Home » Domitian: The emperor was struck down “with seven blows”.

Domitian: The emperor was struck down “with seven blows”.

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Domitian: The emperor was struck down “with seven blows”.

Opinions differ about Titus Flavius ​​Domitianus (51–96). Many of his contemporaries, especially the privileged ones, would have given him a top spot on the list of insane emperors. On the other hand, those who were still born, especially historians, consider him to be an energetic ruler who knew how to tackle foreign policy problems, but who lost the necessary approval internally due to his character deficiencies, so that he was killed on September 18, 1996.

Since the Senate then damnation of memory imposed on him, not only were his monuments and statues destroyed, but the sources did everything in their power to establish his reputation for all time. Since Tacitus, one of the most important historians of antiquity, testified to this judgment, it is still difficult to understand Domitian as a human being.

Magnificent bust of Emperor Domitian (51–96)

Quelle: picture alliance / CPA Media Co.

What seems certain is that the younger son of the later Emperor Vespasian (reigned 69–79) and brother of the Emperor Titus (reigned 79–81) was influenced by the trauma of deferral from his youth. While Titus received an unusually good education as a prince’s playmate in the palace of the Emperor Claudius (r. 41–54), Domitian had to make do with what the family in the provinces could offer him. His father made a career in the army, where he soon received high commands as a general. But he always called on his older son to be his adjutant, while the younger one always found himself relegated to some position.

This became particularly clear in the power struggle that broke out after Nero’s fall in 68. After three generals – Galba, Otho and Vitellius – had worn themselves out in the civil war, Vespasian, who was busy suppressing the Jewish uprising, also threw his hat into the ring. He left the conquest of Jerusalem to Titus and moved to Rome.

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There Domitian was able to survive the street fights against Vitellius with luck and skill, but was then outplayed by his father’s supporters when it came to the distribution of the benefices. After he came to the throne, he elevated his son to Caesar, but excluded him from all important events and instead made Titus his successor. When he died after only two years in power, the rumor immediately arose that Domitian had had a hand in it.

There is no evidence of this. The only thing that is certain is that the change of government went smoothly and quite a few saw the new 29-year-old emperor as the “hope of all people,” as the poet Publius Papinius Statius put it. In the opinion of his contemporaries, the undertaking with which Domitian wanted to finally gain the military legitimacy that had been denied him until then was in keeping with this.

Part of Domitian’s palace complex on the Palatine Hill in Rome

Quelle: picture alliance / imageBROKER

With a large army he attacked the Germanic Chatti in the Wetterau and was able to wrest their contractual submission. This earned him the title of “Germanic Victor”. The fact that he made his newfound fame known to every corner of the empire says something about the backlog that had built up in Domitian’s mind.

With this reputation behind him, the emperor then devoted himself to domestic politics, was involved in jurisprudence, took action against corrupt officials and took care of repairing the damage left by the fire catastrophe in Rome in 80. In order to cover the costs, the tribute that dependent princes had to pay to Rome was increased. This in turn drove the Dacian tribes on the lower Danube into rebellion.

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Again, Domitian did not leave it to his generals to clear up the situation. But the triumph he subsequently celebrated had a stale aftertaste. Because once again the defeated invaded the imperial territory and destroyed a Roman army. This time legions had to be withdrawn from Britain to deal with the crisis. Subsequently, the usurpation of a governor caused unrest on the Rhine front. In both cases, Domitian demonstrated prudence and pragmatism. Instead of getting lost in endless battles, he concluded treaties with the invaders and laid the foundation for the expansion of the Limes in Upper Germany.

Heroic statues spoke of the emperor’s greatness

Quelle: picture-alliance / akg-images

But for many members of the elite this was not enough, especially since Domitian was getting on their nerves with his increasingly autocratic style of government and his conservative morals. He allowed himself to be addressed as “Lord,” or even as “Lord and God,” and harassed his peers by having the office of censor assigned to him for life. In doing so, he watched over their morally stable way of life.

The criticism was all the more severe when Domitian married the wife of a cousin whom he had previously had killed because of a formality. There was talk of incest. The emperor reacted to this degradation of his person with majesty trials, which often enough ended with the death penalty. Failed conspiracies further fueled the spiral of violence.

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Unlike Caligula or Nero, who had previously set standards for the Caesar madness, Domitian only targeted senators or knights who he felt were attacking his person and his prominent position. This has been explained by the deep-rooted trauma of abandonment. Instead of coming to terms with his peers, he withdrew from them and only allowed people he trusted to get close to him.

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But even for them, the idea of ​​suddenly being hit by a spell or a death sentence became too scary at some point. That would explain the plot to which the emperor finally fell victim in September 96.

It is said that the emperor threw Roman citizens to the dogs

Quelle: picture alliance / akg-images

After he had once again talked about dark omens and forebodings in his inner circle that measures had to be taken against, the conspirators took action. Around midday, Domitian was informed of the arrival of an administrator who wanted to give him information about an attack. Since the emperor used to have such conversations in private, Stephen was able to approach him unhindered and draw a dagger. Domitian defeated the attacker, writes the Roman historian Suetonius. But his fingers were mangled. Finally, some courtiers and gladiators broke into the room and felled the emperor “with seven blows”.

While the Senate released itself from its paralysis of fear, the large public reacted to the news of the emperor’s death with dejection. Because he had spoiled it to some extent with his lavish games, which even included expensive sea battles. The final blow for posterity was dealt to the dead man’s memory by the historian Tacitus:

“Just as an earlier age experienced the highest degree of freedom, so ours experienced the highest degree of slavery, since through constant spying even the exchange of speaking and listening was taken away… Now consciousness is gradually returning.” Tacitus was a senator.

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This article was originally published in September 2022.

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