The Life of Domitian by Suetonius

A sub-edited version of the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation of Suetonius’s Life of Domitian by J.C. Rolfe, with comments and clarifications.

Summary of Domitian’s life (from Wikipedia)

Domitianus (Domitian) lived from 51 to 96 AD and reigned as Roman emperor from 81 to 96. The son of Vespasian and the younger brother of Titus, his two predecessors on the throne, he was the third and final member of the Flavian dynasty. Domitian’s authoritarian style of ruling put him at odds with the senate, whose powers he drastically curtailed.

Domitian had an early moment of prominence in the Year of Four Emperors, 69 AD, aged just 18, after Vitellius was assassinated and before Vespasian arrived in Rome to take power, when he was acclaimed ‘Caesar’ and nominally ran the government. Once Vespasian arrived in Rome and was enthroned, though, Domitian reverted to playing a minor and largely ceremonial role during the reigns of his father and brother.

After Titus died on 13 September 81, Domitian was declared emperor by the Praetorian Guard. His 15-year reign was to be the longest since that of Tiberius. As emperor, Domitian:

  • strengthened the economy by revaluing the Roman coinage
  • expanded the border defences of the empire
  • initiated a massive building program to restore the damaged city of Rome

Significant wars were fought in Britain, where his general Agricola attempted to conquer Caledonia (Scotland), and in Dacia, where Domitian was unable to secure a decisive victory against King Decebalus.

Domitian’s government exhibited strong authoritarian characteristics. Religious, military, and cultural propaganda fostered a cult of personality. He nominated himself perpetual censor in an effort to control public and private morals.

As a result Domitian was popular with the people and the army but considered a tyrant by members of the senate. Domitian’s reign came to an end in 96 when he was assassinated by court officials. He was succeeded the same day by his advisor, Nerva.

After his death Domitian’s memory was condemned to oblivion by the Senate while senatorial and equestrian authors such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger and Suetonius propagated the view of Domitian as a cruel and paranoid tyrant. The later part of his rule was regularly described as a ‘tyranny’. (In the Penguin translation of the Epigrams of Martial, Peter Howell says that in his day, 1964, Domitian had a reputation little short of Hitler’s for evil tyranny.)

Modern revisionists have characterised Domitian as a ruthless but efficient autocrat whose cultural, economic and political programs laid the foundation of the peaceful second century.

The Life of Domitian by Suetonius

(1) Domitian was born on the ninth day before the Kalends of November [24 October] of the year when his father was consul elect and was about to enter on the office in the following month [51 AD] in a street of the sixth region called ‘the Pomegranate’, in a house which he afterwards converted into a temple of the Flavian family.

Domitian is said to have passed the period of his boyhood and early youth in great poverty and infamy for it is said that he did not possess a single piece of plate.

It is a well-known fact that Claudius Pollio, a man of praetorian rank, against whom Nero’s poem ‘The One-eyed Man’ is directed, preserved a letter in Domitian’s handwriting and sometimes exhibited it, in which the future emperor promised him an assignation [i.e. sex]. And some people claim that Domitian was also debauched [i.e. abused] by Nerva, who succeeded him.

In the war with Vitellius Domitian took refuge in the Capitol with his paternal uncle, Sabinus, and a part of the forces under him. When Vitellius’s forces stormed the hill and the temple of Jupiter was set alight, Domitian hid during the night with the guardian of the shrine. In the morning, disguised in the tunic of a follower of Isis​ and mingling with the priests of that fickle superstition, he went across the Tiber with a single companion to the mother of one of his school-fellows. There he was so effectually concealed that, although he was closely followed he could not be found, in spite of a thorough search. [For more on this episode, see Tacitus’s Histories.]

It was only after the Flavian forces took Rome that Domitian ventured out. After being hailed as ‘Caesar’,​ he assumed the office of city praetor with consular powers, but only in name, turning over all the judicial business to his next colleague.

Domitian exercised all the tyranny of his high position​ (i.e. son of the emperor) so lawlessly that it was even then apparent what sort of a man he was going to be. For example, after making free with the wives of many men, he went so far as to marry Domitia Longina who was the wife of Aelius Lamia. And in a single day he assigned more than twenty positions in the city and in the provinces, which led Vespasian to say more than once that he was surprised that his son did not appoint the emperor’s successor along with the rest.

(2) Domitian began an expedition against Gaul and the Germanies which was uncalled for and from which his father’s friends dissuaded him, simply to make himself equal to his brother Titus in power and rank. For this he was reprimanded and, to give him a better realisation of his youth​ (aged 18) and position, he was made to live with his father. When they appeared in public Domitian followed the emperor’s chair and that of his brother in a litter. He also attended their triumph over Judaea riding on a white horse. Of his six consul­ships before he became emperor only one was a regular one,​ and he obtained that only because his brother gave place to him and recommended his appointment.

Domitian made a pretence of modesty and especially of an interest in poetry, an art which had previously been as unfamiliar to him as it was later despised and rejected, and he even gave readings in public.

Yet in spite of all this, when Vologaesus, king of the Parthians, had asked for auxiliaries against the Alani and for one of Vespasian’s sons as their leader, Domitian made every effort to have himself sent rather than Titus and, when the affair came to nothing, he tried by gifts and promises to induce other eastern kings to make the same request.

On the death of his father and his older brother, Titus, succeeding, Domitian hesitated for some time whether to offer a largess​ to the soldiers twice as large as the one his brother gave. He often said that he had been left a partner in the imperial power [i.e. alongside his brother] but that the will had been tampered with.​

And from that time on he never ceased to plot against his brother secretly and openly, until Titus was seized with a dangerous illness whereupon Domitian ordered that he be left for dead before he had actually drawn his last breath. And after Titus’s death Domitian bestowed no honour upon him, save that of deification, and he often attacked his memory in ambiguous phrases, both in his speeches and in his edicts.

(3) At the beginning of his reign Domitian used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly-sharpened stylus. Consequently, when someone once asked whether anyone was in there with Caesar, Vibius Crispus made the witty reply, ‘Not even a fly.’

He had his wife Domitia honoured with the title ‘Augusta’. He had had a son by her in his second consulship, whom he lost the second year after he became emperor. He divorced her because of her love for the actor, Paris, but could not bear the separation and soon took her back, alleging that the people demanded it. [It was for lampooning this actor, Paris, that the satirist Juvenal was, according to some biographies, exiled to Egypt.]

In his administration of the government Domitian for some time showed himself inconsistent, with about an equal number of virtues and vices, but eventually he turned the virtues into vices. For so far as one may guess, it was contrary to his natural disposition​ but he was made rapacious through need and cruel through fear.

(4) Domitian constantly gave grand costly entertainments, both in the amphitheatre​ and in the Circus, where in addition to the usual races between two-horse and four-horse chariots, he also exhibited two battles, one between forces of infantry and the other by horsemen, and he even gave a naval battle in the amphitheatre.

As well as these, he gave hunts of wild beasts, gladiatorial shows at night by the light of torches, and not only combats between men but between women as well. He was always present, too, at the games given by the quaestors, which he revived after they had been abandoned for some time, and invariably granted the people the privilege of calling for two pairs of gladiators from his own school, and brought them in last, in all the splendour of the court.

During the whole of every gladiatorial show there always stood at his feet a small boy clad in scarlet, with an abnormally small head, with whom he used to talk a great deal, and sometimes seriously. At any rate, he was overheard to ask him if he knew why he had decided at the last appointment day to make Mettius Rufus prefect of Egypt.

He often gave sea-fights almost with regular fleets, having dug a lake near the Tiber and surrounded it with seats. He continued to witness the contests even in heavy rains.

