Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.06.10


Brian W. Jones, The Emperor Domitian. London and New York: Routledge, 1992. Pp. xi + 292. ISBN 0-415-04229-1. $29.95.


Reviewed by Alain M. Gowing, University of Washington.

As if in response to Barry Baldwin's recent lament, "... where, O where, is the Life of Domitian, one of the most important books still not written?" (AHB 4.3 [1990] 133), a new biography of the emperor is now available. Baldwin did not overstate the case. There has been no book-length study of Domitian proper since Stéphane Gsell's Essai sur le règne de l'empereur Domitien (Paris 1894), and the need for a thorough reassessment can scarcely be exaggerated. Few people could be better placed to carry out the task than Brian Jones, whose work on Domitian over the past twenty or so years will be well-known to anyone interested in the Flavian period.

The Emperor Domitian is a cautious, straightforward, no-nonsense, even somber study of one of the least understood if somewhat better documented Roman emperors. Rather than trace Domitian's life and career chronologically, Jones reduces his reign to four areas of importance (Court, Administration, War, Aristocracy), devoting to each two chapters that are in turn framed by an introductory chapter on Domitian's early years and a Conclusion. Within each of his ten chapters Jones further divides and sub-divides, until in the end virtually all major (and many minor) events and characters receive individual treatment. While compartmentalizing the material in this way will facilitate the use of the book by those who wish to investigate a specific individual or topic, it has the occasional and regrettable effect of shifting attention away from the central subject to matters that are often of only tangential importance. In fact this book is as much about the Domitianic period as about Domitian himself.

In part this results from Jones' evident belief that a crucial component of an imperial biography must be a thorough examination of the careers of those people most intimately connected with the emperor. In short, Jones' approach is prosopographical. The bulk of Chapters 2 and 3 (Court I and Court II), for example, consists of career sketches of Domitian's courtiers; Chapters 8 and 9 (Aristocracy I and II) are similarly constructed. This will surprise no one familiar with his earlier book on Domitian and the Senatorial Order. A Prosopographical Study of Domitian's Relationship with the Senate, A.D. 81-96 (Philadelphia 1979). In that extensive and useful study, as well as in his other work, Jones laid the groundwork for this biography, which replicates to a significant degree many of his earlier arguments and conclusions about Domitian and his reign.

The prosopographical approach provides solid, persuasive support for the most compelling of Jones' assertions, that for the majority of Domitian's reign there existed no widespread discontent with either the emperor or his policies. In this Jones expands upon earlier work by other scholars, most notably K.H. Waters ("The Character of Domitian," Phoenix 18 [1964] 49-77) and H.W. Pleket ("Domitian, the Senate and the Provinces," Mnemosyne 14 [1961] 296-315). Domitian himself is plausibly portrayed as the architect of a "personal monarchy," a "benevolent despot" (p. 161) who made every effort to surround himself with loyal, capable subordinates. While he may have been reclusive, distant, and suspicious by nature (and consequently severe with opponents both real and imagined), he was nevertheless attentive to the demands of his office and generous to his carefully chosen supporters. If the latter assertion conflicts with the available literary evidence, it is because in Jones' view the principal sources -- Pliny, Tacitus, and Suetonius -- reflect the hostility of a senatorial class that felt neglected and even openly scorned by Domitian.

It is in Jones' handling of the literary evidence, however, that I find some missed (or perhaps purposefully ignored) opportunities. That evidence, from which we derive our most memorable impressions of Domitian, is of course notoriously difficult to assess, as Jones repeatedly and rightly reminds us. Waters (op. cit.) addressed precisely this problem, with good results: admitting that caution is indeed warranted, he conceded that "all this smoke must indicate at least a few glowing embers" (p. 50) and managed to extract from the literary sources a credible characterization of Domitian. By contrast, Jones' attitude toward those same sources is seldom expounded and often frustratingly ambivalent. At points he admits that some of the evidence may be reliable ("the view of [Domitian's] reign propounded by Nerva's senate and repeated throughout the dynasty could even be accurate -- although inevitably hostile, it was not inevitably wrong," p. 161), yet at other times he implies that it is in fact "inevitably wrong" ("... [Domitian] left no heir to deify him and so, unlike Nerva, he was not able to 'guide' the literary tradition to the 'correct' interpretation of events," p. 163). But the "inevitable hostility" of writers such as Pliny, Tacitus, or Suetonius is assumed rather than proven in this book. Indeed, with a few notable exceptions, Jones rarely engages in direct confrontation with the literary evidence. Admittedly, it is not his purpose to examine Pliny's or Tacitus' attitude toward Domitian, but in light of the overwhelming and understandable influence these authors have exercised on modern views of the emperor, it seems remiss not to have established with clarity the criteria by which their testimony has been either accepted or rejected. Most worrisome is the fact that the (proverbial) non-specialist who turns to this book for an introduction to Domitian will come away with a very fragmented notion of what the bulk of the literary evidence says about him.

