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.