Domitian was the Roman emperor from 81 to 96AD. He was the third and last of the Flavian emperors after his father Vespasian and his brother Titus. Domitian was ultimately assassinated in 96AD by a member of the imperial staff (Suet. Dom. 17). After his death, Domitian was given damnatio memoriae, meaning his memory was damned with his name being wiped from the public record and his statues smashed or reworked (Suet. Dom. 23). Figure 1 shows an inscription in which Domitian’s name was erased after his damnatio memoriae.

But why was Domitian treated like this?

Domitian was not the most popular emperor among the Senatorial class. The reason for this was because he had essentially made the Senators’ powers obsolete by dispelling with the Republican façade and instead choosing to rule as a despot, coupled with the enforcement of his financial policy and his increasing arrogance that lead to his death (Jones, 1992).

There is no doubt that Domitian was a ruthless ruler but by no means was he a bad one. In fact, Domitian was a very competent ruler that undertook major economic, military, cultural and building programs in the hope of resorting Rome to its golden age under Augustus. Suetonius even states that during Domitian’s reign the imperial bureaucracy had never ran more efficiently due to the low levels of corruption of city officials and governors of the provinces (Suet. Dom. 8).

Understanding the impact that Domitian had on Rome is not an easy job to do due to his damnatio memoriae. The easiest way that we can see Domitian’s impact is in how he helped to develop the city of Rome through his extensive building programs.

Domitian’s building program

Whilst all of the Roman emperors undertook some form of building program, not all of them changed the physical landscape of the city. Augustus, Nero, Trajan, Hadrian and Septimius Severus were all emperors who changed the physical landscape of Rome through the sheer size and scope of their building projects. Domitian deserves a place among these names as stated by Anderson (1983) that his reputation as a builder was so great that the damning of his memory could not cover up his role in a huge number of many projects.

Examining deeper at some of the buildings Domitian built shows us a different figure to what has been told to us by the ancient sources. In order to do this, buildings will be split into temples, public buildings and the palace complex on the Palatine Hill.


The bulk of Domitian’s building program was made up of temples, shrines and monuments to the gods. Domitian built temples to Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Hercules, Phoebus, Castor and Pollux, Fortuna Redux, Isis and Serapis, the gens Flauia and lastly Vespasian and Titus with many more potentially having been lost to time (Darwall-Smith, 1996).

Each of the temples Domitian built had a special connection to him. The temple of Jupiter Custos memorialised his escape in 69AD and the temple of Fortuna Redux celebrated his military accomplishments, while his deep admiration for Minerva is evidenced by the many temples dedicated to her and the in the Forum which highlights her as a key figure (Darwall-Smith, 1996).

Domitian’s biggest and most decorative temple was to Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill. He rebuilt this temple after the devastating fire of 80AD which burnt down large areas of Rome in particular the Campus Maritus and the Capitoline Hill (Dio Cass. 66.24). Domitian’s rebuild of this temple was so extravagant that Plutarch states it cost more then 12,000 talents and that one look at the new temple would cause people to think that Domitian’s obsession with building would only be satisfied when everything had been turned to gold and stone. (Plut, Publ. 15.3-5). You can get a sense of the size of this temple by looking at its foundation in Figure 2, though these foundations do date to an earlier build of the temple.

Public buildings

The most famous of all the buildings constructed by the Flavian emperors was that of the Colosseum. Construction of this monumental structure began under Vespasian in 72AD and completed under Titus in 80AD. Domitian made further modifications to the structure by adding underground tunnels to house animals and slaves as well as a gallery in the top in order to increase the seating capacity (Darwall-Smith, 1996). Figure 3 shows a coin minted under Domitian depicting the Colosseum.

Due to the fire of 80AD, many buildings in the Campus Martius were in need of restoration and Domitian restored many of them including the Pantheon, Saepta Julia, Baths of Agrippa, Stage of Pompey’s Theatre, Diribitorium and the Theatre of Balbus (Robathan, 1942).

The fire of 80AD also destroyed large areas of the Campus Martius itself. Instead of rebuilding or restoring the structures that were there before, Domitian decided to build two new ones of his own. The first of these was a new stadium, the first permanent one of its kind in Rome, which was located on the site currently occupied by the Piazza Navona. The second structure built in the Campus Martius was an Odeon. It is suggested that this building was a small theatre, but this cannot be completely confirmed (Darwall-Smith, 1996; Suet. Dom. 5). Figure 4 shows the location of these two structures in the Campus Martius.

