The emperor Domitian has never had a good press. After his assassination, his successors awarded him the damnatio memoriae. The account in Suetonius is evidently comprised mainly of scurrilous gossip. Martial’s epigrams flattering the emperor become ever more fulsome as the reign progresses — although hardly more so than Pliny the Younger’s Panegyricus on Trajan — only to suddenly condemn the emperor as a despot once he was safely dead.
Much that Domitian did was laudable. He did his best to resist the debasement of the currency, and left a surplus in the treasury, a sure sign of fiscal competence. He adopted the role of perpetual censor, and attempted to reform the equally debased morals of the people. He cleared hucksters off the pavements of Rome. He was a competent, if not sparkling war leader, and his administrative reforms were retained by his successors.
Several things made him look bad. He was unpopular with the senatorial class, mainly because he didn’t socialise effectively with them and treated them as just another lobby group in Rome. Considering his autocratic ways, that meant subjecting them to the fear of immediate execution that lesser men more commonly had.
Domitian also had himself named “god” in his official titulature, which his enemies did not fail to mention. An epigram by Martial on his courtiers, praising them for their moderation and fairness, contrives to give an impression of haughty, greedy minions whom no man could safely oppose. The widespread use of delation — informers who stood to gain from the estate of the accused man — meant that few felt safe. First it became unsafe to criticise the emperor; then, as the evil worked its course, it became unsafe not to flatter him. This process we do see in Martial, and it is probably unfair not to remember this when reading his works. It reminds me of those video clips of Stalin receiving frenzied applause with a stony face, looking to and fro, not to accept the applause, but to see who is not clapping.
There must have been relief when Domitian was murdered. Suddenly the climate changed. Suddenly it was safe to speak your mind. It is perhaps for this, that the memory of Domitian is damned.