BMCR 2022.11.24

Domitian’s Rome and the Augustan legacy

, , Domitian's Rome and the Augustan legacy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021. Pp. 331. ISBN 9780472132676 $80.00.



[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


This collection of papers originated in a 2017 conference at the University of Missouri, Columbia; it consists of the final versions of the papers delivered, except for four papers that were not included “for various reasons” and two papers that were commissioned afterwards to “complement the range of approaches” (7-8). The thirteen papers in all are arranged across five parts: Rome; religion; panegyric; poetry; and policies and aftermath. About half deal with material culture and imperial policy, and half with literary work produced during Domitian’s reign.

The volume is advertised as “the first book-length treatment of the reception of Augustus and his age during the reign of Domitian”. This could be misunderstood. Physically it is book-length, but the “treatment” itself is not, as this is not a monograph. In the past, there have been published quite a number of papers and book chapters discussing or touching upon Domitian and “the Augustan legacy”[1] which could be collected between the covers of a book, but would not necessarily add up to a “book-length treatment”. This might seem nit-picking, but I think it highlights the crucial issue (a recurring issue with collected volumes) whether the present collection adds up to a coherent and more or less comprehensive account, a true “treatment” of the “Augustanism” (4) of Domitian and his age.

First, an overview of the different papers. Incelli’s paper is the only one to deal with Domitian’s policies from an institutional/legal point of view, especially his relationship with the Senate. The title of his paper, “An Ambiguous Attitude” could also describe his own appraisal of Domitian: a worthy successor to Augustus in outsmarting the Senate, but ever more authoritarian and isolated, and thus digging his own grave. Incelli’s analysis is generally finely balanced, but he still buys the black legend about Domitian, most obviously by accepting unquestioningly that he wanted to be addressed in public as dominus et deus (249). If Domitian was in so many respects a new Augustus, why would he have neglected Augustus’ important (life-saving) lesson on postponing divinity until after death (at least in Rome)?

On the material side of things we find four papers: Conlin looks at “urban narratives” and “stylistic eclecticism”, with Domitian restoring, reviving, imitating, and indeed rivalling the urban interventions of Augustus. Conlin offers a clear, largely descriptive text of building activities, but overloads the text with the jargon of intersection, intertextualities and anchoring, all fashionable ways of saying that in creating something, people look back to what has been created before, and find inspiration and examples there. And, I would add, an antithesis: in the re-fashioning of the Roman urban landscape by the Flavii, we find both the erasure of Nero’s legacy, and attempts to connect with that of Augustus. Conlin rightly stresses the multifarious nature of what is going on: it is “malleable yet familiar” (29), it can connect with the past or deviate from it. Goldman-Petri looks at Augustan templa with free-standing altars. With his temple-building Domitian not so much re-animated this religious landscape, but displaced and even erased the Augustan memory. This dialogue with Augustan altars is supposed to be self-aggrandizement by Domitian and is connected by Goldman-Petri to the imperial cult and its development in the 1st century. She suggests—without a proper evidential base—that the cult of the living emperor had gained a foothold in Rome (56); she too accepts as fact the slander that Domitian had asked to be called dominus et deus (53). Nocera discusses the Forum Domitiani: its construction involved the partial destruction of the Templum Pacis and Forum of Augustus, and the message of its architecture and decoration is a new and different one. According to Nocera, this points at a “conflicted relationship” (75). Elkins shows how Nerva distances himself from Domitian, as Domitian had distanced himself from Nero, by appealing to the Augustan legacy. Nevertheless, the “Augustanism” of the one and the other have much in common. Maybe unsurprisingly so, as the possibilities of engaging with the Augustan past are of course not limitless. The “Augustanism” of the others Flavians and of the Julio-Claudians will also have been characterized by many common elements.

In their papers, Moormann and Stocks, and Buckley, discuss the interplay of material objects and literary sources (surely the more interesting way to go: the call for papers of the conference asked explicitly for research into the “interaction of text and material culture”). According to Moormann and Stocks there is no material connection between Domitian and Hercules, nor between Augustus and Hercules, but nevertheless such a connection is in both instances a literary topos. As Domitian, and Augustus before him, is greater than Hercules (a mere demigod), it is not surprising that there are no Hercules statues with their features. Which leaves one with the question why the poets did not also shun the comparison between emperor and demigod—even if, as Moormann and Stocks argue, Hercules’ stature was much diminished during Domitian’s days. Buckley compares Arachne and Lucretia in the frieze of Le Colonnacce (the Forum Transitorium) and in Martial’s epigrams, and how both have been influenced by Ovid. This is an extremely rich paper, a rewarding, in-depth analysis of the complicated interplay between tradition and renewal. However, one wonders how far the paper’s “discursive reading that interweaves different interpretative relationships between frieze, Ovid and Martial” (103) lays bare the symbolism of Domitianic creation, or merely constructs it. I cannot think of any evidence that would help us to choose between the one and the other. It is striking that in almost all material culture papers the “Augustanism” of Domitian seems to involve at least in part a clear distancing from Augustan precedents—a point to which I will return below.

