81 - 96 CE
|Vespasian's "lesser" son, Domitian, started his reign well and had some moderate military successes. But he suffered from bad press and ended his reign rather badly. In the end, the nicest epitaph I could come up with is: "He wasn't quite as bad as his detractors would have us believe".|
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Domitian was the eleventh emperor of Rome, and the last of Suetonius's "Twelve Caesars". The younger brother of Titus by 12 years, he had been left behind when his father and brother went off to the Judaean war, and about the only excitement he experienced during that period was having to escape from Rome to avoid being taken as a hostage to use against his father. Speculation exists that Titus's abrupt end was engineered by a jealous Domitian, but in absence of any real evidence, a severe attack of malaria is a more likely explanation.
Domitian gets bad press from the ancient historians. Some of it is clearly deserved, but much was probably the result of a personal dislike by the writers, many of whom were Senators. Domitian had no patience with the fiction (started by Augustus) that they had real power, and it appears that some Senators got their revenge by stating innuendo of sexual perversion and incest as fact in their later accounts.
Militarily, he lacked his father's and brother's spectacular reputations (in part because Vespasian had provided him with few opportunities in that area), but he did all right. The military was rather fond of him, largely because he had increased their base pay by a full 1/3. He had no major triumphs like Judaea to point to, but he did manage to hold the Danubian frontier despite several serious onslaughts from different enemies. He was not a "stay-at-home" emperor, and he led several campaigns himself. However, the constant warfare on this front forced him to pull back on planned activities elsewhere (such as the final conquest of Scotland), and his achievements in the end looked pretty tepid on parchment.
Though not quite on the scale of Nero's "Golden House", Domitian constructed an expensive new palace complex for himself, as well as many other building projects and statues honoring himself. When funds ran short, he resorted to the tried and true "fund-raising" formula of treason trials and confiscation. Predictably, this increased the general hostility toward him, and the paranoia he developed later in his reign led to a wave of executions on the flimsiest of pretexts. Even those closest to Domitian began to fear for their lives.
A conspiracy among his personal attendants, aided by his wife, finally got him. One servant feigned an injury and wore a thick bandage on his arm, suitable for concealing a dagger. Another servant removed the sword that Domitian kept beneath his pillow. The dagger-wielding servant came in a bit (!) low with his first blow, stabbing Domitian in the groin. This failed to kill him, and a struggle ensued. Despite his wound, Domitian was holding his own (a rather impressive accomplishment, in my way of thinking), but other conspirators arrived with swords and turned Domitian into Imperial hamburger.
Among the populace, news of Domitian's death was greeted by a general apathy, but there was much rejoicing in the Senate. Not only had they lost an emperor who refused to pretend that they had real power, they were able to use his abrupt passing to elect a Senator as the new emperor. The military, however, was less than thrilled by this turn of events, as Domitian's successor would soon learn ...