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The Forgotten Master And God

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    Posted: 29 Mar 2015 at 11:54
It was recorded that on September 18th, in the year 96, a man named Apollonius of Tyana stood upon a rock at Ephesus and praised 'Stephanus' for bloody violence. His curious audience did not know that at the same time, a freedman named Stephanus would burst into the bedchamber of the Caesar Domitian to stab him. Parthenius, Sigerus, and Entellus, seniormadministrators of one sort or another, rushed in and finished the job of murdering the ruler of the Roman world, apparently making sure that Stephanus would die as well. Domitian could not defend himself against this suprise attack. His sword, habitually kept under his pillow, had been disabled by removing the blade.

Nerva moved quickly to replace the dead man, having himself declared Caesar as predicted by astrologers the same day, fully aware that Domitian was to be murdered.He had reason to ensure the act was committed for Domitian had already marked him down for death, not only because of an obscure prophecy, but also possibly because a young Domitian had been debauched by the older Nerva.

The plot was already known because a list of those to be executed had been stolen by one of his 'naked whispering boys' , subsequently found by his divorced wife, terrified of her husbands hatred after the actor Paris was killed in the street because of her, and she had narrowly avoided being put to death for adultery. Many men were approached with a view to dispatching their emperor, but most refused for fear it was a test of loyalty.

By all accounts, Domitian was a very dangerous character. He was suspicious of flattery and intolerant of those who did not offer praise. He hated the successful and blamed those who failed. We read how he deliberately played on peoples fears or enjoyed creating a false sense of security, pretending to like those he despised. He would, reputedly, turn on those who helped him. Domitian was the first Caesar to overtly demand the status of God.

Domitian exceeded all his predecessors in cruelty, luxury, and avarice...
Nea Historia (Zosimus)

For nearly two millenia Roman emperors have been portrayed as the worst examples of human excess. Yet this popular image rests on the shoulders of merely two of them. Whether it's the madness of Caligula, or the decadence of Nero, we acknowledge their sins, admire their unlimited extravagance, or raise our eyebrows at their antics. Domitian was described in the same tone, but remains a shadowey figure in Roman history who does not attract the same attention to the modern audience.

He certainly fits the popular image of a Roman emperor. Clearly however there is a common theme here, a facet of Roman mindset that survives in these descriptions. For all their positive acts and behaviour, those Caesars who find themselves rejected by senior Roman opinion attract the same sort of vilification in the sources. Some historians have pointed at mentions in the sources of his diligence in administration, debating whether Domitian has been miscast.

He was equally free from any suspicion of love of gain or of avarice, both in private life and for some time after becoming emperor; on the contrary, he often gave strong proofs not merely of integrity, but even of liberality....
Life of Domitian (Suetonius)

Tacitus had no illusions about him, for Agricola, a relative of his, had been recalled to Rome when his campaign to conquer Caledonia was on the point of success. Asked whether he wanted a triumph, Agricola had wisely refused, aware that Domitian was preparing an excuse to rid himself of a potential rival. Domitian may have raised the troops pay to four hundred sesterces a year, an increase of a third, but he had also reduced the number of legions and knew his frontiers were insecure. He was also aware that a victorious general commanded more loyalty from his men than a distant Caesar who was remarked upon for his lack of personal attention to Rome's military activities.

... But he did not continue this course of mercy or integrity, although he turned to cruelty somewhat more speedily than to avarice.
Life of Domitian (Suetonius)

Domitian was not only bold and quick to anger but also treacherous and secretive; and so, deriving from these two characteristics impulsiveness on the one hand and craftiness on the other, he would often attack people with the sudden violence of a thunderbolt and again would often injure them as the result of careful deliberation.
Roman History Book 67 (Cassius Dio)

Domitian was clearly attracted to the spectacular. He was noted for giving frequent games, including a naval contest in the Amphitheatre, more sea battles staged in an artifical lake, mock battles in the Circus Maximus, adding two new chariot teams to plentiful race meetings and even reducing the number of laps so a hundred races could be staged in one day. Notably, he features contests involving women. Various writers mention women fighting dwarves, women fighting each other, or against lions in hunts staged within the arena. This was not a new innovation - Nero had done similarly - but Domitian seemed especially keen to see such things. His own gladiators entered the arena to pomp and ceremony. He pleased the fans of the gladiators Myrinus and Triumphus by summoning both to fight each other.

Costs were rising. A ruler cannot pay huge sums of money for public entertainment, impressive building projects, extravagant living, and military budgets without finding the cash to do it. Whilst Domitian was not as ruthless as Nero had been in raising money, Domitian too followed that precedent and quickly turned Rome's elite against him as the list of dead patricians began to rise, many executed for the most trivial reasons. Perhaps this is partly the history written by the survivors, as some believe, but the pattern is familiar. Rumours of conspiracies and plots began to circulate. A rebellion in the provinces was put down. Tyrants do face the prospect of inevitable escalation - Domitian was no exception and his behaviour condemns him. Was he the cruellest of all Caesars? The evidence cannot be ignored.

As a consequence of his cruelty the emperor was suspicious of all mankind, and from now on ceased to repose hopes of safety in either the freedmen or yet the prefects, whom he usually caused to be brought to trial during their very term of office.
Roman History Book 67 (Cassius Dio)

When news of Domitian's death reached the public, they seemed oddly indifferent. The legions wanted Domitian deified officially but no-one spoke for them. The Senate wanted him damned, his images removed, and of course they got their way. As for the conspirators who had rushed into the bedchamber that day, they were never brought to justice. Domitian's wife however was deemed innocent. The Senate asked what boon she wanted for her loss, and all she desired was the body parts of her dead husband. It was said she had the parts sewn together and used to model a brass memorial that remained in public view from that day.

Was he the cruellest of all Caesars? Perhaps, but for all his civic beautification, frontier wars, public entertainment, and capable administration, Domitian is nonethless a strangely diminished personality in th history of the Roman Empire.
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