Domitian also celebrated the Secular games reckoning the time, not according to the year when Claudius had last given them, but by the previous calculation of Augustus. In the course of these, to make it possible to finish a hundred races on the day of contests in the Circus, he diminished the number of laps from seven to five.

Domitian also established a quinquennial contest in honour of Jupiter Capitolinus of a threefold character, comprising music, riding, and gymnastics, and with considerably more prizes than are awarded nowadays. For there were competitions in prose declamation​ both in Greek and in Latin, between lyre-players, between choruses of such players and in the lyre alone without singing. In the stadium there were races even between women.

Domitian presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. By his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales (established for the worship of the deified Flavian emperors) similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well.

Domitian celebrated the Quinquatria​ every year in honour of Minerva at his Alban villa, and established for her a college of priests, from which men were chosen by lot to act as officers and give splendid shows of wild beasts and stage plays, besides holding contests in oratory and poetry.

Domitian made a present to the people of three hundred sesterces each on three occasions, and in the course of one of his shows in celebration of the feast of the Seven Hills gave a plenti­ful banquet, distributing large baskets of victuals to the senate and knights and smaller ones to the commons, and he himself was the first to begin to eat. On the following day he scattered gifts of all sorts of things​ to be scrambled for, and since the greater part of these fell where the people sat, he had five hundred tickets thrown into each section occupied by the senatorial and equestrian orders.

(5) Domitian restored many splendid buildings which had been destroyed by fire, among them the Capitolium, which had again been burned [rebuilt after having been burned down in 69, the Capitoline temple was again burned down in 80]. In all cases he gave the new buildings the inscription of his own name only, with no mention of the original builder.

He also built a new temple on the Capitoline hill in honour of Jupiter Custos and the forum which now bears the name of Nerva [who finished and dedicated it]. He had built a temple to the Flavian family, a stadium, an Odeum [or music hall] and a pool for sea-fights.​ From the stone used in this last the Circus Maximus was afterwards rebuilt, when both sides of it had been destroyed by fire.

(6) Domitian’s campaigns he undertook partly without provocation and partly of necessity. That against the Chatti was uncalled for, while the one against the Sarmatians was justified by the destruction of a legion with its commander. He made two against the Dacians, the first when Oppius Sabinus an ex-consul was defeated, and the second on the overthrow of Cornelius Fuscus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard, to whom he had entrusted the conduct of the war. After several battles of varying success he celebrated a double triumph over the Chatti and the Dacians.​ [Tacitus says that Domitian’s unjustified triumph over the Germans (and the Dacians) was a laughing-stock; Agricola, chapter 39.] His victories over the Sarmatians he commemorated merely by the offering of a laurel crown to Jupiter of the Capitol.

A civil war which was set on foot by Lucius Antonius, governor of Upper Germany, was put down in the emperor’s absence by a remarkable stroke of good fortune; for at the very hour of battle the Rhine suddenly thawed and prevented his barbarian allies from crossing over to Antonius. Domitian learned of this victory through omens before he actually had news of it, for on the very day when the decisive battle was fought a magnificent eagle enfolded his statue at Rome with its wings, uttering exultant shrieks. Soon afterwards the report of Antony’s death became so current that several went so far as to claim that they had seen his head brought to Rome.

(7) Domitian made many innovations in common customs. He abolished the distribution of food to the people​ and revived the custom of holding formal dinners.​ He added two factions of drivers in the Circus, with gold and purple as their colours, to the four former ones.​ He forbade the appearance of actors on the stage, but allowed the practice of their art in private houses. He prohibited the castration of males, and kept down the price of the eunuchs that remained in the hands of the slave dealers.

Once, upon the occasion of a plenti­ful wine crop attended with a scarcity of grain, thinking that the fields were neglected through too much attention to the vineyards, he made an edict forbidding anyone to plant more vines in Italy and ordering that the vineyards in the provinces be cut down, or that only half of them should be left standing; but he did not persist in carrying out the measure.​

Domitian opened some of the most important offices of the court​ [i.e. those that had formerly been restricted to the senatorial order] to freedmen and Roman knights.

He prohibited the uniting of two legions in one camp and the deposit of more than 1,000 sesterces by any one soldier at headquarters because it was clear that Lucius Antonius had been especially led to attempt a revolution by the amount of such deposits in the combined winter quarters of two legions.

He increased the pay of the soldiers one fourth, by the addition of three gold pieces each year [i.e. raised the amount from nine to twelve aurei: an aureus contained 100 sesterces.]

(8) Domitian administered justice scrupulously and conscientiously, frequently holding special sittings on the tribunal in the Forum. He rescinded such decisions of the Hundred Judges as were made from interested motives [i.e. to curry favour with the rich or powerful]. He often warned the arbiters​ not to grant claims for freedom made under false pretences. He degraded jurors who accepted bribes, together with all their associates.​

He also induced the tribunes of the commons to prosecute a corrupt aedile for extortion, and to ask the senate to appoint jurors in the case. He took such care to exercise restraint over the city officials and the governors of the provinces, that at no time were they more honest or just, whereas after his time we have seen many of them charged with all manner of offences.

In his role as censor he undertook the correction of public morals. He:

  • put an end to the licence at the theatres, where the general public occupied the seats reserved for the knights
  • did away with the prevailing publication of scurrilous lampoons in which distinguished men and women were attacked, and imposed ignominious penalties on their authors
  • expelled an ex-quaestor from the senate because he was given to acting and dancing
  • deprived notorious women of the use of litters, as well as of the right to receive inheritances and legacies
  • struck the name of a Roman knight from the list of jurors because he had taken back his wife after divorcing her and charging her with adultery
  • condemned several men of both orders, offenders against the Scantinian law
  • the incest of Vestal virgins, condoned even by his father and his brother, he punished severely in divers ways, at first by capital punishment and afterwards in the ancient fashion

For while Domitian allowed the sisters Oculata and Varronilla free choice of the manner of their death and banished their lovers, he later ordered that Cornelia, a chief-vestal who had been acquitted once but after a long interval again arraigned and found guilty, be buried alive and her lovers were beaten to death with rods in the Comitium – with the exception of an ex-praetor whom he allowed to go into exile, because he admitted his guilt while the case was still unsettled and the examination and torture of the witnesses had led to no result.

To protect the gods from being dishonoured with impunity by any sacrilege, Domitian caused a tomb which one of his freedmen had built for his son from stones intended for the temple of Jupiter of the Capitol to be destroyed by the soldiers and the bones and ashes contained in it thrown into the sea.

(9) In the earlier part of his reign Domitian so shrank from any form of bloodshed that while his father was still absent from the city, he planned to issue an edict that no oxen should be offered up, recalling the line of Virgil:

‘Ever yet an impious race did slay and feast upon bullocks.’

He was equally free from any suspicion of love of gain or of avarice, both in private life and for some time after becoming emperor. On the contrary, he often gave strong proofs not merely of integrity, but even of liberality.

He treated all his intimates most generously and there was nothing which he urged them more frequently, or with greater insistence, than that they should be niggardly in none of their acts. He would not accept inheritances left him by those who had children. He even annulled a legacy in the will of Rustus Caepio, who had provided that his heir should yearly pay a specified sum to each of the senators on his entrance into the House.​

He cancelled the suits against those who had been posted as debtors to the public treasury for more than five years and would not allow a renewal except within a year and on the condition that an accuser who did not win his suit should be punished with exile.

Scribes of the quaestors who carried on business, which had become usual although contrary to the Clodian law,​ he pardoned for past offences.

