Who was Roman Emperor Domitian and Why Was He Assassinated?

History has portrayed Domitian as a tyrannical and narcissistic megalomaniac, a violent sadist and a cruel and brutal ruler renowned for wild excess. Yet he also strengthened the economy and raised the pay of the army. Read on to find out about the extraordinary life and times of Emperor Domitian of Rome.

History Rulers
3 April 2023

Born Titus Flavius Domitanus in October 51 AD, the last emperor of the Flavian dynasty was described by the Roman historian Suetonius as capable of ‘savage cruelty’. Fellow historian Tacitus suggested that he was ‘by nature, a man who plunged into violence.’

The fifteen-year reign of Caesar Domitianus Augustus was packed full of some of the most incredible tales of ancient Rome. Here’s the astonishing story of Domitian Caesar.

Titus Flavius Domitianus - The Early Years

Titus Flavius Domitanus (Photo: ZU_09 via Getty Images)

Domitian was the second son of Emperor Vespasian. When he was born in 51 AD, his father was not yet Emperor, rather he was a general and member of the Roman elite.

Like many of the sons of Rome’s senatorial class, Titus Flavius Domitanus received an education befitting his status. He was described in contemporary accounts as a learned and educated young man with elegant conversation and would often quote the works of Homer and Virgil.

However, he lived much of his adolescence in his older brother’s shadow. His mother and sister had died long before his sixteenth birthday and his brother, the future emperor Titus, and his father were both experienced soldiers, commanding legions in Judea, Germania and during the Roman invasion of Britain.

It also appeared that of the two brothers, Titus was Vespasian’s favourite and the old man made no secret of the fact that Titus was being meticulously groomed as the imperial heir. Domitian didn’t receive any such attention. He was deemed unfit to be emperor by his own father and resented his treatment.

Even when his brother acceded to the throne, the future emperor Domitian of Rome was granted honours but no political responsibility. It’s believed Titus agreed with his father’s assessment of the suitability of Domitian as emperor.

From Loser to Caesar

Roman Emperor Domitian ( Photo: clu via Getty Images)

After their father’s death, Titus reigned for two years. While he lay on his deathbed – probably due to illness but there were rumours that he was poisoned by his brother – Domitian was proclaimed emperor by the Praetorian Guard. He took the regnal name Caesar Domitianus Augustus.

Almost from the outset, the new emperor exercised absolute power and rendered the Senate obsolete. He was under the belief that the Roman Empire should be ruled as an absolute monarchy. He saw himself as a reincarnation of Augustus and desired to lead Rome into a period of unstoppable brilliance. But unlike Augustus, Domitian divided opinion.

Loved and Hated in Equal Measure

Castel Gandolfo (Photo: Andrea Pistolesi via getty Images)

The army loved Emperor Domitian, since he raised their pay and ruled over a number of successful campaigns. The people loved him because he gave Rome some of its most enduring building projects including Domitian’s Stadium, which now lies under Piazza Navona, and an imperial residence at Castel Gandolfo where the Pope’s estate now sits.

Caesar Domitianus Augustus also protected the empire from inflation and he was a successful foreign diplomat. He strengthened the economy by revaluing the currency as well as ensuring rigorous taxation. He also built the Limes Germanicus, a comprehensive network of forts, watchtowers and roads along the river Rhine that delineated the Roman Empire from the Germanic tribes for two centuries.

But the Senate hated him. He was seen as a cruel and sadistic narcissist. He even went as far as murdering senators who disagreed with his policies as well as actors he disliked and civic officers he accused of conspiracy due to his paranoia. One officer was said to have been killed because he made a humorous sarcastic comment and another was killed for raising a glass to the birthday of the emperor Otho.

Nobody was safe during the reign of Emperor Domitian of Rome. Senators were being treated with open contempt, his own Praetorian prefects were summarily dismissed on spurious charges, even his own family were under accusation.

Enough was enough.

Domitian’s Downfall & Damnatio Memoriae

Domitian is assassinated by members of his own court (Photo: : Sepia Times via Getty Images)

Time was up on the final, flawed Flavian. A conspiracy was hatched involving prefects, soldiers, leading civic officers from outside Rome, senators and some say even Domitian’s own wife.

While the exact makeup of the conspirators will never be known for sure, it was a former slave named Stephanus who was recruited as the killer. Attacking the Emperor, a violent tussle ensued, with others now joining the fray and Stephanus himself also dying during the fight. Despite attempting to defend himself, Domitian was hacked to death by a number of his conspirators on 18 September 96 at the age of 44. The Emperor was gone, which led, it is believed, to scenes of utter joy on the floor of the Senate.

In a final act of ignominy, Caesar Domitianus Augustus was subjected to damnatio memoriae, or the deliberate removal of his very existence from the public record. His statues were ordered to be ceremoniously torn down, his face removed from coins and paintings, all inscriptions etched out and his likeness on buildings recarved in the likeness of his successor. He was also denied a state funeral.

Domitian will be forever known as one of history’s most horrific and utterly unpleasant men but as a leader of Rome, some of the financial, cultural and constructive measures he put in place stood the empire in good stead for hundreds of years. Indeed some of the building projects he oversaw can still be seen today.


You May Also Like

Explore More