Friday 10 May 2024

A Dark Plot by L.J. Trafford

Death of an Emperor

On the 18th of September in the year 96 CE, a young Imperial slave boy was attending to the shrine to the Lares, the gods of the household, that resided in the bedchamber of the emperor Domitian. Domitian paid very serious attention to religion and proper adherence to it. He favoured the god Jupiter and goddess Minerva, rebuilding the temple of the former after it had been burnt to the ground and holding a special festival at his Alban villa for the latter. Elsewhere in his now 15-year reign he had overseen the trial of a Vestal Virgin accused of breaking her sacred chastity. Found guilty he had her entombed alive as both the law and the gods insisted upon.
The Emperor Domitian. Getty Open Content.

As the boy went about his job, no doubt anxious that the notoriously short-tempered Domitian might find fault with his work, word was brought to the emperor that outside the chamber there was a man named Stephanus who sought an urgent audience with him. What could possibly be so urgent as to disturb the emperor in his private bedchamber? A conspiracy, Stephanus was claiming, a grievous conspiracy to murder the emperor and what’s more he had the proof of it.

That was all Domitian needed to hear, he told his guards to let Stephanus in. It was unlikely that the emperor recognised the man who now entered his most private of rooms. Although, an Imperial freedman, Stephanus was new to the palace. He’d previously worked as a steward in the household of Domitian’s niece, Domitilla but had been absorbed into the emperor’s own household after Domitilla had been banished by her uncle. He stood in front of the emperor with the scroll clasped in his right hand that he claimed named these conspirators. As he handed over the scroll to the eager emperor, perhaps Domitian noticed that Stephanus’ left arm was heavily bandaged. Perhaps he did not. The chance to remove yet more men wanting to murder him was of more importance than how some random slave’s injury came about.

As Domitian unfurled the scroll Stephanus ripped off his bandages and pulled out the dagger he’d concealed beneath them. Then he stabbed the emperor in the groin. Domitian getting to his feet yelled to the slave boy to fetch him his dagger that he always kept under his pillow. The slave boy diving onto the bed, lifted the pillow and found nothing underneath. As the emperor grappled with Stephanus, he shouted again for the boy to get help. Running to a door the boy found it to be locked, as were all the other doors to the emperor’s chamber.

Domitian continued to fight his assailant, lacerating his fingers trying to grab the dagger off the steward. Both hit the floor, with Domitian on top of Stephanus and attempting to gouge out his eyes. This was when the doors finally opened and in ran other members of the Imperial household: Clodianus, Maximus, Satur and an unnamed gladiator from the imperial training school.

However, these four were not there to help or at least not help Domitian, they were plan b and they set about their allocated task, unsheathing their own weapons and adding seven more blows to the ones Stephanus had already inflicted upon Domitian. Although he had made good work of fighting off Stephanus, Domitian could not fight off five of them. The emperor was dead. Every detail we know about the killing of Domitian comes from that one terrified slave boy. Although none of the historians who use his story ever bothers to give him a name.

The Aftermath

Domitian’s death had been a brutal, sustained attack, a noisy one too what with the emperor yelling for his dagger and for help. him and Stephanus rolling on the floor crashing into the furniture amd perhaps the little slave boy screaming in terror. Help came too late to save the emperor, but it was in time to catch the murderers bloody handed standing over their victim. We are told Stephanus was killed ‘when those who had not shared in the conspiracy made a concerted rush upon him’.Cassius Dio. I think we can assume that Clodianus, Maximus, Satur and that unnamed gladiator were also run down by the still loyal servants of the emperor.
The palace that Domitian built but was also murdered in. 
Photo by Scott Rowland

The emperor was dead, his assassins were also dead. However, this was potentially a combustible situation, for the childless Domitian had left no heir. In 41 CE after the Emperor Caligula had been brutally stabbed to death in a corridor there had been a clash of intentions as the Senate declared the restoration of the Republic at the exact same time the Praetorian Guard had found Caligula’s uncle Claudius cowering behind a curtain and proclaimed him emperor. The Guards being the ones with swords they easily won the argument that day.

In 68 CE when the similarly childless Nero had committed suicide a brutal civil war had been unleashed as four men: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Domitian’s father, Vespasian battled each other to become emperor. People still remembered 69 CE, the year of those four emperors, and they feared a bloody sequel to it. But that didn’t happen. There was no clash of intentions between the different power brokers in Rome, there were no battles between competing would be emperors because by the end of the day, the very same day that Domitian was killed there was already a new emperor in place. His name was Nerva and he was the first of what Edward Gibbon, author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, christened the Five Good Emperors.

Anyone who knows anything about the assassination of Roman emperors has probably just spat out a mouth of coffee and half a masticated hobnob across their lounge. Because the aftermath of Domitian’s death, the ease at which we move from one dynasty to another is quite unusual in the ancient Roman political sphere. I’d go as far as to say it is unprecedented.

