Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.
This edited article about Domitian originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 762 published on 21st August 1976.
When we think of the assassination of a Roman leader, we think at once of the conspirators who plunged their daggers into Julius Caesar in the Senate House on the fatal Ides of March. But a hundred years later the Roman Emperor, Domitian, was also stabbed to death, the victim of a plot hatched because of his unpopularity.
Many of the emperors seemed to vie with each other in their despotism and cruelty, and Domitian was anxious to excel them. Once, when he read a history book he didn’t like, he had the author put to death, and the slaves who acted as the author’s copyists were crucified.
A chance remark by a Thracian watching a gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum was enough to have the man dragged from his seat at the Emperor’s command and, with a placard tied around his neck reading, “A Thracian supporter who spoke evil of his Emperor,” attacked by dogs in the arena.
Domitian put senators to death on the most trivial of charges. The Emperor stole one senator’s wife, and the senator, after he had made a flippant remark about it, was executed. Another died because he gave two of his slaves the names of Carthaginian leaders – the Carthaginians were Rome’s traditional enemies. When Sallustius Lucullus, who was Governor-General of Britain, allowed a new type of lance to be called “the Lucullan”, he, too, was executed for being so presumptuous.
Domitian was the son of the tenth Caesar, Vespasian, and the young brother of the eleventh, Titus, who had died in A.D. 81 after reigning for only two years. He had been a good Emperor, and the Romans mourned him as though they had suffered a personal loss. They were soon to grieve still more when Domitian was making his cruelty felt across the Empire.
Domitian was 30 when he became, on his brother’s death, the most powerful man in the world. He was a big, well-built man, very proud of his good looks. He had a ruddy face and large, rather weak eyes. Later, he lost his hair and developed a paunch, despite his writing a manual called “Care of the Hair.” His baldness made him extremely sensitive, although once he wrote wistfully: “I am resigned to having an old man’s head before my time. How pleasant it is to be elegant, yet how quickly that stage passes.”
Domitian hated any form of exercise. When he was in Rome he hardly ever went for a walk and during campaigns and travels preferred to be carried in a litter rather than to ride a horse. Yet he was an exceptionally good archer. He shot hundreds of animals on his Alban estate near Rome. Many eye-witnesses reported that he sometimes brought down a quarry with two successive arrows so cleverly placed in the head as to resemble two horns. Occasionally he would demonstrate his skill by telling a slave to stand at a distance and hold out one hand; then he would shoot arrows between the slaves fingers with amazing accuracy.
His other skills were even more bizarre. One of his favourite pastimes was playing dice.
It was in keeping with Domitian’s lazy nature that watching games in which other people had to exert themselves fascinated him. At the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus, the two great stadiums of ancient Rome, he staged two-horse races, battles for infantry and for cavalry: a sea-fight in the Colosseum: wild-beast hunts and gladiatorial shows by torchlight in which women as well as men took part. At his orders a lake was dug close to the River Tiber, which runs through Rome, and used for almost full-scale naval battles, which the Emperor watched even in heavy rain.
Domitian’s reign soon became so cruel that it was inevitable that the Romans should rebel against him. Finally, when he was absent from the city the rebels rose under the leadership of Lucius Antonius. There were not enough of them and they depended for success on the help of an army of German barbarians, who had agreed to join them. It was winter and the Germans had to cross the frozen River Rhine in order to link up with the rebel Roman soldiers. Then, at the crucial moment, the ice melted and the Germans were unable to move. The loyal Roman soldiers disarmed the rebels. Domitian’s reign continued.
But the rebellion made Domitian an even more dangerous man. He forbade any two legions to share a camp or any individual soldier to have savings of more than ten pounds (that was about a year’s salary for a soldier), because he believed that the rebel officer Lucius Antonius had used soldiers’ savings to finance his rebellion. And everywhere he was searching out malcontents as possible revolutionaries, and condemning innocent and guilty alike.
Domitian was not much of a scholar or a wit; but one day he was heard to remark: “All Emperors are necessarily wretched, since only their assassination can convince the public that the conspiracies against their lives are real.” It was a prophetic remark.
