Flavius Sabinus was a member of the Flavian clan and was related to the Roman emperors, Vespasian (r. 69-79), Titus (r. 79-81) and Domitian (r. 81-96). By the time of Domitian—who was Flavius Sabinus’ cousin—Sabinus had made it to the forefront of Roman politics and was holding increasingly important offices in the administration of the Flavian Dynasty. His crowning achievement was a victory in an election for the prestigious position of consul in Rome. Yet, this triumphant electoral win would also ironically prove to be Flavius Sabinus’ undoing—or, more precisely, it was the sloppy announcement of the victory that sealed the politician’s doom.
As the story goes, Flavius Sabinus’ life was plunged into dire jeopardy when an election official misspoke in his public announcement about the election results. Rather than confirm the nomination of Flavius Sabinus as the consul-elect, the bumbling speaker instead accidentally proclaimed that Sabinus was now the emperor-elect. Such a proclamation did not sit well with Emperor Domitian, who was paranoid about traitors and conspiracies. Unfortunately for Flavius Sabinus, the seed of doubt took root in the emperor’s mind after the election herald incident, and Domitian ultimately decided to execute his cousin. On Flavius Sabinus’ fate, the Roman scholar Suetonius (c. 70-130+) wrote, “Domitian put many senators to death, including some former consuls…and Domitian’s own cousin Flavius Sabinus by being mistakenly announced by the election-day herald as emperor-elect instead of consul-elect” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Domitian, section 10). The execution occurred in the year 84.
Domitian’s fears about conspiracies were not unfounded, it turned out, as the emperor would later be assassinated. Yet, ironically, the execution of Flavius Sabinus was a tipping point for many individuals in Domitian’s inner circle, because Sabinus had been the emperor’s kinsman and his death likely caused people to think that if Domitian was willing to kill his cousin, then nobody else was safe from execution. Such implications contributed to the decision of important figures like members of the Praetorian Guard and Domitian’s own wife to eventually join the plots against the unpopular emperor, who was killed in the year 96.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene from Roman History, with Draped Figure Presenting Book to Ruler, by After Eustache Le Sueur (c. 1617-1655), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Art Institute of Chicago).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.