96: Domitian assassinated after condemning an astrologer

Add comment September 18th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in the year 96, the Roman Emperor Domitian was assassinated … his very last act in the purple having been to condemn to death an astrologer who predicted Domitian’s murder.

Son and second successor of the Flavian dynasty’s founder, Vespasian, Domitian left his mark on Italian postcard stands by decorating the Roman Forum with the Arch of Titus to salute his older brother and immediate predecessor.

In his day he was known as a tyrant, especially compared to the dynasty which followed him; indeed, Domitian’s murder was the exact birth date for imperial Rome’s golden age in the judgment of Gibbon, who opined that “if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”

Domitian, shall we say, set a low bar for the Antonines to step over by keeping the capital in a state of perpetual terror with wanton purges, not even excepting the sacred Vestal Virgins.

As is usually the case with ancient scrolls, our lurid accounts rarely furnish convenient dates to later death-bloggers. Our excuse for this occasion will be the condemnation Domitian issued to a nameless astrologer immediately preceding his own fate; alternatively, we could cite the subsequent execution of Domitian’s assassins which was successfully demanded by the soldiery, who admired him.

If this seems a cheat for an almanac site, consider that given a better documentary environment, the man’s entire reign would supply the execution-blogger a near limitless stock.

“It would be impossible to discover the total number of those who were executed by Domitian,” wrote Cassius Dio, conveniently excusing a gap in his research.* “Indeed, he condemned himself so severely for this course that, in order to prevent any remembrance of those who were put to death from surviving, he prohibited the entering of their names in the records.”

Pretexts for these executions under Domitian were as varied and capricious as the killings were numerous.

Many men and women alike among the wealthy were punished for adultery; some of these women had been debauched by Domitian himself. Many persons were also fined or put to death on other charges. Thus, a woman was tried and put to death because she had undressed in front of an image of Domitian, and a man for having associated with astrologers. Among the many who perished at this time was Mettius Pompusianus, whom Vespasian had failed to harm after learning from some report that he would one day be sovereign, but on the contrary had shown him honour, declaring: “He will surely remember me and will surely honour me in return.” But Domitian first exiled him to Corsica and now put him to death, one of the complaints against him being that he had a map of the world painted on the walls of his bed-chamber, and another complaint being that he had excerpted and was wont to read the speeches of kings and other leaders that are recorded in Livy. Also Maternus, a sophist, was put out of the way because in a practice speech he had something against tyrants. The emperor himself used to visit those who were expecting to accuse or to give evidence of guilt and he would help to frame and compose all that required to be said. Often, too, he would talk to the prisoners alone, while holding their chains in his hands; for he would not entrust to others the knowledge of what was going to be said, and as for the accused, he feared them even in their bonds.

As a consequence of his cruelty the emperor was suspicious of all mankind, and from now on ceased to repose hopes of safety in either the freedmen or yet the prefects, whom he usually caused to be brought to trail during their very term of office. He had first banished and now slew Epaphroditus, Nero’s freedman, accusing him of having failed to defend Nero; for he wished by the vengeance that he took on Nero’s behalf to terrify his own freedmen long in advance, so that they should venture no similar deed.

The historian Suetonius concurred that the emperor was taking Tiberius’s old turn into a paranoid old coot.

He put to death a pupil of the pantomimic actor Paris, who was still a beardless boy and ill at the time, because in his skill and his appearance he seemed not unlike his master; also Hermogenes of Tarsus because of some allusions in his History, besides crucifying even the slaves who had written it out. A householder who said that a Thracian gladiator was a match for the murmillo, but not for the giver of the games, he caused to be dragged from his seat and thrown into the arena to dogs, with this placard: “A favourer of the Thracians who spoke impiously.”

