Ancient History & Civilisation


1. On 24 October, a month before Vespasian as consul–elect was due to take office, his son Domitian was born in Pomegranate Street, which formed part of the sixth district of Rome.1 Later, he converted his birthplace into the Temple of the Flavians. Most people agree that Domitian spent a povertystricken and rather degraded youth, without even any silver on the family table. At all events, it is an established fact that Claudius Pollio, a man of praetorian rank and the target of Nero’s satire The One–eyed Man, used to show his guests a letter in Domitian’s handwriting, which he happened to have kept, offering to spend the night with him. It is also often insisted that Domitian was seduced by his eventual successor, the emperor Nerva.

During the war against Vitellius, Domitian with his uncle Flavius Sabinus and some of their supporters fled to the Capitol; but when the enemy set the temple on fire Domitian concealed himself all night in the caretaker’s quarters and at daybreak, disguised as a devotee of Isis, took refuge among the priests of that rather questionable order. Presently he managed to escape with a friend across the Tiber, where the mother of one of his fellow students hid him so cleverly that she outwitted the agents who tracked him to her house and searched it from cellar to attic. Emerging after Vitellius’ death, Domitian was hailed as Caesar and accepted an appointment as city praetor with consular powers – but in name only, because he left all judicial decisions to a junior colleague. However, the lawlessness with which he exploited his position as the emperor’s son clearly showed what might be expected of him later. I shall not discuss this subject in any detail; suffice it to say that Domitian had affairs with several married women, and finally persuaded Domitia Longina to divorce her husband Aelius Lamia for his sake; and that once, when he had distributed more than twenty appointments at home and abroad in the course of a single day, Vespasian murmured, ‘I wonder he did not name my successor while he was about it!’

2. To acquire a military reputation that would compare favourably with his brother Titus’, Domitian planned a quite unnecessary expedition into Gaul and Germany from which, by luck, his father’s friends managed to dissuade him. He earned a reprimand for this, and was made to feel a little more conscious of his youth and unimportance by being made to live with his father. Whenever Vespasian and Titus went out in their sedan chairs, he had to be content with following behind in a litter, and, although taking part in their Judaean triumph, rode on a white horse.2 Of the six consulships enjoyed by Domitian before becoming emperor, only one was not a suffect appointment, and that came his way because Titus had resigned in his favour.3

Domitian pretended to be extremely modest, and though he displayed a sudden devotion to poetry, which he would read aloud in public, his enthusiasm was matched by a later neglect of the art. It is to his credit, however, that he did everything possible to get sent against the Alani when a request for auxiliary troops, commanded by one of Vespasian’s sons, arrived from Vologaesus, king of the Parthians. And he subsequently tried by bribes and promises to coax similar requests from other eastern kings.

At Vespasian’s death Domitian toyed for a while with the idea of offering the troops twice as large a bounty as Titus had given them, and he stated bluntly that his father’s will must have been tampered with, since it originally assigned him a half share in the empire. He never once stopped plotting, secretly or openly, against his brother. When Titus fell suddenly and dangerously ill, Domitian told the attendants to presume his death by leaving the sickbed before he had actually breathed his last, and afterwards he granted him no recognition at all beyond approving his deification. In fact he often slighted Titus’ memory by the use of ambiguous terms in speeches and edicts.

3. At the beginning of his reign Domitian would spend hours alone every day doing nothing more than catching flies and stabbing them with a needle–sharp pen. Once, on being asked whether anyone was closeted with the emperor, Vibius Crispus answered wittily, ‘No, not even a fly.’ Domitia presented Domitian with a son during his second consulship, whom he lost in the second year after becoming emperor, and she was therefore awarded 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 – forIam inclined to believe that, above and beyond his natural inclinations, lack of funds made him greedy, and fear of assassination made him cruel.

