“At the beginning of his reign Domitian would spend hours alone every day catching flies–believe it or not!–and stabbing them with a needle sharp pen. Once, on being asked whether anyone was closeted with the Emperor, Vivius Crispus answered wittily: `No, not even a fly.`Domitia presented Domitian with a daughter during his second consulship and, in the following year, with a son, and was therefore presented with the title of `Augusta`; but he then divorced her because she had fallen in love with Paris, the actor. This separation, however, proved to be more than Domitian could bear; and he very soon took her back, claiming that such was the people`s wish. For a while he governed in an uneven fashion: that is to say, his vices were at first balanced by his virtues. Later, he transformed his virtues into vices too–for I am inclined to believe that he was not evil minded to begin with: it was lack of funds that made him greedy, and fear of assassination that made him cruel.”
~~ The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius ~~
The Emperor Domitian was not a happy example of the human race, being socially insecure, and preferring to take a stroll round his gardens after dinner, rather than hang around and chew the intellectual cud with his guests. Having feelings of inadequacy obviously led to the glimmer of paranoia forming like a long gestated maggot in the middle of his mental apple: while he was walking alone, the people he left behind were probably poking fun at him behind his back, or even worse, plotting and conniving together against him.
By 81 A.D., his late, and as far as Domitian was concerned, unlamented father and older brother, the Emperors Vespasian, and Titus, were gone as dust on the wind, leaving the youngest of the family alone, in charge of the known world. Daddy Vespasian had won the purple 12 years before by force of arms in the year of the four emperors, and was succeeded by Titus; the destroyer of Jerusalem and darling of the Roman mob. But now Domitian, the runt of the litter according to unfavourable opinion, was the main man and master of the universe.
He came into the job completely unsuited to the task it seems: no political or military apprenticeship to talk of, and only minor posts of authority with minimal responsibility because his father suspected he lacked the intellect and gravitas. So, he needed to feel his way into the top job, and where better to start than bribery?
“On three occasions Domitian distributed a popular bounty of three gold pieces a head; and once, to celebrate the Feast of the Seven Hills, gave a splendid banquet, picnic fashion, with large hampers of food for senators and knights, and smaller ones for the commons; taking the inaugural bite himself. The day after, he scattered all kinds of gifts to be scrambled for, but since most of these fell in the seats occupied by the commons, had 500 tokens thrown into those reserved for senators, and another 500 into those reserved for knights.”
Domitian also raised army pay from 9 gold pieces a year to 12; was extremely conscientious in dispensing justice, instigated a number of public works to keep idle hands busy and minds occupied, kept a tight hold on judicial corruption, and generally presented a sober public profile. However, the worm has not been on holiday, and starts to turn his mind towards the consequences of his intellectual isolation: as an emperor, he doesn`t have peers; as Shakespeare`s Richard III muses to himself………“I am myself alone.”
With complete control of an empire within which an estimated one quarter of the world`s population resided, it needs a strong mind, completely at ease with itself; intelligent, even handed, experienced in wielding power without alienating your constituents; a political, social and military magician and master of illusion. Time shows that Domitian has none of these qualities in sufficient abundance to keep the lid on a powder keg of animosity which slowly grows against him. Personal prestige is sadly lacking in this shallow individual: his military campaigns are indecisive, and when he grants himself a triumph, it is greeted with knowing looks and outright laughter. Vespasian gained an empire for his family by military prowess, and brother Titus put Jerusalem to fire and sword, killing and enslaving thousands. Domitian grants himself a triumph for a desultory perambulation around a few barbarian villages before coming home and hailing it as a mighty achievement of Roman arms.
“His good will and self restraint were not, however, destined to continue long, and the cruel streak in him soon appeared. He executed one sickly boy merely because he happened to be a pupil of the actor Paris, and closely resembled him in looks and mannerisms. Then Hermogenes of Tarsus died because of some incautious allusions that he had introduced into a historical work; and the slaves who acted as his copyists were crucified. Domitian was always down on the Thracians and a chance remark by one citizen, to the effect that a Thracian gladiator might be `a match for his Gallic opponent, but not for the patron of the games`, was enough to have him dragged from his seat and with a placard tied around his neck reading: `A Thracian supporter who spoke evilly of his Emperor`–torn to pieces by dogs in the arena.”
From this moment on, everyone could see they had another intellectually retarded and emotionally insecure tyrant on their hands; it was time to buckle up for the ensuing bumpy ride. The merciful justice and understanding of the early years were swept away in a torrent of spite, cruelty and malice towards anything, and anyone that took his fancy.
It`s an eternal conundrum as to why so many Roman tyrants who wore the purple behaved in such an alienating manner: the inevitability of history stared them in the face; there were just too many important people with grievances to kill, sooner or later, enough of them would put their heads together and dispose of the problem with `extreme prejudice`. In the race to the finishing line, there was only going to be one winner; Domitian`s `services to the state` were dispensed with.
“All this made him everywhere hated and feared. Finally, his friends and freedmen conspired to murder him, with Domitia`s connivance. Early astrological predictions had warned him how and when he would die; they even specified the day and the hour. Vespasian once teased him openly at dinner for refusing a dish of mushrooms, saying that it would be more in keeping with his destiny to be afraid of swords. As a result, Domitian was such a prey to anxiety, that the least sign of danger unnerved him.”
His paranoia reached such epic proportions, that he lined the gallery where he did his daily exercise with polished marble and glass in order to be instantly aware of danger, and slept with a dagger under his pillow. Ironically, Domitian was stabbed to death while reading a list of names of plotters against him by his niece`s steward, Stephanus; the stricken emperor shouted to a young slave boy to fetch his dagger from under the pillow, but the blade had been removed, whereupon Domitian was hacked to death by four other assailants, one of whom was an imperial gladiator. He died at the age of 44, on 18th September, 96 A.D., and had reigned as Imperator longer than the previous six incumbents. His body was taken away on a litter, burned by his old nurse Phyllis in her back garden, who secretly interred his ashes in the Temple of the Flavians.
“Domitian is said to have dreamed that a golden hump spouted from his back, deducing from this that the empire would be far richer and happier when he was gone; and soon the wisdom and restraint of his successors would prove him right.”
The historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was the son of a Roman knight who fought for Otho in the year of the four emperors, and was probably born late in the reign of Vespasian, who died in 79 A.D. He was the emperor Hadrian`s secretary until dismissed under a cloud of suspicion for being too familiar with the empress Sabina. He was friends with Pliny the Younger, who made an application to the emperor Trajan on his friend`s behalf……“A most excellent, honourable, and learned man, whom he had the pleasure of entertaining under his own roof, and with whom the nearer he was brought into communion, the more he loved him.”
Perhaps we owe our view of the Caesars more to this one man than any other; he may not be entirely accurate or unbiased, and perhaps, is a little colourful, spicy and scandal mongering, but he is certainly a wonderfully entertaining and informative read of an astonishingly remarkable group of individuals. For to be Emperor of Rome required (in one way or the other) a remarkable man: although the Roman Imperium is 1500 years distant from ourselves, they suffered the same concerns, worries, stresses and strains of daily life as we do. To read Suetonius shows that we are not so different when all is said and done.
“We are dust and shadows.”