Titus Flavius Domitianus, Roman emperor, known in English as Domitian, was born in October 24 51 and died in September 18 96. He was the son of Vespasian, by his wife Domitilla, and brother of Titus, whom he succeeded in 81.

Early life

Domitian was born in Rome while his father was still a politician and military commander. He received the education of a young man of the privileged senatorial class. He studied rhetorics and literature, publishing some of his writings, law and administration. In his biography Suetonius he reports as a learned and educated adolescent, with elegant conversation. Unlike his brother, Titus, who was much older than himself, Domitian did not accompany their father in his campaigns in the African provinces and Judea.

During the year of the four emperors (69 AD), Domitian assumed a caution discrete position but moved immediately to the imperial palace once his father was acclaimed emperor. He was the Flavius family representative in the senate prior to Vespasian and Titus' arrival in Rome. With the rising to power of his father, Domitian grew bolder.

In 70 AD he managed to force the divorce of Domitia Longina in order to marry her. Lucius Aelius Lamia, her husband, could not prevent the prince's will, and so Domitia became daughter in law of the emperor. Despite the recklessness of the start, the alliance was very prestigious for both sides. Domitia Longina was the only daughter of general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, one of the victims of Nero's terror, remembered as a worthy commander and a honoured politician. They had a son in 71 AD and a daughter in 74, but both died young. The marriage was far from being traditional: Domitian was a notorious womaniser and his wife was not jealous. Some sources refer that she would join Domitian in his escapades with his mistresses.

As a second son, Domitian was spared of responsibilities. He held several honorific consulships and several priesthoods but no office with imperium. During the reign of his brother Titus, his situation remained essentially the same, since nobody saw him as future emperor. But Domitian had certainly his ambitions. When Titus was dying, he managed to be hailed as the successor by securing the Pretorian Guard's support.


As an administrator, Domitian soon proofed to be a disaster. The economy went to a halt and then to recession, forcing him to heavily devaluate the denarius (silver currency). To further compensate the economic situation, taxes were raised and discontent soon followed. Due to his love of the arts and to woo the population, Domitian invested large sum in the reconstruction and embellishment of the city, still suffering the effects of the great fire of Rome in 64 and the civil war of 69. Around fifty new buildings were erected and restored, including the Temple of Jupiter in the Capitoline Hill and a palace in the Palatine Hill.

In 85, Domitian nominated himself perpetual censor, the office who held the task of supervising Roman morals and conduct. A task he could hardly apply to himself. By 83, his own marriage was in rupture with continuous infidelities and scandals from both sides. In this year, Domitia Longina was caught with her lover, the actor Paris. The man was executed and the empress was exiled after a hastened divorce. In the next year he developed a passion for his niece Julia Flavia (daughter of Titus) and, like in his first marriage, he kidnapped the girl by dismissing her husband. Julia Flavia died in 91 during an abortion, being deified afterwards. After this, Domitia Longina was recalled to the palace as Roman emperess, despite the fact that Domitian never remarried her.

Domitian's biggest passion were the arts and the games. He finished the Colosseum, started by his father, and implemented the Capitoline Games in 86 AD. Like the Olympic Games, they were to be held every four years and included athletic displays, chariot races, but also oratory, music and acting competitions. The Emperor himself supported the travels of competitors from the whole empire and attributed the prizes. He was also very fond of gladiator shows and added important innovations like women and dwarf gladiator fights.

As a military commander, Domitian was not gifted, due to his education in Rome, away from the legions. Probably because of this, the emperor limited Roman military enterprises during his reign. He claimed several Roman triumphs, namely over the Chatti and in Britain, but they were only propaganda manoeuvres, since these wars were still being fought. Nevertheless, several campaigns were fought during his reign, especially in the Danube frontier against the Dacians. Domitian also founded the I Minervia legion in 82 AD.

To the end of his reign, which had started with moderation, Domitian revealed a cruel personality. According to several sources, despite some arguments in the scientific community, Jews and Christians were heavily persecuted during his reign. The emperor also developed a paranoia of persecution that led him to kill or execute several members of the senatorial and equestrian orders. He disliked aristocrats and had no fear to show it, redrawing every decision making process from the Senate.

Domitian was murdered in September 96, in a plot organize by his senator enemies, Stephanus (the steward of the deceased Julia Flavia), members of the Pretorian Guard and empress Domitia Longina. The emperor knew that, according to an astrological prediction, he would die around noon. Therefore, he was always restless during this time of the day. In his last day, Domitian was feeling disturbed and asked a servant boy which time it was several times. The boy, included in the plot, lied, saying that was much later. More at ease, the emperor went to his desk, to sign some decrees, where he was stabbed eight times by Stephanus.

Domitian was succeeded by Nerva (by appointment of the senate), the first of the Five Good Emperors.

See also: Roman Empire, Number of the Beast

Preceded by:
Titus (79 - 81)
Roman emperors
Followed by:
Nerva (96 - 98)