4. Domitian presented many extravagant entertainments not only in the Amphitheatre but also in the Circus, where besides the usual two–and four–horse chariot races he staged a double battle, with both infantry and cavalry; in the Amphitheatre he presented a sea fight as well as wild–beast hunts and gladiatorial shows, some by torchlight in which women as well as men took part. Nor did he ever forget the Quaestorian Games which he had revived, and he allowed the people to demand a combat between two pairs of gladiators from his own troop, whom he would bring on last in their gorgeous court livery. Throughout every gladiatorial show Domitian would chat, sometimes in very serious tones, with a little boy who had a grotesquely small head and always stood at his knee dressed in red. Once he was heard to ask the child, ‘Can you guess why I have just appointed Mettius Rufus governor of Egypt?’ A lake was dug at his orders close to the Tiber, surrounded with seats, and used for almost full–scale naval battles, which he watched even in heavy rain.

He also held Saecular Games, fixing their date by Augustus’ old reckoning and ignoring Claudius’ more recent celebration of them; and for the Circus racing, which formed part of the festivities, he reduced the number of laps from seven to five, so that 100 races a day could be run. In honour of Jupiter Capitolinus he founded a festival of music, horsemanship and athletics to be held every five years, and awarded far more prizes than is customary nowadays. The festival included Latin and Greek public–speaking contests and competitions for choral singing to the lyre and for lyre playing alone, besides the usual solo singing to lyre accompaniment; he even instituted foot races for girls in the Stadium. When presiding at these functions he wore buskins, a purple Greek mantle, and a gold crown engraved with the images of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva; at his side sat the flamen of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales, 4 wearing the same costume as he did, except for crowns decorated with his own image. Domitian also celebrated the Quinquatrus for Minerva at his Alban villa, and he founded in her honour a college of priests whose task it was to supply officers, chosen by lot, for producing lavish wild–beast hunts and stage plays and sponsoring competitions in rhetoric and poetry.

On three occasions Domitian distributed a popular bounty of 300 sesterces a head, and once, to celebrate the Feast of the Seven Hills, he gave a splendid banquet, picnic fashion, with large hampers of food for senators and equites and smaller ones for the common people, 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 common people he had 500 tokens thrown into those reserved for senators and another 500 into those reserved for equites.

5. He restored many important buildings that had been gutted by fire, including the Capitol, which had burned down again; but he allowed no names to be inscribed on them except his own – not even the original builder’s. He also raised a temple to Jupiter the Guardian on the Capitoline Hill, the Forum of Nerva (as it is now called), the Temple of the Flavians, the Stadium, the Odeum, and an artificial lake for sea battles – its stones later served to rebuild the two sides of the Circus Maximus which had been damaged by fire.

6. Some of Domitian’s campaigns, that against the Chatti for instance, were quite unjustified by military necessity; but not so that against the Sarmatians, who had massacred a legion and killed its commander. And when the Dacians defeated first the former consul Oppius Sabinus and then his successor, the praetorian prefect Cornelius Fuscus, Domitian led two punitive expeditions in person. After several indecisive engagements he celebrated a double triumph over the Chatti and the Dacians, but did not insist on recognition for his Sarmatian campaign, contenting himself with the offer of a laurel wreath to Jupiter Capitolinus.

Only an amazing stroke of luck checked the rebellion which Lucius Antonius, the governor of Upper Germany, raised during Domitian’s absence from Rome; the Rhine thawed in the nick of time, preventing the German barbarians in Antonius’ pay from crossing the ice to join him, and the troops who remained loyal were able to disarm the rebels. Even before news of this success arrived, Domitian had wind of it from portents: on the critical day, a huge eagle embraced his statue at Rome with its wings, screeching triumphantly, and a little later rumours of Antonius’ death came so thick and fast that a number of people claimed to have seen his head being carried into Rome.