He put to death many senators, among them several ex-consuls, including Civica Cerealis, at the very time when he was proconsul in Asia, Salvidienus Orfitus, Acilius Glabrio while he was in exile — these on the ground of plotting revolution, the rest on any charge, however trivial. He slew Aelius Lamia for joking remarks, which were reflections on him, it is true, but made long before and harmless. For when Domitian had taken away Lamia’s wife, the latter replied to someone who praised his voice: “I practise continence”; and when Titus urged him to marry again, he replied: “Are you too looking for a wife?” He put to death Salvius Cocceianus, because he had kept the birthday of the emperor Otho, his paternal uncle; Mettius Pompusianus, because it was commonly reported that he had an imperial nativity and carried about a map of the world on parchment and speeches of the kings and generals from Titus Livius, besides giving two of his slaves the names of Mago and Hannibal; Sallustius Lucullus, governor of Britain, for allowing some lances of a new pattern to be named “Lucullean,” after his own name; Junius Rusticus, because he had published eulogies of Paetus Thrasea and Helvidius Priscus and called them the most upright of men; and on the occasion of this charge he banished all the philosophers from the city and from Italy. He also executed the younger Helvidius, alleging that in a farce composed for the stage he had under the characters of Paris and Oenone censured Domitian’s divorce from his wife; Flavius Sabinus too, one of his cousins, because on the day of the consular elections the crier had inadvertently announced him to the people as emperor elect, instead of consul.

His savage cruelty was not only excessive, but also cunning and sudden. He invited one of his stewards to his bed-chamber the day before crucifying him, made him sit beside him on his couch, and dismissed him in a secure and gay frame of mind, even deigning to send him a share of his dinner. When he was on the point of condemning the ex-consul Arrecinius Clemens, one of his intimates and tools, he treated him with as great favour as before, if not greater, and finally, as he was taking a drive with him, catching sight of his accuser he said: “Pray, shall we hear this base slave to?morrow?”

Domitian also seems to have been extremely superstitious, even by Roman standards. Suetonius gets a little carried away here, enough so that it is impossible at 2,000 years’ distance to guess precisely where the embroidery was sewn to the facts; after all, Domitian’s subjects and observers were all superstitious too. It certainly makes a jolly good story.

It is said that when Domitian was but a boy astrologers had forecast the very moment of his eventual violent death: the fifth hour of September the 18th in this very year. Domitian became extremely jumpy as Atropos’s shears drew nearer and dark omens began to accumulate around him:

For eight successive months so many strokes of lightning occurred and were reported, that at last he cried: “Well, let him now strike whom he will.” The temple of Jupiter of the Capitol was struck and that of the Flavian family, as well as the Palace and the emperor’s own bedroom. The inscription too on the base of a triumphal statue of his was torn off in a violent tempest and fell upon a neighbouring tomb. The tree which had been overthrown when Vespasian was still a private citizen but had sprung up anew, then on a sudden fell down again. Fortune of Praeneste had throughout his whole reign, when he commended the new year to her protection, given him a favourable omen and always in the same words. Now at last she returned a most direful one, not without the mention of bloodshed. (Suetonius again)

He tried to defeat the gods by having put to death an astrologer named Ascletarion, having first demanded Ascletarion’s prediction of his own manner of death: “that he would shortly be rent by dogs,” the oracle replied. To prove him wrong, Domitian had him killed some other way and immolated — but his satisfaction drained away when “it chanced that the pyre was overset by a sudden storm and that the dogs mangled the corpse.” Death closed around the prince, to his growing fear, and now he watched for the very hour.

At about midnight he was so terrified that he leaped from his bed. The next morning he conducted the trial of a soothsayer sent from Germany, who when consulted about the lightning strokes had foretold a change of rulers, and condemned him to death. While he was vigorously scratching a festered wart on his forehead, and had drawn blood, he said: “May this be all.” Then he asked the time, and by pre-arrangement [of those conspiring against Domitian] the sixth hour was announced to him, instead of the fifth, which he feared. Filled with joy at this, and believing all danger now past, he was hastening to the bath, when his chamberlain Parthenius changed his purpose by announcing that someone had called about a matter of great moment and would not be put off.

Retiring his bedroom to prepare for an exultant bath, Domitian was there attacked and stabbed to death by a steward named Stephanus, joined by several others — “Clodianus, a subaltern, Maximus, a freedman of Parthenius, Satur, decurion of the chamberlains, and a gladiator from the imperial school.”