Parcels of land which were left unoccupied here and there after the assignment of lands to the veterans he granted to their former owners as by right of possession. He checked false accusations designed for the profit of the privy purse​ and inflicted severe penalties on offenders, and a saying of his was current, that an emperor who does not punish informers hounds them on.

(10) But Domitian did not continue this course of mercy or integrity, although he turned to cruelty somewhat more speedily than to avarice. He put to death a pupil of the pantomimic actor Paris, who was still a beardless boy and ill at the time, because in his skill and his appearance he seemed not unlike his master [who he had had executed for having an affair with his wife].

He executed Hermogenes of Tarsus because of some allusions in his History, besides crucifying even the slaves who had written it out.

A householder who said that a Thracian gladiator was a match for the murmillo, but not for the giver of the games,​ he caused to be dragged from his seat and thrown into the arena to dogs, with this placard: ‘A favourer of the Thracians who spoke impiously.’

Domitian put to death many senators, among them several ex-consuls, including Civica Cerealis, at the very time when he was proconsul in Asia; Salvidienus Orfitus; Acilius Glabrio while he was in exile — these on the ground of plotting revolution, the rest on any charge, however trivial.

He slew Aelius Lamia for joking remarks, which were reflections on him, it is true, but made long before and harmless. For when Domitian had taken away Lamia’s wife,​ the latter replied to someone who praised his voice: ‘I practise continence’, and when Titus urged him to marry again, he replied: ‘Are you too looking for a wife?’

He put to death:

  • Salvius Cocceianus because he had kept the birthday of the emperor Otho, his paternal uncle
  • Mettius Pompusianus because it was commonly reported that he had an imperial nativity and carried about a map of the world on parchment and speeches of the kings and generals from Titus Livius, besides giving two of his slaves the names of Mago and Hannibal
  • Sallustius Lucullus, governor of Britain, for allowing some lances of a new pattern to be named ‘Lucullean’ after his own name
  • Junius Rusticus because he had published eulogies of Paetus Thrasea and Helvidius Priscus and called them the most upright of men – and on the occasion of this charge he banished all the philosophers from the city and from Italy

He also executed the younger Helvidius, alleging that in a farce composed for the stage he had under the characters of Paris and Oenone censured Domitian’s divorce from his wife. He executed Flavius Sabinus, too, one of his cousins, because on the day of the consular elections the crier had inadvertently announced him to the people as emperor elect, instead of consul.

After his victory in the civil war Domitian became even more cruel and to discover any conspirators who were in hiding, tortured many of the opposite party by a new form of inquisition, inserting fire in their privates, and he cut off the hands of some of them.

Of the more conspicuous only two were pardoned, a tribune of senatorial rank and a centurion, who the more clearly to prove their freedom from guilt, showed that they were of shameless unchastity and could therefore have had no influence with the general or with the soldiers.

(11) Domitian’s savage cruelty was not only excessive, but also cunning and sudden. He invited one of his stewards to his bed-chamber the day before crucifying him, made him sit beside him on his couch, and dismissed him in a secure and gay frame of mind, even deigning to send him a share of his dinner.

When he was on the point of condemning the ex-consul Arrecinius Clemens, one of his intimates and tools, he treated him with as great favour as before, if not greater, and finally, as he was taking a drive with him, catching sight of his accuser he said: ‘Pray, shall we hear this base slave to‑morrow?’

To abuse men’s patience the more insolently, he never pronounced an unusually dreadful sentence without a preliminary declaration of clemency, so that there came to be no more certain indication of a cruel death than the leniency of his preamble.

Domitian had brought some men charged with treason into the senate and when he had introduced the matter by saying that he would find out that day how dear he was to the members, he had no difficulty in causing them to be condemned to suffer the ancient method of punishment.​ Then, appalled at the cruelty of the penalty, he interposed a veto, to lessen the odium, in these words (for it will be of interest to know his exact language): ‘Allow me, Fathers of the senate, to prevail on you by your love for me to grant a favour which I know I shall obtain with difficulty, namely that you allow the condemned men free choice of the manner of their death; for thus you will spare your own eyes and all men will know that I was present at the meeting of the senate.’

(12) Reduced to financial straits by the cost of his buildings and shows, as well as by the additions which he had made to the pay of the soldiers, Domitian tried to lighten the military expenses by diminishing the number of his troops. But perceiving that in this way he exposed himself to the attacks of the barbarians, and nevertheless had difficulty in easing his burdens, he had no hesitation in resorting to every sort of robbery. The property of the living and the dead was seized everywhere on any charge brought by any accuser. It was enough to allege any action or word derogatory to the majesty of the prince.

Estates of those in no way connected with him were confiscated if but one man came forward to declare that he had heard from the deceased during his lifetime that Caesar was his heir.

Besides other taxes, that on the Jews​ [Titus had imposed a tax of two drachmas per head on Jews for permission to practise their religion] was levied with the utmost rigour, and people were prosecuted who, without publicly acknowledging that faith, yet lived as Jews [a possible reference to Christians who the Romans didn’t distinguish from the Jews], as well as those who concealed their origin and did not pay the tribute levied upon their people.​

I recall being present in my youth when the person of a man ninety years old was examined before the procurator and a very crowded court, to see whether he was circumcised.

From his youth Domitian was far from being of an affable disposition, but was on the contrary presumptuous and unbridled both in act and in word. When his father’s concubine Caenis​ returned from Histria and offered to kiss him as usual, he held out his hand to her.

(13) When he became emperor, Domitian did not hesitate to boast in the senate that he had conferred their power on both his father and his brother, and that they had but returned him his own; nor on taking back his wife after their divorce, that he had ‘recalled her to his divine couch’ [meaning the couch which held the household gods].

Domitian delighted to hear the people in the amphitheatre shout on his feast day:​ ‘Good Fortune attend our Lord​ and Mistress.’

Even more, in the Capitoline competition,​ when all the people begged him with great unanimity to restore Palfurius Sura who had been banished some time before from the senate, and on that occasion received the prize for oratory, he deigned no reply, but merely had a crier bid them be silent.

With no less arrogance he began a circular letter in the name of his procurators, ‘Our Master and our God bids that this be done.’ And so the custom arose of henceforth addressing him in no other way even in writing or in conversation.

​He allowed no statues to be set up in his honour in the Capitol, except of gold and silver and of a fixed weight. He erected so many and such huge vaulted passage-ways and arches in the various regions of Rome, adorned with chariots and triumphal emblems, that on one of them someone wrote in Greek: ‘It is enough’ [the Greek word for enough sounds like the Roman word for arch].

Domitian held the consul­ship seventeen times, more often than any of his predecessors. Of these the seven middle ones were in successive years, but all of them he filled in name only, continuing none beyond the first of May and few after the Ides of January. Having assumed the surname Germanicus after his two triumphs, he renamed the months of September and October from his own names, calling them ‘Germanicus’ and ‘Domitianus’, because in the former he had come to the throne and was born in the latter.​

(14) In this way Domitian became an object of terror and hatred to all, but he was overthrown at last by a conspiracy of his friends and favourite freedmen, to which his wife was also privy.

He had long since had a premonition of the last year and day of his life, and even of the very hour and manner of his death. In his youth astrologers had predicted all this to him, and his father once even openly ridiculed him at dinner for refusing mushrooms, saying that he showed himself unaware of his destiny in not rather fearing the sword. Therefore he was at all times timorous and worried, and was disquieted beyond measure by even the slightest suspicions. It is thought that nothing had more effect in inducing him to ignore his proclamation about cutting down the vineyards​ than the circulation of notes containing the following lines:

‘Gnaw at my root, an you will; even then shall I have juice in plenty
To pour upon thee, O goat, when at the altar you stand.’​ [a quote from Ovid’s Fasti]

It was because of this same timorousness that although he was most eager for all such honours, he refused a new one which the senate had devised and offered to him, a decree that whenever he held the consul­ship Roman knights selected by lot should precede him among his lictors and attendants, clad in the trabea​ and bearing lances.