7. Domitian made a number of social innovations: he cancelled the distribution of food parcels, restoring the custom of holding formal dinners; he added two new teams of chariot drivers, the Golds and the Purples, to the existing four in the Circus; and he forbade actors to appear on the public stage, though still allowing them to perform in private. Castration was now strictly prohibited, and the price of eunuchs remaining in slave dealers’ hands was officially controlled. One year, when a bumper vintage followed a poor grain harvest, Domitian concluded that grain farming was being neglected in favour of vineyards. He therefore issued an edict that forbade the further planting of vines in Italy and ordered the acreage in the provinces to be reduced by at least half, if it could not be got rid of altogether; yet he took no steps to implement this edict. He divided certain important positions among freedmen and equites. Another of his edicts forbade any two legions to share a camp, or any individual soldier to deposit at headquarters a sum in excess of 1,000 sesterces, because the large amount of soldiers’ savings laid up in the joint winter headquarters of the two legions on the Rhine had provided Lucius Antonius with the necessary funds for launching his rebellion. Domitian also raised the legionaries’ pay from 900 to 1,200 sesterces a year.

8. He was most conscientious in dispensing justice, and convened many extraordinary legal sessions in the Forum. He annulled every decision of the centumviral court which seemed to him unduly influenced, and continually warned the board of arbitration not to grant any fraudulent claims for freedom. It was his ruling that if a juryman were proved to have taken bribes, all his colleagues must be penalized as well as himself. He personally urged the tribunes of the people to charge a corrupt aedile with extortion and to petition the Senate for a special jury in the case, and kept such a tight hold on his city magistrates and provincial governors that the general standard of justice rose to an unprecedented high level – you need only observe how many such personages have been charged with every kind of corruption since his time!

As part of his campaign for improving public manners, Domitian made sure that the theatre officials no longer condoned the appropriation by common people of seats reserved for equites, and he came down heavily on authors who lampooned distinguished men and women. He expelled one former quaestor from the Senate for being overfond of acting and dancing, forbade women of notoriously bad character the right to use litters or to benefit from inheritances and legacies, struck an eques from the jury roll because he had divorced his wife on a charge of adultery and then taken her back again, and sentenced members of both orders under the Scantinian Law.5 Taking a far more serious view than his father and brother had done of unchastity among the Vestals, he began by sentencing offenders to execution and afterwards resorted to the traditional form of punishment. Thus, though he allowed the Oculata sisters and Varronilla to choose how they should die and sent their lovers into exile, he later ordered Cornelia, a Chief Vestal – acquitted at her first trial, but rearrested some years later and convicted– to be buried alive, and had her lovers clubbed to death in the Comitium. The only exception he made was in the case of a former praetor, who had the death sentence commuted to banishment for confessing his guilt after the interrogation of witnesses under torture had failed to establish the truth of the crime with which he was charged. As a lesson that the sanctity of the gods must be protected against thoughtless abuse, Domitian made his soldiers tear down a tomb built for the son of one of his own freedmen from stones intended for the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and fling the contents into the sea.

9. While still young, Domitian hated the idea of bloodshed; once, in his father’s absence, he remembered Virgil’s line ‘Before an impious people took to eating slaughtered bullocks’, 6 and drafted an edict forbidding the sacrifice of cattle. No one thought of him as in the least greedy or mean either before or for some years after his accession – in fact he gave frequent signs of self–restraint and even of generosity: he treated his friends with great consideration and always insisted that, above all, they should do nothing mean; he refused to accept bequests from men who had children; and he cancelled a clause in Rustius Caepio’s will which required the heir to find an annual sum of money for distribution among newly appointed senators.

Moreover, if suits against debtors to the public treasury had been pending for more than five years, he quashed them and permitted a renewal of proceedings only within the same year, and on the condition that if the prosecutor should then lose his case he must go into exile. Although the Clodian Law restricted the private business activities of quaestors’ scribes, Domitian now pardoned such of them as had broken it, and generously allowed former owners of commandeered land to farm whatever plots survived the assignment of smallholdings to veterans. He dealt severely with informers who had increased the public revenue by bringing false charges against property owners and getting their estates confiscated. A saying attributed to him runs, ‘An emperor who does not punish informers encourages them.’

