Dissertation Monday, Mar. 9, 2015

Every Monday, I will provide a glimpse into the research I am doing into the persecution of the Christian and Jewish communities during the reign of Domitian.  I am plunging headlong into the research and loving every minute of it.

My interest in Domitian began with research I undertook in summer of 2014 into Johannine studies.  Last week’s first part can be seen here.  Today, I present to you the second portion of that research, and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


Appraisal and Critique of Domitian Research

Thompson’s counter argument to the ancient witnesses since the picture from these witnesses shows a megalomaniac tyrant, then inscriptions and statements in records of that period should reflect the statement of lord and god. To the point, not true. Thompson miss reports the ancient witness of Suetonius by not reporting his final statement concerning Domitian which states clearly that “they [the Senators] passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased, and all record of him obliterated.”1 Since this is the reporting of the witness, then a widespread evidence for the inscription of “lord and god” would not be consistent with the witness’ testimony, rather the lack of said evidence would prove the witnesses record.

Thompson’s overstatement does not end there. Thompson then shows several plays commissioned by Domitian that did not begin with calling him lord and god, but rather by the typical long list of superlatives normal for an Emperor. This in Thompson’s view, defeats the classical witness testimony that Domitian entertained himself as lord and god or made it a condition of loyalty.2

First, it no where is stated that he did make it a loyalty test. Rather, Thompson states Suetonius’ comment concerning Domitian, however fails to show the immediate context of that comment where Suetonius is simply stating Domitian loved the title “lord and mistress” while he and his wife sat in the coliseum’s box seating, and that he “delighted” in it. Suetonius further adds that a “custom” of calling Domitian “lord and god” came out of a circular letter he issued, a far cry from a loyalty test.3

Second, along several lines of evidence should cause serious rethinking the usage of the poetic works of Statius and the rhetorical works of Quintilian. First, recent research has shed new light on the possible satirical nature of Statuius’ work pointed at the Roman hierarchy.4 This would explain the lack of a statement on the divinity of the Emperor. Second, the dating of Statius is awkward due to the several years long publication in sections of his work.5 The question in dating is when exactly did the “custom” of referring to Domitian as “lord and god” begin, how widespread was it, was it enforced with persecution, and in what relation to that did Statius write? None of those things are answered sufficiently or at all by Thompson. Third, the statement by Quintilian desperately lacks appropriate context. Besides Quintilian being almost a century old, he had lived a very publicly political life, one that afforded him a different perspective, especially since this work was his magnum opus on rhetoric. As well, his school of rhetoric included Pliny the Younger and Tacitus, the very “exaggerated” and “politically motivated” historians that Thompson claims are from a rival political wing to the Emperor that their politics infect their history.

The chief concern with Thompson’s view of Suetonius, Dio Cassius, and Pliny the Younger is that it does the very thing Thompson accuses these ancient witnesses of doing, not being even handed. Thompson’s argument is that so many other historians are so positive about Domitian to paint a different picture than “megalomaniacal” ruler. He states, [t]he standard sources distort virtually every area of Domitian’s public and state activity during the time of his emperorship.”6 That is a difficult claim to make since he already did not accurately state their case. “For example, in contrast to the distortion in those sources, his military campaigns were planned prudently and his triumphs were received modestly (Henderson: 28; Syme, 1936:162-64; Mart. 8.15.78; Stat. Silv. 3.3.171; 4.1.34-39; 4.3.159).”7 Suetonius mentions several wars, of some he states,[a]fter several battles of varying success he celebrated a double triumph over the Chatti and the Dacians.”8 He even handedly calls the Chatti battle “uncalled for,” while Dacians “justified.” Thompson continues, “[u]nder Domitian the empire prospered, for his fiscal policies were on the whole sound (Viscusi; Magie: 566-592).”9 Suetonius states, “[h]e constantly gave grand costly entertainments …,” “[h]e restored many splendid buildings which had been destroyed by fire,” and that “[h]e increased the pay of the soldiers one fourth, by the addition of three gold pieces each year.10 Thompson continues, “[a]nd although his policy to promote qualified provincials and equestrians may well have rankled some senators, his relation to the senate was on the whole amicable throughout his career (Jones).”11 It is little wonder that the Senate would be “amicable” to the Emperor, when he is “distributing large baskets of victuals to the senate.”12 As well, Suetonius goes on to state that Domitian “administered justice scrupulously and conscientiously” when he “induced the tribunes of the commons to prosecute a corrupt aedile for extortion, and to ask the senate to appoint jurors in the case,” and “[h]e took such care to exercise restraint over the city officials and the governors” which in short order established justice in the Empire, the very thing a Senate would desire, enforcement of their own laws by the Emperor.13 In all, Thompson, in the opinion of this study, fails to properly do justice to the original source, overstating the sources argument, and failing to show where Domitian demanded the name lord and god be recited.

1Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Dom. 23.1.

2Thompson, Semeia 36, 1986, 156.

3Suetonius, Dom. 13.1-2.

4Carole Elizabeth Newlands, Statius’ Silvae and the Poetics of Empire (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

5Statius: Silvae, Loeb Classical Library 206 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 5.

6Thompson, Semeia 36, 155.


8Suetonius, Dom. 6.1.

9Thompson, Semeia 36, 155.

10Suetonius, Dom. 4.1, 5.1, 7.3.

11Thompson, Semeia 36, 155.

12Suetonius, Dom. 4.5.

13Ibid., 8.1-3.

Bust of Domitian, Pentelic marble, second part of Domitian’s reign (81-96 CE). From the area of the Via Principe Amedeo on the Esquiline, 1898, by Jastrow, published into the Public Domain.

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