The Roman emperor Domitian (51-96), in full Titus Flavius Domitianus Augustus, though reputed to be a complete tyrant, modernized Rome's fiscal administration and secured the empire's frontiers.
Born in Rome on Oct. 24, 51, the younger son of Vespasian, Domitian came to the throne when his brother Titus died young after only 2 years of rule. From the start Domitian reigned as a complete autocrat, partly perhaps because of his lack of political skills, but partly certainly because of his own nature. Domitian was personally suspicious and unlovable, and the relations between him and those around him began ill and ended worse.
Domitian's reign can be considered under two main heads: his administration, which was excellent, and his frontier policy, which was generally successful. Provincial government was so carefully supervised that the Roman biographer Suetonius admits that the empire enjoyed a period of unusually good government and security. Domitian's policy of employing members of the equestrian class rather than his own freedmen for some important posts was also a step forward. The finances, which Titus's fecklessness had plunged into confusion, were restored despite building projects and foreign wars.
Religion was a special concern of Domitian, and he vigorously strove to breathe life again into the ancient Roman faith; he built temples and established ceremonies and even tried to enforce morality by law. This zeal for religion may explain the hostility of the Christian writers, for though he was not a persecutor of Christians, he was an ardent propagator of paganism.
The northern frontiers needed Domitian's special attention. His governor Agricola pushed the conquest of Britain into Scotland, invaded the Highlands, and even proposed to add all Ireland to the empire after subduing Scotland. Tacitus, Agricola's son-in-law, writes that Agricola's recall in 84 was due to Domitian's jealousy, but more probably it reflected increasing concern with dangers on the Rhine-Danube frontier.
In Germany, Domitian himself took the field, continuing and extending his father's policy of shortening the frontier by annexing the triangle between the Rhine and Danube. The latter part of the reign saw increasing trouble on the lower Danube from the Dacians, a tribe occupying approximately what is now Romania. Led by an able king, Decebalus, the Dacians in 85 invaded the empire. The war ended in 88 in a compromise peace which left Decebalus as king and gave him Roman "foreign aid" in return for his promise to help protect the frontier (chiefly against himself).
One of the reasons Domitian failed to crush the Dacians was a revolt in Germany by the governor Antonius Saturninus. The revolt was quickly suppressed, but henceforth Domitian's always suspicious temper grew steadily worse. It was, of course, the people nearest him who suffered, and after a reign of terror at court Domitian was murdered on Sept. 18, 96, in a plot to which even his own wife, Domitia Longina, was a party. The Senate, which had always hated him, hastened to condemn his memory and repeal his acts, and Domitian joined the ranks of the tyrants of considerable accomplishments but evil memory. He was the last of the Flavian emperors, and his murder marked the beginning of the period of the so-called Five Good Emperors.
Further Reading on Domitian
Among the ancient sources, Tacitus's Agricola and Pliny the Younger's Panegyric are viciously hostile; Suetonius's Lives of the Twelve Caesars is scandalous but less rancorous. Among modern works, M.I. Rostovtzeff, Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (1926; 2d rev. ed. 1957), and B. W. Henderson, Five Roman Emperors (1927), are the fullest and fairest.
Additional Biography Sources
Jones, Brian W., The Emperor Domitian, London; New York: Routledge, 1992.