“No, no, it is certainly not our intention to rehabilitate the Roman emperor Domitian,” says British ancient historian Claire Stocks (University of Newcastle) over a cup of tea in the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO) in Leiden. An exhibition has just opened there about Domitian, who then had to close unexpectedly quickly due to the Omikron lockdown. The exhibition has been open again since the last press conference. Stocks is one of the compilers.
The protagonist is a Roman emperor who reigned between 81-96, succeeding his father Vespasian and his brother Titus. Emperor Domitian is traditionally regarded as a bad emperor, from the ranks of Caligula, Nero and Caracalla. And like most doomed emperors, he too died of murder. And after Domitian, what has been called the Golden Age of the Roman Empire since the eighteenth century began: with ‘wise’ emperors such as Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.
Over her tea, Stocks explains that Domitian’s bad reputation is partly due to the powerful propaganda of his successors. They started an entirely new dynasty and wanted to distance themselves from the last emperor of the previous dynasty, “just as Domitian’s father Vespasian strongly opposed his predecessor Nero, also the last of his dynasty.” After his death, Domitian was described as a paranoid tyrant by Roman historians such as Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio.
Those stereotypes have persisted to this day. “In the nineteenth century, when the science of history emerged, those texts were put on a pedestal,” says Nathalie de Haan, when we meet her at the exhibition. She is one of the other curators of the exhibition at Radboud University. “Historians did not think critically about the judgment of the emperors at the time. The emperors and their lives were regarded as great examples for the politics of the time, for better or for worse. It was not noticed that the deeds of those supposedly bad emperors sometimes differed only slightly from the so-called good ones,” said De Haan.
In science, that picture has been nuanced in recent decades. Stocks: „We also have texts from the time of Domitian himself, by the poets Martialis and Statius, which are much more positive. It is also clear that there was a great cultural flourishing under Domitian.” Sometimes those earlier poets also write positively about events that are later described very negatively, such as a dinner of senators with Domitian. Stocks: “It’s fascinating to compare that! Without a total judgment about good or bad; you should not step into that trap. We want to answer here the question of why Domitian has been forgotten. This exhibition is therefore not a rehabilitation, but a resurrection!”
Whoever enters the exhibition is the first to see a beautiful bust of Domitian, illuminated in such a way that the imperial eyes are hidden in deep shadows. In contrast, behind the white marble statue is a huge video image of a mysterious looking, silent young man – in color. We will never know the person Domitian, Stocks says resignedly.
Whoever looks at Domitian’s administrative actions does indeed see an ‘ordinary’ emperor, who erects beautiful public buildings in Rome, properly organizes the food supply of the people of Rome and also efficiently secures the borders of the empire. The exhibition deals with his isolated childhood as the youngest son of the high Roman army commander Vespasian, who became emperor more or less by accident. Not much is known about that youth, but it shows what constituted a normal elite youth in first century Rome. For example, you can see a few original bullae: an amulet in which some baby hairs were processed. A rich child always wore it from childhood, until he or she took it off and sacrificed when entering adulthood.
The enormous wealth of the Roman elite is shown with video reconstructions of Dominitian’s birthplace and breathtakingly beautiful original frescoes from Pompeii. Only when Domitian’s older brother Titus dies unexpectedly after only two years of emperorship, Domitian comes to the center of power. No problem, the younger brother continues the successful policy of the new Flavian dynasty. In the exhibition we see his imposing palaces in beautiful video reconstructions, the many small but propagandistically effective coins, and of course marble heads of Flavian women with their striking raised hair style, which then became popular throughout the empire.
In the second part of the exhibition it becomes clear how things went wrong: the young emperor increasingly ignored the hollow pretensions of the senate. Nathalie de Haan: „A hundred years earlier Augustus had destroyed the republic, but he pretended to have restored the republic. That facade mattered, a good emperor had a good relationship with the otherwise rather impotent senate, in which the highest elite of the empire had a seat. Domitian dropped out of that role.” First, Domitian let himself ‘dominus and deus’lord and god, by which he set himself above all mortals — even above the immensely wealthy senators. And like almost every emperor, Domitian had political opponents eliminated, but after a failed conspiracy, those sometimes indiscriminate killings only got worse. Both the senators and the emperor feared for their lives almost permanently.
The senate elite wins that race and that seals the reputation of the last Flavian emperor. The exhibition therefore starts directly with the sinister ending. The murder of Domitian, planned by his closest collaborators together with senators, is depicted quite graphically in Leiden with a dramatic Roman dagger next to a large statue of the emperor. And with the strong story that the then 44-year-old emperor must have breathed a sigh of relief in the morning. For his death had been prophesied just before that morning, but fortunately, his servants told him that it was already twelve o’clock! That turned out to be a lie, because before the middle of the day really got there, the murderers struck. Domitian had been told the wrong time on purpose, Suetonius later wrote.
The successor was already ready, the old senator Nerva. Also, Domitian’s name was cursed by the senate, his memory had to be erased. This action is concretely shown in the exhibition in a bushel used in Roman tax payments, from which the name of the cursed emperor has been carefully removed. Throwing it away would be a shame.
#Domitian #Paranoid #Tyrant #Ordinary #Emperor
Leave a Reply