Damnatio memoriae

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Emperor Domitian was assassinated on this day in the year 96 CE at the age of 44.  He reigned for 15 years, the longest imperial reign since Augustus and Tiberius, the first two Roman Emperors.

Domitian was condemned on his death to be forgotten by the Senate who hated him deeply.  They passed a sentence of damnatio memoriae upon him, in an attempt to condemn him to oblivion.  Their punishment largely worked.  The writers of the day such as Suetonius, Tacitus and Pliny the younger recorded that he was an evil, cruel and paranoid tyrant.  Until the modern era he was lumped in with the bad boys of the early empire such as Caligula and Nero.

Third and final ruler of the Flavian dynasty, who gave us the Coliseum and famously destroyed the Jewish Temple.  Vespasian, his father, survived a close association with the emperor Nero when many of his compatriots lost their heads.  After the fall of Nero he emerged as the winner in the year of the four emperors.  Domitian, aged 17 was in Rome when hostilities broke out and was placed under house arrest by Vitellius, the runner up for Emperor of the year.

Vespasian ruled for ten years and died aged 69 from an illness that inflicted him with diarrhea.  He was the first emperor to be succeed by his natural son, Titus.  Since Titus was young, fit, healthy and already a renowned military commander it is thought that Domitian was not groomed for the top job.  But Titus ruled for only two years before he too succumbed to a fever leaving his younger brother as Emperor.

Modern analysis of his reign, and by scouring sources not aligned to the Senate, paint a picture of a highly organized and autocratic ruler who was unsubtle in managing the pride of the senators.  He was loved and revered by the public and by the common soldiery but hated by the Senate and the officers of the patrician class.  He did not indulge in the usual game of according the Senate nominal authority and they hated him for it.  His lack of training in this balancing act was his ultimate undoing, and he was assassinated by officials in his court, stabbed in the groin and a further seven times in the struggle that ensued.  Domitian killed one of his assailants.

Domitian was further pilloried in the press in claims by the writer Eusebius in the 4th century that he persecuted Christians and Jews.  Christians put him in the naughty emperor box along with Nero and Diocletian and painted graphic portrayals of him feeding martyrs to the lions.  In fact the Flavians were highly tolerant of Eastern religions and the claims by Eusebius are possibly founded on lies that originate in the senatorial curse.

The atmosphere is clear for a reevaluation and a cleanup of the tarnished reputation of an Emperor who achieved much good in his reign and came to a sad and sorry end.

 

 

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