The most violent act that follows Domitian’s assassination is dished out by the Senatorial class on the many images of the now dead emperor that littered the city. ‘It was our delight to dash those proud faces to the ground, to smite them with the sword and savage them with the axe as if blood and agony could follow from every blow. Our transports of joy – so long deferred – were unrestrained; all sought a form of vengeance in beholding those bodies mutilated, limbs hacked in pieces, and finally that baleful, fearsome visage cast into fire, to be melted down, so that from such menacing terror something for man’s use and enjoyment should rise out of the flames.’ So says a rather surprising vandal, the lawyer and prolific letter writer, Pliny the Younger.

There is a reason for this orderly transition of rule. There had been a plan. A well thought out plan that considered the before, the during and both the immediate aftermath and the longer-term implications of murdering the emperor.
Stephanus, Maximus, Clodianus, Satur and the gladiator may have undisputably stabbed Domitian to death, but they weren’t the ones who’d set in motion the plan.
The instigators of this most successful of plots, the hatchers of the conspiracy, the planners of the assassination were clever men who’d kept well out of the way of the bloody murder they’d set up, avoiding the fate of Stephanus and co. Their names were Entellus and Parthenius and they were a Chamberlain and Head of Petitions, the highest ranking, most trusted of all of Domitian’s staff.

The men who really killed Domitian

The lives of imperial slaves and ex-slaves are generally of no interest to Roman historians who all hail from the elite classes of Rome. Snobbery likely plays a part in this omission no doubt, a distaste for the stench of slavery on the now freed. But also jealousy probably played a part too. Imperial freedmen had unique access to the emperor far beyond any Senator had, they were thus first in line to receive the material benefits of the emperor’s pleasure and certainly many palace freedman became enormously wealthy as a result.

Freedmen could also control access to the emperor, which was bound to put Senatorial noses out of joint. The Senate had never disabused itself of the notion that it was the most important and wisest body of men in the whole empire and was so owed oodles of respect, even from the emperor. That many emperors chose to rely on slaves who lacked a family tree that went all the way back to Romulus was an eternal mystery to them.
That such powerful and influential men in their own time as Imperial freedmen go largely unrecognised and un-noted demonstrates just how deeply Roman class divisions went. However, we do know a little about the brains behind Domitian’s murder from an unlikely source: the poet Martial.

Martial is the author of what is my all-time favourite poem from ancient times. ‘You ask what I get out of my country place. The profit gross or net, is never seeing your face’
Glorious, isn’t it? Martial paints a unique portrait of Rome through his poems as crowded, smelly and overwhelmed with people he found grievously annoying.
However, Martial had a clear ambition to be more than a scribbler of scurrilous slander. He fancied being a court poet with all the fame and fortune that came with the post (if you were any good at it).

This wasn’t a job you could simply apply for, you needed a way in, a contact on the inside who could convince the emperor that he really very much needed another poet in his entourage. Martial’s contact on the inside was Parthenius, Domitian’s chamberlain.

We see how Martial seeks his influence from his own work. There are several of his poems that feature Parthenius; a verse written for Parthenius’ son Burrus’ fifth birthday, a thank you for a snow-white toga gifted to the poet by the chamberlain ‘You surpass in whiteness the lily, the budding flower of the privet, and the ivory which glistens on the hill of Tivoli. The swan of Sparta and the doves of Paphos must yield to you; and even the pearl fished from the Indian seas.’ Gushes Martial.

This flattery in friendship has a point, as becomes apparent in later poems, Martial wants Parthenius to put his poems in front of the emperor.
The Senate House. Photo by Scott Rowland.

Whither, my book, whither are you going so much at your ease, clad in a holiday dress of fine linen? Is it to see Parthenius? certainly. Go, then, and return unopened; for he does not read books, but only memorials; nor has he time for the muses, or he would have time for his own.’

‘And if by chance (but for this we must scarcely hope) he shall have a moment to spare, beg him to present with his own hands our verses to the emperor; and to recommend this little book, so humble and so small, with merely four words: "This your Rome reads."

Evidently this nagging by poetry worked for Martial does end up praising the emperor and his many wonderful actions in verse form. Credit to Martial for managing to make a poem out the mundane subject of Domitian widening of the pavements and his anti-castration legislation.

To you, chaste prince, mighty conqueror of the Rhine, and father of the world, cities present their thanks: they will henceforth have population; it is now no longer a crime to bring infants into the world. The boy is no longer mutilated by the art of the greedy dealer, to mourn the loss of his manly rights.
Err quite.

As well as forming a useful connection in Parthenius, Martial was also buttering up or at the very least taking a paid commission from Parthenius’ fellow Imperial freedman, Entellus. Who it appeared had a very nice garden.
‘He who has seen the orchards of the king of Corcyra, will prefer the garden of your country-house, Entellus. That the malicious frost mar not nip the purple clusters, and the icy cold destroy the gifts of Bacchus, the vintage lives protected under transparent stone; carefully covered, yet not concealed. Thus does female beauty shine through silken folds; thus are pebbles visible in the pellucid waters. What is not nature willing to grant to genius? Barren winter is forced to produce the fruits of autumn.

