Through his governors and officials, Domitian enforced the worship of himself in outlying cities such as Ephesus. To refuse to participate in this worship was seen as political defiance and subversiveness. Since Christians believed in the worship of only one God, they were faced with a choice – to deny their God before the authorities and live – or refuse to worship Domitian and face the very real possibility of a cruel public execution. Unfortunately for many it was the latter that become a reality. According to the Church historian Eusebius,
The Emperor Domitian
Titus’ victory in Judea would be commemorated by the construction of a triumphal arch (image left). This arch still stands near the entry to the Roman forum and shows the plundered treasures of the Jerusalem temple being carried away by Titus’ troops (image right).
Following Vespasian’s death in 79 AD, Titus (image right) stepped into his father’s shoes becoming the next Emperor. Just two short years into his reign, Titus became gravely ill and died. However, in the background there lurked another of Vespasian’s sons, a man who was about to change the world. His name was Domitian.
Domitian entertained aspirations of power and grandeur, and in the summer of 81 AD with the unexpected death of his brother, his aspirations became a reality. As emperor, Domitian (image left) was an autocrat who wielded his power impulsively. His desire for recognition led him to carry out many restoration and building projects against the will of his advisors. His obsession was so great and his projects so numerous that at one stage he almost brought the Empire to financial ruin. To bolster the imperial reserves, Domitian decided to increase the taxes of his subjects. The hardest hit were the Jews, who were taxed for being able to practice their own faith, and by association the Christians were treated likewise.
In his dealings with people, Domitian was no less obsessive. He had people tortured or killed for the most minor infringements. Numerous senators and several family members were dispatched. It seems that even a witty comment about the Emperor was sufficient to warrant elimination. Another way Domitian controlled his potential opponents was to have them exiled. Like his predecessors, one of the primary means of exile was banishment to small offshore islands. It is not surprising therefore to find in Revelation 1:9 that John, a leader among the Churches of Asia Minor, had been exiled to the island of Patmos for spreading the Gospel message.
One of Domitian’s biggest threats to Christianity however came from a new development in the practice of Emperor Worship. Since the time of Augustus, most emperors had been deified, or given the status of a god, upon their death. Numerous temples in their honour had sprung up around the Empire. People could visit these temples to pay their respects to the deceased emperor, and offer sacrifices on his behalf. Over time this practice degenerated into the worship of the deceased emperors themselves. Ultimately the practice became an institution within Roman society known as the Emperor Cult.
Domitian, not satisfied with waiting for his subjects to deify him in death, decided instead to proclaim himself ‘Lord and God’ while still very much alive. This move boosted his position as an autocrat and provided new grounds for exerting his power. To keep his image in the public eye, Domitian had statues built all over the Empire. In keeping with tradition, he also had temples built in his name, in order that he might be worshipped. The statue of Domitian in the image to the right was discovered among the ruins of Aphrodisias just 120km from the Biblical city of Ephesus.
Unlike the previous deceased emperors however, the arrogant and very much alive Domitian could monitor the worship at his temples, and if necessary, enforce the practice. One of the places favoured by Domitian to erect a statue and a temple in his name was Ephesus. Today all that remains of this huge statue is the head, an arm and a few other fragments that now reside in the Ephesus museum. His temple does not fare much better. Two columns and some of the foundations are all that remain (image below). However, for the Christians living in Ephesus in John’s day these two things were a very prominent part of daily life. Not only were they a dominant feature of the city, but for local Christians they symbolised a choice they had to make – a choice between life and possible death.
It was the end of the first century AD, and the world of the early Christians was about to change. The stable years under Augustus and his dynasty had come to an end. Several years of civil war had ensued, destabilising the Empire and wreaking havoc in the land. In the aftermath, a new dynasty arose. Vespasian (image right), the first of the Flavian dynasty emperors, embarked on a series of military campaigns aimed at reining in the rebels and restoring order. Many nations were subjected to the might of Vespasian’s armies. One city that felt the full force of Vespasian’s troops was the city of Jerusalem. In 70 AD, under the command of his son Titus, the Jewish people would suffer through a brutal siege, and witness both the destruction of their city and their beloved temple.
