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The Dark Side of the Flavians

Contributed by David Verne

In September, Titus falls ill while traveling to the Roman countryside, and ends up dying from an infection after only two years as emperor. He is 41 years old and was remembered for continuing his father's reasonable policies. His younger brother Domitian, who had been ignored by Vespasian, suddenly found himself as the only legal heir. The day after Titus died, Domitian was hailed as emperor by the Senate, who was surprised when Domitian didn't go into mourning and hurried to the Praetorian Camp to gain their support. He would surprise them even more when he upended years of political tradition.

During his time as Vespasian's representative to the Senate, Domitian had realized how ineffective they were, and he saw the traditional policy of the emperors asking the Senate to give their approval before doing something as inefficient. He wanted to model his administration on Augustus, but instead of maintaining the charade of democracy, as Augustus had done, he very loudly and publicly consented power in the Imperial bureaucracy, stripping any remaining power from the Senate. The first example of this was when he deified Titus himself, instead of asking the Senate for permission as Titus had done when he deified Vespasian. Domitian then embarked on a massive round of temple building, hoping to appease the gods and connect his administration with them.

While the elites began to hate the tyrant Domitian was becoming, the common people loved him. He wasn't a tyrant like Nero, who indulged in hedonism, instead he focused on ruthlessly weeding out corruption and simplifying the tax code. He also announced a 1/3 pay raise for the army, and rebased the denarius, increasing its silver content from 90% to 98%. He saw the value of the currency as a matter of personal honor and felt that it reflected badly on him if the currency was debased. [1]

My Take by David Verne
Domitian was definitely a break from what the Senate had been used to. He wasn't a populist like Julius Caesar, but he didn't care for the nobility. He didn't hate the nobility, but he saw them as being in the way of an effective administration. Notably, he gave positions based on merit, and this gave many men of a lower social class an opportunity that they would have never gotten under another emperor. This created an Imperial court of highly loyal, effective men. Domitian was turning out to be an innovative emperor, but his disregard for the elites will come back to haunt him in the end. After his death, the Senate damned his memory and the historians of the time, who were also senators, condemned him as a ruthless tyrant and a black mark on the Flavian family.

See Also


  1. Duncan, Mike (November 22 2009). 75- The Forgotten Son.

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