As the time when he anticipated danger drew near, becoming still more anxious every day, he lined the walls of the colonnades in which he used to walk with phengite stone, to be able to see in its brilliant surface the reflection of all that went on behind his back. And he did not give a hearing to any prisoners except in private and alone, even holding their chains in his hands. Further, to convince his household that one must not venture to kill a patron even on good grounds, he condemned Epaphroditus, his confidential secretary, to death, because it was believed that after Nero was abandoned​ Epaphroditus had actually held the dagger with which Nero stabbed himself.

(15) Finally Domitian put to death his own cousin Flavius Clemens, suddenly and on a very slight suspicion, almost before the end of his consul­ship. And yet Flavius was a man of most contemptible laziness and Domitian had openly named his sons, who were then very young, as his successors, changing their former names and calling the one Vespasian and the other Domitian. And it was by this deed in particular that he hastened his own destruction.

For eight successive months so many strokes of lightning occurred and were reported that at last he cried: ‘Well, let him now strike whom they will.’ The temple of Jupiter of the Capitol was struck and that of the Flavian family, as well as the Palace and the emperor’s own bedroom. The inscription on the base of a triumphal statue of his was torn off in a violent tempest and fell upon a neighbouring tomb.​ The tree which had been overthrown when Vespasian was still a private citizen but had sprung up anew suddenly fell down again. Fortune of Praeneste​ had throughout his whole reign, when he commended the new year to her protection, given him a favourable omen and always in the same words. Now at last she returned a most direful omen, not without the mention of bloodshed.

Domitian dreamed that Minerva, whom he worshipped with superstitious veneration, came forth from her shrine and declared that she could no longer protect him since she had been disarmed by Jupiter.

But there was nothing by which he was so much disturbed as a prediction of the astrologer Ascletarion and what befell him. When this man was accused before the emperor and did not deny that he had spoken of certain things which he had foreseen through his art, he was asked what his own end would be. When Ascletarion replied that he would shortly be rent by dogs, Domitian ordered him killed at once but, to prove the fallibility of his art, he ordered that Ascletarion’s funeral be attended to with the greatest care.​ While this was being done, it chanced that the pyre was overset by a sudden storm and that the dogs mangled the corpse, which was only partly consumed. An actor of farces called Latinus, who happened to pass by and see the incident, told it to Domitian at the dinner table, with the rest of the day’s gossip.

(16) The day before he was killed Domitian gave orders to have some apples which were offered to him kept until the following day, and added: ‘If only I am spared to eat them’. Then, turning to his companions, he declared that on the following day the moon would be stained with blood in Aquarius and that a deed would be done of which men would talk all over the world. At about midnight he was so terrified that he leaped from his bed. The next morning he conducted the trial of a soothsayer sent from Germany who, when consulted about the lightning strokes, had foretold a change of rulers and condemned him to death.

While he was vigorously scratching a festered wart on his forehead and had drawn blood, he said: ‘May this be all.’

Then he asked the time, and by pre-arrangement the sixth hour was announced to him, instead of the fifth, which he feared. Filled with joy at this, and believing all danger now past, he was hastening to the bath, when his chamberlain Parthenius changed his purpose by announcing that someone had called about a matter of great moment and would not be put off. Then he dismissed all his attendants and went to his bedroom, where he was slain.

(17) Concerning the nature of the plot and the manner of his death, this is about all that became known. As the conspirators were deliberating when and how to attack him, whether at the bath or at dinner, Stephanus, steward of his niece, Domitilla, and at the time under accusation for embezzlement, offered his aid and counsel.

To avoid suspicion, he wrapped up his left arm in woollen bandages for some days, pretending that he had injured it, and concealed in them a dagger. Then pretending to betray a conspiracy and for that reason being given an audience, he stabbed the emperor in the groin as he was reading a paper which the assassin handed him and stood in a state of amazement.

As the wounded prince attempted to resist, he was slain with seven wounds by Clodianus, a subaltern, Maximus, a freedman of Parthenius, Satur, decurion of the chamberlains, and a gladiator from the imperial school.

A boy who was engaged in his usual duty of attending to the Lares in the bedroom and so was a witness of the murder, gave this additional information. He was bidden by Domitian, immediately after he was dealt the first blow, to hand him the dagger hidden under his pillow and to call the servants. But he found nothing at the head of the bed save the hilt and in any case all the doors were closed.

Meanwhile the emperor grappled with Stephanus and bore him to the ground, where they struggled for a long time, Domitian trying now to wrest the dagger from his assailant’s hands and now to gouge out his eyes with his lacerated fingers.

Domitian was slain on the fourteenth day before the Kalends of October (18 September) in the forty-fifth year of his age and the fifteenth of his reign (96 AD).

His corpse was carried out on a common bier by those who bury the poor, and his nurse Phyllis cremated it at her suburban estate on the Via Latina. But his ashes she secretly carried to the temple of the Flavian family and mingled them with those of Julia, daughter of Titus, whom she had also reared.

(18) Domitian was tall of stature, with a modest expression and a high colour.​ His eyes were large, but his sight was somewhat dim. He was handsome and graceful too, especially when a young man, and in his whole body with the exception of his feet, the toes of which were somewhat cramped. In later life he had the further disfigurement of baldness, a protruding belly, and spindling legs, though the latter had become thin from a long illness.

Domitian was so conscious that the modesty of his expression was in his favour that he once made this boast in the senate: ‘So far, at any rate, you have approved my heart and my countenance.’

He was so sensitive about his baldness that he regarded it as a personal insult if anyone else was twitted with that defect in jest or in earnest.

(19) Domitian was incapable of exertion and seldom went about the city on foot, while on his campaigns and journeys he rarely rode on horseback but was regularly carried in a litter.

He took no interest in arms, but was particularly devoted to archery.​ There are many who have more than once seen him slay a hundred wild beasts of different kinds on his Alban estate, and purposely kill some of them with two successive shots in such a way that the arrows gave the effect of horns. Sometimes he would have a slave stand at a distance and hold out the palm of his right hand for a mark, with the fingers spread; then he directed his arrows with such accuracy that they passed harmlessly between the fingers.

(20) At the beginning of his rule Domitian neglected liberal studies although he provided for having the libraries, which were destroyed by fire, renewed at very great expense, seeking everywhere for copies of the lost works, and sending scribes to Alexandria to transcribe and correct them.

Yet he never took any pains to become acquainted with history or poetry or even to acquire an ordinarily good style.

He read nothing except the memoirs and transactions of Tiberius Caesar. For his letters, speeches and proclamations he relied on others’ talents.

Yet his conversation was not inelegant and some of his sayings were even noteworthy.

‘How I wish that I were as fine looking as Maecius thinks he is.’

He declared too that the head of a certain man, whose hair had changed colour in such a way that it was partly reddish and partly grey, was like ‘snow on which mead had been poured.’

(21) Domitian used to say that the lot of princes was most unhappy, since when they discovered a conspiracy, no one believed them unless they had been killed.​

Whenever he had leisure he amused himself with playing at dice, even on working days and in the morning hours. He went to the bath before the end of the forenoon and lunched to the point of satiety, so that at dinner he rarely took anything except a Matian apple​ and a moderate amount of wine from a jug. He gave numerous and generous banquets, but usually ended them early; in no case did he protract them beyond sunset, or follow them by a drinking bout. In fact, he did nothing until the hour for retiring except walk alone in a retired place.

