Flavia Domitilla (c. 60–96 CE)

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Flavia Domitilla (c. 60–96 ce)

Roman noblewoman. Born around 60 ce; executed in 96 ce; daughter of Q. Petillius Cerialis Caesius Rufus, known as Petillius, and Flavia Domitilla (fl. 60 ce); married T. Flavius Clemens; children: sons T. Flavius Domitianus Caesar and T. Flavius Vespasianus Caesar.

Flavia Domitilla was the third woman in three generations of her family to bear the same name. Her grandmother, Flavia Domitilla (fl. 39 ce), was the daughter of Flavius Liberalis (a Roman freedman, meaning freed slave), who attracted an offer of marriage from Titus Flavius Vespasianus. Vespasian was a general when he married Flavia Domitilla (39 ce). In 68, the emperor Nero was deposed, initiating civil war. In this conflict, three military rivals preceded Vespasian to the throne, but by the end of 69 he had secured his imperial claim through violence. Flavia Domitilla had three children with Vespasian: another Flavia Domitilla (fl. 60 ce), Titus, and the notorious Domitian (the first two of whom were of adult age by 69). Flavia Domitilla (fl. 60 ce) married Petillius (a partisan of Vespasian) by 60 and thereafter remained loyal to Vespasian's cause. Vespasian rewarded Petillius with a suffect consulship (his second) in 74. At the time of his marriage, Petillius already had two sons (Rufus and Firmus), both of whom also supported the Flavian imperial house (the former serving as consul ordinary in 83 under Domitian). In about the year 60, a daughter was born to Petillius and Flavia Domitilla, who was the third to bear the name Flavia Domitilla. This Flavia Domitilla, who was the granddaughter of one emperor (Vespasian) and niece of two others (Titus and Domitian), was about ten when her family began its imperial odyssey.

A political prize of the first order because of her connections, this Flavia Domitilla married T. Flavius Clemens probably early in the reign of Domitian (r. 81–96). Several political reasons were behind this union. First, the angst-ridden Domitian, conscious of his family's lowly social background (his grandmother was the daughter of a Roman freedman), was loathe to marry his niece to someone of loftier ancestry, lest such a son-in-law threaten his imperial authority. Clemens made an excellent choice, for, far from creating political problems, his marriage to Flavia Domitilla actually helped to consolidate Flavian power, because Clemens was the grandson of the older brother of Emperor Vespasian. In addition, Clemens was likely to remain Domitian's trustworthy ally since he was neither particularly gifted in the political arena nor ambitious. A "solid" citizen, Clemens rose through the imperial ranks under the patronage of his imperial relative Domitian until Clemens reached the acme of his career in 95, at which time he became one of Rome's consul ordinaries.

Flavia Domitilla's marriage to Clemens was a successful match. They had two sons: T. Flavius Domitianus Caesar and T. Flavius Vespasianus Caesar. Because Emperor Domitian's own marriage to Domitia Longina produced no offspring, these sons were adopted by their great-uncle Domitian as his heirs. Had things thus remained, at least one of Flavia Domitilla's sons would have become the next Roman emperor. However, such was not to be, and Flavia Domitilla's hopes for the future were dashed during the year of her husband's consulship. Domitian suffered from a deep-rooted sense of social inferiority, while possessing an autocratic personality. He styled himself dominus et deus ("lord and god") to distance himself from everyone else, and exhibited a cruel streak throughout his reign, especially against the senatorial class upon which he ironically had to rely heavily for help to rule the vast Roman Empire. Executions for treason (some were guilty) began as early as 87, but the real storm broke out in 93. As a result, a reign of terror enveloped the powerful throughout the empire which caused Domitian's popularity to plummet sharply. It is little wonder that by 95 Domitian felt the need to staff important offices with "safe" occupants, like Clemens.

Not even Clemens' disposition and marriage, however, would save him from the increasingly paranoid Domitian when Domitian learned of Clemens' intellectual interest in an "atheistic" religious doctrine. It is not known for certain which of these sects attracted Clemens, whether it was in Christianity or in Judaism that he began to dabble, but from Domitian's perspective it mattered little: both religions rejected all but one God, undermining (among other things) Domitian's claim to be "[the] lord and [a] god." Whether or not Clemens understood the political ramifications of his religious interests, Domitian interpreted his pursuits as treasonous, since they called into question one very real prop (the "divinity" of the emperor) to his imperial power. Equally unknown is whether or not Flavia Domitilla shared her husband's nascent religious explorations (although it is quite possible she did—later Christians claimed that she maintained an interest in their religion). Nonetheless, preferring to err on the side of rigor, Domitian acted as though she did for certain. The emperor "suitably" punished both: Clemens was executed immediately and Flavia Domitilla was exiled to the small island of Pandateria before her own execution in 96. Further, their sons—Domitian's erstwhile heirs—disappear at this time from the historical record, almost certainly the victims of Domitian's deadly paranoia.

Flavia Domitilla's story, however, did not end there. One of her stewards, a man named Stephanus, both remained at Domitian's court after her fall and loyal to her memory. Seeking revenge for the unjust murder of his mistress, her husband, and (probably) her sons, and perhaps fearing his own death as a party to their "illegal" religious activities, Stephanus plotted Domitian's overthrow. Feigning injury so as to wrap one of his arms in a bandage, Stephanus hid therein a knife. He then picked his time carefully and attacked Domitian in his bed. However good a steward Stephanus was, he was a terrible assassin. Making an initial mess of Domitian's murder, he needed help from fellow conspirators before the emperor was physically overcome. Regardless, the plot succeeded. Ironically, the act that avenged Flavia Domitilla simultaneously transferred the empire to another dynasty and killed the last living scion of her house.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California