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Domitian

(51—96 ad)


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Younger son of Vespasian, b. ad 51, remained in Rome during his father's campaign against Vitellius. Surrounded on the Capitol with his uncle, he managed to escape and on Vitellius' death was proclaimed Caesar by the Flavian army, though the real power lay with Licinius Mucianus until Vespasian's arrival. In 71 he participated in the triumph of Vespasian and Titus, and between 70 and 80 held seven consulships. Although Domitian exercised no formal power, he was clearly part of the dynastic plan, and he succeeded his brother smoothly in 81.

The literary sources, esp. Tacitus and Pliny the Younger, represent a senatorial tradition hostile to Domitian. This viewpoint illustrates the tension between aristocratic officials and autocrat. Suetonius' account, though basically hostile, is better balanced and suggests that a more favourable view did exist, apart from the flattery of poets like Statius and Martial.

Domitian was conscientious in the performance of his duties, adopting a stance of moral rectitude, maintaining public decency at Games (see ludi), and showing respect for religious ritual; three Vestals were put to death for breaking their vows of chastity; later, Cornēlia, the chief Vestal, was buried alive. He promoted festivals and religious celebrations, showing particular devotion to Jupiter and Minerva, and performed the Secular Games; many public buildings were erected, completed, or restored, including the Capitol, the Colosseum, and a great palace on the Palatine. For the people there were frequent spectacles and banquets, though his cash grants were restrained. He raised military pay by a third, and bestowed by edict additional privileges on veterans and their families; he remained popular with the army and praetorians.

Domitian administered legal affairs diligently and tried to suppress corruption. Although authoritarian in his attitude to the provinces, Domitian tried to impress probity and fairness on his appointees; Pliny the Younger's letters to Trajan show that Domitian's administrative decisions were generally endorsed. The role and influence of equestrians in the administration increased in his reign, but as part of a continuing trend rather than deliberate policy. He probably left a surplus in the treasury; his confiscation of the property of his opponents was for political rather than financial reasons.

Domitian was the first reigning emperor since Claudius in 43 to campaign in person, visiting the Rhine once, and the Danube three times. Iulius Frontinus reports favourably on Domitian's personal control of strategy and tactics. In 82/3 he fought a successful war against the Chatti on the middle Rhine, brought the Taunus area under Roman control, and accepted a triumph and the name ‘Germānicus’. But the military balance was shifting towards the Danube, and in 85 the Dacians, under Decebalus, invaded the Balkan province of Moesia killing its governor. Domitian came in person in 85 and 86; and after the defeat and death of the praetorian prefect, the governor of Upper Moesia won a victory at Tapae in 88. Since Domitian was facing trouble from the Marcomanni and Quadi in Pannonia, he made peace with Decebalus before launching a campaign against them (spring 89); at the end of 89 he celebrated another triumph. Then early in 92 a legion was destroyed in Pannonia by an incursion of the Sarmatian Iazyges and the Suebi, which was eventually contained under Domitian's personal direction. There was also considerable military activity in Britain, where Iulius Agricola continued the invasion of north Scotland; his recall in 84 after an unusually long governorship of seven years, probably reflects military needs elsewhere rather than imperial jealousy.

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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