Domitian was the black sheep of the Flavian dynasty. Or at least that’s how our sources portray him. The last of three Flavian emperors, succeeding his father Vespasian (69-79 AD) and his older brother Titus (79-81 AD), Domitian ruled for 18 years, the longest reign of any emperor since Tiberius. But he shared the same fate as Nero in that, being the last ruler of a dynasty, he was always going to be reviled under the propaganda of the next. He was certainly ruthless. But while senators hated him his soldiers admired him, and on balance his policies and reforms and went a long way in setting the tone for the next century of peace.
A great deal of mystery surrounds Domitian’s love life. Unusually for a Roman emperor, he only married once. He rebelled against Vespasian’s attempts to wed him to his brother’s daughter, Julia Flavia. Instead, he betrothed himself to the woman he loved, Domitia Longina, after the small matter of making her divorce her husband. They appear to have had a happy marriage, save one significant hiccup in 83 AD. For reasons unknown, Domitia was banished from the palace and sent into exile—perhaps because of her failure to produce an heir, perhaps because Domitian was having an affair with Julia Flavia.
But she returned within a year, and other than this there doesn’t look to have been anything particularly noteworthy. That is until you read Suetonius. Right from the outset, the biographer writes about how Domitian would continually harass the wives of men of high reputation, following an autocratic precedent already set by Augustus, Caligula and Nero. He had a penchant for removing the hair from his lovers’ bodies with his own hands, Suetonius tells us, and loved nothing more than swimming in the baths with common prostitutes. He was adulterous with his niece, Julia Flavia, and in forcing her to abort their child, he ended up killing her.
A lot of this seems unlikely: reading more like political propaganda than a character portrait. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s rampant, racy and a really good read. The best and most quintessentially Roman anecdote of all is that Domitian referred to sexual intercourse as “bedroom wrestling”. We will never know if it’s apocryphal or not, though my guess is that it probably is. However, the truth behind it is less important than the fact that it perfectly encapsulates the machismo of Roman sexuality, and adds a whole new layer of meaning to Seneca’s famous dictum vivere militare est—to live is to fight.
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