(22) Domitian was excessively lustful. His constant sexual intercourse he called ‘bed-wrestling’ as if it were a kind of exercise.

It was reported that he depilated his concubines with his own hand and swam with common prostitutes.

After persistently refusing his niece, who was offered him in marriage when she was still a maid, because he was entangled in an intrigue with Domitia, he seduced her shortly afterwards when she became the wife of another, and that too during the lifetime of Titus.

Later, when she was bereft of father and husband, he loved her ardently and without disguise, and even became the cause of her death by compelling her to get rid of a child of his by abortion.

(23) The people received the news of his death with indifference but the soldiers were greatly grieved and at once attempted to call him the Deified Domitian. They insisted on the execution of his murderers.

The senators, on the contrary, were so overjoyed that they raced to fill the House where they did not refrain from attacking the dead emperor with the most insulting and stinging reproaches. They even had ladders brought and his shields​ and images torn down before their eyes and smashed on the ground. Finally they passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased and all record of him obliterated.​

A few months before he was killed, a raven perched on the Capitolium and cried ‘All will be well,’ an omen which some interpreted as follows:

‘High on the gable Tarpeian​ a raven but lately alighting,
Could not say “It is well,” only declared “It will be.”‘

Domitian himself, it is said, dreamed that a golden hump grew out on his back, and he regarded this as an infallible sign that the condition of the empire would be happier and more prosperous after his time. And this was soon shown to be true through the uprightness and moderate rule of the emperors who succeeded him.

Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

The Year One by M.I. Finley (1968)

History tends to be the history of the winners, with the losers assigned the passive, largely unvoiced, faceless role of the people on whom the winners operated.
(‘Aspects of Antiquity’, page 189)

Notes on ‘The Year One’, a short essay included in Finley’s 1968 collection, ‘Aspects of Antiquity’.

Ancient calendars

People living through a momentous year (1066, 1789, 1939, 2000) usually know about it. The most obvious thing to say about the year 1 is nobody living through it knew about it at the time. The entire chronological framework of Western civilisation, whereby we divide years into before Christ (BC) or after Christ (in the year of the Lord, anno Domini, AD) hadn’t been invented.

Instead, all the different cultures of the ancient world kept their own calendars relating to their own cultural landmarks. The Greeks thought in terms of four year blocks or ‘Olympiads’ which began with the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, so year one was the first year of the 195th Olympiad.

The Romans had, for centuries, dated events by referring to the two consuls who were in office for that year, thus ‘in the consulship of Caius Caesar, son of Augustus, and Lucius Aemilius Paullus, son of Paullus.’

Only the learned wanted to look back deeper than a few decades and, for those purposes, Roman historians had worked out the year of the legendary foundation of Rome, and dated everything AUC standing for ‘ab urbe condita’ or ‘since the founding of the city (Rome)’. Many centuries later Christian historians aligned this legendary date to 753 years before the birth of Christ. So the year one was 754 AUC. This system was devised by the Christian historian Dionysius Exiguus, a Greek-speaking monk.

The evidence of the gospels

Of the four gospels only two give details of the birth of Jesus, Matthew and Luke

Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew’s gospel includes the story of ‘the massacre of the innocents’ (chapter 2, verses 16 to 18). Herod the Great, king of Judea, is said to have heard a prophecy that his kingdom will be overthrown by a child about to be born in Bethlehem, so he ordered the execution of all male children aged two and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The Catholic Church regards them as the first Christian martyrs, and their feast – Holy Innocents’ Day (or the Feast of the Holy Innocents) – is celebrated on 28 December. In this story, Joseph and Mary were warned by angels about the impending massacre and so made their way secretly to Egypt, ‘The Flight to Egypt’, a journey depicted in countless paintings.

Unfortunately for the veracity of this version, Herod the Great died in 4 BC. If Matthew is literally correct, Jesus must have been born in 4 BC at the latest.

Luke’s Gospel

Luke’s story is different. He says the Romans sent out a decree that everyone had to return to their home town in order to take part in a national census of the population of Judea so they could be taxed more efficiently.

Unfortunately, the only census decreed by the Romans that we know of occurred in either 6 or 7 AD.

In 6 AD the Romans deposed Herod’s son, Archelaus, themselves took over Judea, and installed a Roman governor with instructions to conduct a census. (The northern province of Galilee remained under the rule of the Herod family; Finley says this slight inconsistency between direct and indirect rule was common in provinces on the edge of the empire.)

The Roman Empire

Was an empire in the full sense. The ‘Roman people’ i.e. citizens of Rome and central and northern Italy, ruled all the other inhabitants of the empire as subjects. The empire outside Italy was divided into provinciae. In 1 AD the Roman empire covered about 1,250,000 square miles with a population of about 60 million (population figures are deeply contested). Censuses were taken in the provinces to maximise tax revenue, but at different times in different provinces, using different methods and definitions, so…

The tax collector, along with the soldier, was the most obvious and ubiquitous link between the provinces and Rome. (p.187)

The limits of Empire

In 9 AD a Romanised German warrior chief named Arminius lured three legions into an ambush in the Teutoburg Forest and annihilated them, seizing the precious standards. Traumatised by this terrible news, the emperor Augustus ordered the remaining two legions and all Roman citizens to withdraw back across the Rhine, a decision reinforced by his successor Tiberius, which crystallised into a fiat. The Romans never attempted to conquer and colonise Germany and the north European border settled for the next four centuries along the Rhine-Danube line.

The borders finalised as England in the north-west, the Atlantic in the west, the Atlas mountains, the Sahara and the cataracts of the Nile in Africa, Judea in what is now the Middle East, and Asia i.e. half of Anatolia up to the border with Armenia.

Imperial exploitation

The Romans had no shortage of writers and propagandists (Horace, Virgil and so on) praising Augustus’ rule and, by extension, Rome’s right to rule the entire world (Virgil). The Christian European empires 1700 years later (Spain, France, Britain, Holland) made lengthy attempts to justify their imperial conquests in terms of bringing civilisation etc to barbarian lands. The Romans used the same rhetoric but were much more honest about the sheer greed and looting involved in conquest. As Finley says in his essay about slavery, Julius Caesar set out for Gaul a penniless aristocrat from a down-at-heel family and he returned 8 years later a multi-millionaire and the most powerful man in Rome. That’s what 8 years of burning and looting did for him.

Once a province had been conquered and pacified there an infrastructure was imposed designed to extract wealth, consisting of extensive taxes(in goods and services and money) for the state, but great personal income skimmed off by high officials and members of the tax farming corporations.

Rome had no mission to civilise comparable to France’s great pretension to a mission civilisatrice. Some of her propagandists later developed this idea but the reality was that, so long as they paid their taxes, Rome left her subject peoples largely to themselves, only interfering if there was disorder, rebellion etc. Over a century of conquering and administering other peoples had shown that minimal interference paid off and…was cheap to run.

This was particularly true in the East, which had well-established cultures/civilisations long before the Romans arrived. Latin was the language of the new rulers but Greek remained the language of intellectuals and the ruling classes which sat directly below the Roman governor. Educated Romans learned Greeks but Greeks rarely bothered to learn Latin, a far simpler, cruder language.


Finley makes a pit stop to spend a page profiling Joseph ben Matthias, member of a Jewish priestly family known to history as Josephus and for the epic history of the Jewish War, an account of the 4-year rebellion of Jews against Roman rule 66 to 70 AD which led up to the Romans storming Jerusalem and destroying the Great Temple built by Herod.

Josephus was a Pharisee, a member of the elite priestly caste who identified with law and order and the Romans, so the enemies in his book are the Zealots, who he calls rebels and bandits, religious visionaries who stirred up the people to revolt by playing on their grievances, their extreme poverty and promises of a new world.