Let me cite two examples. Most classicists will first encounter Domitian in the latter chapters of Tacitus' Agricola (39ff.). These furnish one of the most vivid and widely-read instances of the way Domitian dealt with and behaved toward his subordinates. The undeniable Tacitean invective aside, the Domitian found therein is very much like the Domitian Jones has reconstructed for us: suspicious to the point of paranoia, eager to be in control, involved at every step of the way, more inclined to heed his courtiers than trust a senator judged a threat to his authority. Given the general notoriety of the text and the extent to which it supports Jones' conclusions, one might suppose that Agricola 39-46 would receive some specific attention. Yet while Jones liberally cites these chapters for matters of 'fact' (e.g., details about the date of Domitian's triumph, the arx Albana, the Domus Flavia, Domitian's use of delatores), they are nowhere adduced in his discussion of either Domitian's treatment of the senate and individual senators or his character. In a brief section devoted to Agricola himself, Jones does cite Ag. 45 as evidence that Tacitus' father-in-law was not among Domitian's amici, but that is as far as it goes.

One additional example from the other side of the literary spectrum, Statius' detailed ecphrasis of Domitian's equestrian statue in Silvae 1.1. However little confidence Statius' presentation of the emperor might inspire, we surely learn something about Domitian from the fact that he appropriated the middle of the Roman Forum for this immense statue (ll. 1-2) and had it face the temple of Divus Iulius (21-31), that it was apparently of such exceptional height that it towered over the surrounding temples (32-33), and that it seems to have been constructed to dwarf the equestrian statue of Julius Caesar in the nearby Forum Iulium (84-90). Since we have independent confirmation that Statius' description of the statue is accurate, the poem is as useful to an evaluation of how Domitian wished to be perceived, of how he located himself with respect to his predecessors, as the considerable physical remains of his extensive building program. (Jones provides a thorough survey of this, with an occasional misstatement of fact, e.g., it is not the case that there are "no physical traces" of the baths of Titus [p. 94], or that the location of Domitian's Odeon is uncertain ["probably near the Stadium," p. 86]: the shape of the cavea may still be discerned in the Palazzo Massimo on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, that is, directly south of the Stadium.) Silvae 1.1 does therefore supply a valuable part of the picture which warrants some place in Domitian's biography. But Jones' references again suggest that the poem is useful only as a source of 'facts,' not in any way pertinent to an assessment of Domitian's psyche (however provisional that must be).

The most plausible explanation for such missed opportunities must be a fundamental mistrust of texts that have been deemed so inordinately biased as to render them virtually useless except as an occasional source of raw data. If that is a fair explanation, it seems reasonable to ask that this mistrust be articulated and explained, because it is not always clear why some items are accepted and others rejected (e.g., with no discussion, Pliny's allegation that Domitian was predisposed to solitude [Pan. 49] is judged to be "highly imaginative" whereas a parallel passage in Suetonius [Dom. 21] is "more probable," p. 32). To put this in broader terms, some discussion was needed of what, precisely, Jones thinks a biography can and should accomplish and how, in the specific case of Domitian, the evidence should be evaluated.

The publication of this biography coincides nicely with a significant event in Domitianic studies, a major conference devoted to Les Années Domitien which was held on October 12-14 in Toulouse. The flier advertising that conference dramatically proclaimed, "Il est temps de faire le point, de rassembler les données éparses pour sortir le règne de Domitien des oubliettes de l'Histoire où l'a précipité la vindicte des Tacite, Pline ou Suétone. Il est temps de lui restituer sa juste place, entre Vespasien et Trajan, à la charnière du Ier et IIème siècle ..." In several respects, The Emperor Domitian goes a long way toward accomplishing exactly those goals, even if its overly cautious handling of the literary evidence does leave us with an incomplete picture. It is not a biography that will either satisfy all tastes or answer all questions. But if recent experience is any indication, such is the nature of imperial biography. Within the very short space of three years we were treated to no less than three full-scale biographies of Nero (Cizek 1982, M. Griffin 1984, Robichon 1985), each of which approaches the subject differently and each of which possesses a value in its own right; Gaius, too, has lately been accorded two biographies in close succession (Barrett 1989, Ferrill 1991). The Emperor Domitian cannot and should not be judged as the final word on the emperor, but rather as a major step toward reassessing an emperor whose reign should perhaps be regarded not as a gloomy coda to the troublous first century, but rather as a precursor to the saner second.