Domitian’s Assassination and the Five Good Emperors

The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (detail), by Rembrandt (1661). During the Batavian rebellion, Domitian eagerly sought the opportunity to attain military glory, but was denied command of a legion by superior officers.

The assassination of Roman Emperor Domitian marked a significant turning point in the history of the Roman Empire, leading to the rise of Nerva and the beginning of the Five Good Emperors period. This era is characterized by a succession of emperors known for their relatively benevolent rule and efforts to improve governance and stability within the empire.

Domitian’s Reign and Policies

Domitian’s reign, spanning from AD 81 to 96, was a period of significant contrast within the Roman Empire, showcasing the emperor’s dedication to the prosperity and expansion of Rome, alongside his increasingly autocratic rule that ultimately led to widespread dissatisfaction and fear among his subjects.

From the outset, Domitian sought to leave his mark on Rome through extensive building projects. He took particular interest in the restoration and completion of constructions that had been damaged or left unfinished by his predecessors. The Colosseum, which had suffered damage from a fire, was restored under his directive, ensuring the continuation of the games that were central to Roman public life. The Domitian Stadium (later known as the Circus Agonalis, and in modern times, Piazza Navona) is another testament to his efforts to enhance the architectural grandeur of Rome, providing a venue for athletic contests and public entertainment.

Economically, Domitian was proactive; his reforms aimed at stabilizing the Roman currency through devaluation and implementing price controls to manage inflation and the cost of living for the Roman populace. These measures reflect Domitian’s attempt to assert control over the economy and to support the lower classes, although the effectiveness and popularity of these policies among the elite and the broader population were mixed.

Despite these accomplishments, Domitian’s reign is often remembered for its authoritarian characteristics. His governance style became increasingly dictatorial, relying on a network of spies and informants to root out opposition and dissent within the Senate and among the aristocracy. This led to numerous executions and exiles, justified by accusations of treason and conspiracy against the emperor. Such actions cultivated an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust, eroding Domitian’s support among the ruling classes and contributing to his eventual assassination.

In terms of foreign policy, Domitian’s expansionist ambitions, especially in Germany and Dacia, demonstrated his desire to secure Rome’s borders and to emulate the conquests of his predecessors. These military campaigns were double-edged; while they aimed at consolidating Roman power and territory, they also placed significant strains on the empire’s finances and manpower. The continuous military engagements, despite some successes, were costly and contributed to the growing discontent with Domitian’s rule.

Domitian’s reign ultimately illustrates the complexities of imperial leadership in ancient Rome, where the balance between ambition, public welfare, and authoritarian control could often tip towards tyranny. His assassination in AD 96 marked the end of the Flavian dynasty and ushered in a period of uncertainty, followed by the more stable and prosperous era of the Five Good Emperors. Domitian’s policies and leadership style, both admired and reviled, continue to be subjects of historical debate, reflecting the nuanced legacy of his rule over the Roman Empire.

The Plot Against Domitian

Coin of Domitian, found in the Buddhist stupa of Ahin Posh, dedicated under the Kushan Empire in 150–160, in modern Afghanistan.

The plot against Emperor Domitian was the culmination of years of growing discontent, both within the Roman elite and among the ranks of the Praetorian Guard. The conspiracy that ultimately led to his assassination on September 18, AD 96, was a complex and risky endeavor that involved several key figures disillusioned by Domitian’s autocratic rule and the atmosphere of fear and repression that had come to characterize his reign.

Domitian’s approach to governance, marked by suspicion and the ruthless suppression of perceived threats, had alienated many in positions of power and influence. Senators, in particular, found themselves marginalized and often targeted by the emperor’s policies and actions. This group, historically accustomed to a degree of prestige and autonomy within the Roman political system, viewed Domitian’s authoritarian tendencies as a direct affront to their status and the traditional structures of Roman governance.

Among the military, particularly the Praetorian Guard—whose role as the imperial bodyguard placed them in close proximity to the emperor—there were those who had become disillusioned with Domitian’s leadership. The Guard was a potent political force in Rome, with a history of involvement in the making and unmaking of emperors. Their support was crucial to any ruler’s legitimacy and survival, making their participation in the plot against Domitian a significant factor in its success.

