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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

A Younger Brother's Revenge: The Reign of Domitian

Many Romans greeted the accession of Domitian skeptically. Residing in Rome since before his father came to power in 69 CE, he had been instrumental in maintaining power until Vespasian returned to the city. In doing so, he had raised concerns about his leadership abilities. Once his father began to rule, Domitian was quickly relegated to a secondary status, and his eclipse was exacerbated when his victorious brother Titus returned to Rome. Suetonius suggests that Domitian had plotted against Titus after Vespasian's death, but that Titus was too compassionate to deal harshly with him ( Titus 9.3 ). After Titus died, Domitian came to power and at least went through the motions of honoring his predecessors, dedicating his boyhood home as a temple to the Flavian family and building the Arch of Titus (Domitian 1.1 ).

Although the common interpretation of Domitian's reign is decidedly negative, Domitian may have been popular with the people and especially with the troops, whom he treated with great generosity. He regularly clashed with senators and other elites, and his terrible reputation reflects the upper-class bias of the sources for his reign—writers like Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger. An anti-imperial perspective is evident in these sources, but the horrors they describe were not reserved only for senators. Suetonius also mentions harsh actions taken against the Jews (Domitian 12.2 ), including a heavy tax burden and physical inspection for circumcision to determine who was liable to pay the tax. Dio tells of Domitian's execution of the consul Flavius Clemens for atheism, mentioning that this was the same charge “on which many others who had veered into the ways of the Jews had been condemned” (Dio Cassius 67.14.10). The book of Revelation is often cited as evidence for Domitian's persecution of another marginal group, the followers of Jesus.

Throughout the history of Christianity, the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation has been interpreted to refer to a variety of situations, both ancient and modern. The messages or “letters” at the beginning of the book, however, are all addressed to cities in western Asia Minor, and symbolic references within the letters have led scholars to date Revelation to the close of the first century, when important aspects of civic life in western Asia Minor coincided with the situation described in the book. Particularly significant is the heightening of a rivalry among the leading cities of Asia—Pergamon, Smyrna, and Ephesus.

Pergamon had gained the upper hand more than a century earlier, when it was awarded the honor of building a provincial temple to Roma and Augustus. From then on, being allowed to build an imperial temple was important in the rivalry among these cities. Sometime during the Flavian period, the Ephesians were finally able to challenge Pergamon and Smyrna by constructing a temple dedicated to Domitian and his family. This increased attention to civic honors for deified emperors also led to a heightened emphasis on individual citizens paying ritual honors to the emperor. If followers of Jesus in these cities refused to participate in sacrifices to the Augusti, they could have been subjected to persecution.

The images of the beast from the sea and the beast from the earth in Revelation 13 probably refer to the emperor and his representatives in the province, either officials sent out from Rome or local elites who administered the honors offered to the emperor. The second beast “exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast … and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast … so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (Rev. 13.12–15 ). This description may foreshadow the kind of loyalty test used by Pliny the Younger when, about 110 CE, he confronted people accused of being Christian in Pontus and Bithynia. Those who refused to give honor to the statue of the emperor were endangering the well-being of society as a whole. Such refusal would have been even more dangerous if the city had just erected a new temple to the imperial family, which stood as a source of great civic pride. Persons with power in the city could easily lose privileges, and people would be risking their lives if they refused to worship the “image of the beast.”

The phrase imperial cult is often used in discussion of honors paid to emperors. Unfortunately, the term is usually interpreted as a set religious system with uniform beliefs and practices. On the contrary, there was great diversity in where, when, and how honors were offered to the emperor. One variation focused on whether a living emperor could receive honors as if he were a god. The usual assumption is that living emperors were readily given divine honors in the undisciplined eastern provinces, but not in Rome and the west, where cooler heads prevailed. This view needs to be questioned.

In the eastern provinces, divine honors do seem to have been offered to emperors. These offerings were not an irrational reaction by superstitious residents of the east, but rather part of a larger social matrix that connected people with the powers (human and divine) that controlled their world. Simon Price has pushed scholars to a more sophisticated understanding of how honors offered to the emperor should be seen as societal phenomena: “Using their traditional symbolic system they [the Greeks] represented the emperor to themselves in the familiar terms of divine power. The imperial cult, like the cults of the traditional gods, created a relationship of power between subject and ruler” (Rituals and Power: The Imperial Cult in Asia Minor, Cambridge University Press, 1984, p. 248). Although he refuses to look at these honors in strictly political terms, Price emphasizes that honors offered to the emperor also enhanced the civic power of those who controlled them, the local elite.

It is also necessary to modify the view that divine honors offered for the emperor in the east stood in sharp contrast to those in Rome and the west. During his lifetime Domitian demanded honors as a god in the city of Rome. Suetonius reports that the emperor insisted on being addressed as dominus et deus (“lord and god”), and he describes how priests wore crowns with Domitian's image alongside those of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (Domitian 13.2, 4.4). Pliny the Younger laments that traditional religious ritual had been selfishly usurped by Domitian: “Enormous herds of victims [intended for sacrifice at the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus] were intercepted on their way to the Capitolinum and large parts of them were forced to be diverted from their path, because to honor the statue of that atrocious master, as much blood of victims had to flow as the amount of human blood he had shed” (Panegyricus 52.7).

Pliny complained about these excesses in order to encourage the current emperor, Trajan, to expect more moderate honors during his lifetime. He was grateful that under Trajan the senate no longer needed to waste time deliberating on “enormous arches and inscribed titles too long to fit on temples” (Panegyricus 54). Pliny also laments the excessive “shows and riotous entertainment” that were performed in honor of Domitian: “He was a madman, ignorant of his true honor… who thought himself to be equal to the gods yet raised his gladiators to be equal to himself” (Panegyricus 33.4). However loudly they protested after the fact, Pliny and other senators who survived Domitian's reign played a role in bestowing these honors. Even if they did not participate in rites honoring Domitian as a god, they must have swallowed their disgust and looked on silently.

Like Gaius Caligula, Domitian perished at the hands of servants and friends. Upon his death in 96 CE, Domitian was mourned by the soldiers whose wages he had increased substantially (Suetonius, Domitian 23.1; see also 7.3). The majority of the population, however, was either unmoved or relieved that his reign had ended. Pliny reports that statues of the emperor were viciously destroyed in the streets, as a “sacrifice to public delight” (Panegyricus 52.4). Domitian's cruelty had been directed mainly against senators like Pliny. It was hoped that Domitian's passing would inaugurate a more civil form of government in which the senate would wield considerably greater power. As for the Jesus followers, they had weathered persecution under Domitian, but now the empire was clearly aware of their existence and would increasingly pressure them to conform to Roman standards of behavior. The spectacular events predicted in the book of Revelation had not occurred, and the church would face escalated levels of persecution and martyrdom for the next two centuries.

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