Emperor-Domitian

Alternative Facts: Domitian’s Persecution of Christians

Was Roman emperor Domitian really the great persecutor of Christians?

As I revisited a critical biography of the Roman emperor Domitian by the scholar Brian W. Jones recently,1 I was reminded that “alternative facts” and “fake news” are not just a contemporary phenomenon. On occasion ancient writers similarly tried to spin their version of the truth. Jones tackles the familiar line that Domitian, who reigned between 81 and 96 C.E., was a great persecutor of Christians. This “fact” is now standard stock in much popular writing on the book of Revelation and is even found in some scholarly tomes. In his discussion, Jones carefully rehearses how this “fact” developed.

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Ancient portrait of Roman emperor Domitian (r. 81–96 C.E.) set into a bust by Guglielmo della Porta (16th c. C.E.) at the National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Photo: Dan Diffendale/CC BY-SA 2.0.

Eusebius in his Church History (CH) provides the first reference to Domitian persecuting the church. Writing over three centuries later in the early fourth century C.E., this ancient Christian historian first quotes Melito of Sardis, who mentioned that Domitian brought slanderous accusations against Christians (CH 4.26.9). He also cites Tertullian, who claimed that Domitian was cruel like the emperor Nero (r. 54–68 C.E.), but that Domitian was more intelligent, so he ceased his cruelty and recalled the Christians he had exiled (CH 3.20.9). Eusebius also quotes Irenaeus, who claimed Domitian’s persecution consisted only of John’s banishment to Patmos and the exile of other Christians to the island of Pontia (CH 3.18.1, 5).

Despite these cautious statements by three earlier authors, Eusebius then spun his own alternative fact by claiming that Domitian, like Nero, had “stirred up persecution against us” (“anekinei diōgmon”; CH 3.17). From here the tradition was enlarged by Orosius (d. 420 C.E.), who, in his History Against the Pagans, wrote that Domitian issued edicts for a general and cruel persecution (7.10.5). Despite a lack of evidence, Jones observes that the tradition concerning Domitian’s persecution persists: “From a frail, almost non-existent basis, it gradually developed and grew large.”2 Thus the alternative facts sown by these ancient historians grew to a truism of Christian history.

No pagan writer of the time ever accused Domitian, as they had Nero, of persecuting Christians. Pliny, for example, served as a lawyer under Domitian and wrote in a letter to Trajan (r. 98–117 C.E.) that he was never present at the trial of a Christian (Letters 10.96.1). This is a strange claim for one of Domitian’s former officials if Christian persecution were so prevalent. The archaeologist Julian Bennett, who has written a biography of Trajan, also fails to mention any general persecution of Christians at this time. Domitian’s execution of Clemens has sometimes been linked to the senator’s apparent “atheism,” a term sometimes given to Christians. However, there is no “smoking gun” linking Clemens’s death to Christian persecution.3 So Jones concludes, “No convincing evidence exists for a Domitianic persecution of the Christians.”4

A related “fact” is that Domitian claimed the title Dominus et Deus (“Lord and God”). The evidence here is mixed. The poet Statius (Silvae 1.6.83–84) states that Domitian rejected the title Dominus as his predecessor Augustus (the first Roman emperor) had done. The historian Suetonius (Life of Domitian 13.2) does report that Domitian dictated a letter that began, “Our Lord and Master orders…,” but it was only his sycophantic officials who began to address him in this way. The story was again embellished by later historians to the point that Domitian is said to have ordered its use. Jones thinks the story incredible because Domitian was known for his habitual attention to theological detail in traditional Roman worship, so he would not have adopted such inflammatory divine language. After their deaths, the best that emperors could hope for was to be called Divus (Divine), not Deus (God). If Domitian were such a megalomaniac who ordered worship to himself, why haven’t any inscriptions been found using this formula? In fact, no epigraphic evidence exists attesting to Christians being forced to call him “Lord and God.”

Why is Domitian’s legacy so clouded in the ancient sources? Domitian’s assassination in 96 C.E. brought an end to the Flavian dynasty, and the dynasty founded by Nerva, the next Roman emperor, lasted into the third century C.E. Because Domitian had offended the aristocratic elite, the Senate ordered the damnation of his memory. Even though Suetonius (Domitian 8.1) stated that Domitian carefully and conscientiously administered justice, later writers such as Dio Chrysostom (67.2.4) perpetuated his damaged reputation using alternative facts.

Jones writes as a Roman historian outside of Biblical studies, but a New Testament scholar has similarly articulated this view. Leonard Thompson notes that a more critical reading of Eusebius raises doubts about a widespread persecution of Christians under Domitian. He concludes that “most modern commentators no longer accept a Domitianic persecution of Christians.”5 Some writers consider Revelation as a source for a persecution by Domitian, although John never identifies a specific emperor. If so, then Revelation would be the only ancient source pointing to such a persecution.

