Was Domitian really a despot?


Ad Honorem
Feb 2014
Colonia Valensiana
Domitian is commonly portrayed in history as a despot, an emperor who refused to play the role of benevolent Princeps of the Republic and instead behaved as a absolute (and divine) ruler of Rome.

However, it seems Domitian was successful in his economic policy, he favored competent people, was harsh in dealing with corruption and tried to uphold public morality.

I'm starting to think Domitian must be given more credit for his governance of the empire.
I not going to another extreme, claiming Domitian was an outstanding emperor, still, why do you think Domitian is remembered as a sort of villain (if a remember it correctly only two emperor's suffered official Damnatio Memoriae and Domitian was one of them).


Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
Caesars were often portrayed in 'evil' terms because at some point they upset someone or were forced to apply harsh measures. Domitian was reputedly a little flakey - Suetonius tells us he locked himself in a bedroom to kill the flies with his stylus, believing they were spying on him. However we know from his recall of Agricola that he was deeply suspicious of his generals and their military clout, and survival as a Caesar was all about getting rid of conspirators before they got rid of you.

Domitian had named himself as a permanent Censor which got uo the nose of the Senate. So as often happened, an emperor popular with the plebs and soldiers created other enemies for himself. He might well have been a good Caesar, but there is reason to be doubtful, and ultimately he made a bad mistake that cost him his life.
Sep 2013
Ontario, Canada
To cite one example that blackened his reputation permanently, Domitian was true to the letter of the law, but to a fault in the eyes of the Roman people. Being the pontifex maximus he ordered three Vestal Virgins to die in 83 CE for immoral behavior (supposedly incest) and the chief Vestal, Cornellia, to be entombed alive.

Though it is true that the rules regarding the Vestals were strict, by the time of Domitian public opinion had shifted and this punishment was viewed as an act of extreme cruelty. Especially when you consider that he was committing many acts of immorality himself (in one instance supposedly he impregnated his niece Julia in an act of incest, then had her murdered when he forced her to undergo an abortion that killed her) something which was seen as hypocrisy and didn't help his image at all.
Mar 2013
He seemed to be unusually harsh in enforcing the law, and, most crucial to his legacy, didn't see the need to treat the Senate like the privileged caste they were. He could have been as harsh as he liked to lower class people, and probably have been praised for it, but senators didn't take kindly to being treated as strictly as everyone else.


Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
It just seems to me that Domitian was something of a loner - he was reputed to consullt a disabled guy (I've seen descriptions of a dwarf or a 'pin-head') - and without close friends or allies he could trust, he was perhaps heavy handed and prone to making more enemies than might have.

Nope, he just happened to alienate the Senate, and all pre-crisis demonized Emperors were enemies of the Senate.
Demonized? Plenty of Caesars were lambasted and that was par for the course in Roman times. One of the distinctions between animals and Mankind in Roman eyes wasn't anything to do with intelligence, tool use, or language, it was the free will and self determination of the individual (which is why the Romans thought of slaves as 'non-human'). Claudius for instance had been pelted with stale crusts during a grain shortage by angry citizens. Augustus had been jeered by the Senate for being to domineering, and Titus, fearing severe embarrasment at the opening games of the Colosseum, had the animal trainer executed when his lions failed to be impressively ferocious. Even Caligula, who made no secret of his scorn for the Senate, was not subject to a damnatio. The issue is therefore not so clear cut.


Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
However, it seems Domitian was successful in his economic policy, he favored competent people, was harsh in dealing with corruption and tried to uphold public morality.
As long ago as the late 19th century, Mommsen made these points. Or at least called him one of Rome's greatest civil administrators.
Jul 2013
Although he has some issues on the matter that scholars have addressed through the years in general I tend to believe Tacitus' overall opinion of Domitian in a bad light. He was there, knew him was and subject to [perhaps culpable in as well] his 'despotism'.
Mar 2013
Breakdancing on the Moon.
The majority of our sources are senatorial in nature so of course they'e going to be anti-imperial in tone. Very few genuinely pro-regime pieces survive but honestly look at the presentation of Tiberius in Paterculus vs others. Economics is usually a good guide to how capable an emperor was: usually one finds depredations focused only at the top 1% and often for various reasons.

I can't think Domitian was a truly nice man. Hypocrite comes to mine as quick as anything but bear in mind he was also doing things like increasing the poor dole and hosting the Alban games as well as sexing up his own niece and abusing the office of censor to destroy his "enemies". Look, even Augustus did some shady things. Titus was considered blameless yet look at his earlier treatment of the Jews.

I'm sure if you were at least an equite living in Rome or one of the near urban centres Domitian would have been quite overbearing (like all emperors) but safe in Corinth or Athens I doubt anybody ever cared who was in charge.

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