Literary sources are the focus of the six remaining papers. They all deal with intertextuality—and leave me with a rather forlorn feeling of inconclusiveness. I will formulate this carefully, as this is not my own field: is this not a phenomenon so general that the analyses here—without calling into question their specifics or quality—do tell us more about poetic invention than about Domitian’s Rome? Of course, the authors state that the ways in which the intertextualities play out here fit the Flavian era and Domitian’s reign in particular—which in itself is nothing new. But then most examples of intertextuality would reflect their contemporary setting. Cordes on panegyric looks at Statius’ use of Virgil to negotiate between Domitian and Nero with Nero a less and Domitian a more successful continuator of Augustan policy. Closs compares Martial and Ovid: Domitian is no Nero, and a better Augustus. Pontiggia shows how Silius Italicus in his Punica first aligns his account with Lucan’s Neronian worldview but subsequently turns to Virgil for a more upbeat assessment of Domitian. Scioli discusses how Statius, Thebaid 10 recalls Ovid, Metamorphoses 11, while also deviating from his exemplum, just as Domitian not just imitates, but reshapes the Augustan legacy. Schroer examines how Silius’ Punica looks back at Virgil’s Aeneid. Silius’ view of heroism is different from Virgil’s: not Aeneas going into exile, but Camillus returning from exile is the yardstick, which Schoer suggests better fits the Flavii. Hulls casts his net wider, and looks at the ways in which Statius in his Silvae incorporates Horace, Vergil, Propertius and Ovid, as a direct parallel with Domitian’s engagement with Augustan policies.

These thirteen papers together are somewhat disappointing as a “treatment” of the “Augustanism” of Domitian’s reign. The fullest and most coherent account of the ways in which Domitian and others during his reign looked back at Augustus is in fact the introduction by Marks and Mogetta, who in a mere seven pages list all or most possible approaches. They mention architecture, religious and moral restoration, the renaming of months, specific coin types, literary works looking back towards Augustan models, and egyptophilia. The papers do not offer an elaboration of every one of these, but rather highlight a few selective subjects. The important moral restoration and egyptophilia are largely neglected: there are no papers dedicated to these subjects, which the others only mention in passing.[2] But other relevant subjects are also treated far from comprehensively—half of the book is dedicated to the likes of Martial, Silius Italicus and Statius (without denying their interest and importance); half is left for the whole range of subjects listed by Marks and Mogetta other than the poetry. The volume is said to “capture the rich complexity of the Augustan legacy in Domitian’s Rome” and to “offer readers a glimpse into the fascinating history and culture” of the same period (quoted from the publisher’s website). “Glimpse” is the better designation of what this book offers.

There is also a more fundamental issue. The introduction states that “oddly enough” Domitian’s “engagement with the Augustan past” was more thoroughgoing than that of the Julio-Claudians (1), but the authors go on to immediately explain why this is not so odd at all: the Flavians are in need of legitimization of their rule, and an important way to obtain this is by an engagement with the Augustan legacy. Already Vespasian and Titus strove for an imitatio Augusti, and this culminated during Domitian’s reign. However great Domitian’s enthusiasm for Augustus, this was above all a Flavian thing: it is something that ran in the family. This Flavian background is frequently mentioned, and rightly so. Several papers, however, seem to be more concerned with the relationship between Domitian and the later Julio-Claudians, especially Nero. Again, rightly so: this dialogue by way of the “Augustanism” of Nero and his predecessors was in many ways as important as any more direct appeal to the Augustan legacy. In fact, Domitian harks back to all of his imperial predecessors. One may be left with the impression that Domitian and his entourage cannot not be interested in the Augustan legacy because the first emperor just happens to cast his shadow over everyone and everything that comes after him. On the other hand, several contributors stress the differences between Domitian and Augustus instead of what they might have in common. Of course, the refashioning or even rejection of the Augustan legacy can also be seen as an instance of the many different ways in which Domitian’s policies depend on or engage with the example of Augustus. But this of course only again strengthens the impression that everything in imperial Rome that happens to be post-Augustus is imbued with “Augustanism”. If so, one would like to know what exactly makes the one example of “Augustanism” more worthy of our attention than the other, if, for instance, we want to devote a whole volume to Domitian. A particular “Augustanism” might be conspicuous as more intentional, deliberate, and calculated. In the case of Domitian, I would consider his attempts at moral restoration and his egyptophilia to be the clearest instances of such intentionality: exactly the two subjects that did not merit much further elaboration beyond the introduction.

