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Emperor Domitian: Biography, Facts & Achievements

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the life and reign of Domitian, a first century Roman emperor. Domitian was the second and less favored son of another Roman emperor, Vespasian.

Paranoia

Have you ever felt like there was someone out to get you? Ever thought there was an enemy hiding behind every corner? Sometimes this can be true, but most often it's just a symptom of anxiety or stress. Several Roman emperors often experienced this type of paranoia, and for some, it was deserved.

Just such an emperor is the subject of this lesson: Domitian. In this lesson, we will explore Domitian's life and reign.

Early Life

Born Titus Flavius Domitianus, he became Domitian after he became emperor (taking the full regnal name of Caesar Domitianus Augustus). He was born in 51 C.E.., the younger son of the future emperor, Vespasian. In fact, Domitian's first taste of combat came on his father's behalf when he was just 17 years old and Rome was embroiled in a bloody civil war. After trying to help his uncle overthrow the Roman government, he and his uncle were both forced into hiding, only to be welcomed by Rome once Vespasian's triumphant rebellion entered the city.

Vespasian favored his older son, Titus, and it appears likely that both Vespasian and Titus considered Domitian to be unfit to rule. It's possible that an incident in 70 C.E. caused or exacerbated this notion. In the German provinces, where unrest and rebellion were particularly prevalent during the 1st century C.E., Domitian attempted to coopt the campaign of a Roman general there with disastrous effects. According to Roman historians, Domitian failed so terribly that he required his father's pardon to return to Rome.

Regardless of why, Domitian was clearly less than well regarded by both Vespasian and Titus. In fact, when Vespasian died in 79 C.E. and Titus assumed the imperial throne, Domitian received none of the honors that Titus had received during Vespasian's reign. He expected these, and since Titus had no rightful heirs, Domitian was heir to throne. This slight purportedly drove Domitian mad, and some historians claim poor relations with his brother possibly contributed to Titus' poor health and death a couple years later.

Emperor

As Titus had no heirs, when he died the throne fell to Domitian. Domitian's reign was marked by military victory and a cruelty that won him no favors with the Roman aristocracy or the public. Indeed, in 83 C.E., Domitian put three vestal virgins to death after they had been found guilty of immoral behavior. The death penalty for these crimes, though technically correct, had not been observed or enforced strictly and Domitian's harshness was viewed unfavorably.

While Domitian's conduct in Rome was viewed unfavorably, his campaigns abroad were initially successful. Indeed, Domitian returned to the site of his earlier disgrace and expanded Roman territory with conquests in Germany and Britain. He personally led the imperial army, something which had not been done in nearly forty years. However, later in Domitian's reign, unrest in Germany proved to be his undoing yet again, and the Roman aristocracy, predisposed not to like him, claimed the loss of multiple legions of troops in the German forests to be entirely his fault.

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