The essay then turns to consider Augustus’s achievement, namely bringing to an end 60 odd years of chaos as the Roman Republic proved incapable of managing its empire, or, more precisely, the scale of the wealth and power pouring into Rome exacerbate the toxic rivalries among great men which had previously been contained by its republican institutions, but now boiled over into repeated civil wars by over-mighty rulers. Until Octavian put a stop to it (helped by the fact that all the eminent men of his generation had been killed in the civil wars, committed suicide or been murdered in his ‘proscriptions’, leaving him the last significant military-political figure standing).

Augustus’s titles

In 27 BC Octavian was awarded the title ‘Augustus’ by the senate. But his other titles are significant. He wanted to be known as ‘princeps’ i.e. principle figure, partly because it avoided the dreaded term rex or king. And also kept the title Imperator, originally given to victorious generals, but now awarded him a) as recognition of victorious campaigns but b) as continual reminder of where his power lay – the complete loyalty of the army.

Around the time of Christ’s birth, in 2 AD Augustus was awarded a further title, ‘Father of the Nation’, which is not as cuddly as it sounds, given the draconian authority the father of a family had over all its other members, male or female.

Augustus tries to ensure heirs

In his magisterial biography of Augustus Adrian Goldsworthy goes out of his way to emphasise that through most of his rule Augustus appears to have not wanted to create a dynasty and been succeeded by one heir. On the contrary he tried to create a cohort of experienced young men who, Goldsworthy thinks, were meant to form a small cabinet, to rule collegiately.

The two problems with this was that they all tended to come from within his own close family, so royal, monarchical, imperial logic was hard to deny – but worse, that almost all his proteges died, leaving, the grumpy, surly, graceless Tiberius as the last most obvious figure standing.

But before all this had become clear Augustus spent time and energy grooming a succession of young male relatives for rule and in doing so rode roughshod over many of the conventions of the Republic he claimed to be defending. Thus in 4 BC the Senate was prevailed upon to decree that Augustus’s two grandsons (who he had adopted to make legally his sons) Gaius and Lucius, should be designated consuls at the tender age of 15 and then awarded the actual posts, for a year, when they turned 20. Each was titled ‘Princeps of the Youth’. In the Year One Gaius was indeed ‘elected’ consul (as everyone the Princeps recommended to the voters tended to be). But then the curse struck…Lucius died in 2 AD, Gaius in 4 AD.

Augustus’s propaganda machine

Augustus had statues of himself carved and erected in cities all over the empire. Instead of realistic depictions they show an idealised, tall virile commander of men. He ensured his face was on all coinage, so even the illiterate knew who he was. He encouraged his inclusion in the ceremonies of all the religions and cults practiced across the empire. Via his unofficial minister of the arts, Maecenas, he ‘encouraged’ praise by the leading poets of the day, poets like Virgil, Horace and Ovid whose words of sycophantic praise have survived down to our time, 2,000 years later.

Augustus’s campaign for moral regeneration

Alongside a major programme of rebuilding and renovating not only Rome but all the major cities in the Empire, Augustus tried to bring about a moral revival as well. He had roughly two concerns: one was that the ancient noble families of Rome had been severely depleted by the civil wars and so he passed successive legislation promoting marriage and punishing adult men who failed to marry or have children. He gave legal and financial incentives to families with three or more children – legislation collectively known as the Leges Iuliae.

Augustus wasn’t concerned about sexual morality as such but was concerned about its impact on the stability and fecundity of the ruling class which he wanted to grow and stabilise in order to secure Rome’s future. It’s in this context that he passed legislation severely punishing adultery. He wanted more sons of the aristocracy, and that they should marry and do their military and civic duty, instead of not marrying and frittering away their family fortunes on increasing displays of opulence.

Exiling the Julias

It was in this context that in 2 BC he exiled his only biological child, his daughter Julia the Elder (39 BC to 14 AD), who he married to an unwilling Tiberius, allegedly for flagrant adultery and sexual depravity. Several men who had allegedly been her partners were also exiled. In 8 AD he similarly exiled Julia the Elder’s daughter and so Augustus’s grand-daughter, Julia the Younger, again for adultery.

On each of these occasions the ostensible reason was breaching the emperor’s own code of morality, but he also spoke about Julia the Elder being involved in some kind of plot against his life. The details remain obscure but most modern historians think there was more to both affairs than meets the eye, and that in both cases the exiled women were in some way figureheads of attempts to overthrow Augustus’s rule. Hence historians speak of a ‘Julian’ party at his court.

Although the details continue to elude us, Finley draws the central point which is that as soon as you have courts you have courtly intrigue, you have palace plotting – in the later empire this kind of conspiracy became endemic but it is instructive to note that it appears to have arisen as soon as there was a court, in the close family of the very first emperor.

Ovid is exiled

This is the view of Peter Green who devotes most of the long 80-page introduction to his translation of Ovid’s Art of Love to a forensic analysis of events and accusations surrounding the 8 AD exiling of Julia the Younger, because the poet was caught up in the same event and, with little or no warning, exiled by Augustus to the furthest border of the Roman empire, to the miserable provincial town of Tomis on the Black Sea. Ovid wrote a large number of letters to former friends and officials begging to be allowed to return, and a series of poems elaborating on the wretchedness of his fate – but to no avail. Even when Augustus died, his successor, Tiberius, renewed his exile and Ovid died miserably, far from his beloved Rome.

Frustratingly, despite writing a huge amount about his exile, Ovid never anywhere specifies the nature of his error. He insists it was minor, that he never plotted against the emperor, or planned to use poison or a knife or anything like that. Green weighs all the evidence and thinks Ovid must have seen something or been present at meetings where such plots were discussed and failed to report them to the authorities. Because he wasn’t an active plotter, Ovid’s life was spared; but because he didn’t report whatever he saw, his lack of loyalty to the emperor – and to the entire peaceful regime which Augustus had spent a lifetime creating – was called into doubt. Hence exile.

The Augustan peace

It’s easy to criticise Augustus’s early career, his cut-throat manoeuvres, his participation in the proscriptions i.e. mass murder of anyone who stood in the way of the Second Triumvirate, his hugely unpopular land redistribution away from traditional farmer and to veterans of the military campaigns leading up to the decisive Battle of Philippi. But by these expedients he secured the end of the civil wars which had lasted as long as anyone could remember, brought military, civil and social peace, order and stability. He secured the longest period of continuous peace the Mediterranean world had ever known. In this atmosphere of peace and stability business flourished and people got rich.

If the theatre was the characteristic secular building of the ancient Greeks, the amphitheatre was its Roman counterpart, and the long peace saw them built in cities all around the Central Sea.

Augustus worship

The result, especially in the East, was that people began to worship Augustus:

as Saviour, Benefactor and God Manifest (Epiphanes) just as they had deified a succession of Ptolemies, Seleucids and other rulers of the preceding centuries. (p.194)

In Rome he couldn’t be worshipped as a god while alive, only his spirit was said to be holy. But the east had no such hesitations and built temples to Augustus the god. This had nothing to do with love or respect but simple pragmatism. Most people were utterly powerless to influence events, least of all the slaves. It made simple sense to venerate and appease the mighty; that was the way of the world. Finley draws the major conclusion with huge implications for the growth of Christianity, that:

Religion became increasingly centred on salvation in the next world, whereas it had once been chiefly concerned with life in this one. (p.194)

Client kings and dependent rulers had a vested interest in encouraging the cult of Augustus as it underpinned their own authority, for most of the East was a patchwork of cults and religions which, for the most part, co-existed peacefully enough.