Over two decades since two Roman historians and a Revelation scholar have pronounced a Domitianic persecution moribund, such claims continue to circulate in articles, books and sermons. This shows how long it takes to repudiate “alternative facts” that have circulated for over 1,500 years in Christendom. Literary texts may sow alternative facts, but archaeological realia, such as inscriptions and coins, have assisted in discrediting those alleged facts. The “fake news” that Domitian instigated a severe persecution of Christians and that his claim to be “Master and God” provoked this persecution needs to be removed from our “facts” about the early church.

Notes:

  1. Brian W. Jones, The Emperor Domitian (New York: Routledge, 1992).
  2. Jones, Emperor Domitian, p. 114.
  3. Julian Bennett notes that the charge against Clemens and his family was that they had adopted Jewish religious ways. He then considers whether Judaism or Christianity is meant and opts for the latter as “more likely.” See Julian Bennett, Trajan: Optimus Princeps (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 68.
  4. Jones, Emperor Domitian, p. 117.
  5. Leonard L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), p. 16.
zeugma-900

Visiting Turkey: Museums of Archaeology Dazzle

Turkey museums boast mosaics, statues and more

The business of archaeology is booming these days in Turkey. For some sites, there is no longer a “season” for excavations; they continue year round. With each new discovery, this mantra is repeated: “More tourists will now visit the site.” To house all the fresh finds, new museums are being built. So I recently hit the road to see several of these.

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Statue of King Suppiluliuma in the Hatay Archaeological Museum. Photo: Mark Wilson.

While the archaeology museum in Antakya (ancient Antioch) was formerly in the city center, the new Hatay Archaeological Museum has been built north of the city past the Grotto of Saint Peter. Its displays are arranged chronologically with excellent presentations of the nearby sites of Tell Atchana and Tell Tayinat. The “Smurf-like” statue of King Suppiluliuma grabs one’s attention. The Roman period is represented with a well-preserved milestone from the period of Vespasian. Pride of place still goes to the Late Roman mosaics from the villas and bathhouses of nearby Daphne. However, their restoration has been shrouded in controversy with charges of an incompetent job. Compared to the mosaics in the other museums that I visited, the colors in these were dull and lifeless.

In Gaziantep I stopped at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, the world’s largest mosaic museum. Although this museum is now several years old, I had only visited the old mosaic museum. Rescue excavations at Zeugma in the late 1990s on the Euphrates River brought to light outstanding mosaics from its Roman villas. These are now displayed in an attractive, well-lit fashion. I almost missed the mosaic with the iconic face of the gypsy girl, featured on all of the museum’s souvenirs. It is tucked away in its own corner room, so fortunately a guard directed me into its darkened corridor. This museum is a must-visit while in the area.

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The Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Gaziantep is the world’s largest mosaic museum. Photo: Mark Wilson.

At Şanlıurfa I was astounded by the massive new archaeology museum there. Again arranged chronologically, artifacts from the Paleolithic site of Göbekli Tepe comprise many of these displays. The dioramas depicting life at that time were visually appealing to Turkish children visiting the museum. The artifacts from Late Antiquity were especially interesting because Edessa, the city’s ancient name, was a center of Syriac culture. The dress of the figures was definitely eastern, and their inscriptions were in Syriac. I was disappointed that no displays featured the rich Jewish and Christian history of Edessa, chronicled decades ago by Judah Segal. Several years ago construction work south of the museum revealed a number of mosaics. To their credit, local officials preserved the mosaics and built a large, dome over them. Unlike the mosaics in the museums at Antakya and Gaziantep, the mosaics in Urfa’s Haleplibahçe Museum are in situ. Displayed near the exit is the Orpheus mosaic repatriated from the Dallas Museum of Fine Art.

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Mosaic depicting the Amazon queen Melanippe in Urfa’s Haleplibahçe Museum. Photo: Mark Wilson.

My visits to these super-sized new museums raised a comparison with the Ephesus Archaeology Museum that reopened earlier this year. Rather than build a new structure to house the multitudinous artifacts from Ephesus, Turkey’s most visited archaeological site, local authorities simply remodeled the old, small museum. The result is a disappointing display of familiar pieces with minimal explanation; for example, “Roman period.” Given that the Austrian Archaeological Institute has been excavating in Ephesus for over a century, it is surprising that the signage is not in German as well as in Turkish and English.

It is wonderful that the signage in these museums is now in English. But why isn’t a native English speaker brought in to proofread these? Frequent grammatical errors dotting these signs create an unnecessary annoyance. One object’s mistranslation brought a smile to my face in the museum at Urfa: “Wave Tunes.” The artifact was in a display of cooking utensils, and the Turkish phrase “Ezgi Taşı” should have been translated “Grinding Stone.”

Because of the unstable security situation along the Syrian border, few foreign tourists are visiting southeastern Turkey now. Our BAS trip to the area was cancelled two years ago. The only group that I saw was a small American one in the Gaziantep Museum. I purposely traveled by public bus between and in these cities and walked extensively in their streets. I never felt unsafe at all. Normal life continues, although many Syrian refugees can be seen in the cities. Hopefully the marvelous artifacts in these new archaeology museums will soon be seen by more than just local people.