Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Today In History: It all depends on who you ask...

On this date in the year 81, Domitian took over the reins of the Roman Empire from his older brother, Titus.

The traditional historical narrative has Domitian as a bad seed; maybe not a Nero or a Commodus, but plenty bad, nonetheless. Of course, as the Wikipedia entry points out, pretty much all the surviving first-hand accounts of him were written by people with axes to grind and, of course, later accounts are based on the primary stuff, and so on and so on. Imagine trying to piece together the Bush and Obama years two millennia later with only Michael Moore and Ann Coulter as primary sources.

The cards were stacked against Domitian ever growing up to be a popular extrovert. His mom and older sister both died when he was in his teens. Meanwhile, his older brother was commanding a legion in his dad's armies. While Vespasian and Number One Son were conquering foes, putting down rebellions, and winning civil wars, Domitian was left in Rome under the care of his uncle.

When civil war flared in the Year of the Four Emperors, Domitian and his uncle were effectively behind enemy lines in Rome, half an empire away from Vespasian and Golden Boy Titus and their legions. After a running street fight between his uncle's bodyguard and the troops of Emperor Vitellius, 18-year-old Domitian saw his uncle cut down like a dog and only escaped himself by scampering off down alleyways in drag.

Then dad and older brother show up with the troops, everybody gets all imperial, and Older Brother becomes, in effect, co-ruler with Dad, dating exotic foreign queens and given triumphal parades while Domitian is given a token military command, which he muffed, and then is shunted off into a series of makework offices and sinecures, twiddling his thumbs and nursing a grudge.

When he finally became emperor himself, he largely ignored his old man's political cronies and army buddies in the Senate and ran the empire directly from his office in the palace, and he had no qualms about having senators tried and executed if they got too far cross-threaded with him. It's notable that his tenure was longer than his dad's and brother's combined, and the economy got healthier and the people didn't seem particularly upset about him, while provincial armies were slightly less revolt-prone than average. Domitian was an aloof, prickly individual, who never let anybody get really close (unsurprising, given his childhood,) but he definitely made the sedan chairs run on time.

In the end, though, he was put down by a palace conspiracy. The Senate immediately installed one of Domitian's dad's old political buddies in his place, and then sat down to vote his name off the monuments and write unflattering biographies. Or at least so says this theory. It's certainly a plausible one.


Anonymous said...

If you want to read a really great book about the Roman Empire, get a copy of "For Those About to Die"
Absolutely a great read and it shows the parallels between the last days of the empire and our current situation here.

Nathan said...

Sounds like he might have been the Roman Calvin Coolidge...

Ed Foster said...

We might learn a few things from the Flavians. Sadly for Rome, there were only three of them, but they did some good things while they were around.

Like kicking some serious enemy butt, massively strengthening borders, revalueing the currency, and cutting taxes. Not to mention the colosseum, which is still putting tourist money in the local coffers 20 centuries after it was built.

Kinda like Ronnie Reagan on steroids. One hell of a 27 years.

Neutrino Cannon said...

My old Latin teacher was definitely of the opinion that at best, Suetonius was slightly above the level of malicious slander. I've wondered just how much of an unfair legacy Tiberius has gotten and for similar reasons.

That said, based on nothing more then Lives of the Twelve Caesars, I am convinced that Vespasian was a laugh riot at parties.

Anonymous said...

Imperator Flavius Mauricius Tiberius Augustus would probably sympathize with this one.

Ulises from CA.