Royal Flush: Llewelyn Morgan on Domitian’s high colour

This week we have a guest post from Llewelyn Morgan of Brasenose College, Oxford.

Following his lecture at the BSR last month, Llewelyn details the ancients’ fascination with Domitian’s physiognomy —  from the emperor’s own amateur interest in hair care, to commentators’ preoccupation with Domitian’s ‘high colour’.

‘A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting the British School at Rome for the first time, very much a flying visit, but which included a fascinating tour of excavations beneath St John Lateran led by Professor Ian Haynes, and wonderful hospitality from Sophie Hay and Tom True. It was an opportunity, too, to try out some ideas about my favourite Roman emperor, Domitian.

Domitians head

Domitian’s head, from the Museum in Ephesus.

One of my very first academic publications was concerned with Domitian’s physical appearance, an article on a rather unlikely work to come from this emperor’s pen. The only fragment that survives of Domitian’s work on hair care, De cura capillorum, concerns his own lack of hair, and does so in a light-hearted and self-mocking fashion somewhat at odds with his reputation. Domitian is one of the bad emperors, the paranoid ones who get assassinated and deliberately forgotten, and deserve everything they get. But I tend to see Domitian less as evil incarnate than someone incapable of subtlety: he made no bones about the power he wielded, in contrast to previous emperors who had managed the tricky balance of administering Rome without putting the noses of the Roman elite too far out of joint.

At the BSR my topic was not Domitian’s hair, but his face. Domitian certainly polarised opinion, accounts of his reign being divided pretty starkly between exaggeratedly complimentary while he was alive (the poets Statius and Martial especially) and passionately damning after his death (notably Pliny the Younger and Tacitus). Yet there is one thing at least that they have in common, and that is what is nothing short of a fixation on the emperor’s facial features.

The basic physiognomical facts about Domitian are that he had a high colour, which seems to have given the impression that he was constantly blushing. Suetonius describes his ‘modest and flushed face’ (uultu modesto ruborisque pleno, 18.1), and also illustrates the use to which Domitian put a gift of nature that Romans were strongly inclined to interpret as a sign of exceptional modesty: ‘He was so conscious that the modesty of his expression (uerecundia oris) was in his favour, that he once made this boast in the senate: ‘So far, at any rate, you have approved my heart and my face (usque adhuc certe et animum meum probastis et uultum).’ (18.2)

Now, Suetonius offers physical descriptions of all the twelve Caesars, so it’s nothing unusual to have this kind of commentary from him. It gets more interesting when we find Domitian’s face a very regular point of reference also in the other accounts we have of his reign. In the Agricola, for example, Tacitus describes the unusually intense attention, which we might call surveillance, that he directed at elite Romans like himself (45.2):

Nero after all withdrew his eyes, and did not witness the crimes he authorised. Under Domitian it was no small part of our sufferings that we saw him and were seen of him; that our sighs were counted in his books; that not a pale cheek of all that company escaped those brutal eyes, that crimson face which flushed continually lest shame should unawares surprise it (saeuus ille uultus et rubor, quo se contra pudorem muniebat).

From a very different perspective, however, here is Statius, recounting a dinner in Domitian’s palace, a place full of wonders, but nothing more wondrous than Domitian himself—again, note that at the heart of this very elaborate panegyric of the emperor is close attention to his florid complexion (Statius, Silvae 4.2.38-56):

But not for the delicacies or the Moorish wood resting on Indian columns or the ordered troops of servants had my eager gaze the time; for him, only him—calm of visage, softening his radiance with serene majesty, modestly lowering the banner of his fortune; yet the hidden splendour shone in his face. Even thus would a barbarian enemy and races unknown have recognized him had they seen him. Not otherwise does Gradivus recline in Rhodope’s chill valley, horses dismissed; so Pollux lays down his slippery limbs, relaxing from Therapne’s wrestling bout, so lies Euhan by Ganges, as Indians howl, so ponderous Alcides, returning from a grim behest, was fain to lean his flank against the outspread lion. I speak of little things, nor yet, Germanicus, do I match your aspect. So looks the leader of the High Ones when he revisits Ocean’s limits and the banquets of the Ethiopians, his sacred countenance diffused with nectar, and bids the Muses sing secret songs and Phoebus laud Pallene’s triumphs.

Sophie Hay Domitians Palace Banner

Domitian’s Palace.

What interests me, of course, is not so much that pro- and anti-Domitian writers offer opposite assessments of the emperor—that is hardly unexpected—but that a central role is played in all accounts, negative and positive, by Domitian’s face. Tacitus may have recalled his face as a lowering intrusion, and Statius as a sun-like or god-like object of awe, but the imperial face itself seems to be a non-negotiable common factor, and I’m not aware of any other emperor on whom the historical record focuses so neurotically.

