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4.5 out of 5 stars
The Emperor Domitian
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 3 June 2013
Domitian is a bit of a tricky character to get a handle on. Following on from his father Vespasian and his brother Titus as Emperor, Domitian must, for some years have doubted that he would ever rule. But his brother's early death catapulted him to a position for which he was perhaps ill prepared. Certainly it would seem that Vespasian had not spent much time teaching Domitian how to rule. Given that he ended ignomoniously, and that it was in his assassins' interests to ensure his reputation was blackened, what we have available to us today in the way of sources tends to be rather distorted. This book, the first in English to attempt to `recreate' Domitian for the reader, attempts to look at what he achieved and how, and not just at what others may have said or written about him, particularly after his death. First published in 1992, this remains an important book about the last of the Flavian emperors, and the period that led to the `Five Good Emperors'. I hesitated between this book and the work on Domitian by Pat Southern, but decided that in the first instance this book offered better value. Hopefully I will get a chance to read Southern's book, as I have read and enjoyed other works by her.

Domitian, for all his apparent worthy qualities as a ruler, seems to have been a man who was not particularly likeable, and did not care that he viewed his own people with contempt and reduced them to terror. Even though many of the primary sources from which his life must be recreated were later and hostile, the theme of the fear of the Senators and court, and the contempt and disdain with which Domitian treated every one of them do seem to be fairly consistent. This is perhaps emphasised further by the fact that he was assassinated by members of his own court.

This is in no way a book to be tackled by someone new to Roman politics, religion, culture, the Empire, or even the Julio-Claudians or Flavians. Names, places, events are thrown into the mix with no explanation; for instance on page 1 Pompey's army at Pharsalus is mentioned; on page 4 Sejanus's fall in AD 31 is mentioned. If you are not familiar with the Roman Empire to the time of Vespasian, you would find it difficult to get the most out of this scholarly book.

The book is broken into vaguely chronological though mainly thematic sections - Early Career, Court, Administration, War, Aristocracy and concludes with Domitian's assassination and an overview of his character. I found this approach extremely informative, and aided greatly in allowing a deeper understanding of Domitian the Emperor, his policies, his style, and how he viewed his role.

Part way through reading this, I was trying to decide what it was about the author's style of writing that seemed familiar - and then I realised it was that it reminded me of the style of Ronald Syme, a well-known Roman historian. Both his and Brian Jones' style is quite old-fashioned; succinct and concise, lean and learned. Only what is known and can reasonably be conjectured is written; there is no room in these authors' writings for what cannot be `known'. While this may at times make for a shorter book, not one word is wasted; they are all gold. There are copious notes referencing primary and secondary source material, and an extensive bibliography as well as three separate indexes to complete the book. This is great stuff, and recommended for anyone with a prior knowledge of the Roman Empire and a desire to learn more about Domitian and the Flavian legacy.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 13 December 2012
This is a fascinating book in several respects, although it might not be targeted at the "general reader."
One of its main attractions was the care taken by the author to assess and show to what extent Domitian's reputation has been blackened both by his successors (the five so-called "good Emperors" that came after him: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrien, Antonin and Marcus-Aurelius), by the Senate and the sources derived from Senators (Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius in particular...) and also, more surprisingly, by the Christian church during the Fourth Century. Accordingly, and thanks to this, Domitian has had an awful reputation and ranked among the "monsters" together with Nero, Caligula or Commodus.

The author shows, by carefully analysing the main aspects of Domitian's reign and personality to what extent this terrible reputation is undeserved while also showing that there was one (or rather several) grains of truth behind these fabrications. First, Domitian seems to have been "not good with people", as one would say nowadays. He did not care about public relations and senators' feelings and did not even bother about preserving appearances and disguising the fact that he was a dictator and an autocrat. Accordingly, and despite attempts to reach out to a number of them, a marge majority of the Senate hated him. Second, Brian Jones also shows that, contrary to his father and elder brother, Domitian disliked and seemed to be not good at socializing with other people. He seems to have preferred solitude, or at least the company of a very limited number of people, and seems to have had little ability in bonding with other people. Finally, he was very much the autocrat, not at all tactful, hardly a diplomat and suspicious, not to say paranoid, and with good reason perhaps. As the author shows, this combination hardly made him into an endearing monarch to the senatorial elites, regardless of what his other qualities were.

Another point made by the author is to show how capable Domitian was, despite having been maligned so much. Well-educated, he was a bit of what we would call a "micro-manager" nowadays and he did not hesitate to intervene to ensure that administration was up to the high standards that he expected, in particular with regards to the currency. One cannot help wondering how good he was at delegating tasks to others and whether he would feel obliged to lecture them on how to carry out their duties. However, his direct interventions associated with his high sense of duty and his harsh disciplinarian streak ensured that everyone "stayed in line", obeyed and complied. In other words, he seems to have been feared but hardly loved, except perhaps by the army whose pay he raised.

He is also shown as a very capable administrator. The resentment that authors such as Tacitus expressed was largely because he did not see any need in encouraging generals' thirst for glory (such as Agricola's conquest of Scotland) when there was little in it for the Empire itself. As the author puts it, Domitian would have probably not only pulled back from Scotland to concentrate on other - more worthwhile - fronts, but would have also pulled out of Britain altogether if he had thought he could have got away with it. His campaigns on the Danube, portrayed as disastrous by his successors, seem to have had much more mixed results in reality. By the time he was assassinated, he seemed to have been gaining the upper hand and getting ready for an invasion and perhaps an occupation of modern Bohemia.

