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Domitian vs Trajan

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If we believe our ancient sources, there are two types of Roman emperors; Good emperors and Bad emperors. Either an emperor was the kindest, bravest man in the empire and a servant to the good of the empire, or he was a cruel wicked man who executed people for fun and had deviant sexual appetites. But it seems clear that this black and white image was not necessarily a truthful one. All our ancient sources are senatorial, except for Suetonius, who was a knight; as others would not have had the leisure and the skills to become historians.

So the reputation of an emperor, recorded for posterity, depended in many ways on his relationship with the senate. The senate had lost most of its power since the accession of Augustus. The governing body of Republican days was no more. The Princeps had absorbed all the real decision making into himself and his advisors in his private council and the senate only ruled over the giving out of special honours (mainly to the emperor), the occasional court-case and all hand of other trivial matters.

But individual senators were still able to gain influence, wealth and power, whether by courting the emperor or by being sent off on an important mission to the East. However, since the senate was not abolished and the Principate was founded on the concept that the emperor was just another senator with tribunicia potestas and imperium maius, chosen amongst his fellows for his superior abilities, the senate still had to be seen to be active and senators needed to be made to feel useful. Emperors who saw the use of the senate and the importance of keeping it happy, have come down in the history books as good emperors.

On the other hand, emperors who decided that they did not require the senators and their constant intrigue to rule, were not portrayed quite so well. It is also clear that since on more than one occasion emperors were killed in conspiracies or revolts, and dynasties thus ended, the successor of a murdered emperor was likely to justify his own position by influencing the historical sources into a particular dislike of the previous emperor. He would encourage from the senators a sort of flattery through mockery and demeaning of the predecessor, as was the case with Nero and the memory of Claudius.

Nor of course would the senators themselves, who had obviously prospered under the previous emperor (as they had by now reached senatorial status), be all too willing to risk offending the new emperor by expressing thanks to his murdered predecessor for their current position, rather the opposite to ensure their new loyalties were clear. Domitian and Trajan, whose reigns were separated but by the two years of the emperor Nerva, serve as the archetypal examples of the bad and the good emperors. Domitian was the third (and last) member of the Flavian dynasty.

Trajan on the other hand was the first of a long line of adoptive emperors. In that very position, Trajan already had the advantage. Domitian followed in the footsteps of his beloved elder brother Titus, whose death, it was suggested, was perhaps not entirely accidental. He also had the knowledge of someone whose arrival to power was not due to his own capabilities, but to those of a father or other relative, now also a god. This probably meant that the pretence that imperial power was conferred by the senate was something felt to be of less importance by Domitian.

Trajan on the other hand was adopted by Nerva (or by his wife? ) at the last minute because he was the most successful general in the empire at that time, thus he could claim he had been chosen on merit. Thus Domitian is described in the sources as an evil tyrant who was both lascivious and paranoid. But many of his so-called evil misdeeds can be proved to be false. Domitian was said to have changed from clemency to cruelty and from generosity to rapacity in the later part of his reign. After the rebellion of 89AD this all came to a head.

The terror that was supposed to have taken hold of the senate during this time proves upon inspection to have meant the execution of two men for plotting rebellion, two for more trivial things – but suspected of imperial ambitions – two provincial governors, presumably plotting rebellion as well, and the governor of Britain on a trumped up charge but no doubt also related to the safety of the empire and the emperor – Thus Suetonius lists the consular victims. Yet ten people hardly constitute a terror of the size that is described in the other sources.

The sources also lay a large amount of seemingly irrelevant charges at his door. He was said to be intolerant of criticism of Nero. It seems possible that Domitian, who was also an aesthete and a poet, would have felt some sympathy towards a man who had been in his same situation, also without military experience; but there is no reason, except for political say-so afterwards, that he would have made a stand for someone who was not even part of his own dynasty, in fact someone whose death was necessary to justify his own family’s accession.

The sources also claim that Domitian hated his father and brother and that he attempted to disrespect Titus in death. One of their main arguments in this case is that, to displease his brother from the grave, Domitian wrote a law to ban the castration of young boys, because his brother had been fond of eunuchs. But later the sources blame Domitian for exactly the same liking. Another charge is that Domitian brought his own personal staff to the imperial palace when he acceded. This seems if anything, a fairly normal thing to do.

As for the more influential men, those who had enjoyed favour under Vespasian and Titus continued to gain high office under Domitian. Not only that but he built the Arch of Titus over the Via Sacra to commemorate his brother’s apotheosis. Trajan’s “election” by merit on the other hand immediately allied him with the state and the senators believed they were finally going to get what they wanted; an imperial power based on Justitia rather than Clementia. Pliny’s panegyric shows us the hope that flickered among the senators.

