Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Professor E.T. Salmon
The emperor Domitian has until quite recently suffered from a very unfavorable historical reputation. Doubt has now been cast upon the merit of specific aspects of this tradition, but there still has been no attempt to analyze it as a whole. This dissertation was undertaken for the purpose of examining the formative stages of the tradition and determining the precise reasons for Domitian's condemnation.
The origin of this unfavorable tradition may be traced back to the period immediately after Domitian's assassination, when his memory was formally condemned by the Senate, and specifically to two senatorial critics, Tacitus and Pliny the Younger. Accordingly, the first three chapters of this dissertation are devoted to a point by point analysis of their respective portraits of Domitian.
Tacitus' Agricola is the subject of chapter one. Criticism of Domitian is limited for the most part to the prologue (chapters 1-3), the narrative of Agricola's life in Rome after his return from Britain (chapters 39-42), and the epilogue (chapters 43-46). Tacitus' characterization of Domitian as a doceitful emperor who was jealous and afraid of his subordinates proves to be unwarranted, the product of malice, innuendo, half-truths, and lies. Writing in the immediate aftermath of Domitian's assassination, his purpose seems to have been to defend his loyal services to the res publica during Domitian's reign while acquitting himself of any suspicion of collusion with the tyrant, from whom he benefited politically.
Chapter Two analyses four scenes in Tacitus' Historiae which involve Domitian--the bellum Capitolinum, the sacking of Rome by the Flavian army, Domitian's conduct in Rome during his urban praetorship, and his conduct while on campaign with Mucianus in Gaul--and compares them with the contrasting account of the pro-Flavian writer Iosephus. While neither historian's account of the bellum Capitolinum is found to be totally reliable, Iosophus' narrative of the last three scenes is the more accurate of the two accounts. Here Tacitus once again resorts to serious distortion of fact to produce a characterization of Domitian consistent with imperial propoganda and the senatorial damnatio memoriae.
The Epistulae and Panegyricus of Pliny the Younger are the subject of chapter three. Pliny's political career had also prospered under Domitian, and his shrill condemnation of the deceased emperor constitutes a transparent attempt to placate those who believed that he has served too enthusiastically and profited too much. Epistula iv.11, an account of the trial and condemnation of the vestal Cornella, is his only attempt at a narrative treatment of Domitian's crimes in the Letters. There Pliny uses the same methods of distortion employed by Tacitus in the Agricola, but with less subtlety and consistency. In the Panegyricus, Pliny emphasizes Trajan's virtues--the traditional virtues of the good prince--by contrasting them with five rhetorical vices ascribed to Domitian: cowardice, arrogance, cruelty, avarice, and hostility to virtue. In each instance Pliny is compelled seriously to distort the evidence in order to make his portrait of Domitian conform to the rhetorical model of the tyrant.
Given the inaccuracy of the accounts of Tacitus and Pliny, in chapter four an attempt is made to trace the evolution of Domitian's relationship with the Senate, and to determine the precise aspects of his policy and personal behavior which caused their relationship to break down. It is argued that during the early years of the reign their relationship was amicable, but that it was during this period that Domitian was persuaded by his lack of auctoritas to pursue policies meant to strengthen his position which in fact proved detrimental to it. His monopoly of the eponymous consulship, his arrogation of the censorial power for life, and his courtship of the army and neglect of the Senate, combined with his tactless fondness for display of the trappings of monarchy, aroused sufficient discontent and resentment in the Senate in 84-85 A.D. to spawn conspiracies. Two serious conspiracies originating within the Senate were suppressed in 87 and 89 A.D., with the elimination of both active conspirators and potential but unproven rivals. With the subsequent destruction of the Stoic party in 93, Domitian revealed an in inflexible determination to stifle even the most harmless forms of senatorial opposition. The atmosphere of repression which existed within the Senate during the last three years of the reign was sufficiently severe for most senators to believe that they were exposed to a reign of terror. The damnatio memories which followed Domitian's assassination, and the subsequent unfavorable literary tradition attached to his name, were a reaction to the severe repression of this three year period.
Evans, John Karl, "Senatorial History and the Principate of Domitian" (1974). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 986.