10. His goodwill and self–restraint were not, however, destined to continue long, although his cruel streak appeared more quickly than his greed. He executed one sickly boy merely because he happened to be a pupil of the pantomime 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. Because Domitian was always down on Thracian–style gladiators, a chance remark by one citizen to the effect that a Thracian 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 evil of his emperor’– torn to pieces by dogs in the arena.

Domitian put many senators to death, including some former consuls; three of these, Civica Cerealis, Salvidienus Orfitus and Acilius Glabrio, he accused of conspiracy – Cerealis was executed while governing Asia, Glabrio while in exile – but others were killed for the most trivial reasons. Aelius Lamia lost his life as a result of some ill–ADvised but harmless witticisms made several years previously: when someone praised his voice after he had been robbed of his wife by Domitian, he remarked drily, ‘I’m in training’;7and then, encouraged by Titus to marry again, he asked, ‘What? You are not wanting a wife too, are you?’ Salvius Cocceianus died because he continued to celebrate the birthday of the emperor Otho, his paternal uncle; Mettius Pompusianus because he was said to have an imperial horoscope, and because he always carried with him a parchment map of the world and a collection of speeches by kings and generals extracted from Livy – and because he had named two of his slaves Mago and Hannibal.8 Sallustius Lucullus, governor of Britain, had equally offended Domitian by allowing a new type of lance to be called ‘the Lucullan’; so had Junius Rusticus by his eulogies of Thrasea Paetus and Helvidius Priscus, whom he called the most virtuous of men – an incident which led Domitian to banish all philosophers from Italy – and the younger Helvidius by his farce about Paris and Oenone, 9 which seemed a reflection on Domitian’s divorce; and Domitian’s own cousin Flavius Sabinus by being mistakenly announced by the election–day herald as emperor–elect instead of consul–elect.

After the suppression of Antonius’ rebellion, Domitian grew even more cruel. He hit on the novel idea of scorching his prisoners’ genitals to make them divulge the whereabouts of other rebels still in hiding, and he cut off the hands of others. It is a fact that only two leaders of the revolt – a military tribune of senatorial rank and a centurion – earned his pardon, which they did by the simple expedient of proving themselves to have been so disgustingly immoral that they could have exerted no influence at all over either Antonius or the troops.

11. Domitian was not merely cruel, but devious and cunning into the bargain. He summoned a bookkeeper to his bedroom, invited him to share his couch, made him feel perfectly secure and happy, condescended to offer him portions of his dinner – yet had already given orders for his crucifixion on the following day! He was more than usually gracious to the former consul Arrecinus Clemens, one of his close associates and agents, just before his death sentence, and invited him out for a drive. As they happened to pass the man who had informed on Arrecinus, Domitian asked, ‘Shall we listen to that utter scoundrel tomorrow?’ And he impudently prefaced all his most savage sentences with the same little speech about mercy; indeed, this preamble soon became a recognized sign that something dreadful was on the way. Having brought a group of men before the Senate on a treason charge, he announced that this must be a test of his popularity with the senators, and thus easily got them condemned to an execution in ancient style.10However, he seems to have become all at once appalled by the cruelty involved, because he pleaded to have the sentence modified. His exact words are interesting: ‘Gentlemen of the Senate, allow me to beg of you one thing that I know you will not readily grant: pray allow these men to choose the manner of their deaths! That will be easier on your eyes, and the world will know that I have played my part in the Senate.’

