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.
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Destroying a Temple

The burning of the Ephesian Temple of Artemis by Herostratus

The apostle Paul, writing from Ephesus to the Christians in Corinth, warned: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:17).

The remains of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. The magnificent structure was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Photo: Mark Wilson.

July 21 marked the anniversary of one of the most infamous destructions of a temple in history. On that night in 356 B.C.E., an Ephesian named Herostratus set out to make his mark in history. He walked to the Temple of Artemis with fire and flammable materials with the intention of burning it down.

The construction of this temple, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was sponsored in part through the benefaction of Croesus, the wealthy king of the Lydian empire. Begun around 550 B.C.E. under the direction of the Cretan architect Chersiphron and his son Metagenes, 36 of its columns were decorated with relief carvings, according to Pliny the Elder. A massive structure—it was 377 feet long and 151 feet wide, the size of a football field—it was supposedly the first Greek temple built of marble.

Herostratus must have been an unhappy man who had failed to achieve honor and status in Ephesus. So he became determined to put his name in the history books. Herostratus knew that he could not do much damage to the marble itself. However, if he could get to the wooden furnishings inside the temple, he would have a great chance of success.

Sneaking past the temple guards, Herostratus placed the rags in key places inside the naos, the inner sanctuary. He then lit each one, probably using the small flame from the olive oil lamp he would have carried. Soon fire was raging with flames climbing up the wooden beams to engulf the wooden ceiling. Even the cult statue of Artemis, made of ebony or grapewood by the noted Athenian sculptor Endoios (also spelled Endoeus), was burning. By morning all that remained was a smoldering ruin of 40-foot high columns.

The Ephesian Artemis. Ephesus Museum, Selçuk, Turkey. Photo: Mark Wilson.

Instead of fleeing the scene, Herostratus was boastful about his deed. He surrendered to the temple authorities and was imprisoned. Ephesian officials, to discourage similar acts in the future, quickly executed Herostratus and attempted to remove his name from memory by forbidding its mention under penalty of death. However, an ancient historian named Theopompus recorded Herostratus’s arson in his book Hellenics. The arsonist’s name that the Ephesians had tried to erase has thus been preserved to this day.

Later Greek and Roman tradition states that Alexander the Great was born in Macedonia on that same night, July 21, 356. The Roman historian Plutarch suggested in his Life of Alexander that the goddess Artemis was so busy attending to Alexander’s birth that she failed to protect her temple. Alexander later tried to pay for the temple’s rebuilding, but was told by Ephesian officials that it was not right for a god to build a temple for another god.

Herostratus’s destruction of the Temple of Artemis led to the coining of the phrase “Herostratic fame” meaning someone who commits a criminal act in order to receive the notoriety that follows. And reference to him and his arson has appeared in the works of noted authors such as Chaucer, Cervantes and Sartre.

The Temple of Artemis that stood during Paul’s visits to Ephesus was the successor to the one Herostratus had burned down. Is it possible that Paul and his audience in Corinth knew the story of Herostratus and his infamous destruction of the Temple of Artemis? I think it is probable that this incident was in mind when Paul wrote the well-known verse (quoted above) to the Corinthians. He was accusing them of perpetrating a similar shameful act: destroying the temple of God in Corinth—the church—through their immature and immoral behavior.