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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Pella: A Window on Survival

Before writing my doctoral thesis two decades ago, the only Pella that I knew about was a small town in south central Iowa famous for its windows and doors. But in the course of my research, I discovered fascinating data about another Pella located in the Perean foothills of the Jordan River. In March I finally had the opportunity to visit the Pella located in northwestern Jordan.

Mark Wilson describes a visit to Pella, an ancient city located in the Perean foothills of the Jordan River where Jesus’ followers sought refuge while escaping Jerusalem’s destruction.

Jesus, while looking over the temple mount in Jerusalem shortly before his death, prophesied that its beautiful stones would be thrown down within a generation. He warned that the residents should flee Jerusalem to the mountains when they saw the Roman armies surrounding the city. Jesus’ admonition is found in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 24:15–22; Mark 13:14–20; Luke 21:20–24). Perhaps Jesus visited Pella during his visit to the Decapolis (Mark 7:31) and Perea (Matthew 19:1; Mark 10:1), and recalling its secure location, cryptically referred to it in this prophecy. Eusebius’s Church History (3.5.3) recounts that the Jewish followers of Jesus heeded his warning and fled to Pella for safety before Jerusalem’s destruction. Birgil Pixner believes that, after the city’s destruction, they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild their Jewish-Christian synagogue on Mount Zion.*

Today, Pella sits outside Tabaqat Fahl, twenty miles south of the Sea of Galilee. I was eager to see the geographical setting of the site to find out whether it qualified as a mountainous retreat. The University of Sydney has been conducting excavations at Pella since 1979. Remains from the Natufian through the Islamic period have been discovered – a period spanning over 10,000 years. But my interest was on structures that would have existed in the late first century C.E. However, few Roman buildings from that period remain because massive construction projects in the Byzantine period destroyed them. However, there are remnants of a Roman odeon, bathhouse and necropolis. Roman milestones found in the nearby hills show that roads directly connected Pella was with the important Decapolis city of Gerasa, modern Jerash.

Some scholars believe that the escape of the women’s offspring into the wilderness in Revelation 12:6, 14–17 uses mythological language to describe the flight of the Jerusalem church to Pella. While Revelation 12 is difficult to interpret, there does seem to be a historical basis for the events it describes. The dragon’s attempt to destroy the Jewish Christians, first in Zealot-controlled Jerusalem, and then while crossing the Jordan during the winter floods, came to naught. Instead, the Gentile churches of the Decapolis rescued and aided the Jewish-Christian refugees. With the Jerusalem church safe, the dragon next gave his attention to making war against the rest of the saints (12:17). While a bit fanciful, such a reconstruction must be taken into consideration, since others have little to commend them.

Although Pella is only in the foothills of the Transjordanian Mountains, the site seems to fulfill Jesus’ prophecy of a city of refuge. Standing in the upper basilica, the view across the Jordan Valley is spectacular. Mount Gilgal rises to the northwest, Beth-Shean/Scythopolis looms on the northeast. It was easy to imagine a weary company of refugees arriving in this city in the late 60s while attempting to survive the chaos falling upon Jerusalem.

Interestingly, the Pella in Iowa was founded in 1847 by 800 Dutch immigrants seeking religious freedom. Their minister Dominee Hendrik P. Scholte knew his church history and decided to name the new city after its Perean counterpart. Pella, old and new, still stands as a symbol of refuge and hope in a time of great crisis.

* In the article “Church of the Apostles Found on Mt. Zion”, Bargil Pixner writes “The Judeo-Christian community in Jerusalem escaped this terrible catastrophe by fleeing to Pella in Transjordan and the countryside of Gilean and Bashan in expectation of the Parousia, the second coming of Christ.

When this did not occur and they realized that the time of Jesus’ return was not yet at hand, they decided to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild their sanctuary on the site of the ancient Upper Room—where the Last Supper had been held, where the apostles returned after witnessing Jesus’ ascension on the Mount of Olives and where Peter delivered his Pentecost sermon as recorded in Acts 2. It was this site on which they made their synagogue. They were free to do this because they enjoyed a certain religious freedom from the Romans (religio licita) inasmuch as they were Jews who confessed Jesus as their Messiah, and not gentile converts.”

Read “Church of the Apostles Found on Mt. Zion” as it appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1990.