12. Unfortunately, his new building programme and expensive entertainments, added to the rise in army pay, were more than Domitian could afford, so he decided to reduce expenditure by cutting down on the number of soldiers. But then realizing that this would expose his frontiers to barbarian attack without appreciably easing the financial situation, he resorted to every form of extortion. Any charge, however slight, might result in the confiscation of a man’s property, even if he were already dead: it was enough to have said or done anything at all that might detract from the emperor’s dignity. An unsupported claim that someone had been heard, before his death, to name the emperor as his heir, even though he were a perfect stranger, was sufficient pretext for taking over the estate. In addition, Domitian’s agents collected the tax on Jews11 with a peculiar lack of mercy, and took proceedings not only against those who kept their Jewish origins a secret in order to avoid the tax, but also against those who lived as Jews without professing it. As a boy, I remember once attending a crowded court where a steward had a ninety–year–old man stripped to establish whether or not he had been circumcised.

From his earliest years Domitian was consistently discourteous and presumptuous in both his speech and his actions. When Caenis, his father’s former mistress, returned from Histria and, as usual, offered him her cheek to kiss, he held out his hand instead. He objected when his brother’s son–in–law dressed his servants in white – Domitian’s own servants wore white – and announced, ‘Too many rulers are a dangerous thing.’12

13. On his accession, Domitian boasted to the Senate of having himself conferred the imperial power on Vespasian and Titus – it had now merely returned to him. He also spoke of his action in taking Domitia back, after the divorce, as ‘a recall to my divine bed’, and on the day of his public banquet he delighted to hear the audience in the Amphitheatre shout, ‘Long live our Lord and Lady!’13 At the festival of Jupiter Capitolinus, when the people unanimously implored him to reinstate Palfurius Sura, who had been expelled from the Senate but had won the prize for public speaking, Domitian did not deign to reply but merely sent a public crier to silence them. Just as arrogantly, he began a letter, which his stewards were to circulate, with the words ‘Our Lord God instructs you to do this.’ Thereafter, ‘Lord God’ became his regular title both in writing and in conversation. His images in the Capitol had to be of either gold or silver, and not below a certain weight; and he raised so many arcades and arches, decorated with chariots and triumphal insignia, in various city districts, that someone scribbled arci on one of them – but used Greek characters.14 He held seventeen consulships, 15 which was a record. The seven middle ones formed a series, and all were held in title only: he relinquished all of them before the Kalends of May, and most before the Ides of January. Having adopted the title Germanicus after his two triumphs, he renamed September and October, the months of his accession and birth, respectively, as ‘Germanicus’ and ‘Domitianus’.

14. All this made him everywhere hated and feared. Finally, his friends and freedmen conspired to murder him, with Domitia’s connivance. He had a pretty good idea of what would be the last year and day of his life, and even of the hour and the way he would die: Chaldaean astrologers had foretold everything when he was just a boy. Also, Vespasian had 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. The real reason for his reprieving the vineyards, which he had ordered to be rooted up, is said to have been the publication of this stanza:

You may tear up my roots, goat,
   But what good will that do?
I shall still have some wine left
   For sacrificing you.

Though he loved honours of all kinds, this same anxiety made him veto a senatorial decree that, whenever he held the consulship, a group of equites should be picked by lot to walk, dressed in purple–striped togas and armed with lances, among the lictors and attendants who preceded him.

As the critical day drew near, his nervousness increased. The portico where he took his daily exercise was now lined with plaques of highly polished moonstone, which reflected everything that happened behind his back, and no imperial audiences were granted to prisoners unless Domitian were alone with them and had tight hold of their fetters. To remind his staff that even the best of intentions could never justify a freedman’s complicity in a master’s murder, he executed his secretary Epaphroditus, who had reputedly helped Nero to commit suicide after everyone else had deserted him.

15. The occasion of Domitian’s murder was that he had executed on some trivial pretext his extremely lazy cousin Flavius Clemens, just after the completion of a consulship, though he had previously designated Clemens’ two small sons as his heirs and changed their names to Vespasian and Domitian.

