stamping out of corruption, the epic building programme, the banning of castration and child prostitution.
This was a man who worked hard at being emperor. He had set out to emulate Augustus and he has a good stab at it.
So what went wrong? Plenty. A complete inability to flatter and work with the Senate fixed how Domitian is remembered. After his death they gleefully smashed his statues.
And it’s clear that he was afflicted with a growing paranoia, with men being executed decades after a perceived offence. I think a lot of this surely has to do with his experiences during 69 ad, the period I write about.
When Vespasian was declared emperor he was safely in the east with the legions. 17 year old Domitian was in Rome.
Initially held under house arrest he was later party to some fierce fighting at the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. The Temple was burnt to the ground with Domitian managing to escape disguised as an acolyte of the Egyptian goddess Isis.
His uncle was not so fortunate and was murdered by Vitellian forces.
Being a first hand witness to the fall of emperors surely had a lasting effect on him. When he is emperor he is determined that nobody shall dare treat him so.
So why am I so obsessed? Because he’s a complex man, neither cartoonishly evil nor woefully misunderstood. Just human.