One day in A.D. 95 the Emperor woke up in a state of fear and trembling. He had had a terrible dream, he told his attendants, in which a golden hump had sprouted from his back. Like all Romans, Domitian was very credulous, believing in any kind of portent or omen. This dream, he deduced, meant that the Roman Empire would be a far richer and happier place when he was gone, and that certainly turned out to be the truth.
Then, a little while later, a raven perched on the roof of the Capitol, the building where the statue of Jove was kept. Someone said that it croaked out the words “All will be well” before flying off. That, decided the Roman populace, must be a portent – and it was left to a wag to explain it thus:
“There was a raven, strange to tell,
Perched upon Jove’s own gable, whence
He came to tell us ‘All is well’ –
But used, of course, the future tense.”
Superstitious Domitian added up all these things in his mind and was convinced that some day soon he would be assassinated. Roman soothsayers were even able to indicate the date when influences would be particularly bad, when someone, the Emperor deduced, would kill him. A long time ago, he remembered, his own father, Vespasian, had teased him openly at dinner for refusing a dish of mushrooms. “It would be more in keeping with your destiny to be afraid of swords,” his father jibed.
Daily, the Emperor became more jittery. The gallery where he was accustomed to pace up and down in the mornings was now lined with plaques of highly-polished moonstone, which reflected everything that happened behind his back. To remind his staff that even the best intentions could never justify an official’s complicity in his master’s murder, he executed his secretary, who had reputedly helped the former Emperor Nero to commit suicide after everyone else had deserted him.
Suddenly Rome was engulfed by continuous storms. Domitian cried out: “Let the Almighty strike wherever he pleases!” He was convinced that all the bad weather portended his own death. The Almighty, or at least his lightning, did strike everywhere, too, including the palace and Domitian’s own bedroom. A hurricane wrenched the inscription plate from the base of one of the Emperor’s triumphal statues and what some people might describe as faulty workmanship was at once attributed to the growing nearness of Domitian’s death.
And the Romans, who knew how to get rid of evil Emperors, were as convinced as was Domitian that he must soon die. The only questions were as to who would do the killing and on what final pretext. Both were speedily answered. On a whim the Emperor suddenly ordered the death of his half-witted cousin, the consul Flavius. That was enough for the Romans.
A group of conspirators got together and debated whether it would be better to murder Domitian in his bath or at dinner. Before the question was resolved they were approached by Stephanus, a steward at the palace, who offered his services. Stephanus had been accused of embezzlement and therefore was particularly anxious for the Emperor’s death. He was chosen to do the murder.
For several days Stephanus feigned an arm injury and went around with a dagger concealed in the woollen bandages. Then, when he knew that Domitian was about to take a bath, he went to Parthenius, the Emperor’s valet, and told him that he had discovered a plot against Domitian’s life and must speak to the Emperor at once about it.
Parthenius hurried to tell Domitian, who dismissed his attendants and told the valet he would see Stephanus in the Imperial bedroom. There Stephanus produced a list of names and while the Emperor was reading it Stephanus suddenly produced the dagger hidden in his bandages and stabbed Domitian in the groin.
In an alcove in the bedroom a slave boy was attending to the household-gods, which was his usual evening duty, and it was he who later described the assassination, which he witnessed, in great detail.
As soon as the first blow was struck, the Emperor grappled with Stephanus and screamed at the boy to hand him the dagger which was kept under his pillow, and then run for help. The boy did as he was told, but the dagger proved to have no blade and the door to the servants’ quarters was locked.
Domitian fell on top of Stephanus and they both rolled on the floor. But another door to the bedroom was unlocked and suddenly opened, bringing more conspirators to the aid of Stephanus. There were four of them: Clodianus, an officer; Maximus, who was a servant of the valet Parthenius; Satur, a palace official, and one of the Imperial gladiators. With their daggers they stabbed Domitian to death.
The Emperor’s body was taken away on a litter by the public undertakers, who buried the common people, and cremated by his old nurse in her garden on the Latin Way. She was one of the few who mourned Domitian; the rest of Rome went wild with joy.