Domitian’s last gift to the public of Rome was an imperial forum know as the Forum Transitorium, or more commonly, the Forum Nervae, located in the Imperial Fora of Rome between the Forum of Augustus and the Temple of Peace. Though it bears the name of Domitian’s successor this structure was almost entirely built by Domitian (Suet. Dom. 5) evidenced in part by the dominating feature of this Forum being a temple to Domitian’s patron goddess, Minerva (Robathan, 1942). Figure 5 shows the position of the Forum Transitorium among the other Imperial Fora.

[Domitian’s Palace complex]{.underline}

No emperor left a bigger stamp on the Palatine Hill than Domitian did with the building of his palace complex. Domitian radically transformed the topography of the Palatine so thoroughly and magnificently that it was never significantly altered again for the rest of antiquity (Darwall-Smith, 1996).

The palace complex of Domitian covered the entire south-eastern part of the Palatine Hill. The complex is generally split into three sections known from west to east, as the Domus Flavia, the Domus Augustana and the Stadium. Corelli (Coarelli, 2014) argues that the entire complex went by the single name in antiquity, the Domus Augustana or the Palatium. A reconstruction of the palace complex can be seen in Figure 6.

Each of these three sections had a different function but all of them acted together as one complex to satisfy all aspects of the emperor’s life. The Domus Flavia was the official public section of the palace and it was in the large rooms and halls of this structure that the emperor would conduct the political and administrative decisions of the Empire (Darwall-Smith, 1996) whereas the Domus Augustana was thought to be the private section of the palace complex. However, the distinction between Domus Flavia being for public use and Domus Augustana, private is not an entirely truthful one, as the rooms that lie between the two structures do not create a distinct divide. It has been suggested that only the southern area of the Domus Augustana, in the direction of the Circus Maximus, was reserved for the private residence of the emperor. Evidence for this theory is in the southern part of the building having a physical divide to the rest of the structure and also allegedly having been constructed at a later time (Coarelli, 2014). The last section of the palace complex known as the Stadium can be seen in Figure 7. Though it has been given the name of the ‘Stadium’ it is much more likely that this structure was in actual fact a garden and a riding school (Coarelli, 2014) as opposed to modern understandings of the term.

The ancient sources are full of praise for Domitian’s palace complex with Martial writing that it puts the pyramids of Egypt and Babylon to shame and that the roof is so high it receives the first light of day before even the goddess Circe (Mart. 8.36). Statius compares the experience of dining in Domitian’s palace to reclining alongside Jupiter in the heavens (Stat. Silv. 4.2.10–11).

[Domitian’s legacy]{.underline}

Whilst Domitian’s legacy will never be free of his damnatio memoriae and the reputation given to him in the ancient sources, the buildings he left behind will always show us a different side of his character.

No building quite sums up Domitian’s legacy like that of the Palace of Domitian. Before Domitian the principiate had no clear definition and this can be seen in the fact that no single organized structure had been built that could bring together all the functions overseen by the Imperial government. Domitian changed this when he decided to get rid of Republican façade and make power formally monarchical. This shift caused by Domitian is best seen in the separation between the private residence and the public quarters of the palace complex which fulfilled the need of the emperor to present himself to the public in a special, solemn light (Coarelli, 2014).


Guide to Further Reading

Expedition - Domitian’s Rule: Youtube video on Domitian published by Penn Museum. This is a short video in which Dr. Brian Ross gives a nice overview of Domitian and his reign.

Waters, K. H. 1964. “The Character of Domitian”, Phoenix, 18 (1), 49-77.]

[Zissos, A. 2016. A Companion to the Flavian Age of Imperial Rome, Chichester.


Anderson, J. 1983. A Topographical Tradition in Fourth Century Chronicles: Domitian's Building Program, Historia, 32(1), 93-105.

Coarelli, F. 2014. Rome and Environs. An Archaeological Guide, Berkeley.

Darwall‐Smith, R. 1996. Emperors and Architecture: A Study of Flavian Rome, Brussels.

Jones, B.W. 1992. The Emperor Domitian, London and New York.

Robathan, D.M. 1942. Domitian’s Midas-Touch, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 73, 130-144.

Uri Bronotte

Uri is a student at Macquarie University studying a Bachelor of Education with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Ancient History and has been interested in Ancient Rome from a young age. This interest would turn into an infatuation with the city in 2018 when he had a chance to spend 3 weeks there. He enjoys long walks on the beach.