Finally, there is his supposed "reign of terror", which has been vastly exaggerated and, with regards to some aspects such as the persecution of early Christians, totally fabricated by third century authors, and Eusebius in particular. A number of prominent senators were indeed executed, just as some had been under his father Vespasian and a number of previous emperors for a range of reasons. One of these, among others, seems to have been to confiscate their wealth for the treasury, thereby helping to balance the Empire's "budget" without having either to raise taxes or depreciate the currency too much. So while his economic management would have hardly made him overly popular with the senators, he certainly did have in mind the prosperity of the overwhelming majority of his subjects

There are however a few glitches and relatively minor issues with this book. One problem, especially when trying to follow the military campaigns of the reign, is the lack of any maps. Another point which could be an issue for a "general reader" as opposed to someone with prior knowledge of the period is the choice made for structuring the book. It is organized by theme rather than chronologically, something that could be confusing for someone with no more than a general interest in the period. Finally, the author also tends to insist on descriptions and long lists of all of the key supports of his regime, on the one hand, and of all the monuments that he built, restored or completed when he remodelled Rome. Both elements are essential for understanding Domitian's regime, how it managed to last for some 15 years despite the senate's hostility but without the alleged "reign of terror" and to what extent his achievements have been underrated or recuperated by some of his "good" successors who started their careers under his reign, such as Trajan and Hadrian.

Finally, I would warmly recommend this book to read but perhaps, as previously mentioned, not for beginners or, at least, not on its own. An excellent companion book which would neatly complete this one and prolong the effort in rehabilitating this much maligned Emperor, the last of the Flavians, is Grainger's little book on Nerva, Domitian's immediate successor and probably one of those who was behind his assassination.
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on 20 March 2012
This book does an excellent job at splitting Domitian's reign into different topics. This is useful as a means of quantifying 'facts' recorded by many historians (both ancient and modern). It does not a readable book make. I've noticed that a lot of books dealing with the emperors of this period follow this model, but I feel that there is still much to be gained from a more traditional model. These books are only useful for scholars or students writing essays. Since that is what they're designed for I can't object, but wouldn't it make sense to include a brief narrative account in the beginning so that people can follow what's going on? If scholars aren't interested they can always skip it, and that one tiny concession would make the market for this book infinitely wider. That is the style adopted by many of the best books on the Classical era (Jones' seminal The Later Roman Empire for example). Or he could cover the topics in a loose chronological order as they come up. This requires a little more work, but when it works it works really well. I guess I'm saying that just because you're writing a book designed for scholars doesn't mean you can't help other readers out.

Due to the nature of this book I have little to say. It provides a series of lists which contain data on various issues of Domitian's reign (such as the court, administration, war, and the aristocracy). He does draw some good conclusions from these lists, which is why I give the book a high review, but nobody is going to read this book just for fun. If you're looking for a better biography on the man then I suggest Pat Southern's Domitian: Tragic Tyrant. It builds off much of what this book says, only it does it in a clear and concise chronological fashion. This book is useable as a reference work only, and if that's what you need then this is the book for you.
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on 2 July 2012
Is there an emperor who better exemplifies the saying, "the closer to Caesar, the greater the fear" than Domitian? I suspect not. Nowadays few doubt that the last of the Flavians was a highly competent and conscientious ruler. Both domains - war and peace - bespeak it. But his foibles as an aggrieved second son became manias upon his empurplement and the rebellion of Lucius Antonius Saturninus, Governor of Germania Superior, only added to his paranoia. Anyone of rank who drew attention to themselves was sent into oblivion or exile.

Over time, Domitian has suffered excessively at the hands of Suetonius, Cassius Dio and Tacitus: the latter, being a member of the aggrieved Senatorial class, was particularly vindictive. Further evidence of his iniquity was seen in the Damnatio Memoriae: he was one of only three emperors to befall this fate at the hands of a vengeful Senate. Ever so sadly, the mob destroyed his equestrian statue (the enormous base of which was located in 1903 in the Forum).

This study is a concerted effort to re-evaluate his legacy. Jones is systematic in his survey: the Court, Administration, Wars & Aristocracy all receive their due. His use of prosopography is admirable. Far from being a monster to rank with the likes of Caligula, Nero and Commodus, an emperor emerges whose astute policies did much to set the foundation for the prosperity of the Second Century. Domitian also spent three years in the field with the legions; while Trajan reaped all the subsequent glory in Dacia, his predecessor was tributary. No amount of rationalisation will explain away the decimation of the Senate. While no composer would write an opera `La Clemenza di Domitiziano' (in sharp contrast to his brother) as Domitian himself said: no-one actually believes an emperor when he claims that conspiracies are afoot until they are successful which indeed occurred in 96AD.

This study is not perfect. The last of the Flavians was a complex character. He lived in the shadow of his insanely popular brother Titus - and their father Vespasian had done little to assuage his self-worth during his own reign. Psychology-wise, Domitian: Tragic Tyrant is the surer guide. Domitian was also an enthusiastic builder (much of the complex on the Palatine is his work). This could have been better explored. Image was also important to Domitian. While he was as bald as a bandicoot, Suetonius tells us that he wrote a book on hair-care. Those statues that survived the Damnatio Memoriae are of immense interest and character (there is a magnificant full-body statue in the Vatican Museum): this dimension is barely addressed.

All in all, this is a fine study of an emperor who will forever be a byword for calculated cruelty and competence.
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on 3 October 2006
Although a technical book for the average reader, the details are nevertheless clearly laid out in each section. Its also refreshing to read the truth about Domitian, rather than the foolish character often envisaged. Would benefit from figures and diagrams.
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