‘The teaching of our faith glowed so brightly at that time that even writers alien to our belief cited the persecutions and martyrdoms in their histories.’ (Eusebius: The Church History Book 3:18)
It was during this time of intense persecution under Domitian that many people believe the Book of Revelation was written. Iranaeus, a prominent leader in the early church, writing around 180 AD, states that the vision in Revelation was:
“… announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian's reign.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.30.3)
The book of Revelation is full of references to the persecutions, or impending persecutions, being inflicted upon the people. As mentioned earlier, John himself was exiled to the island of Patmos ‘because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” (Revelation 1:9). In Pergamum (image above), Antipas the faithful witness to Jesus has been martyred (Revelation 2:13), while in Revelation 6:9, “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” were crying out to God from under the altar for vengeance against their persecutors.
Those cities which had not yet felt the brutality of Domitian’s administration were also warned of impending persecution. To the church in Smyrna Jesus says:
Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)
And to his followers in Philadelphia in 3:10 he warns:
Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth. (Revelation 3:10)
The vision given in the book of Revelation would have given hope and courage to those suffering for their faith. It showed that despite their current suffering, God was one hundred percent in control of the situation and that he was going to determine the outcome. For those who endured and stayed faithful to the end, even if it meant losing their life, he promised victory over the devil and a reward for their faithfulness. For the devil and his accomplice Domitian, things looked rather more grim.
At Domitian’s side during much of his reign was his wife Domitia Longina (image right). Domitia was the daughter of a greatly respected and high standing consul. She was also a descendant of the Emperor Augustus, which played well into Domitian’s desire and bid for power. When he first met her, Domitia was already a married woman. In typical Domitian style he ‘coerced’ her husband to divorce her so he himself could marry her. The marriage took place in 71 AD, some 10 years prior to his accession to power. Unfortunately for Domitian his one potential heir, a son called Titus Flavius, died before his tenth birthday. Upon his death Titus Flavius was given the honour of being deified (proclaimed to be a god), a practice usually reserved for an emperor. This act of deification is commemorated on a coin issued by Domitian (image below). During his reign Domitian exiled his wife at least once, but recalled her to the palace shortly after. Despite several potential threats on her life, Domitia survived well beyond Domitian, not dying until the late 120s AD.
By the mid 90s AD Domitian’s arrogance and crazy antics were beginning to take their toll on ‘his’ empire. Faithful Roman citizens had seen enough of his statues. They were even less impressed by his arrogant declaration of being a god. Domitian was hated and feared in every corner of the Empire. Even those closest to him had had enough, and on the 18th of September 96 AD, Domitian’s reign came to an end when a conspiracy, possibly orchestrated by his wife Domitia, saw him murdered in his own home. He was just 45 years old.
Domitian was so hated by the people of Rome and the Roman senate, that upon his death his name was to be permanently erased from the public record. In a process known as ‘damnatio memoriae’ or damnation of his memory, Domitian’s name was erased from public inscriptions (image right), his coins were collected and melted down and his statues were smashed. Today it is very rare to find a monument bearing Domitian’s name.
Domitian’s death spelled the end of the Flavian dynasty. He had ruled for 15 years, the longest reign since the Emperor Tiberius 70 years earlier at the time of Jesus. His death ushered in a new era of tolerance toward Christians. Though there were still some significant martyrdoms under the emperors that followed, the widespread persecutions abated. It would be another 150 years before the Christians would again experience the intensity of oppression and persecution suffered under Domitian’s reign.
Ross and Sarah Nightingale images: Vespasian bust (National Museum of Rome, Italy); Arch of Titus (Rome, Italy); Detail on Arch of Titus (Rome, Italy); Titus bust (Louvre, Paris); Domitian bust x 2 (National Archaeology Museum of Naples, Italy); Statue of Domitian (Aphrodisias Museum, Turkey); Temple of Domitian (Ephesus, Turkey); Pergamum (Pergamum, Turkey).
Wikipedia Commons images: Domitia Longina bust; Titus deification coin; Erased inscription.