Childhood & Early Life
Domitian was born to Titus Flavius Vespasianus and Flavia Domitilla Major on October 24, 51 AD in Rome. He was the youngest child of the couple and had an elder brother Titus and sister Domitilla the Younger.
Young Domitian lost his mother and sister by the time he turned six. His father and brother were involved in the Roman military and played a commanding role in Germania and Judaea.
Domitian completed his academic education, studying rhetoric and literature. Highly intellectual and bright, Domitian grew up to become a learned and educated adolescent. Unlike his brother though, he wasn’t trained in court education and did not show military skills as well.
Domitian lacked the charisma that his father and brother had. He was mostly lazy and suspicious. His remote ways and love for solitude made him isolated. Furthermore, he displayed self-deprecating sense of humor
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Accession & Reign
During the outbreak of the civil war in 69 AD, while his brother Titus was securing the throne from Emperor Vitellius, Domitian remained in Rome with his uncle Flavius Sabinus. When Vitelllius forces besieged Rome, he fled with his friend across Tiber.
When Flavian forces entered Rome, he returned to the city and gained the title of ‘Caesar’. He became a representative of the Flavian family and was appointed praetor with consul powers. However, he wasn’t given any office with the imperium. Though Domitian held six consulships under his father, none excepting one was an ordinary consulship. Despite being less prestigious, they did however gain Domitian valuable Roman senate experience.
Following the death of his father, his brother took the throne. Domitian expected to have the same position as his brother had under his father. However, he was denied of both tribunician and imperium power that his brother enjoyed. Furthermore, his role was limited to being largely ceremonial.
The untimely death of his brother, while on a trip to Sabine territories, automatically made Domitian the subsequent Emperor of the Flavian dynasty. Though theories surrounding his role in the death of his brother have been doing rounds, none prove Domitian’s involvement.
On September 14, 81 AD, Domitian was proclaimed as the third Roman Emperor of the Flavian dynasty. He was bestowed with tribunician powers and office of the Pontifex Maximus. He also gained the titles Augustus and Pater Patriae.
The foremost work that Domitian did as Emperor was to move the centre of government to the imperial court. He ranked himself as the benevolent despot governing a divine monarchy. He resolved to restore the empire to the grandness that it enjoyed under Emperor Augustus.
Domitian led the government in the most meticulous of ways. He issued edicts and looked into the minutest details of governance. He was stubborn and rigidly enforced his law, thus ensuring low corruption and exploitation. He admonished those senators he found unworthy.
Unlike his father and brother, Domitian did not practice nepotism. He did not appoint his family members to the public office and instead assigned the strategic posts to those he believed were worthy of it.
Domitian was an able administrator. Unlike former Flavian rulers, he indulged in extensive reconstruction of Rome that was destroyed under the Great Fire of 64 and 79 and the civil war of 69. Rome underwent a cultural renaissance, through Domitian’s renovation project, with more than 50 structures built, restored or completed.
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Under Domitian, some of the most important new structures that were built include an odeon, stadium, concert hall and Flavian Palace. The restoration work of the Temple of Jerusalem was completed in his reign. Furthermore, the Temple of Temple of Vespasian and Titus, the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum as completed under his reign.
Unlike other Flavian rulers, Domitian rejected expansionist warfare and instead took a defensive approach. His most notable military achievement was in the development of roads, forts and watchtowers for the development of Limes Germanicus to help defend the Empire.
Aiming to equate the military achievements of his predecessors, he constantly kept in touch with the generals at the field, sending them advice and recommendation. To gain some credibility, he moved to Germany where he embarked on a victorious campaign in engaging the Chatti. He gained the title of Germanicus for his success. However, war on the Danube did not end well as Domitian lost troops and two legions.
Despite his setbacks in military campaigns and his not up-to-the-mark tactical and strategic decisions, Domitian was popular among the soldiers, as he became the second emperor since Augustus to raise their pay by one-third. Due to this, he earned the loyalty of the soldiers.
On the religion side, Domitian was traditional at heart and insisted on the practice of ancient customs and morals. He thought of himself as an absolute ruler and was so obsessed by the fact that he insisted on being called ‘Dominus et deus’ or God. He even renamed two months of the calendar after himself, Germanicus or September and Domitianus or October.
Throughout his reign, Domitian feared assassination and this made him paranoid. The greed of ruling and fear of being deposed led him to take over as the supreme power. He stripped the senate of its powers and executed officers and senators for the most trivial offence. Libellous writings were an offence and punished through exile or death sentence
Domitian was so paranoid of his assassination that he employed informers to keep himself updated of any rebellion happening. He executed people at the slightest of indication of a possible plot or rebel.
Personal Life & Legacy
Domitian was married to Domitia Longina in 71 AD. This was her second marriage as she was previously married to Lucius Aelius Plautius Lamia Aelianus. The couple was blessed with a son in 80 AD but the child died after three years.
Despite being super conscious of any plotting or rebellion, plots of assassinating Domitian existed. A group of conspirators assassinated Domitian on September 18, 96 AD. Domitian's chamberlain Parthenius is said to have been the chief instigator of the assassination. The murder which was well-organized was carried out by Maximus and Stephanus. Domitian was in his room when he was stabbed in his groin while reading a paper. Before he could resist, he was stabbed seven times.
Unpopular among the senators, Domitian’s body was carried away on a common bier and unceremoniously cremated by his nurse Phyllis. His ashes were interred at the Flavian temple. He was succeeded by Marcus Cocceius Nerva.
The death of Domitian spread joy in the senate. Instead of mourning, the senators admonished anything belonging to him, right from melting his coins and statues to tearing down his arches. They erased his name completely from public record. However, the soldiers were extremely disappointed with his death and demanded for the execution of Domitian’s assassins, a request which was turned down.