Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Domitian and the Senatorial Order!


Our book today is Domitian and the Senatorial Order, a Prosographical Study of Domitian's Relationship with the Senate, A.D. 81-96, which was written in 1979 by Brian Jones for the American Philosophical Society and reprinted in 1993 by UMI Books on Demand, an outfit that used to make xerographic reprints of worthy academic treatises, back before Google Books was even a synaptic twinkle in some programmer's head. Before interlinked Internet databases - and before cheap, high-quality scanners - services like UMI were a great boon to scholars, since ten years ago Jones' study would have been exceedingly difficult to obtain except perhaps through a series of interlibrary loans slightly less complicated than re-threading somebody's lymphatic system.

A great boon but not a free one - Domitian and the Senatorial Order cost me $57 back when I bought it in 1995 - that's the equivalent of roughly $4,500 in today's money! At the time, I was writing a novel on one of Domitian's five-star generals (the future emperor and all-around nice guy Trajan), so the cost seemed justifiable. All I was expecting was a highly detailed account of just what the book's title describes: the nuts and bolts of Domitian's reign, as opposed to the scandal-and-tyranny tabloid accounts that have been popular ever since Suetonius.

Domitian has consistently received a bad rap from historians. Even less than a full generation after his death, he was already getting the full Kitty Kelly treatment from Suetonius for being evil, conniving, grandiose, and insane ... and later historians almost uniformly followed suit. Domitian's father, the emperor Vespasian, was a rock-solid plainspoken country bumpkin who managed to come out on top after the notorious "Year of the Emperors" that followed the assassination of Nero. Otho, Galba, and Vitellius all made a play for the purple, and all failed - leaving Vespasian and his two sons - handsome, vain, stupid Titus and dour, vain, intelligent Domitian - in charge of Rome.


Eventually Vespasian died, of natural causes (during which time he famously quipped, "Oh fuck - I think I'm becoming a god"), and Titus succeeded him. Titus, although rather fonder of his own face than is becoming, was a good egg with rotten luck - during his two brief years as emperor, half of Rome burned down and Vesuvius erupted, not to mention the fact that even though his father was one of the healthiest human beings in history, Titus himself died of a fever.

Or diiiiiiiiiiid he? Cue the rumor-mill about Domitian, who a) took over the empire and b) immediately became suspected in certain quarters of having poisoned his older brother. The typical summary of Domitian is Nixonian: beetle-browed, essentially dark-hearted, corrupted by power, eventually heading for downfall while suspecting everybody around him of wishing him ill.

I bought Domitian and the Senatorial Order hoping for nothing more than a clear laying-out of the facts involved in such a summary. So imagine my pleasant surprise when I found the book to be sharply wonderful - not content to summarize at all but rather intent on stripping away every layer of suspicion and innuendo connected with Domitian and basing all inquiry on the relatively ample array of early sources and on a dash of common sense, rather than a bucket of insinuation. Domitian and the Senatorial Order is a marvelous work of extended historical research, grounded on a huge amount of study and presented with a clarity that almost amounts at times to panache.


The picture that emerges from Jones' account is radically different from the one most histories show: here is a Domitian who's stiff and prickly, yes, but not the embodiment of pure evil. Here's a Domitian who's got a healthy sense of his own entitlement, yes (his father and brother had both been emperors, after all), but not somebody intent on ignoring the Senate (when he wasn't capriciously murdering its members). And most importantly, here's a Domitian who for the most part was a conscientious domestic and imperial architect and bureaucrat, not a frothing-at-the-mouth lunatic ala Caligula.

