An able administrator, loved by the soldiery but reviled by the Senate as a tyrant, Domitian’s death greatly divided opinion. The army mourned him deeply, calling on him to be deified and demanding his assassins to be brought to justice. The plebs reacted with indifference while the Senate celebrated with sheer delight. The memory sanctions the Senate launched against Domitian in September 96 AD were particularly severe.
Thronging the senate-house, they denounced his name and reputation in the most vitriolic ways before bringing ladders so they could have all his votive shields and statues pulled down from display and smashed. Finally, they passed an oblitio nominis, requiring that his name be erased from all public inscriptions and all records of his reign obliterated.
We know that Suetonius isn’t exaggerating here for two reasons. Firstly, archaeological evidence in Rome has found little trace of Domitian’s statues of inscriptions mentioning the emperor. In fact, when it comes to his statues most have been re-carved to resemble his successors: Nerva Secondly we have a quote from Pliny the Younger—a lawyer and politician present at the time, thanks to whose letters we know about such events as the eruption of Vesuvius—describing the destruction of Domitian’s statues:
“How delightful it was, to smash to pieces those arrogant faces, to raise our swords against them, to cut them ferociously with our axes, as if blood and pain would follow our blows.”
It wasn’t just in Rome that Domitian’s memory faced all-out erasure. He had been particularly fond of the city of Ephesus, the first emperor to show such favor to the city since Augustus. As well as building a series of aqueducts, extending the city’s boundary, providing tax breaks, he also conferred on the city what was the greatest honor imaginable: allowing it to set up a cult to the emperor. This they did, each temple competing fiercely for pre-eminence. The problem, of course, was what they would do after he died.
His building projects such as the aqueducts continued to function; clearly, there was no point in the people of Ephesus cutting off their nose to spite their face. But when it came to inscriptions, his name was removed. There was still the pressing issue of the temple in Domitian’s honor, of course, but the resourceful Ephesians found a way around this: rededicated it to Domitian’s family, the Flavians, while leaving out Domitian himself.