So there we have it, two ex-Imperial slaves who have spent decades no doubt working their way up the palace staff lists to positions of such height and influence that poets are banging at their doors seeking their patronage. One man who once gifted the poet a beautiful toga and another who was so proud of his garden he sought to have it immoratlised in verse. And then they both involve themselves in a conspiracy to brutally murder their boss. Jarring doesn’t cover it. What on earth had happened to propel these two men to that point?

The Darkness

Cameo of Domitian by Josiah Wedgwood
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reading any book about Domitian you will come across the fact that he fell out with the Senate big time and that his treatment of them veered towards the cruel. And although many scholars try to argue that Domitian’s reign of terror wasn’t nearly as terrible as the reigns of terror other emperors inflicted upon that class, it still wasn’t a great time to be a Senator. We know this because we have two eye witness accounts of what it was like to serve Domitian from lawyer and letter writer Pliny and the Roman historian, Tacitus.

‘The worst of our torments under Domitian was to see him with his eyes fixed upon us. Every sigh was registered against us; and when we all turned pale, he did not scruple to make us marked men by a glance of his savage countenance.’ So says Tacitus.
Pliny makes several references to Domitian’s rages ‘Domitian was besides himself with fury’ he says, ‘he was infuriated by the hatred he had incurred for his cruelty and injustice.’

Domitian was an intimidating boss. He knew it and he capitalised on it, most notably in the tale of the black banquet to which he invited the foremost senators and equestrians. This is what the party guests arrived to find: ‘He prepared a room that was pitch black on every side, ceiling, walls and floor, and had made ready bare couches of the same colour resting on the uncovered floor; then he invited in his guests alone at night without their attendants.  And first he set beside each of them a slab shaped like a gravestone, bearing the guest's name and also a small lamp, such as hang in tombs. Next comely naked boys, likewise painted black, entered like phantoms, and after encircling the guests in an awe-inspiring dance took up their stations at their feet.’

Having made it home alive after such a terrifying evening, the party guests must have thanked the gods profusely, at least until there came a knock at the door and a messenger from the emperor was announced. The messenger had come with a gift from the emperor, but his real mission was to further mess with their minds. No wonder those senators smashed Domitian’s statues to pieces when he died.

Alongside a general mental terrorising of the Senatorial class, there were also arrests, trials and executions. At which point you may be wondering what indeed my point is. How does Domitian’s treatment of the Senate impact on the actions of Parthenius and Entellus? It doesn’t. But I think it raises a revealing point, if this was what the emperor was inflicting upon the elite class of Rome, men with means, money, influence and connections that might be of some use to them (Pliny and Tacitus make it through the entirety of Domitian’s reign mentally scarred, true but also higher in rank than they started it) what might he be inflicting on his household of slaves and ex-slaves who had nothing to protect them and no one to write down their tales of suffering. They were constantly at the emperor’s side, unlike the Senators who at least had homes to escape to and breathe a sigh of relief they weren’t for the chop that day.

If Domitian could create such an oppressive atmosphere during a standard meeting with his Senatorial advisors, what was the atmosphere like for those living at the palace with the increasingly paranoid emperor. ‘He used to say that the lot of princes was most unhappy, since when they discovered a conspiracy, no one believed them unless they had been killed.’ Suetonius.
In fear of the conspiracies he could not prove Domitian had the palace floor polished so that he could see any would be assassin reflected as he snuck up on him. He had executed Epaphroditus, a now elderly Imperial freedman, because twenty-five years previously Epaphroditus had been present with Nero when that emperor had committed suicide. In Domitian’s head Epaphroditus had allowed the death of his master, an emperor no less. Epaphroditus’ own death was to serve as a warning to Domitian’s own staff.

Coin depicting Emperor Nerva
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jupiter knows how many of the imperial slaves found themselves summarily executed for similar imagined crimes in the emperor’s head. How many found themselves, like Tacitus and Pliny, terrorised by the emperor’s rages. We shall never know. But it had to be darker than the black banquet up there at the palace. So dark that two freedmen who were friends to a poet, one of whom had a nice garden and the other a giver of snow-white togas saw no other way but to set up a conspiracy to murder the emperor that they had both prospered under.

They very nearly got away with it too. With Stephanus and the others slain there was no one to point the finger at Parthenius and Entellus as ever having been involved. Except there clearly was because nearly two years after Domitian’s death the palace was overrun with soldiers demanding that Nerva hand over the culprits. A sword pressed against his throat, Nerva felt he had no choice but to give into the guards’ demands. We know not what happened to Entellus. We do know what happened to Parthenius. The Guards sliced off his testicles and shoved them in his mouth, suffocating him.
Nerva, who owed his position to Parthenius, was allowed to die of natural causes a few months later.

L.J. Trafford is the author of several books on Ancient Rome including Ancient Rome's Worst Emperors

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