There had been so much lightning during the past eight months that Domitian cried out, ‘Now let the Almighty strike whomever he pleases!’ The Almighty did in fact strike the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, the Temple of the Flavians, the palace, even Domitian’s own bedroom; and a tempest wrenched the inscription plate from the tile base of a triumphal statue of his and hurled it into a nearby tomb. The famous cypress tree, 16 which had been blown down but had then taken root again while Vespasian was still a private citizen, now collapsed a second time. Throughout his reign Domitian had made a practice of commending each new year to the care of the goddess Fortuna at Praeneste, and every year she had granted him the same favourable omen; but this year the omen was a dreadful one, portending bloodshed. Domitian also dreamed that Minerva, whom he worshipped fervently, emerged from her shrine to tell him that she had been disarmed by Jupiter and could no longer protect him. What disturbed him most, however, was a prediction by the astrologer Ascletarion, and its sequel. This man, when charged, made no secret of having revealed the future, which he had foreseen by his skill. Domitian at once asked whether he could prophesy the manner of his own end, and upon Ascletarion’s replying that he would very soon be torn to pieces by dogs he had him executed on the spot, and gave orders for his funeral rites to be conducted with the greatest care, in order to refute the claims of astrology. But while the funeral was in progress a sudden gale scattered the pyre and a pack of stray dogs mangled the astrologer’s halfburned corpse. Latinus, the comic actor, who happened to witness this incident, mentioned it at dinner when he brought Domitian the latest gossip.

16. On the day before Domitian’s assassination someone brought him a present of medlars. ‘Serve them tomorrow,’ he told the servants, adding, ‘if I’m still here to enjoy them.’ Then, turning to his companions, he remarked, ‘There will be blood on the moon tomorrow as she enters Aquarius, and a deed will be done for everyone to talk about.’ With the approach of midnight Domitian became so terrified that he jumped out of bed, and at dawn he condemned to death a haruspex from Germany who was charged with having said that the lightning portended a change of government. He then scratched an inflamed wart on his forehead and made it bleed, muttering, ‘I hope this is all the blood required.’ Presently he asked for the time. As had been prearranged, his freedmen answered untruthfully, ‘The sixth hour,’ because they knew it was the fifth he feared. Convinced that the danger had passed, Domitian went off quickly and happily to take a bath, whereupon his head valet, Parthenius, met him with the news that a man had called on very important business that could not be put off. So Domitian, having dismissed his attendants, hurried to his bedroom and there was killed.

17. The following details of the plot and the assassination are pretty well known. While the conspirators were spending time debating whether it would be better to murder Domitian in his bath or at dinner, Stephanus, his niece Domitilla’s steward, who at the time stood accused of embezzlement, approached them and offered his services. To divert suspicion, he feigned an injury and went around for several days with his left arm in woollen bandages. Into these, just before the appointed hour, he slipped a dagger; he then claimed to have discovered a plot, and was admitted to Domitian’s bedroom; he produced a list of names, and then suddenly stabbed Domitian in the groin while he was reading it. Domitian put up a good fight, but succumbed to seven further stabs, his assailants being a subaltern named Clodianus, Parthenius’ freedman Maximus, the head chamberlain Satur, and one of the imperial gladiators. The boy who was as usual attending to the household gods in the bedroom witnessed the murder and later described it in some detail. On receiving the first blow, Domitian screamed at the boy to hand him the dagger which was kept under his pillow and then call for the servants; the dagger, however, proved to have no blade, and all the doors were locked. Domitian grabbed Stephanus and pulled him to the ground, and after cutting his own fingers in a prolonged effort to disarm him he began clawing at his eyes.

He died on 18 September at the age of forty–four, after reigning not much more than fourteen years.17 The body was carried away on a common litter by the public undertakers, as though he were a pauper, and was cremated by his old nurse Phyllis in her garden on the Via Latina. She secretly took the ashes to the Temple of the Flavians and mixed them with those of Titus’ daughter Julia, who had also been one of her charges.

