"I know, of course, that he was devoted to boys and to wine, but if he had ever committed or endured any base or wicked deed as the result of this, he would have incurred censure; as it was, however, he drank all the wine he wanted, yet remained sober, and in his relation with boys he harmed no one." Dio Cassius on Trajan.I want to examine one such Imperial scandal. An Imperial love triangle consisting of the emperor Domitian, his wife Domitia and his niece Julia.
Suetonius has this to say about it:
Juvenal says this:
"When his niece took another husband he seduced her....She became pregnant by him and died as the result of the abortion he forced upon her"
"The adulterer with a tragic incestuous twist, so busy reviving those stern decrees, a threat to everyone even to Mars and Venus! Meanwhile his too fertile niece gobbled pills, bought on an abortion and every embryo lump was the living spit of uncle."
But how much of this is true?
|Julia photo attributed José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro|
One thing we need to get out the way is this charge of incest. If Julia and Domitian were involved it wasn't technically incest. Emperor Claudius had legalised marriage between an uncle and a niece in 49AD, purely so he could marry his own niece Agrippina.
Julia had been feted as a wife for Domitian by his father, the emperor Vespasian.
"He had been offered the hand of his brother's daughter while she was still a young girl."
"He persistently refused to marry her on account of his infatuation with Domitia."
Domitia Longina was a very well connected young woman. She was the daughter of Nero's celebrated (and later executed) general Corbulo. On her mother's side she could trace her ancestry back to Rome's first emperor, Augustus.
Vespasian, though having been declared emperor at the end of 69AD, was still in the East. As was Domitian's brother Titus. This left Domitian in Rome alone in 70AD representing this new dynasty. He was only 18 years of age with absolutely no experience in government.
Sometime during this year he met Domitia and evidently fell deeply in love. She already had a husband but this was considered no impediment.
They were married by the end of the year.
Vespasian did not arrive in Rome to take his throne until late in 70AD. This holds out the possibility that Domitian gave into his infatuation with Domitia and married without his father's permission.
Suetonius mentions that Domitian was 'persistently' pressured to marry Julia.
Was the pressure placed on him to marry Julia, pre or post marriage to Domitia?
Whichever it was, Domitian held firm.
|Emperor Domitian and Empress Domitia.|
Image attributed Classical Numismatic Group
Shortly after Domitian succeeded his brother Titus as emperor in 81AD something went badly wrong in Domitian and Domitia's marriage.
"He planned to put his wife, Domitia, to death on the ground of adultery, but having been dissuaded by Ursus, he divorced her, after murdering Paris, the actor, in the middle of the street because of her."
This separation from Domitia did not last long.
Upon the demands of the people he became reconciled with Domitia, but continued his relations with Julia none the less.
Just how convincing is this alleged infatuation with his niece? It’s surely not surprising that she lived at the palace. She was a member of the Flavian dynasty.
Suetonius says Domitian loved Julia ardently. If this was true why didn't he marry her after the divorce from Domitia?
|Julia. Image by Twdk|
Domitia and Domitian had no children, only a son that had died in infancy. Julia's child would have been one born of two Flavians, a much needed heir maybe?
There is one further piece of evidence that undermines the story that Julia died of an abortion. A poem by Martial that would have been presented to the emperor. It was written shortly after Julia's death in 91AD
“TO DOMITIAN, ON THE EXPECTED BIRTH OF
A SON BY HIS WIFE DOMITIA.
Spring into light, O child promised to the Trojan Iulus,true scion of the gods; spring into light, illustrious child! May your father, after a long series of years, put into your hands the reins of empire, to hold for ever; and may you rule the world, yourself an old man, in concert with your still more aged sire, for you shall Julia herself with her snow-white thumb, draw out the golden threads of life, and spin the whole fleece of Phrixus' ram.”
The poem speaks of how Domitia was still hoped to produce an heir and that the now deified Julia would watch over him. How suicidal was Martial to write a poem wishing fertility to the empress that mentioned her husband's late mistress who died after becoming pregnant with the emperor's child? It seems highly unlikely Martial would dare to produce such a work if the Domitian/Julia abortion story were true.I think it’s more likely that this was scurrilous gossip based on an affectionate yet innocent relationship between uncle and niece.
I believe the real passion, the real love affair, was with Domitia. The woman he defied his father to marry. The woman he refused to give over despite family pressure. The woman he recalled from exiled after she’d cheated on him because ‘the people demanded it’.
Was this passion reciprocated? There were rumours that she was involved in Domitian’s assassination in 96AD. Yet years after his death Domitia continued to call herself Domitian's widow. Surely a sign of deep affection.
The Morality Laws
|Courtesy of Wellcome Images|
So what is really behind this story of an affair between and emperor and his niece? Is there more to it than just a bit of tittle tattle that apparently only gained traction in the years after Domitian's death?
Domitian was a reforming emperor and one of his key reformations was in the sphere of public morality.
Suetonius mentions many of his acts including:
He struck the name of a Roman knight from the list of jurors, because he had taken back his wife after divorcing her and charging her with adultery.
This sounds familiar doesn't it? It's exactly what Domitian did with Domitia.
Then there is this:
So here we reach the crux: is the Domitian/Domitia/Julia story our sources attempt to portray Domitian as a hypocrite, enforcing morality laws he himself and his wife were breaking?
Then there is this:
He expelled one ex-quaester from the Senate for being over fond of acting and dancing.
Recalling Domitia's over fondness of the actor Paris.
Forbade women of notoriously bad character the right to use litters.
I think it is a distinct possibility.
L.J. Trafford is the author of a four book series detailing the Year of the Four Emperors