Domitian's Assassination On the Palatine Hill

by Walter Muzzy, June 19, 2005 (original post)

You wouldn't find this location in guidebooks and probably not even in a google search. I always wondered where his bedroom assassination took place when I visited the Palatine Hill. Last year on a ContextRome tour their archaeologist pointed out this location that some archaeologists and historians believe was Domitian's bedroom. Below is a trip report I wrote using historical guidebooks and google searches. But you can always find different minor variations of events but overall I tried to follow what seemed to be the most logical and truthful. Personally I believe it is the site of Domitian's assassination, all the pieces just seem to fit that location. Of course the conspiracy within the conspiracy is from my own warped mind :-) along with the little sex scandals.

'Titus Flavius Domitianus' (51-96 AD), better known as Domitian, was the son of Emperor Vespasian and younger brother (by about eleven years) of Emperor Titus, who were by Roman standards good emperors and very respected Generals. After Nero's suicide Rome had three emperors in about 18 months (two were killed in the Forum and one committed suicide), it was a Civil War in which Vespasian finally won and became emperor (69 AD), with Titus as heir to the throne.

Domitian was given official jobs and titles under his father and brother but no real power. Vespasian named Titus to succeed him (79 AD) on his death but Titus died a couple of years later with no son or adopted heir to the throne. Rumors were Domitian had Titus killed but he most likely died of natural causes. It's fairly certain than both his father and brother never expected or wanted Domitian to become emperor (81 AD).

A loner as a child and always in the shadow of his father and brother it seems he tried to advance himself politically in his youth by offering himself sexually to older men in power. Nerva who was twice his age and a politically powerful man had an affair with him, and oddly enough succeeded him as emperor. And another power player named Clodius Pollio used to show around (as a joke and probably to slam his father Vespasian) a sexually explicit love letter Domitian had written him.

But later as emperor, he came out with anti-homosexual decrees. In ancient Roman society the submissive partner was always looked down upon (no pun intended :-) ) in these relationships, so he might(?) have been trying cover up his past by being seen as anti-gay. He also had a reputation for being a big womanizer in his adult life. He kind of reminds me of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover (gay with an anti-gay political agenda) and also Senator Joseph McCarthy in his witch-hunts of the Vestal Virgins.

Domitian had two, possibly three Vestal Virgins killed in 83 AD and the Chief Vestal killed in 90 AD. The Vestals should have been tried by the Pontifex Maximus and his Priests but Domitian held his own trials which he presided over. Domitian isn't the first or last ruler to blame the Vestals when things go wrong or to just condemn them to make themselves look good. The emperor becomes the hero by rooting out the non-virgin Vestals and saving Rome (a Vestal losing her chastity is just inviting catastrophe to befall Rome, the wrath of the Gods type). Financially he wasn't a bad emperor and he had quite a few building projects, the impressive remains of his Palace is a major site on the Palatine Hill today and the Piazza Navona was built upon his stadium. But he did go overboard on gold and silver statues of himself and a few triumphal arches. He also took credit for buildings that he only restored by re-dedicating them in his name alone.

He remained a solitary person in his adult life and always felt slighted by his father and brother. And he believed that it was through him that they became emperors which was pure fantasy. His favorite palace pastime was catching flies by stabbing them with a sharpened stylus (a long metal inkpen). When an aide would ask the guards at the door if the emperor was alone they would answer 'Yes, not even with a fly" :-) .

A few omens and prophesies preceded Domitian's death. The famed astrologer Ascletario predicted Domitian's downfall. When Domitian heard of this (through informers) he had Ascletario brought before him. Domitian asked him if he could predict his own end. Ascletario said "I will die soon and my body will be ripped apart by dogs". Domitian figured that if he could negate this prophesy then his other prophesy concerning him wouldn't come to pass. Domitian ordered him killed, his body burned and then buried. After they lit the funeral pyre a sudden powerful gust of wind put out the flames. Suddenly a pack of dogs ran to the pyre and starting ripping Ascletario's half-burned body to shreds. When Domitian heard that Ascletario's prophesy came true, he was certain that his end was also near.

The Roman people kind of liked him, he puts on many spectacular games in the Colosseum (he loved to watch women and dwarf gladiators fight), Circus Maximus, Stadium of Domitian, Naumachiae (sea battles on artificial lakes) and also oratory/music/acting competitions. He was also pretty liberal with food and money allowances to the common people. But he's not loved enough for them to riot in the streets over his murder. The army loved him even though he was a terrible General but he kept them *well paid* (a 33% pay raise buys a lot of loyalty). The Senate mostly hated him, he had a bad habit of killing Senators and Consuls for real or imaginary threats. But when he puts those in his inner circle in fear of their lives...that was his fatal mistake.

There were a couple of plots against Domitian in 87 and 89 AD, the Senators and Knights involved were either killed or banished. So I guess he had reason to be paranoid :-) . He had the walls of porticoed courtyard where he was fond of walking finished in a stone that would reflect his image and that of anyone sneaking up behind him. He also slept with a dagger under his pillow.

