The Life of Domitian, 1–8

Suetonius  translated by J. C. Rolfe

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1Domitian was born on the ninth day before the Kalends of November of the year when his father was consul elect and was about to enter on the office in the following month, in a street of the sixth region called “the Pomegranate,” in a house which he afterwards converted into a temple of the Flavian family. He is said to have passed the period of his boyhood and his early youth in great poverty and infamy. For he did not possess a single piece of plate and it is a well known fact that Claudius Pollio, a man of praetorian rank, against whom Nero’s poem entitled “The One-eyed Man” is directed, preserved a letter in Domitian’s handwriting and sometimes exhibited it, in which the future emperor promised him an assignation; and there have not been wanting those who declared that Domitian was also debauched by Nerva, who succeeded him. 2In the war with Vitellius he took refuge in the Capitol with his paternal uncle Sabinus and a part of the forces under him. When the enemy forced an entrance and the temple was fired, he hid during the night with the guardian of the shrine, and in the morning, disguised in the garb of a follower of Isis and mingling with the priests of that fickle superstition, he went across the Tiber with a single companion to the mother of one of his school-fellows. There he was so effectually concealed, that though he was closely followed, he could not be found, in spite of a thorough search. 3It was only after the victory that he ventured forth and after being hailed as Caesar, he assumed the office of city praetor with consular powers, but only in name, turning over all the judicial business to his next colleague. But he exercised all the tyranny of his high position so lawlessly, that it was even then apparent what sort of a man he was going to be. Not to mention all details, after making free with the wives of many men, he went so far as to marry Domitia Longina, who was the wife of Aelius Lamia, and in a single day he assigned more than twenty positions in the city and abroad, which led Vespasian to say more than once that he was surprised that he did not appoint the emperor’s successor with the rest.

2He began an expedition against Gaul and the Germanies, which was uncalled for and from which his father’s friends dissuaded him, merely that he might make himself equal to his brother in power and rank. For this he was reprimanded, and to give him a better realisation of his youth and position, he had to live with his father, and when they appeared in public he followed the emperor’s chair and that of his brother in a litter, while he also attended their triumph over Judaea riding on a white horse. Moreover, of his six consulships only one was a regular one, and he obtained that only because his brother gave place to him and recommended his appointment.

2He himself too made a remarkable pretence of modesty and especially of an interest in poetry, an art which had previously been as unfamiliar to him as it was later despised and rejected, and he even gave readings in public. Yet in spite of all this, when Vologaesus, king of the Parthians, had asked for auxiliaries against the Alani and for one of Vespasian’s sons as their leader, Domitian used every effort to have himself sent rather than Titus; and because the affair came to nothing, he tried by gifts and promises to induce other eastern kings to make the same request.

3On the death of his father he hesitated for some time whether to offer a double largess to the soldiers, and he never had any compunction about saying that he had been left a partner in the imperial power, but that the will had been tampered with. And from that time on he never ceased to plot against his brother secretly and openly, until Titus was seized with a dangerous illness, when Domitian ordered that he be left for dead, before he had actually drawn his last breath. And after his death he bestowed no honour upon him, save that of deification, and he often assailed his memory in ambiguous phrases, both in his speeches and in his edicts.

3At the beginning of his reign he used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly-sharpened stylus. Consequently when someone once asked whether anyone was in there with Caesar, Vibius Crispus made the witty reply: “Not even a fly.” Then he saluted his wife Domitia as Augusta. He had had a son by her in his second consulship, whom he lost the second year after he became emperor; he divorced her because of her love for the actor Paris, but could not bear the separation and soon took her back, alleging that the people demanded it.

2In his administration of the government he for some time showed himself inconsistent, with about an equal number of virtues and vices, but finally he turned the virtues also into vices; for so far as one may guess, it was contrary to his natural disposition that he was made rapacious through need and cruel through fear.

4He constantly gave grand and costly entertainments, both in the amphitheatre and in the Circus, where in addition to the usual races between two-horse and four-horse chariots, he also exhibited two battles, one between forces of infantry and the other by horsemen; and he even gave a naval battle in the amphitheatre. Besides he gave hunts of wild beasts, gladiatorial shows at night by the light of torches, and not only combats between men but between women as well. He was always present too at the games given by the quaestors, which he revived after they had been abandoned for some time, and invariably granted the people the privilege of calling for two pairs of gladiators from his own school, and brought them in last in all the splendour of the court. 2During the whole of every gladiatorial show there always stood at his feet a small boy clad in scarlet, with an abnormally small head, with whom he used to talk a great deal, and sometimes seriously. At any rate, he was overheard to ask him if he knew why he had decided at the last appointment day to make Mettius Rufus praefect of Egypt. He often gave sea-fights almost with regular fleets, having dug a pool near the Tiber and surrounded it with seats; and he continued to witness the contests amid heavy rains.

3He also celebrated Secular games, reckoning the time, not according to the year when Claudius had last given them, but by the previous calculation of Augustus. In the course of these, to make it possible to finish a hundred races on the day of the contests in the Circus, he diminished the number of laps from seven to five.

