Friday 12 April 2013


One of the joys of writing historical fiction, as opposed to historical ‘fact’ for academia is the freedom to engage with the personalities of the people I study.  I can read between the lines and I can infer what seems to me obvious but may fly in the face of academically accepted ‘Truth.’ 
I am studying Jeanne d’Arc just now and have had several historians offer to help as long as I don’t cite them in the acknowledgements for fear of annihilating their professional credicibility: it’s an accepted truth that she was a peasant girl who had visions of Saints and whose faith enabled her to undertake miraculous feats of arms – and this despite the fact that she didn’t speak of saints until the third day of her trial when she was being threatened with torture if she didn’t (she spoke of ‘my father in heaven’ and ‘messire’ which is what a squire called the knight he served, but never of saints).  It also leaves aside the fact that it doesn’t matter how much faith you have, faith by its nature does not let one mount a war horse in full armour and couch a lance in battle: that takes decades of training.
But that’s for another post, a year from now, very likely, when I can go into a lot more detail of who and why and how the woman who called herself Jeanne achieved all that she did.
Today I want to look at another much –spun character from history; this time, one who has been demonized rather than canonized and whereas Domitian was clearly a hard-tempered emperor and more than likely paranoid, it is also the true that in the case of Emperors, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
Born into virtual poverty, at least by senatorial standards, Domitian was the second son of a second son. His father, Vespasian, was the son of a ‘tax-farmer’ and mule seller who only entered the senate on the urgings of his mother and older brother; there’s every indication that he’d have been very happy as a military strategist and has no love of politics.  But politics and the army ran hand in hand in the Empire and to be a general, one had also to be a senator; which is one of the several reasons why some of Rome’s legions were quite so badly led (the Twelfth, for instance, was landed with a series of exceptionally bad commanders which largely led to its appellation as the ‘unlucky Twelfth’)
Domitian: photo from Wikimedia Commons
What Vespasian lacked in political ambition, he made up for in his martial skills and he was well on the way to conquering Judaea when Vitellius, third of the emperors to hold the throne in the Year of Four made the mistake of sending an assassin out to eradicate his supposed opponent; and thus turned Vespasian into that which he most feared. 
The resulting civil war tore Rome apart, but Vespasian and his glorious, supremely attractive elder son, Titus, kept out of the way in Alexandria while their legions gained them the throne.  Domitian, by contrast, remained in Rome the whole time, which can, I think, go a long way to explaining what he became when he finally inherited the throne for himself.
Domitian was not inclined to war.  He was not particularly inclined to politics but being second son of the Emperor made him de facto a Senator and he took a consulship when his father died and Titus, the glorious brother gained the throne.
Domitian’s mother died in his youth and he was raised and cared for by Caenis, the freedomwoman who was Vespasian’s life partner and love.  Together, they ended up caught in the Temple to the three gods (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva) on the heights of the Capitoline, and together they fled when it was burned to the ground by Vitellius’ forces.  They spent a night hiding in a cellar then escaped from Rome disguised as priests of Isis – they wore papier mache dog’s heads designed to make them look like Anubis, the dog-headed god, and they carried some of the wealth of Isis out of the city into the suburbs on the safer south side of the city as Caecina’s pro-Flavian troops lined up ready to assault their brethren inside.  He hid out in the house of a school friend and then returned at the end of Saturnalia, when the civil war had reached its bloody conclusion, to hold the throne in the name of his father.
Colosseum: begun by Vespasian, completed by Domitian.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
He didn’t rule, then, though: the general Mucianus arrives smartly on the heels of victory and took over. Ruling through Domitian, he swiftly disposed of anyone who might prove problematic to Vespasian when he finally reached Rome from Alexandria.  Mucianus was effective, but ruthless – a scion of the Piso family who seemed as if he might make a tentative claim for damages or preferment was taken on a chariot ride forty miles out of the city and required to kill himself – we can only imagine under what kinds of threats.  His death quieted a lot of the other naysayers who were suggesting that a second son of such lowly background might not make the perfect Emperor. Others were palmed off with positions in the military which kept them quiet and a long way from Rome.
So Domitian had an early schooling in the kinds of decisions necessary to keep a throne stable.  On top of that, we know that by the time of the year of the four Emperors, he had grown into a young man whose main hobby was the collection of dead flies pinned to a board, who went to bed at six o’clock out of preference and didn’t particularly like socializing.  He was brusque and often said what he thought, which was a novelty in the upper circles of Roman society. 
He was, in short, rather far along the spectrum of behaviour we would consider to be Asberger’s syndrome.  This doesn’t stop him from being brilliant: Einstein, Michelangelo and Marie Curie are all thought to have had Asberger’s and each in his/her own way made a profound impression on the world.  It might also go some way to explaining why Domitian made such a good executive officer. His father took over an Empire that was in economic melt down after the depradations of Nero and the chaos of Vitellius.  In his ten year reign, went a long way to balancing the books, but it took Domitian to take the exchequer into the black – by dint of devaluing the coins and reducing their silver content, but also by creating a massive building programme, courtesy of the treasury, which has to count as one of the first obvious acts of Keynsian economics every practiced.
He spent money on wars: Agricola moved up into the north of Britain and fought the battle of Mons Graupius against the forces of Calgacus, leading to Tacitus infamous ‘speech of Calgacus’ in which he says of Rome, ‘They wrought a desolation and called it peace.’ (we could say pretty much the same now of Margaret Thatcher).  He extended the empire into Dacia (current day Romania and Moldovia, with a few other bits of Balkan territories added in) and made secure the boundaries in ways they had not been with his predecessors.
Above all, he endeavoured to become a guardian of the public morals, which given his own bisexuality was an interesting piece of psychodrama.
What he didn’t do, was to make friends with the Senate, so that when he was finally slaughtered by his own (rightly paranoid) courtiers, those who wrote the histories were free to treat him as a lunatic and a despot when in fact, his greatest crime had been to over-ride the sensibilities of the Senate. Writing 'Rome: The Art of War' was intended as an exploration of the Year of the Four Emperors.  What I had not expected was that I would strive to understand the mind and thinking of the young man who was destined to sit on the throne twice: before his father's return from Alexandria and again after his brother's death.  The end result was - as is always the case - very different to my imagining, but far more nuanced than some of the histories would have us believe. 


Amalia Dillin said...

Fascinating!! (this is what I love about historical fiction, too! And I'm also super curious about what you end up with about Joan of Arc!)

Unknown said...

Thank you - it's fun, isn't it? I'm working on the siege of Orléans now - book due out next year sometime...


Sweedie-The-Cat said...

And if you are interested in Joan of Arc, here is a cute, short, educational music video. (Mrs.Burvall was even interviewed about it, by some French People, re: the recent Anniversaries on Joan, in France.)
And here is one on ancient Rome:
For more info, Google Amy Burvall & Herb Mahelona.

Mark Burgess said...

Thank you, Manda, fascinating stuff. And I also can't wait for your take on La Pucelle! (I never believed that shepherdess rubbish either!)

Leslie Wilson said...

How interesting! And yes, Joan must have learned warfare somewhere. Unless you just think that reality was different in those days.. Domitian's statue looks really lifelike, and I thought he did look like a geek, which would fit in with the Aspergers theory. Isn't it odd, though, to think of people having Aspergers and other conditions, before they had been identified as such? So were the people what their contemporaries thought they were, or what we wouls think they were?

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