Domitian’s memory was immediately damned by the overjoyed Senate, which proclaimed as his successor an elderly placeholder named Nerva (who immediately canceled treason trials against this same Senate). Nerva’s line of adoptive succession (Nerva himself adopted the redoubtable Trajan) would rule that “happy and prosperous” Rome of Gibbon’s celebration for the best part of a century.

* Cassius Dio wrote more than a century after Domitian. Suetonius and Tacitus are truer primary sources as both wrote their histories in the early second century, and both had themselves experienced life in Domitian’s Rome. Unfortunately the books of the latter’s Histories that cover the reign of Domitian have not survived to posterity — so from Tacitus we have only fleeting glimpses of the young Domitian aiding his father’s rise to power.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,History,Italy,Power,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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90: Cornelia, Vestal Virgin

1 comment June 9th, 2015 Headsman

How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot:
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each prayer accepted, and each wish resign’d.

Alexander Pope

June 9 in ancient Rome was the festival of the Vesta, the acme of the Vestalia festival extending until June 15.*

We hope this hearth-goddess will accept the homage Pluto‘s emissaries here propose to pay her most famous servants, the Vestal Virgins.

An ancient order of priestesses reaching back to Rome’s mythical founding period, perhaps even rooted in Rome’s matriarchal Etruscan predecessors, the Virgins by the time of the classical era numbered six — selected from among candidate girls aged 6 to 10 who would be whisked away from their families to serve for thirty years.

Vestal Virgins enjoyed great prestige and a number of social prerogatives (they had the power to pardon condemned prisoners, among other things). In exchange, they were tasked with maintaining Rome’s favor with her temperamental gods by tending diligently to the city’s most cherished religious observances.


The remains of the House of the Vestals on the Roman Forum ((cc) image from Milos Kravcik.) Here’s a reconstructed view of what the residence might have looked like in its glory.

From the moment of their selection, Vestal Virgins became a sort of personification of Rome itself — Rome’s civic virtue; Rome’s standing with the gods. Rome and the Vestals, joined by the sacred eternal hearth-flame whose perpetual kindling was the virgins’ chief ceremonial duty, drew succor from one another. Pliny wrote that they “have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City” — but Rome’s greatness, too, was attributed to the citizenry’s dutiful maintenance of the Vestals through the centuries.

For such an empyreal creature to indulge the fleeting pleasures of the flesh was quite beyond question. Vesta, said Ovid,

was always unable to tolerate men.
What wonder if a virgin delights in virgin servants,
And only allows chaste hands to touch her sacred relics?
Realize that Vesta is nothing but living flame,
And you’ll see that no bodies are born from her.
She’s truly a virgin, who neither accepts seed
Nor yields it, and she loves virgin companions.

But over the centuries, not all of Vesta’s servants kept that same hard line on unchaste hands** — and in so doing risked punishment by an unusual execution of living burial. Even defiled Vestals were inviolate in their persons: their blood could not be shed, and the hands of the common executioner could not touch them. They had to be dispatched without direct violence, by immuring them alive under the earth. (Not so their seducers: getting busy with a Vestal Virgin would cost a man as many strokes of a scourge as required to kill him.)

Back to Ovid:

Now sacred flames you shine brightly under Caesar’s rule:
The fire on the Ilian hearths is there, and will remain,
It won’t be said that under him any priestess disgraced
Her office, nor that she was buried alive in the earth.
So the unchaste die, being entombed in what they
Have violated: since divine Earth and Vesta are one.

We have no specific calendar dates to go with any of these, but the British Museum antiquarian G.H. Noehdon compiled the available information about Vestals’ executions at some length in this public domain text:

a subterraneous chamber or cell of small dimension was formed, into which you descended from above. There were placed in it a couch or bed, a burning lamp, and a few necessaries of life, such as bread, water, milk, and oil. It would have been impious, according to Plutarch, to destroy by hunger, a life that had been consecrated by the most holy rites. The wretched victim, it is to be imagined, chiefly perished by suffocation. For the cell was closely shut, and overlaid with earth, as soon as she was descended.

