Was Domitian loved by Roman citizens?

Feb 2019
We know of course how much the senate despised him and his army probably had a positive view of him because of their increased wages. But what about the rest? Martial wrote that: "No ruler, Caesar, has Rome ever so loved before, and she could not love you more, even were she to desire it."

This account is to be questioned as much as the Roman sources after his death. The former as curry-favor and the latter as bias born out of his disregard for the senate.
Jan 2015
1) It doesn't matter much, the common people's views weren't terribly important next to the army or P.Guard
2) He was probably quite popular. His father had propaganda campaigns in full swing from the time of his ascension, and one imagines they continued for his son. Without any crisis that could be blamed on the emperor it is likely he got the reverence and support any vanilla emperor would have gotten as the de facto head of state, etc. Even a relatively educated public has a tendency, on average, to venerate the aristocracy (see the Royal Family in England today, who have done very little over the years to justify such praise), and the less educated Roman masses would have been even more prone to this sort of thing, especially when everything good can be attributed to them (and when there isn't really anything terribly bad going on). I imagine the pageantry that came with several victorious foreign wars didn't hurt either.

We'll never know for sure, because the surviving records are so few and suspect (for different reasons), but it seems probable he was popular.
Likes: Openminded
That Martial quote is a standard example of the sort of thing panegyrists, court poets and, as you say, anyone else seeking to curry favour would say.

Like Caesarmagnus says, I think it's fair to assume that he was pretty popular simply by being an emperor during a time of relative prosperity. The purges of senators probably mattered little to ordinary people. There were admittedly military failures: Two armies were badly defeated fighting the Dacians, with the praetorian prefect and the governor of Moesia both being killed while commanding in the battles. This in turn governed the decision to divert military resources away from the campaigns in Britain, which came to a halt, in favour of winning the war with the Dacians. Domitian eventually ended the war with the Dacians by agreeing to pay Decebalus an annual subsidy while securing Roman military access through Dacia. Such things weren't great for imperial propaganda, but these issues were geographically distant from most of the empire's subjects.

For a citizen in Rome, there were no civil wars raging in Italy, and Domitian made a decent effort of advertising what victories were won by claiming military triumphs, however well earned they really were. As long as they were being fed and given games, the uneducated masses probably sat in awe of Domitian, a) because he, like other emperors, was presented as being their benefactor, b) simply because he was the emperor, c) because he did claim military victories, and d) because he was also the son and brother of two emperors who were very much accomplished and were also responsible for the Colosseum: Vespasian and Titus (Titus didn't rule very long as emperor, but like his father had fought successfully against the Jewish revolt).

It's also worth noting that the architectural projects of Domitian's administration were especially tailored to fostering a sense of awe. The most extensive expansion of the Palatine residence happened under Domitian. The palace on the Palatine went from being relative modest affair to a colossal behemoth. It included three very large dining halls, and at the end of the middle hall sat Domitian, perched on his own couch, watching his guests from a distance while he bit on an apple, rather than sitting with his guests, as previous emperors had done (he wasn't a big eater, which perhaps added to the sense that he wasn't just another participant in the feast). Similarly, it is claimed that he was among the first emperors to permit himself to be called Dominus in public (after Caligula).

Rome was also strewn with Domitianic building projects and spaces for the public, including a stadium on the Campus Martius (which would have been popular), the equestrian statue in the Forum Romanum, the "Forum of Nerva" (actually the Forum of Domitian), and the beginning of what became the massive Forum of Trajan. His administration restored the library of Rome at great expense after it had burnt down, and it also increased the seating capacity of the Colosseum and added the Colosseum's hypogeum, the underground tunnels used to house animals and slaves. That being said, the people who had to be relocated to make way for the building projects (if not the renovation projects) would not have been very keen on the emperor.
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Likes: Openminded
Feb 2019
Great responses! So it seems that Domitian might have been more popular with his subjects than his brother, since during Titus' reign, Mount Vesuvius erupted and there was also the revolt of a false Nero. Historians have sure to describe how well Titus actually handled these situations, but maybe commoners unaware of his conduct might have just shifted the blame on him.
Nero appears to have been a fairly popular emperor, so it would be interesting to know more about how people reacted to this false Nero, if the sources tell us anything (it's not something that I know much about). An assessment of Titus as a emperor is a bit difficult because a) his reign was so short, and b) later writers set him up as a foil to the tyrannical Domitian - Titus was the good brother. It's notable that conspiracies happened under Domitian as well. One of the twelve or so consulars who ended up being executed was Lucullus, a general in Britain, and Paul Roche has hypothesized that he conspired against Domitian for his having ended campaigning in Britain (no campaigning meant fewer chances for glory and political advancement). Other victims can be linked to possible conspiracies. Roche has argued that Domitian's reign, in terms of emperor-senator relations, became a spiral of conspiracy and violence that went out of control. A conspiracy happens, Domitian responds too vigorously, and this in turn creates an atmosphere of mutual paranoia and deteriorating relations. Eventually, Domitian targeted relatives and freedmen in his own household. The senate had fewer means to recourse than did the imperial household, and it was people in the palace who orchestrated his assassination, albeit with the support of some senators (including, probably, Nerva).
Likes: Openminded
Sep 2013
Ontario, Canada
Domitian was extremely popular with the people and especially the army (whose pay he raised in 84 CE) but was hated by the elites and the Senatorial order. He fancied himself a new Augustus, indeed building more in 15 years of rule than any Emperor since the first one, continuing the efforts of Vespasian and Titus to rebuild the city of Rome after the reign of Nero. Especially his finishing of the Colosseum which reached its final form after extensive renovations during his reign. His reforms of the economic system contributed significantly to the prosperity of the empire in the 2nd century. But he didn't act like Augustus, gradually becoming tyrannical and ordering executions of anyone he suspected. His rift with the Senatorial grew and he alienated his own household, the event which finally triggered his assassination.