Something else that this volume sets out to do—as a kind of by-product—is to revise our understanding of Domitian himself. The description of the book on the publisher’s website puts it as follows: “Far from being the cruel tyrant history has made him out to be, Domitian emerges as a studious, thoughtful cultivator of the Augustan past who helped shape an age that not only took inspiration from that past, but managed to rival it.” I think this, with some reservations, is indeed how we should view Domitian, and people who read through all thirteen papers collected here are likely to come away with a more favourable image of the emperor. But this has to be read between the lines: “studious, thoughtful cultivator” is nowhere mentioned, and the “rivalling” is only there in the fulsome praise of poets. Instead, one finds that Domitian’s autocratic tendencies are explicitly emphasized, even though it is admitted that this holds good for all emperors, and Augustus in particular. Nevertheless, this collection will contribute something to the rehabilitation of Domitian that has now been underway for quite some time.

In sum total, this is not the coherent and comprehensive collection that one may have hoped for: it is a somewhat unbalanced and uneven collection of papers, every one of which looked at on its own is an interesting or at least useful addition to the literature on Domitian and his reign. The bibliography is convenient and comprehensive.[3] The one piece that stands out is the introduction: a succinct, commendable overview of the main issues.

A few comments on the quality of book production: the print edition has the look and feel of a cheap print-on-demand book. The pages are glued into the binding, the endpapers come loose, the book will not stay open, and several of the images are grey and murky. They look much better, with increased contrast, in the e-book (the images also can be found on the Fulcrum platform).


Authors and Titles

Introduction 1, Raymond Marks and Marcello Mogetta

Part I: Urban Narratives
1. Assemblages and Appropriation of Augustan Art and Topography in Flavian Rome 15
Diane Atnally Conlin
2. Domitian and the Augustan Altars 32
Megan Goldman-Petri
3. Legacy Revisited: Augustus and Domitian in the Imperial Fora and the Roman Forum 57
Daira Nocera

Part II: Gods and Models
4. Identifying Demigods: Augustus, Domitian, and Hercules 79
Eric M. Moormann and Claire Stocks
5. Arachne and Lucretia: A Domitianic Perspective? 102
Emma Buckley

Part III: From Nero to Augustus
6. Looking Back When Foretelling the Future: Panegyric Prophecies in Augustan, Neronian, and Domitianic Poetry 125
Lisa Cordes
vi Contents
7. Parce, Pater: Martial’s “Augustan” Commentary on Domitianic Rome in Epigram 5.7 141
Virginia M. Closs
8. The Return of Jupiter: Aeneid 1, Punica 1, and Silius’ Post-Lucanian Theology 158
Ludovico Pontiggia

Part IV: Poetic Journeys
9. Revisiting Ovid’s House of Somnus in Statius’ Thebaid 173
Emma Scioli
10. Quid Restat Profugis? “Victorious Exile” in Silius Italicus’ Punica 192
Clayton Schroer
11. Augustan to the End: Poetry, Politics, and Memory in Statius’ Silvae Book 4 208
Jean-Michel Hulls

Part V: History and Reception
12. An Ambiguous Attitude: Augustus’ and Domitian’s Policies toward Senators and Freedmen 233
Egidio Incelli
13. Domitian’s Aftermath: Nerva’s Rome and the Augustan Legacy in Sculpture and Coinage 251
Nathan T. Elkins



[1] The editors note a recent explosion of interest in Domitian and his reign: on p.7, n.33-35 they give a bibliography (to which should now be added: A.R. Cominesi, N. de Haan, E.M. Moormann, and C. Stocks (eds.), God on Earth: Emperor Domitian. The Re-invention of Rome at the End of the 1st Century AD, Leiden 2021 Sidestone Press (PALMA Papers on Archaeology of the Leiden Museum of Antiquities 24): it contains several papers relevant to the imitatio Augusti of Domitian).

[2] For example, the Iseum Campense, completely refashioned by Domitian, is only mentioned thrice, cursorily, and the recent study edited by M.J. Versluys, K. Bulow Clausen, and G. Capriotti Vittozzi (The Iseum Campense. From the Roman Empire to the Modern Age. Temple—Monument—Lieu de mémoire, Rome 2018) is not in the bibliography in its own right – although Eric Moormann’s contribution to that volume (which is important for the subject of Domitian’s architectural programme) is referred to.

[3] Reference to Susan Wood, “Public images of the Flavian dynasty: sculpture and coinage”, in: Andrew Zissos (ed.), A Companion to the Flavian Age of Imperial Rome, Chichester 2016, 129-147, is missing.