His wife Domitia Longina was very possibly in on the successful 96 AD plot. Domitia was already married but Domitian made her divorce her husband and marry him (70 AD). During the marriage Domitia has an affair with an actor named Paris, Domitian finds out and has Paris killed and Domitia exiled (83 AD). A few months later Domitian takes his niece (Titus's daughter) Julia Flavia as his live-in mistress. She was just recently married but that's not a problem when you're the emperor, you just make her a widow :-( . Domitian misses Domitia (although he tells her and everyone else, it's the Roman people that miss their empress) and recalls her from exile to live with him again as his wife. But still with Julia on the side of course :-) . Julia becomes pregnant, Domitian orders an abortion which causes her death (91 AD). Domitian has her deified. In 96 AD Domitia is in her late-40's and they've been married 26 years. Perhaps(?) she no longer held sway over her husband and figured there was either a fatal accident, accusation or exile in her future?

The assassination is carried out by palace employees close to the emperor and a Gladiator from the Imperial School. But for the conspiracy buffs :-) , there were perhaps those in high places pulling the strings? Domitian's wife Domitia, already been exiled once and she's gettin' 'long in the tooth'. And then we have a seemingly loyal (he was a lawyer after all :-) ) Nerva waiting in the wings, who becomes emperor after the assassination. Also a lot of Senators would jump on this bandwagon in a heartbeat. Then we have the two new 'Prefects of the Praetorian Guard', Norbanus and Petronius, well the Prefects they replaced had been dismissed and accused by Domitian, so they're likely waiting for their own axe to eventually fall.

Domitian makes a mistake of having two of his courtiers killed (September of 96 AD). One is his cousin Flavius Clemens and the other is an old and trusted freedman Epaphroditus. Flavius is married to Domitian's niece Domitilla who he has exiled for atheism possibly because she became a Christian. And Epaphroditus was Nero's Freedman and who remained the only person loyal to his emperor. They fled the city together and when they knew that capture was imminent he helped Nero commit suicide. He was a loyal servant to Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. Now! the bureaucratic boys in Domitian's inner circle know that *no one* is safe and by the middle of the month Domitian will be murdered.

The plotting begins, the two main conspirators are Parthenius who is Domitian's most trusted Chamberlain and allowed to wear a sword around the emperor. The other is Stephanus who will be the lone assassin although others will be nearby in case things go wrong...and they do. Stephanus, is a freedman and Steward to the exiled Domitilla whose husband Domitian just killed. Some say he volunteered out of revenge and loyalty to Domitilla. But many say Domitian's wife asked him to kill the emperor. I don't know, being in on the plot is one thing but *volunteering* to be the person to actually plunge the knife into the most powerful man in the World as a favor or out of loyalty? Well it also seems that at this time Stephanus was being accused of embezzling from Domitilla. An ex-slave turned freedman stealing from his patron is bad enough but from the Emperor's niece! Even if she is on his #@$% list you just can't have *those people* stealing from the royal family, he'd be lucky to get off with a simple beheading :-) . Whether Domitian lives or dies, he will still have to face this charge. Now *I* wonder, could he have been offered a deal by someone in (Domitia?) or coming into power (Nerva, Senators, etc)? Well we'll never know, it seems that he was the only one *conveniently* killed after the assassination. Nothing like a dead patsy to blame the murder on especially if things went wrong. And any possible ties to other VIP conspirators will die with him also.

The other conspirators according to Suetonius, was the subaltern Clodianus (a low ranking military officer?), Satur (head chamberlain), Maximus (Parthenius's freedman) and a gladiator (unnamed). Also Cassius Dio mentions Segeras (chamberlain) and Entellus (in charge of petitions) as being in on the plot. And as mentioned before, very possibly Domitia and the two Praetorian Prefects.

Stephanus a couple of days before the assassination wraps his hand and arm in bandages and tells the emperor he had an accident. This is so he can hide a dagger there when the fatal day arrives. [This bothers me, Parthenius is always armed with a sword and the head conspirator, in two seconds he can kill the emperor anywhere and at any time. Why go through this bandaged hand ploy? He is either being forced or it is a point of honor for him to personally kill Domitian. The former just seems to ring true to me, especially after he winds up dead!]

September 18, 96 AD, the fifth Hour: The conspirators set the plot in motion that morning. The sixth hour is midday, Domitian was once told by a fortune-teller that he would die in the fifth hour. He always fears that hour and is always relieved when it has past.

In the past eight months there have been many lighting strikes which are considered very bad omens by Romans. The 'Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus' on the Capitoline Hill (this is *THE* Temple in Rome and a *really bad omen*), Domitian's family home which is now a Family Temple and Tomb (containing Emperor Vespasian and Titus' ashes) and also Domitian's bedroom (where he will be murdered) in the Palace have all been struck by lightening. That morning he presided over a trial of a German Soothsayer (fortune-teller), who when asked about the lighting strikes had said that they foretold a change of emperors. Not what Domitian wanted to hear! He condemned the Soothsayer to death. He then asked a servant "what time is it"? Being in on the plot he answered "The sixth Hour". Relieved that he was out of danger for that day, Domitian headed for the baths.