The temptation is to find a parallel between Domitian’s extraordinary physical presence in the texts and the unusual prominence that this emperor claimed for himself in the governance of Rome. In general, Domitian was hard to ignore. An unusually assiduous administrator, he took a more intimate interest in the management of the Empire than any of his predecessors. For example, he seems to have micro-managed the coinage, dramatically enhancing the purity of the gold and silver coins early in his reign (a reform making little economic sense, but symbolic of a return to the higher standards of the past), and using the designs on the coins as promotion of his own ideology to an unprecedented degree. Domitian’s face was as unavoidable in one’s pocket as in one’s poetry book, in other words.

The impulse to reset Rome to a past, and superior, condition is a reflex of Romans throughout their history, though the first emperor Augustus made it an especially key component of his reforming programme. Domitian pursued the same end with particular zeal, and uncompromisingly. Assuming the semi-obsolete role of Censor, indeed proclaiming himself Perpetual Censor, he exploited the position both to enforce moral standards and (this also fell under the responsibility of the Censor) to leave his architectural mark on the city and Empire. A poem I have spent a lot of time with over the years, Statius, Silvae 4.3, celebrates the Via Domitiana, a road that Domitian, as Censor, constructed along the coast of Campania as far as Puteoli on the Bay of Naples. That road was typical of Domitian’s determination to improve the lives of his subjects, and make it entirely clear in the process who was responsible for the improvement. The impression of common endeavour cultivated by Augustus, the Roman elite sharing with Augustus the task of recreating Rome, has gone: Domitian’s name is on everything.

For the vast majority of Domitian’s subjects, no doubt, if they saw any benefits from Domitian’s reforms, it was a cause for gratitude. But for the senatorial elite an emperor as assertive as Domitian meant an intolerable obstacle to their own self-assertion and dignity. A vivid anecdote recorded by Suetonius (13) illustrates the impact of Domitian’s building on those sensitive to his overwhelming authority: ‘He erected so many and such huge vaulted passage-ways and arches in the various regions of the city, adorned with chariots and triumphal emblems, that on one of them someone wrote in Greek: ‘It is enough.’’ The author of the graffito wrote ἀρκει̃, ‘enough already’, punning on an alternate form of the Latin word for ‘arches’, arci. Arches are perhaps the most overtly self-promoting of architectural constructions, and that Flavian Banksy wasn’t making an aesthetic judgement about architectural form. In the physical city, too, there was just far too much Domitian in evidence for some people.

In the poetry written while Domitian was still alive his complexion is itself an important theme, but feeds also into other threads in their panegyric of the emperor. Domitian in Martial and Statius is a paradigm of youthfulness and beauty, who is bestowing these qualities on Rome with his reforms and building activity, and a blush, as Seneca puts it, is ‘a good sign in a young man’ (Ep. 11.1); as Censor he is also a champion of the moral decency and shame with which this blush seemed to indicate he was unusually well endowed; I have also wondered about a connection between Domitian’s red face and some of the traditions concerning the appearance of both the triumphing general and statues of the chief god Jupiter, but that is a bit of a scholarly minefield. Undoubtedly, though, the focus on the emperor’s superlative features suggests the treatment a god might receive, and the poets had no qualms about making the claim that Domitian was divine.

But it’s what this focus on his face tells us about the psychology of Domitianic Rome that fascinates me most. That, in turn, is most starkly in evidence in the aftermath of his murder in AD 96, when Suetonius and Pliny describe the near-hysterical reactions of the senators to the news. Domitian was the target of so-called damnatio memoriae, the systematic erasure of references to his person—statues, inscriptions, etc. Now we are told, and it is certainly true, that damnatio memoriae was an established ritual after the removal of certain political figures who had gone beyond the pale, and should never be considered a straightforwardly spontaneous reaction on the part of its agents. But as I said in Rome, I challenge anyone to read Pliny’s description of his and his fellow senators’ behaviour (itself echoed in Juvenal’s famous account of the fall of Sejanus in Satire 10) and not see a disempowered elite working through their profound anxieties regarding a massively charismatic figure of authority (Pliny, Pan. 52.5-6):

It was our delight to dash those proud faces to the ground, to smite them with the sword and savage them with axes as if blood and agony could follow from every blow. Our transports of joy—so long deferred—were unrestrained; all sought a form of vengeance in beholding those bodies mutilated, limbs hacked in pieces, and finally that baleful, fearsome visage cast into fire, to be melted down, so that from such menacing terror something for man’s use and enjoyment should rise out of the flames.

(iuuabat illidere solo superbissimos uultus, instare ferro, saeuire securibus, ut si singulos ictus sanguis dolorque sequeretur. nemo tam temperans gaudii seraeque laetitiae, quin instar ultionis videretur cernere laceros artus truncata membra, postremo truces horrendasque imagines obiectas excoctasque flammis, ut ex illo terrore et minis in usum hominum ac uoluptates ignibus mutarentur.)

Llewelyn Morgan (Oxford)

Images by Sophie Hay.

The full audio recording of Llewelyn’s lecture is available on our YouTube channel 


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