Jones marshals his facts with consummate skill, but it's the opinions he bases on those facts that make the book so fascinating. Take for instance an event that happened in the middle of Domitian's reign that could have been real trouble: in 89, Lucius Antonius Saturninus, commander of the two legions stationed in Upper Germany, seized the legion treasuries and revolted against Domitian. This was as serious as a heart attack: Saturninus had a well-financed command of two legions of frontier-hardened veteran troops poised within striking distance of Rome - Domitian's own father had taken the empire from Vitellius with less. The commander of Lower Germany rushed to the scene of the revolt (in modern-day Mainz, which I can never visit without thinking of it as Moguntiacum) and quelled it - with Domitian's other star general, the aforementioned Trajan, rushing north to join in the quelling. Historians have traditionally asserted two things about the revolt of Saturninus: that the Senate secretly organized it, and that it therefore marked a turning point in Domitian's relations with the Senate - for the worse, since legend has always had it that Domitian had several Senators connected with the revolt executed.

Jones finds no actual evidence for either of those assertions, and in addition to all the considerable textual evidence he assembles to undermine them, he also has his own brain and a working knowledge of how human beings behave. When Trajan later became emperor, the supercilious Pliny the Younger composed a long address of praise - the Panegyric - which he addressed to Trajan in full audience of the Senate. Jones doesn't need to look much further than this carefully-preserved work to find some inadvertent vindication of Domitian:

One of Pliny's statements is of particular interest in assessing the extent of senatorial influence in the revolt. In his account of Trajan's military prowess, he alludes to his hero's role in suppressing the uprising, yet neglects to avail himself of the opportunity to accuse Domitian of a widespread massacre of senators, even though the Domitianic "wave of terror" is one of the regular themes of the Panegyricus. Perhaps Trajan's readiness to come to Domitian's aid prompted Pliny's reticence. But, if any senators had been involved in the conspiracy against the emperor or had been executed as a result of their participation in it, Pliny would not have made the slightest reference to Trajan's part in the suppression of the revolt, and, in front of the emperor himself and a senatorial audience, would have been more discreet.


Against the familiar charge that Domitian often dilly-dallied on important military matters (bolstered, no doubt, by the fact that he didn't go charging off to squash Saturninus himself), Jones again brings to bear that same powerful combination of masterly research and plain common sense, as in the question of how agile Domitian was in responding to military reverses in Germany. Jones concentrates on the decision to evacuate the great fortress-complex at Inchtuthil and has this to say:

Situated at the mouth of Dunkeld gorge some eleven miles to the north of Perth, this fortress extended over a fifty-acre site, and contained, inter alia, sixty-four large barracks and 180 storerooms, but it was never completed. The evacuation took place soon after 86, since no later coins have been uncovered, and must have been sudden, for in a single pit alone, over a million unused nails have been found. It is difficult to imagine more vivid evidence of Domitian's ability to take decisive action rapidly.

Of course, unlike his father and his brother, Domitian was assassinated - and the same quasi-historical tradition that so easily supposes Senatorial conniving in the revolt of Saturninus has always made the same suppositions of Senatorial involvement in the assassination plot. With calm, methodical precision, Jones dismantles this tradition as well, and by that point in Domitian and the Senatorial Order I was half-way wanting to write a novel about Domitian himself instead of Trajan. Jones' book is a perfect example of what great historical writing should be - it has a place in my library on the same shelf as The Last Generation of the Roman Republic, The Senate of Imperial Rome, The Emperor in the Roman World, and of course The Roman Revolution.

I'd urge you all to go right out and buy yourselves a copy, but for three considerations: 1) it should be stressed that this isn't beginner or even intermediate-level history - it never crosses Jones' mind to translate his Latin, and there are no helpful factual glosses anywhere, 2) the thing is, as hinted, a trifle difficult to find, and 3) in another ten years, you'll be able to have it - and all the secondary material you need (including a fluency in Latin) - directly burned into your forebrain, so why waste the effort now?

4 comments:

F-Stop said...

Wasn't it Domitian who killed Germanicus so that he could sleep with Seneca?

steve said...

Hee. I think you're right! You should write a book about it!

Thomas said...

well Vespasian used patronage to encourage historians and approved histories they produced to be favorable to him and Dio records numerous stoics put to death for subversion. So why should we think that his son would shrink from doing like dear old dad which raises the question of why then other contemporaries who spoke well of Domitian would be any more reliable than Suetonius?

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