Emperor Domitian

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: History

  • Most scholars think the Book of Revelation was written during the latter part of Domitian’s reign (81-96CE).
  • Domitian was the last of the Flavian Emperors.
  • Domitian was born at Rome in October 51.
  • His father was Vespasian and his older brother was Titus.
  • Vespasian reigned as Emperor from 69-79, and was followed by his son, Titus.
  • Titus died in 81CE, when he was 42 years old, after ruling for only 26 months.
  • Rumor had it that Domitian had given him a poisoned fish, but this has never been substantiated.
  • Domitian’s early years were not happy ones.
  • When he was a boy, his father was going through a rough period and there was no money for his education. (His elder brother Titus grew up in a more prosperous period and was well educated.)
  • His mother, Domitilla, also died while he was quite young.
  • With his mother gone and his father in the military, Domitian was mostly raised by his uncle, Sabinus, a prefect of Rome.
  • Domitian was 18 when he escaped from death in the burning Capitol during the downfall of Vitellius (Sabinus, however, was killed).
  • He was proclaimed “Caesar” two days after Vitellius’ death.
  • Though a mere lad, he was the visible (and legal) representative of his father, who was out on military campaigns.
  • Though Domitian’s name was on the letterhead, the real power lay in the hands of Mucianus. (Mucianus was the governor of Syria during the Jewish uprising. He failed to put down the revolt and was replaced by Vespasian. When civil war broke out in Rome, he supported Vespasian against Vitellius, the reigning Emperor. While Vespasian remained out in the field, Mucianus went to Rome, arriving the day after Vitellius died. He found Domitian and had him proclaimed as the titular head of affairs. This lasted until Vespasian arrived about a year later and took the rightful position.)
  • Needless to say, Mucianus and Domitian did not always get along.
  • Mucianus overruled several of Domitian’s appointments.
  • Later, they joined forces and went north to fight against some rebels.
  • It was Domitian’s intent to get the German armies to come under his command.
  • That didn’t happen, so the whole campaign rather petered out.
  • Some people think he was planning to rebel against his father, but this, too, has never been substantiated.
  • What is more likely is that he hoped success there would put him in a better light than Titus, of whom he was very jealous.
  • Yet, it would be Titus who insisted to their father that there was nothing to those rumors.
  • After his father was declared Caesar, Domitian shared in the privileges of the regime, but was given no position of influence or authority.
  • To occupy his time, Domitian wrote poetry and did poetry readings at public gatherings.
  • He also wrote a book entitled, “On Care of the Hair”. This might have been in response to his own baldness.
  • Basically, he was unemployed and unemployable.
  • Scholars think he tried to make the best of things, but he was bitterly disappointed to have nothing to do.
  • Things did not improve for him even after Titus took the throne.
  • Because Titus did not have any sons, it was always assumed that Domitian would inherit the title.
  • It has been rumored that Domitian believed his father wanted his two sons to be co-emperors but that Titus prevented that from happening.
  • Whether or not that is true, there was considerable animosity between the brothers, and Titus refrained from giving Domitian any responsibility (or training) in government.
  • Even if Domitian did have a hand in removing Titus from office, he honored his memory after his death. (This might have been politically wise, since Titus was a popular emperor.)
  • Domitian married the daughter of one of Nero’s generals.
  • After a time, he dismissed her and had relations with his niece, Julia, the daughter of Titus.
  • It is believed that Julia died from having an abortion, which Domitian insisted she have.
  • Domitian had rather loose moral habits yet authored strict legislation forbidding others from engaging in similar behavior.
  • He was rather eccentric and enjoyed gladiatorial fights – though he claimed he couldn’t tolerate the sight of blood.
  • Despite his own loose behavior, he demanded austere legal correctness.
  • Three vestal virgins were killed for immorality. The chief vestal was buried alive for the same offense.
  • This may have been in response to an over zealous reverence for Roman religion.
  • In addition to thinking himself divine, he worshiped the goddess Minerva.
  • · He felt that everyone should worship the Roman gods, if for no other reason than plain gratitude for the Pax Romana – the Roman peace.
  • He was also fascinated with Greek culture.
  • As emperor, he was known to be a meticulous administrator, eventually relying less and less upon his advisors (which pleased the populace and irritated the elite).
  • He also engaged in many building projects, which meant expenditures were very high.
  • He was ruthless in collecting official revenues imposing a special tax on Jews whom he referred to as atheists because they would not worship the Roman gods.
  • There is no scholarly consensus on whether Domitian actively persecuted Christians.
  • Traditionally, ancient writers (Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius) depicted him as being ruthless and vindictive. But now scholars recognize that they were writing post-Domitian, during the reign of Trajan, when it was perhaps politically expedient to present him in that manner.
  • Domitian was murdered in September 96, in a palace conspiracy, which included his first wife.
  • In many respects, his reign remains ambiguous. Some believed him to be an effective administrator and promoter of Roman religion; others thought he was lazy and immoral.
  • He was a solitary man and very forthright about his policies, which did not endear him to the senate. It is no wonder that history has not been kind to him. But whether or not he deserved his reputation remains a mystery.


Aune, David, E. "Revelation." Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1997.

Barclay, William. "Revelation." Daily Study Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press. 1975.

Boring, M. Eugene. "Revelation." Interpretation. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press. 1989.

Gaebelein, Frank. "Revelation." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 1985.

Keck, Leander. "Revelation." New Interpreter's Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1995.

Osborne, Grant. "Revelation." Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002.

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