4He also established a quinquennial contest in honour of Jupiter Capitolinus of a threefold character, comprising music, riding, and gymnastics, and with considerably more prizes than are awarded nowadays. For there were competitions in prose declamation both in Greek and in Latin; and in addition to those of the lyre-players, between choruses of such players and in the lyre alone, without singing; while in the stadium there were races even between maidens. He presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, while by his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales, similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well. He celebrated the Quinquatria too every year in honour of Minerva at his Alban villa, and established for her a college of priests, from which men were chosen by lot to act as officers and give splendid shows of wild beasts and stage plays, besides holding contests in oratory and poetry.

5He made a present to the people of three hundred sesterces each on three occasions, and in the course of one of his shows in celebration of the feast of the Seven Hills gave a plentiful banquet, distributing large baskets of victuals to the senate and knights, and smaller ones to the commons; and he himself was the first to begin to eat. On the following day he scattered gifts of all sorts of things to be scrambled for, and since the greater part of these fell where the people sat, he had five hundred tickets thrown into each section occupied by the senatorial and equestrian orders.

5He restored many splendid buildings which had been destroyed by fire, among them the Capitolium, which had again been burned, but in all cases with the inscription of his own name only, and with no mention of the original builder. Furthermore, he built a new temple on the Capitoline hill in honour of Jupiter Custos and the forum which now bears the name of Nerva; likewise a temple to the Flavian family, a stadium, an Odeum, and a pool for sea-fights. From the stone used in this last the Circus Maximus was afterwards rebuilt, when both sides of it had been destroyed by fire.

6His campaigns he undertook partly without provocation and partly of necessity. That against the Chatti was uncalled for, while the one against the Sarmatians was justified by the destruction of a legion with its commander. He made two against the Dacians, the first when Oppius Sabinus an ex-consul was defeated, and the second on the overthrow of Cornelius Fuscus, prefect of the praetorian guard, to whom he had entrusted the conduct of the war. After several battles of varying success he celebrated a double triumph over the Chatti and the Dacians. His victories over the Sarmatians he commemorated merely by the offering of a laurel crown to Jupiter of the Capitol.

2A civil war which was set on foot by Lucius Antonius, governor of Upper Germany, was put down in the emperor’s absence by a remarkable stroke of good fortune; for at the very hour of the battle the Rhine suddenly thawed and prevented his barbarian allies from crossing over to Antonius. Domitian learned of this victory through omens before he actually had news of it, for on the very day when the decisive battle was fought a magnificent eagle enfolded his statue at Rome with its wings, uttering exultant shrieks; and soon afterwards the report of Antony’s death became so current, that several went so far as to assert positively that they had seen his head brought to Rome.

7He made many innovations also in common customs. He did away with the distribution of food to the people and revived that of formal dinners. He added two factions of drivers in the Circus, with gold and purple as their colours, to the four former ones. He forbade the appearance of actors on the stage, but allowed the practice of their art in private houses. He prohibited the castration of males, and kept down the price of the eunuchs that remained in the hands of the slave dealers. 2Once upon the occasion of a plentiful wine crop, attended with a scarcity of grain, thinking that the fields were neglected through too much attention to the vineyards, he made an edict forbidding anyone to plant more vines in Italy and ordering that the vineyards in the provinces be cut down, or but half of them at most be left standing; but he did not persist in carrying out the measure. He opened some of the most important offices of the court to freedmen and Roman knights. 3He prohibited the uniting of two legions in one camp and the deposit of more than a thousand sesterces by any one soldier at headquarters, because it was clear that Lucius Antonius had been especially led to attempt a revolution by the amount of such deposits in the combined winter quarters of two legions. He increased the pay of the soldiers one fourth, by the addition of three gold pieces each year.

8He administered justice scrupulously and conscientiously, frequently holding special sittings on the tribunal in the Forum. He rescinded such decisions of the Hundred Judges as were made from interested motives. He often warned the arbiters not to grant claims for freedom made under false pretences. He degraded jurors who accepted bribes, together with all their associates. 2He also induced the tribunes of the commons to prosecute a corrupt aedile for extortion, and to ask the senate to appoint jurors in the case. He took such care to exercise restraint over the city officials and the governors of the provinces, that at no time were they more honest or just, whereas after his time we have seen many of them charged with all manner of offences. 3Having undertaken the correction of public morals, he put an end to the licence at the theatres, where the general public occupied the seats reserved for the knights; did away with the prevailing publication of scurrilous lampoons, in which distinguished men and women were attacked, and imposed ignominious penalties on their authors; expelled an ex-quaestor from the senate, because he was given to acting and dancing; deprived notorious women of the use of litters, as well as of the right to receive inheritances and legacies; struck the name of a Roman knight from the list of jurors, because he had taken back his wife after divorcing her and charging her with adultery; condemned several men of both orders, offenders against the Scantinian law; and the incest of Vestal virgins, condoned even by his father and his brother, he punished severely in divers ways, at first by capital punishment, and afterwards in the ancient fashion. 4For while he allowed the sisters Oculata and also Varronilla free choice of the manner of their death, and banished their paramours, he later ordered that Cornelia, a chief-vestal who had been acquitted once but after a long interval again arraigned and found guilty, be buried alive; and her lovers were beaten to death with rods in the Comitium, with the exception of an ex-praetor, whom he allowed to go into exile, because he admitted his guilt while the case was still unsettled and the examination and torture of the witnesses had led to no result. 5To protect the gods from being dishonoured with impunity by any sacrilege, he caused a tomb which one of his freedmen had built for his son from stones intended for the temple of Jupiter of the Capitol to be destroyed by the soldiers and the bones and ashes contained in it thrown into the sea.

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