18. Domitian was tall, with a ruddy complexion, large and rather weak eyes, and not at all an imperious expression. He was moreover handsome and comely, especially in his youth, in all parts of his body except for his feet, which had hammer toes. Later on he became disfigured by a bald head, a paunchy stomach and thin legs, which as a result of protracted illness grew spindly. He was so conscious of his handsome features that he once told the Senate, ‘Hitherto my intentions and my face have been equally acceptable to you.’ He was so distressed by his baldness that he took it as a personal insult if anyone, whether they were joking or not, brought up the subject even when talking of someone else. All the same, in his manual Care of the Hair, which he dedicated to a friend, he quoted by way of mutual consolation, ‘Cannot you see that I too have a tall and beautiful person?’, 18 and added the following comment: ‘Yet my hair will go the same way, and I am resigned to having an old man’s head before my time. How pleasant it is to be elegant, yet how quickly that stage passes!’

19. Domitian hated to exert himself. While in Rome he hardly ever went for a walk, and during campaigns and travels he seldom rode a horse, but almost always used a litter. Weapons did not interest him, though he was an exceptionally keen archer. He shot hundreds of wild animals on his Alban estate, and many eyewitnesses report that he sometimes brought down a quarry with two successive arrows so dexterously placed in the head as to resemble horns. Occasionally he would tell a slave to post himself at a distance and hold out one hand; he then shot arrows between his fingers with amazing skill.

20. At the beginning of his reign he abandoned the study of literature, even though he went to a great deal of trouble and expense in restocking the burned–out libraries, hunting all over for lost volumes and sending people to Alexandria to transcribe and correct them. No longer bothering with either history or poetry or even the rudiments of a style, he now read nothing but Tiberius’ notebooks and official memoirs, and let secretaries polish his own correspondence, edicts and speeches. Still, Domitian had a lively turn of phrase, and some of his remarks are well worth recording. Once he said, ‘Ah, to be as good–looking as Maecius thinks he is!’, and on another occasion he compared a friend’s red hair, which was turning white, to ‘mead spilt on snow’.

21. He also claimed that all emperors are necessarily wretched, since only their assassination can convince the public that the conspiracies against their lives are real. His chief relaxation at all hours, even in the morning and on working days, was to throw dice. He used to bathe before noon, and then eat such an enormous lunch that a Matian apple and a small pitcher of wine generally contented him at dinner. His many large banquets were never prolonged past sunset or allowed to develop into drinking bouts, and he spent the rest of the day strolling idly by himself in a quiet part of the palace.

22. Domitian was extremely lustful, and called his sexual activities ‘bed wrestling’, as though they were a sport. Some say that he would depilate his concubines himself and go swimming with the commonest of common prostitutes. He had been offered the hand of his brother’s daughter Julia when she was still a virgin, but persistently refused to marry her on account of his infatuation for Domitia. Later, when she was married to another, he seduced her, though Titus was still alive, and after both her father and her husband19 were dead he demonstrated his love for her so openly and ardently that in the end she became pregnant by him and died as the result of an abortion which he forced on her.

23. Though the general public greeted the news of Domitian’s fate with indifference, it deeply affected the troops, who at once began to speak of him as Divus –they would have avenged him had anyone given them a lead –and insisted that his assassins should be brought to justice. The senators, on the other hand, were delighted, and thronged to denounce Domitian in the Senate House with bitter and insulting cries. Then, sending for ladders, they had his images and the votive shields engraved with his likeness brought smashing down, and ended by decreeing that all inscriptions referring to him must be effaced and all records of his reign obliterated.

A few months before the murder, a raven perched on the Capitol and croaked out the words ‘All will be well!’–a portent which some wag explained in the following verse:

There was a raven, strange to tell,
   Perched upon Jove’s own gable, whence
He tried to tell us ‘All is well!’–
   But had to use the future tense.

Domitian is said to have dreamed that a golden hump sprouted from his back, deducing from this that the standing of the commonwealth would be far richer and happier when he had gone; and soon the wisdom and restraint of his successors proved him right.

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