The whole proceedings were terrific. The delinquent was conveyed to that place of horror in a litter, so fastened up and covered from without, that not even a sound or groan could escape from it. She was thus carried through the market-place, while the people, in fearful silence, made way, and followed speechless, impressed with the awe of this frightful ceremony. No sight, says Plutarch, could be more shocking, nor was there ever a day at Rome more gloomy and sorrowful.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Execution of a Vestal Virgin, by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger.

Per Noehdon, the oldest case on record was of one Pinaria, executed for impurity under Tarquin the Elder. A Vestal named Minucia suffered the same fate in the 4th century BCE; two more, Opimia and Floronia, were condemned in the 3rd century, though one committed suicide in preference to immurement. Dionysius of Halicarnassus attributes a plague to the incontinence of the Vestal Urbenia, and its abatement to her punishment. Cassius Dio credits no fewer than three Vestals with execution for unchastity in 114 BCE — but one can hardly fail to note that this is a period of deepening class tension in Rome in the aftermath of the Gracchi. One wonders if carnal indulgences were merely a pretext to purge Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia for the wrong factional alignment.

Probably the best-attested and best-known Vestal Virgin executed was Cornelia, the Virgo Maxima (chief Vestal) entombed by order of the notorious tyrant Domitian. (Domitian had also executed three other Vestals some years prior.) Pliny the Younger recorded her going to her death effecting (as did her purported lover) a persuasive mien of indignant innocence.

Domitian generally raged most furiously where his evidence failed him most hopelessly. That emperor had determined that Cornelia, chief of the Vestal Virgins, should be buried alive, from an extravagant notion that exemplary severities of this kind conferred lustre upon his reign.

Accordingly, by virtue of his office as supreme pontiff, or, rather, in the exercise of a tyrant’s cruelty, a despot’s lawlessness, he convened the sacred college, not in the pontifical court where they usually assemble, but at his villa near Alba; and there, with a guilt no less heinous than that which he professed to be punishing, he condemned her, when she was not present to defend herself, on the charge of incest, while he himself had been guilty, not only of debauching his own brother’s daughter, but was also accessory to her death: for that lady, being a widow, in order to conceal her shame, endeavoured to procure an abortion, and by that means lost her life.

However, the priests were directed to see the sentence immediately executed upon Cornelia. As they were leading her to the place of execution, she called upon Vesta, and the rest of the gods, to attest her innocence; and, amongst other exclamations, frequently cried out, “Is it possible that Caesar can think me polluted, under the influence of whose sacred functions he has conquered and triumphed?” Whether she said this in flattery or derision; whether it proceeded from a consciousness of her innocence, or contempt of the emperor, is uncertain; but she continued exclaiming in this manner, til she came to the place of execution, to which she was led, whether innocent or guilty I cannot say, at all events with every appearance and demonstration of innocence. As she was being lowered down into the subterranean vault, her robe happening to catch upon something in the descent, she turned round and disengaged it, when, the executioner offering his assistance, she drew herself back with horror, refusing to be so much as touched by him, as though it were a defilement to her pure and unspotted chastity: still preserving the appearance of sanctity up to the last moment; and, among all the other instances of her modesty, “She took great care to fall with decency.”

Celer likewise, a Roman knight, who was accused of an intrigue with her, while they were scourging him with rods in the Forum, persisted in exclaiming, “What have I done? — I have done nothing.”

The Vestal Virgins were finally suppressed (and their eternal flame quenched) by the Christian emperor Theodosius, in 394.†

A few years later, Rome was sacked for the first time in 800 years.

* There are mixed accounts as to whether June 9 or June 7 was the first day of the Vestalia, but the 9th was unquestionably the most important.

** Legend has it that Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, were sons of a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia: again, this tradition could well be the refracted memory of Etruscan priestesses, or princesses, or both. The man who was to kill these unholy offspring instead took pity on them and cast them adrift on the Tiber — and that’s how they ended up being famously suckled by wolves.

† Eliminating pagan holdovers was a great sport in this period for Rome’s now-Christian emperors. Theodosius also ended the Olympic Games; his son Honorius got rid of gladiatorial combat.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Immured,Italy,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Scandal,Sex,Starved,Uncertain Dates,Women,Wrongful Executions

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