The Jewish Revolt

The Jews stood apart in their fierce insistence on monotheism. Jews had migrated and had communities all around the Mediterranean and in Rome (where Ovid recommends the synagogue as a good place to pick up women in The Art of Love). The Old Testament writings had been translated into Greek as far back as the third century BC as Jews in the diaspora lost touch with Hebrew.

Herod the Great, King of Judaea, had more in common with his Roman rulers than his Jewish subjects. When he introduced an amphitheatre and gladiator fights in the Roman style there were mutterings of discontent, but when he tried to impose official worship of Augustus the god there was an outcry and an assassination attempt.

The Jews’ dogged insistence on the uniqueness of their god puzzled the Romans (and their neighbours). Neither Augustus nor Tiberius took any steps against the Jews, but Roman officials in the provinces were less tolerant and insistence on conformity to Augustus worship or other religious practices led to repeated clashes. Many Jews were nervous of their masters’ lack of understanding and religious extremists – the Zealots so criticised by Josephus – played on these fears and encouraged proactive rebellion.

All these forces led to the outbreak of the First Jewish–Roman War (66 to 73 AD), sometimes called the Great Jewish Revolt or The Jewish War. It began in the twelfth year of the reign of Nero, with anti-taxation protests leading to attacks on Roman citizens by the Jews. The Roman governor, Gessius Florus, responded by plundering the Second Temple, claiming the money was for the Emperor, and the next day launching a raid on the city, arresting numerous senior Jewish figures. This prompted a wider, large-scale rebellion and the Roman military garrison of Judaea was quickly overrun by the rebels.

It took the Romans with all their might four full years to quell the rebellion, marked by the sack of Jerusalem, the destruction of Herod’s Temple and the displacement of its people around the Mediterranean, followed by three years of further mopping-up operations. Most other Roman provinces suffered from extortionate taxation, harsh military rule, severe punishment for anyone who breached the peace. What made the Jews different was the involvement of fierce religious belief which shaded into millenarian visions of a Final Battle and Second Coming of the Promised One. Egypt, Greece, Britain, Spain and other equally exploited provinces had nothing like this.

The rise of Christianity

Obviously nobody alive in the Year One had a clue that it would one day, centuries later, be singled out as the start of a new dispensation on human history. If you’re not a Christian, chances are you still use the Christian system of numbering years, if only for business purposes. If you are a Christian this year marked the start of a completely new epoch of world and human history, one in which Divine Grace entered the human realm and all people were offered the chance of salvation through faith in the risen Christ.

Finley dwells on the fairly well-known textual records of early Christianity, within his realm of Roman studies, for example the famous letters of Pliny the Elder to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with the men and women being denounced to him as ‘Christians’.

Returning to borders, Finley points out that this same emperor Trajan conquered ‘Dacia’, roughly modern Transylvania, and embarked on a foolhardy campaign against the Parthians (graveyard of the ambitions of Crassus and Anthony to name but two) but Hadrian, who succeeded him, gave up the Parthian gains and settled the borders of the empire for good. Thus, give or take a few small provinces and the elimination of a few client-kingdoms, such as Judaea, the frontiers established by Augustus in the Year One were not far from being the final, definitive borders of the Empire.


One of the consistent surprises when reading about pre-modern history is the extent and complexity of pre-modern trade routes. It was one of the big messages of the British Museum’s great Vikings exhibition, showing just how far-flung Viking exploration and trade was. Whether considering the trading networks of ancient China or the early explorations of the Portuguese or the vast extent of the Mongol conquests, the message is always the same: pre-modern trading networks were always more wide-reaching than you would have thought.

Same here: Finley points out that the Romans bought silk from as far afield as China (via middlemen in Chinese Turkestan), and more directly with China and Ceylon. Indo-Roman trading stations existed as far away as Pondicherry. ‘There was a drain of Roman coins to India and further East’. Yet references to India were thin and misleading. In the works of the elegiac poets India is usually just linked as a name alongside Parthia to represent the furtherst ends of the earth.

Similarly, there was trans-Sahara trade, especially for ivory, but almost total ignorance of the African continent below the desert. (p.198)

In a way the northern border was more intriguing. After the catastrophe of the Teutoburg Forest (described in vivid detail by Goldsworthy in his biography of Augustus) Augustus withdrew all legions, merchants and settlers in Germany back south of the Rhine and the Rhine-Danube became de facto the northern border of the empire for the next four centuries.

Despite interacting with them extensively, despite making treaties with chieftains, trading with them, understanding something about their societies, in a sense the Romans never got to grips with the Germans. Finley explains part of this was because the Germans were illiterate so had no texts for the Romans to study; no history, art, no architecture.

Also, the Germans were made up of loose and constantly changing tribal confederations. The Parthians had an emperor, the Armenians a great king and so on: you knew who you were dealing with and what they had to offer and how to bargain. None of this worked with the Germans.

(He makes the interesting point that, in their relative ignorance, the Germans relied on ‘primitive agricultural techniques’ which rapidly exhausted what agricultural land they created by forest clearance, and this was a factor in their constant migrations. That and the periodic arrival of entire peoples from further east, which pushed the nearby Germans over the Rhine, often for safety.)

Lastly, he makes a quick point that despite trade with far-flung places outside the empire, most of the cultural and especially religious innovation came from within the empire.

The great matrix of religion innovation was within the empire, in its eastern regions: Egypt, Syria and Palestine, Asia Minor. And, of course, in the end the triumphant contribution from that area in this period was Christianity. (p.198)

East and West

He concludes with the Big Idea that the whole notion of Western Europe in a sense owes its existence to the Augustan settlement which secured Italy, Spain, France and Britain for Roman rule for centuries to come, bequeathing them a common culture, no matter how far it decayed during the Dark Ages.

The East, with far deeper cultural roots of its own, was not ‘Romanised’ to anything like the same extent, retaining a cultural independence which was expressed, first through the survival of the Byzantine Empire for another 1,000 years, and then through its conquest by another Eastern religion, Islam, tearing the Middle East and North Africa out of the Roman Christian family of nations, setting up a profound geographical and cultural divide which lasts to this day.


‘The Year One’ was included in a collection of essays by M.I. Finley titled Aspects of Antiquity, published by Penguin books in 1968. References are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

Roman reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 7. The empire

If you’re looking for a chronological history of the Roman Empire, or an account of the military campaigns and battles which led to its territorial expansion, or an account of the organisation and administration of the Roman army, during either the republican or imperial eras, forget it. None of that is in this book.

Beard’s interest is in exploring themes or aspects of Roman social, cultural and political history. Hence, although the final chapter in SPQR is devoted to ‘Rome Outside Rome’ i.e. the wider Roman empire, it is nothing like a chronological history of the empire, or of the wars of conquest and putting down of rebellions which consolidated it, or a really thorough examination of Rome’s administrative bureaucracy. Instead it is an entertainingly meandering essay which considers some selected aspects of Roman rule beyond Italy. Beard starts the chapter, as usual, with a flurry of academic questions:

  • how were the cultural differences across the empire debated?
  • how ‘Roman’ did the empire’s inhabitants outside Rome and Italy become?
  • how did people in the provinces relate their traditions, religions, languages and literatures to those of imperial Rome, and vice versa?

Beard uses biographies of Roman administrators such as Pliny the Younger (61 to 113 AD), touches on the Roman attitude to religion – especially the troublesome new religion of Christianity – uses Hadrian’s Wall as an example of the limits of empire, and generally delves into other topics which take her fancy.

So, as a reader, as soon as you abandon any hope of getting a thorough or even basic chronological overview of the main events of the wider Roman empire, and settle down for a chatty meander through  some selected aspects of a fascinating subject, then Beard is an enjoyable and informative guide.

