Politics and the Past in the Age of Nerva and Trajan: The Making and Unmaking of Memories of Domitian, 96-117 CE.
University of Cambridge
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Szoke, M. (2021). Politics and the Past in the Age of Nerva and Trajan: The Making and Unmaking of Memories of Domitian, 96-117 CE. (Doctoral thesis). https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.78147
This thesis examines how, to what purpose, and to what effect, the emperor Domitian (81-96) was remembered during the reign of his successors Nerva (96-98) and Trajan (98-117). Its aims are to address the – still controversial – question why Domitian suffers from such a bad reputation; to cast a new angle on the debate about the (dis)continuities between Domitian, Nerva and Trajan’s reign; and to thereby contribute to our comprehension of the nature of imperial succession and the Roman principate more generally. Chapter 1 shows that the well-studied sanctions the senate passed against Domitian were just a first step of a complex process in which his memory was reshaped, through the production of new commemorative media, whose purpose was to legitimise Nerva and Trajan; and that this process also negatively affected Domitian’s legal and administrative precedents. This suggests that Domitian’s reputation was significantly shaped by his successors; and that, contrary to communis opinio, in 96, there were some discontinuities in administration and law. Chapter 2 first demonstrates that Domitian’s disgrace also caused a debate about the senate’s own past. It then argues that Pliny the Younger’s Epistulae and Tacitus’ Agricola participate in this debate by literary means, and, crucially, use Domitian as scapegoat for the senators’ own role in the previous execution of their peers. A prosopographical survey indicates that this post-Flavian “memory politics” also affected the hierarchy within the senatorial élite. The thesis that Domitian’s negative reputation is due to his execution of members of the senate must therefore be qualified, as must the thesis that there existed widespread continuity between Domitian and Trajan’s governing élite. Chapter 3 shows that Pliny’s Panegyricus and Martial’s Epigrams 10-12 negatively re-interpret Domitian’s image as produced by his own self-presentation, to forge a new memory of him as “transgressive”. Yet an examination of literary and archaeological evidence from his own reign shows that he was not more “transgressive” than other emperors. Trajan, while presenting himself as his opposite, largely followed in the last Flavians’ footsteps. This casts doubts on the thesis that Domitian was judged a “bad emperor” because he transgressed the boundaries of tradition, and suggests that the main reason for his disrepute are his successors. Chapter 4 first argues that Panegyricus also negatively re-interprets Nerva’s self- presentation as liberal elder statesman, to fashion a memory of him as weak, old ruler; and that material evidence implies that Trajan himself disparaged Nerva. A concluding tour d’horizon then demonstrates that almost all emperors distanced themselves from their predecessors, which has significant implications for our understanding of imperial successions and the principate.
Ancient History, Roman History, Roman Emperors, Domitian, Memory, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Martial
St John's College Benefactors' Scholarship
This record's DOI: https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.78147
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