The conspiracy’s leaders, Parthenius, Domitian’s chamberlain, and Titus Flavius Norbanus, the praetorian prefect, were well-placed to organize and execute the assassination. Parthenius, having access to the emperor’s private chambers, was instrumental in planning the attack, exploiting his position of trust to facilitate the entry of the assassins. The involvement of the praetorian prefect, a position of considerable influence and authority within the imperial guard, underscored the depth of opposition to Domitian’s rule within the military’s ranks.

The actual assassination was carried out with precision and brutality. During a ceremony in the imperial palace, a carefully staged diversion allowed the conspirators to catch Domitian off guard. The emperor was attacked and fatally wounded, marking a violent end to his reign. The aftermath of the assassination saw the rapid proclamation of Marcus Cocceius Nerva as the new emperor, a choice that reflected the Senate’s desire for a ruler who would restore dignity and autonomy to the Roman aristocracy and steer the empire away from the perceived excesses of Domitian’s rule.

The plot against Domitian highlights the volatile nature of imperial politics in ancient Rome, where the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual often led to conspiracies and coups. The assassination of Domitian not only ended the Flavian dynasty but also ushered in a period of relative stability and prosperity under the rule of the Five Good Emperors, beginning with Nerva. The events of September 18, AD 96, remain a stark reminder of the challenges and dangers inherent in the exercise of absolute power.

The Aftermath and Rise of Nerva

The Triumph of Titus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1885), depicting the Flavian family during the triumphal procession of 71. Vespasian proceeds at the head of the family, dressed as pontifex maximus, followed by Domitian with Domitia Longina, and finally Titus, also dressed in religious regalia.

The assassination of Emperor Domitian and the subsequent accession of Marcus Cocceius Nerva marked a pivotal moment in Roman history, transitioning the empire from the autocratic and often paranoid rule of the Flavians to a more stable and prosperous period under the leadership of the so-called Five Good Emperors. Nerva, despite being an unlikely candidate for the throne due to his age and lack of a direct familial claim, was a figure of considerable respect and experience within the Roman political landscape, characteristics that proved instrumental in the immediate aftermath of Domitian’s death.

In the chaos that followed the assassination, the Senate quickly declared Nerva emperor, a decision that reflected both the urgency of restoring order and the Senate’s desire to assert greater influence over imperial governance. Nerva’s background as a senator and his reputation for moderation and wisdom made him an acceptable choice to a wide range of Roman political factions, including those who had been marginalized under Domitian’s reign.

Understanding the fragility of his position and the need to address the divisions that had characterized the final years of Domitian’s rule, Nerva moved swiftly to implement policies of reconciliation and reform. His decision to grant amnesty to Domitian’s enemies helped to heal the fractures within the Roman elite, signaling a break from the repressive tactics that had fueled resentment against the previous regime. Furthermore, Nerva’s reforms aimed at appeasing the Senate and the Roman populace demonstrated his commitment to a more inclusive and consultative approach to governance.

Nerva’s most significant act, however, was his adoption of Trajan as his successor, a decision that would have profound implications for the future of the Roman Empire. Recognizing the importance of securing a capable and popular heir, Nerva chose Trajan, a distinguished military commander with a strong reputation among the army and the people. This adoption not only secured Nerva’s own position by aligning him with the powerful military establishment but also laid the foundation for the succession of emperors known for their competence, benevolence, and leadership qualities.

The era of the Five Good Emperors, initiated by Nerva’s wise governance and foresighted policies, witnessed the Roman Empire reaching its zenith in terms of territorial expansion, economic prosperity, and cultural achievements. This period is often cited as a golden age in Roman history, characterized by relative peace, effective administration, and the flourishing of arts and sciences. Nerva’s short reign, though often overshadowed by the accomplishments of his successors, was crucial in steering the empire towards this era of stability and growth, demonstrating the impact of moderate and inclusive leadership in the aftermath of turmoil and division.