Domitian was the third and final member of the Flavian Dynasty, which was begun by his father, Vespasian, in the year, 69. Domitian ascended to the throne after the death of his brother, Titus, who ruled briefly from 79 to 81. As an emperor, Domitian was a complex person. For his heightened authoritarianism, megalomania, and oppression of the senatorial class, Roman elites of Domitian’s day detested the emperor. Yet, he also had another side to his personality—he enjoyed poetry, he wrote a book on hair care, he replenished texts in libraries that were damaged by fire, outlawed the practice of castration, and even did an effective job of combating corruption among regional magistrates and governors. Additionally, at least according to the biographer Suetonius (c. 70-130+), Domitian could impressively be ranked as one of the best bowmen in the Roman Empire.
Although Domitian allegedly did not like to hike, ride horses, or physically exert himself, he reportedly found enjoyment in hunting. While on his wooded estates, Domitian frequently hunted wild game, often with spectators in tow. Guards and guests could expect to be amazed by wondrous feats of archery whenever they followed the emperor on his hunting trips. Any unlucky animal that crossed Domitian’s path did not stand much of a chance—the emperor prided himself on felling his prey with precise shots to the head. Suetonius claimed that many eyewitnesses were present for these hunting feats and that hundreds of animals fell victim to the emperor’s bowmanship.
If Domitian was in a mood to show off, he could be easily talked into putting on a sharpshooting exposition. Suetonius recorded one of the favorite ways that the emperor would astound his audiences with his marksmanship skills—it was a trick that involved firing at humans. For his expositions, Domitian occasionally ordered a very brave slave to stand down range. It was imperative that the slave was able to keep calm while staring down death; he or she could not be the type of person with fingers that trembled with fear. When the human target was in position and Domition had his bow and arrow at the ready, the unfortunate slave would then be instructed to extend a hand and splay his fingers wide apart. As guests watched with nervous anticipation, Domition would masterfully fire his arrows through the spaces between the tense fingers of the slave.
Unfortunately, Domitian did not have his bow with him on September 18, 96. That day, a group of conspirators cornered an unarmed Domitian in a room and stabbed the emperor to death. He was forty-four years old at the time of his death and had been in power for fifteen years.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Hunter and a Lion from Antioch mosaics in the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars (Domitian) by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.