Parthenius stopped him and told him someone had an urgent message for him regarding a conspiracy. Domitian said he would meet the messanger in his bedroom and dismissed his attendants. Stephanus entered with his bandaged arm and hand and handed the emperor a letter which he said would betray a conspiracy. While Domitian was reading the letter, Stephanus slowly reached into his bandages for his dagger. And then suddenly stabbed the emperor in the groin. Domitian goes on the offensive and attacks, he receives defensive cuts on his hands. He calls to the young boy who attends the Lares (a small shrine to the household Gods) in his bedroom to get his dagger (which he keeps under his pillow) and to call for help. The boy obeys but Parthenius has removed the blade, leaving only the useless hilt and all the doors are closed so the boy's cries go unheeded [the boy was a witness and his account is recorded in history]. Now they are on the floor wrestling around, Domitian is trying both to gouge out Stephanus' eyes and to get his dagger. The boy said they fought for a long time. The other conspirators are just outside the door but for some reason they don't rush in? Their lives are on the line at this point, if Domitian survives they will be killed...but they still wait??? Finally they come to Stephanus' aid, Clodianus, Maximus, Satur, and the gladiator. Domitian is finally killed, he received seven stab wounds. And then it's said that others not in on the plot rush in and kill Stephanus, no one else...just him!!!

I still wonder if Stephanus was the patsy in this plot? Domitian is 45 and has reigned for 15 years. His corpse is carried away by those who bury the poor. It's brought to the estate of his nurse who raised him and she cremates him. Later she sneaks his ashes into his family tomb and mixes them with his niece Julia. The Senate orders all his statues torn down and his name erased from all plaques and buildings. The following year there is a small scale soldier's revolt against Emperor Nerva, during which the soldiers kill two of the conspirators. The next five emperors after Domitian are known as the 'good emperors', it lasts for 84 years and then we get Commodus!


[This section originally contained the wrong identification of Domitian's bedroom, which was corrected in a subsequent posting. I have rewritten this section to be accurate. -Jeff]

See this photo or for a diagram of Domitian's Palace.

The Palace has three sections, the western end (bottom, in the diagrams) is for public and political functions (audience hall, banquet hall, etc). The eastern end (top, in the diagrams) has the emperor's private outdoor area (the stadium/hippodrome gardens). The middle section is the private palace of the emperor.

See the area between the "Audience Chamber" and the "Banquet Hall". That is the porticoed outdoor courtyard that Domitian used to like to walk around, the one he had faced in a reflective stone so no one could sneak up behind him. It's a good possibility that the Audience Chamber was where he was that fatal final morning for the trial of that German Soothsayer.

In the middle section of the palace there is a beautiful outdoor porticoed courtyard, labelled "Third Court" with a large water pool, a fountain and gardens. This courtyard is also two stories below ground level. So it is very cool in the summer and very private and secure, it can only be reached by an interior staircase which leads to eight rooms (four rooms on each of two stories) and from these rooms short corridors go out into the courtyard.

Below the "Third Court" on the diagrams is a structure that looks like the letter "H". The two uprights of the "H" shape contained fountains, which would further cool this part of the palace which was already cool since it was underground. The cross-beam of the "H" shape contained bedrooms, upstairs and downstairs. See This diagram is rotated from the two we've been looking at so far, but the "Third Court" is the green #20, and the "H" (now sideways) contains the fountains #21 and #22. Between those two fountains are several rooms, one of which is the very small room labelled "B" on the diagram. That small room is Domitian's bedroom. Romans just used bedrooms to sleep in and also as Domitian used to call it "bed wrestling" :-) . So even though he lives in a Palace don't expect him to have a huge Renaissance-type palace bedroom with large windows with a view, security at night was more important. The page that contains this diagram, at, states "Domitian's bedroom itself was a small chamber in depths the lower quarters, hidden from view and always guarded in his sleep ("B" on figure 1).". On September 18, 96 AD, in the fifth hour, Emperor Domitian received a messenger with a bandaged arm and hand who had an urgent message for him... It was very bad news :-( .

On the ground, this is easy to find in real life. It's behind the Palatine Museum, that three-story white building which you can't miss when you are there. On the Palatine Hill guide map the "Third Court" with buildings around it is right below #23. Just walk behind the museum and this site (shown on the photos below) plus a scenic overlook of the Circus Maximus are easily found.

These photos are from from where you will be standing. the "H" Bedrooms and two end Fountains are on the left below you []H[]. and and and

A reconstruction of Domitian's Palace is shown at

Next: Palatine Hill's Cryptoporticus Now Open and Caligula's Assassination
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