However, the freedom that Trajan exhorted them to take hold of was not more than available in a manner of speaking. Trajan like any other emperor was in charge of the state and made the decisions. Matters debated in the senate were again trivial. The sources claim that Domitian’s actions were so costly to the state that the treasuries were left empty when he was killed. However, there appears to have been no real period of enforced economies in the beginning of Nerva’s reign and certainly not in that of Trajan, even before the influx of Dacian gold.

Trajan was able to gather two new legions (the II Traiana and the XXX Ulpia) as well as two new bodies of auxilia on his accession and distribute a congiarium of 650 denarii per soldier. That is an enormous sum! Even Domitian’s had been extravagant, but had only cost him 225 denarii per soldier. And this is taking into consideration that Nerva also gave out a congiarium only two years before the accession of Trajan. He was then able to launch the state into the first Dacian war as well as begin extensive building projects in Rome.

Many scholars claim the influx of Dacian gold paid for Trajan’s building works, but for that they would have had to be begun after 106 and although most of them were not finished until after this date, it seems sensible that it would have taken more than one or two years to build the Trajan Baths or the Odeon, or the extensive system of roads in the East (all potentially started by Domitian). Both Domitian and Trajan were impressive builders. And in both, but especially in Trajan, can be found a certain megalomania in this respect. Trajan’s forum had to be bigger than that of Augustus, Vespasian and Nerva put together.

Trajan was also famous for the huge games he put on. Between 107 and 113AD he added five lots of extra games to the calendar, thus making himself popular with the plebs. One of Domitian’s first actions as emperor had been to deify his brother and predecessor Titus. The Flavians are responsible for the broadening of the Imperial Cult, epitomised by the temple of the Flavian Gens, in their ancestral house on the Quirinal. Titus had deified his father; Domitian took things further and deified his son (died in infancy in 73), possibly his mother and his niece Julia.

This in some form could be viewed as arrogance, yet it was something the adoptive emperors picked up too. Not only did men like Trajan deify their imperial predecessors, but their real father too and in Trajan’s case his wife, his sister and his niece as well. Like Nero, Domitian was under-qualified in the military demands of his newfound position. After Titus’ successes in Judea, Vespasian encouraged peace rather than war and neither of his sons got the opportunity to lead a large military campaign (or any campaign at all) after that.

Since Domitian was only 18 when his father acceded, he had previously been unable to join his father and brother (Titus was 30 in 69 AD) in their military expeditions. The sources suggest that Domitian was systematically denied the opportunity of military success by his father and brother because they thought his character weak appears to be untrue, since he was even given a beautifully decked out horse to ride behind his father in Vespasian’s own triumph in 70AD. And then later was not demeaned by a command that was beneath him.

Trajan, however, was an experienced military man. He was a military tribune under his father Marcus Ulpius Traianus, then was a quaestor, a praetor and was given the command of a legion in Hispania Tarraconensis. In the rebellion of 89AD he came to the aid of Domitian in Upper Germania with his legion and was rewarded for this with the consulship in 91AD. He was present in Rome at the death of Domitian but was sent to Upper Germania by Nerva where he remained until his accession. So upon his accession, Domitian had everything left to prove, and Trajan had already proved it all.

It is generally believed that Domitian overcompensated for his early lack of military experience in his Danubian wars. He accepted as many as 23 imperial salutations and held at least two triumphs, but possibly as many as four. Vespasian himself had only held one triumph, jointly with Titus. Although Domitian clearly placed a great deal of importance on these military achievements, it should be said that this was an attribute genuinely approved of by the Romans. After his accession, Domitian went on campaign four times himself and Trajan took part in both Dacian Wars and went on campaign against the Parthians at least once.

In many ways, Trajan finished the job Domitian had started in the Danube area, but naturally got all the credit for the conquering of the area himself. The main difference between these two emperors in reality seems to have been, not what they did, but how they did it. When returning to Rome after his accession, Trajan walked into the city without a bodyguard and greeted the crowds and each person according to their status. Domitian however was always accompanied by 24 lictors, instead of the usual 12. Which made him appear arrogant and reduced his general accessibility a great deal.

Domitian made use of the senators by giving them important posts in the provinces, but he also allowed his freedmen to gain large amounts of power, something that often annoyed the senators. Domitian also held the consulship for seven years in a row at the beginning of his reign. The emphasis Pliny put on the recusatio of the consulship by Trajan, shows how important the availability of the consulship was to the ambitious senator. If the consulship was unavailable, then they had little to be truly ambitious for.

Trajan even involved the senate in some of his military decisions, by sending a deputation to Rome after his victory in the first Dacian war to work out the terms of the peace with the senate. Of course the senate would never have taken any decisions the princeps was not happy with, so the pressure on the senate to correctly interpret his wishes was great and left very little space for personal initiative and libertas. The senate had lost its superiority to the princeps; the successful princeps however hid this whilst taking advantage of it. Men like Domitian made it felt too much.

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