Domitian ruled the Roman Empire from after the death of his brother Titus in the year 81, until the year 96, when a group of fearful conspirators had him assassinated. Domitian’s character remains difficult to assess—his reign was undoubtedly filled with heightened authoritarianism and executions, yet the cause and effect is debatable. Did Domitian’s oppression of the Senate and further centralization of government cause Senators to conspire against him, or did corruption and plotting among the ruthless members of the Senate spur on Domitian to brutally rein in the Senatorial class? Whatever the case, Domitian and the Roman elites were at odds and it did not help his reputation that the great contemporary writers of his age, such as Tacitus and Pliny the Younger, were his bitter enemies. Interestingly, the most positive account of Domitian arguably came from the biographer, Suetonius, who usually had few good words for most of the emperors after Augustus.
In The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius ended the work with a section on Domitian—it was very critical of the emperor (unsurprisingly, as Suetonius was Pliny’s protégé), but he did praise a few of Domitian’s policies. The biographer looked in favor on Domitian’s efforts to rebuild Rome and to refill its libraries after the damage caused to the city during the fire of year 80. Suetonius also mentioned that the emperor prohibited barbaric practices such as castration, and actively sought to end corruption among magistrates and governors (likely a reason as to why the senators detested him).
Suetonius also commented on Domitian’s academic interests. During the reigns of his father (Vespasian) and brother (Titus), Domitian apparently was enthusiastic about literature and poetry. Yet, when he became emperor in 81, he seemed to have little time to devote to writing, or otherwise thought being an author was an unnecessary distraction. Nevertheless, he reportedly tried to revive interest in the arts during his reign by funding competitions of rhetoric and music.
Despite his eventual withdrawal from writing, Emperor Domitian is known to have produced one book—De cura capillorum, a manual on hair maintenance and care. It was an ironic book, because Domitian was reportedly bald, but a fragment that survives from the text—“Yet my hair will go the same way, and I am resigned to having an old man’s head before my time”— suggests he may have written the piece before he completely lost his hair (Suetonius, Domitian, section 18). Although Domitian reportedly was sensitive about his baldness, his book on hair was allegedly witty and humorous. Unfortunately, the text is lost except for its catchy title (Care of the Hair) and two small fragments that were preserved by Suetonius.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Painting of Emperor Domitian by Domenico Fetti (1589–), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars (Domitian, section 18) by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.