The limits of imperial expansion

Augustus called a halt to the expansion of imperial Rome following the disastrous Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD in which Publius Quinctilius Varus lost three legions massacred by barbarian Germans led by Arminius (p.480). Fascinatingly, Beard tells us that Augustus had fully intended to extend Roman power into Germany, and had begun construction of a town at Waldgirmes, 60 miles east of the Rhine, complete with forum, statue of the emperor and all the trimmings. After Teutoburg he ordered all building work abandoned and withdrawal of all Roman forces to the Rhine and in his will instructed his successors not to extend the empire.

But they did. Claudius sent legions to conquer Britannia, which they’d seized enough of by 44 AD to justify Claudius awarding himself a triumph, although the Romans took a long time to extend their power right up to the border with Hibernia. In the east, in 101 to 102 Trajan conquered Dacia, part of what is now Romania and in 114 to 117 invaded Mesopotamia to the borders of modern Iran.

Emperors less competitive than consuls

But overall the pace of territorial acquisition slowed right down. Beard makes the interesting point that this was at least in part because under the Republic you had two consuls who competed with each other for military glory, rising to the epic rivalry between Julius Caesar, busy making a name for himself conquering Gaul in the West, and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known in English as Pompey, redrawing the map of the Roman East.

By contrast, the emperors had no rivals and no-one to beat. Their only rivals were the previous emperors so they could take their time, make a few strategic ‘conquests’, award themselves a nice triumph and relax. Most of the wars of the first 200 years of empire were against internal rebellions or border skirmishes.

Governor Pliny in Bithynia

Slowly the focus of administrators and emperors switched from conquest to good administration. It’s to examine this that Beard gives the example of Pliny the Younger who in 109 was sent to become governor of the province of Bithynia along the southern coast of the Black Sea in what is now Turkey. Next to Cicero Pliny is one of the most knowable ancient Romans because of the 100 or so letters he sent directly to the emperor Trajan, reporting back on all aspects of Roman administration, from taxes to statues, to the nitty gritty of local legal cases.

What the Romans wanted was peaceful administration, avoidance of flagrant examples of corruption, good regular supplies of taxes. They made little or no attempt to impose their own cultural norms or eradicate local traditions. Instead the East, in particular, remained a mostly Greek-speaking fantasia of different religions, gods, festivals, dress, traditions and so on.

Small number of imperial administrators

In a striking similarity to the British Empire, Beard tells us the number of imperial administrators was vanishingly small: across the empire at any one time there were probably fewer than 200 elite Roman administrators running an empire of more than 50 million subjects (p.490). So how was the empire managed?

1. The most obvious answer is the substantial Roman legions posted around the borders of the empire and Beard mentions the insight we have into one such garrison from the amazing discoveries which have been made at Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall.

2. Building new settlements was another strategy. In the north and west in particular the building of Roman settlements on the classic, standardised Roman town layout was one of the most enduring legacies of empire. Roman policy resulted in ‘urbanisation on an unprecedented scale’ (p.492).

3. Also, just like the British, French and other European empires 1,800 years later, the Romans co-opted the local elites. Local rulers who came over to Rome were awarded formal titles, new Roman names, rights and privileges. They took to wearing the toga, they sent their children to Roman schools to learn Latin, rhetoric and civics. Over generations these became embedded and Romanised elites did the work of ensuring peace and lack of rebellions among their subjects.

The 1st century efflorescence of Greek literature

In the East, the Greeks didn’t need to take any lessons in ‘civilisation’ from the Romans and no Roman would have dared suggest it. Nonetheless, Beard points out that the early imperial period saw an extraordinary florescence of Greek literature, much of it addressing, skirting, questioning the impact of Roman hegemony on the Greek world. In a striking example, she tells us that the output of just one Greek writer of this period, biographer and philosopher Plutarch (46 to 119 AD) fills as many modern pages as all the surviving literature from the 5th century BC put together, from the tragedies of Aeschylus to the histories of Thucydides (p.500).

Three typical rebellions

Surprisingly, maybe, there were only a handful of major rebellions against Roman rule in the first century (although it may be that these were under-reported, as both regional governors and emperors weren’t keen to record dissent).

Anyway, Beard makes the interesting point that the three major rebellions we know about weren’t standalone nationalist uprisings of the kind we’re familiar with from the end of the modern European empires. In the three biggest instances they were not popular uprisings but rebellions by members of the collaborating class felt they had, for one reason or another, been badly treated by their Roman allies.

1. Thus the leader of the German forces in the Teutoburg Forest, Arminius, was a solid ally of Rome and personal friend of the general whose forces he massacred. Modern thinking has it that Arminius was a rival for leadership of his tribe, the Cherusci, with his brother, Segeste. When a revolt began among the auxiliary troops for an unknown reason, it may be that Arminius thought he stood more chance of becoming paramount leader of his people by betraying his Roman allies (and brother) and it seems to have worked.

2. In Britannia, Queen Boadicea or Boudicca rebelled after terrible treatment by the Romans. When her husband Prasutagus died he left half his tribal kingdom to the empire and half to his daughters. But when Roman forces moved in to take their territory they ran amok among the Britons, plundering the king’s property, raping  his daughters and flogging Boudicca. Hence her armed revolt, and you can see why her tribe would rally to her standard, whose first steps were to burn to the ground the nearest three Roman towns, murdering all their inhabitants, before the governor of the province, 250 miles away on the border of Wales, heard the news, marched across country to East Anglia, and exterminated the British forces (p.514).

3. The First Jewish War or Great Jewish Revolt (66 to 73 AD) is also attributable to bad behaviour by the occupying Romans. The middle classes protested against heavy Roman taxation and there were some random attacks on Roman citizens. In response the Roman governor, Gessius Florus, raided the Second Temple (where no non-Jew was allowed to enter) for back payment of the taxes, then arrested senior Jewish figures some of whom he had crucified for disobedience. Bad idea. The rebellion spread like wildfire and pinned down Roman legions in Palestine for the next seven years.

Free movement of goods and people

Another massive effect of the Roman Empire was the free movement of goods and people on an unprecedented scale. Among the ruins of Pompeii has been found an ivory figurine from India, the soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall were buying pepper brought all the way from the Far East. Vast amounts of olive oil (20 million litres per year) were imported to Rome from southern Spain and the province of Africa became the breadbasket for the capital (250,000 tonnes of grain).

Not only goods but people moved vast distances, making lives and careers for themselves thousands of miles from their birthplaces in a way that was unprecedented for most of world history before. Beard exemplifies this astonishing freedom of movement in the story of Barates who was working near Hadrian’s Wall in the second century AD, and built a memorial to his wife who predeceased him and came from just north of London. The point is that Barates himself, as his memorial  records, originally hailed from Syria, 4,000 miles away.

Trade and administration, imports and exports, sending soldiers and administrators to the ends of the known world, involved a huge amount of bureaucracy and organisation, many fragments of which have survived to build up a picture of the empire’s multi-levelled commercial and administrative complexity.

The people, group or ideology this free movement around the entire Mediterranean basin was ultimately to benefit most were the Christians. Familiarity with the life of St Paul shows just how free they were to travel freely and to spread their word to the ‘godfearers’, the groups who attached themselves to Jewish synagogues but couldn’t become full Jews because of their lack of circumcision and/or the food and ritual restrictions, so who were an enthusiastic audience for the non-ethnic, universalising tendency of  the new religion.

It is this principle of openness and assimilation, which characterised Rome from the earliest times when Romulus incorporated members of neighbouring tribes into his nascent settlement, that I briefly describe in the next blog post.


SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

%d bloggers like this: