BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Alternative Facts: Domitian’s Persecution of Christians

Was Roman emperor Domitian really the great persecutor of Christians?

domitian-naples

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.

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.

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.


In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.


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.


In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.


mark-wilson-2013Mark Wilson is the director of the Asia Minor Research Center in Antalya, Turkey, and is a popular teacher on BAS Travel/Study tours. Mark received his doctorate in Biblical studies from the University of South Africa (Pretoria), where he serves as a research fellow in Biblical archaeology. He is currently Associate Professor Extraordinary of New Testament at Stellenbosch University. He leads field studies in Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean for university, seminary and church groups. He is the author of Biblical Turkey: A Guide to the Jewish and Christian Sites of Asia Minor and Victory through the Lamb: A Guide to Revelation in Plain Language. He is a frequent lecturer at BAS’s Bible Fests.


 

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.


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Excavating Ancient Pella
Archaeology investigates the Jerusalem Christians’ escape to Pella

The Archaeological Quest for the Earliest Christians: Part 1 and Part 2 by Douglas Boin

The Origin of Christianity

Roman Emperor Nerva’s Reform of the Jewish Tax by Nathan T. Elkins


This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on July 24, 2017.


 

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28 Responses

  1. BAS FRIEND says:

    I am new to these historical discussions .As a Catholic
    these exchanges of history are fascinating.I just hope they’re accurate.I believe the Apostles were Christions because the followed JESUS CHRIST and put aside the Jewish ways.
    Michael Realo

  2. Phillip says:

    When I finished Jones’ article I was about to go back and pull out the sources that have been so well brought forth by those who were equally as puzzled by Jones’ editorial as I was. Maybe BAR just wants to give platforms to sketchy articles like this just to capitalize on the controversy, but I do enjoy the superior quality of the rebuttals that my peers respond with. They are ALWAYS my favorite reads, and I find them encouraging in a cynical world that seeks to rewrite history well after firmly stablished facts.

  3. jonc18 says:

    Eusebius was not the earliest reference to Domitian being against Christianity (or possibly Jews), Cassius Dio c mid second century mentions In 95 he executed Clemens his fellow consul for atheism which was the reference to him either being a convert to Judaism or Christianity. Whilst it does not mean that Domitian initiated a widespread persecution of the church, he was not well disposed to it.

    Jon

  4. Marius Heemstra says:

    One other glaring omission in this article is the fact that the issues with regard to the Fiscus Judaicus under Domitian between 85 and his death in 96 are not even mentioned. See my “The Fiscus Judaicus and the Parting of the Ways” (WUNT 277) from 2010. Domitian may not have targeted Christians specifically, but Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians may well have been victims in this period.

  5. RYAN says:

    What cracks me up, is everyone’s assumption that John was a “Christian.” John (like the other apostles) were NOT Christian’s, they were Jews. Christianity did not begin until Constantine. There was a sect called “Chrestians” that dated back to 470BCE, mentioned by Homer, and they were Coptics that later adopted Gnosticism. It was THIS heretical sect that Constantine adopted as his “state religion,” and it is the very same sect that are now called “Catholics.” Chrestians were priests, and had altar boys, that were brought in to “service the priests,” and this practice is still visible in the Catholic churches today. Do your research people. You have been fed “fake news, and falsified facts” for the past 2,000 years. Yahoshoa Messiah was a Jew, not a “Christos,” He is the Messiah. “Christos” is a Latin interpretation, invented by the Catholics.

  6. KD Bingaman says:

    One glaring omission from the sources utilized in this article are the stories of the early martyrs & confessors from the reign of Domitian, not to mention the writings of the ante-Nicene fathers. These early accounts clearly document what was perhaps the worst persecution since the time of Nero. It should also be noted that no edict is necessary for persecution to occur (cf Acts of the Apostles).

  7. Steve P Cline says:

    It is my opinion that Revelation was written in the days of Nero. There being proof the he persecuted the Christians.

  8. John T says:

    The problem with using the Revelation as evidence of persecution in the reign of Domitian is that to do so one must assume that the Revelation was written during Domitian’s reign. The reason for doing this is that the Revelation seems to indicate a background of persecution. This reasoning is circular. If Domitian did not engage in an enhanced persecution of Christianity (and a mere exile is not really enhanced persecution) then the Revelation would need to be dated to a different period.

    The persecution of Christianity seems to have been an ever-present background condition after the reign of Nero; Pliny’s letter to Trajan presumes that Christianity is an illegal religion and is to be persecuted in some way, but the response of Trajan, while he agrees with this, is lukewarm about the persecution. Some emperors, however, seem to have undertaken major persecutions of Christianity, for example the Decian persecution or the Great Persecution.
    It would seem that Christianity was never really free from persecution from the time of Nero to that of Constantine, but that there were definite periods of enhanced persecution when an emperor ordered active measures to be taken against it.

  9. davidl299 says:

    Rev 1:9  “I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.” Yes John was there because of persecution against the church and christians. Notice he siad “companion in tribulation” menaing others were experinecing the tribulation as well as him. This was all under Domitian’s reign. Domitian truly allowed it and encouraged it. This was somewhere beween 90-95 A.D.

  10. E Zacharias says:

    Wilson’s conclusions are faulty. First, his citations show consistency on Eusebius’ part, not false assumptions or slander by Eusebius, whose histories records reports what was written by others in various areas at various times. Second, empires can continue to operate as “business as usual” without needing specific edicts. Third, the argument of silence does not prove that Domitian was innocent of persecution; being “not present” at trials hardly shows his lack of endorsement. Wilson shows his connection in the execution of Clemens but tells us it wasn’t for persecution. Is the death sentence for “antisocialism and a decline in support for idols and temples” not a sign of persecution? Trajan’s letter shows that he shares in Domitian’s wisdom of restraint in persecution (see Tertullian), but that doesn’t mean persecution was rare or non-existent during this time. Agreed that later writers may have embellished on the persecution, but it seems false to say that persecution of Christians was not an issue in Domitian’s reign.

  11. Jason Van Bemmel says:

    The problem with recent revisionist history regarding persecution of Christians under Domitian and others is that Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan makes no sense apart from a long-standing, Empire-wide ban on Christianity. Pliny knows well that Christinaity is illegal, and has been for some time, and he testifies that he executed Christians who refused to recant their Christianity, as was in keeping with Roman law and custom. To cite this letter as evidence against widespread Roman persecution of Christians is ridiculous, and it shows a strong bias against established historical tradition, likely for the sake of political agenda.

  12. Jerry mcshan says:

    Christians were mostly used as scapegoats by the Romans. When events or plagues spread it was the Christians who were responsible for it. It was a common occurrence that was later filled by the Jews in Europe. Bad news Christians caused it. What singled them out was they refused to burn incense to Caesar. this made them outlaws and they were condemned to death.

  13. Charlie Baud says:

    “Judging by Gibbon”

    The easiest way to tell how illiterate someone is concerning Roman History. Gibbon was a notorious hack with an axe to grind.

  14. Miker Tower says:

    Awesome. Its enough of portray the most wonderful civilization of human era, as corrupt psychopaths. Thats all lies. Romans were magnificents.

  15. John Smith says:

    Only the “broken reed” Christians were spared. Domitian was a vicious persecutor. Indeed,it was the Roman Empire that judicially murdered Yeshua.

  16. Alan says:

    Playing the “victim card” about history is particularly effective if you are trying to demonstrate the potency of your movement and/or belief system. It can attract sympathy for the plight, admiration for effectiveness, and contempt for the cruel oppressor of your virtuous struggle.

    Judging by Gibbon, the authorities were thoroughly justified in suppressing the terrorist adherents of this new cult, who would keep rioting and trying to burn down other peoples’ temples.

  17. David P. says:

    I could call the use of “alternative facts” in this piece “alternative facts”, but that would be an erroneous use of the term, a use which the author perpetrates, like virtually everyone else who uses the term. Saying something is true when it isn’t true isn’t “alternative facts”–it’s lying. Alternative facts are, on the one hand saying that ice cream is delicious & creamy because you are in the ice cream business, while someone else says it’s high fat and causes weight gain because they are a dietitian. Both are speaking facts, not lies, but they are focusing on a subset of facts that best supports the points most germane to their own cause.
    Sadly, because most people are psychologically dishonest with both facts and themselves, they prefer to imagine this term means what they want to accuse others of, oblivious of the fact that they are making themselves guilty of the exact charge they wish to apply to their supposed opponent. To repeat, pretty much everyone who chooses to use the term “alternative facts” is engaging in what they imagine the term “alternative facts” is supposed to mean, when in reality the term doesn’t mean lying at all, and yet that is what such people are doing. Those attracted to the term ought to take their fondness of the term as a signal that they are the kind of person who likes to play fast and loose with facts, and that they enjoy claiming others are guilty of their own sort of behavior.

  18. Alberto says:

    I would like to add two further issues. It is quite well known that Domitian established a temple in Ephesus, dedicated to the “sebastoi” of the Flavian fanily (Vespasian, Titus and himself) and the akrolitic statue of Titus has been recovered in good conditions (for instance Friese S.J. “Twice neokoros. Ephesus, Asia and the Cult of the Flavian Imperial Family”, published by Brill). Keeping in mind Daniel 3, it is quite obvious why Rome was considered the new Babylon in Revelation. Since August times the province of Asia was for political reasons the center of the imperial cult (see Price S.R.F., “Rituals and Power: the Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor”, Cambridge 1984), and the behavior of Christians could be viewed as seditious. The second issue is that the letter of Pliny is clearly referring to the trials undertaken by other officials of Trajan. The policy adopted under Domitian could in no way be applied to define the will of the emperor in charge. The whole argument ex absentia is therefore frivolous.

  19. Alberto says:

    ERRATA CORRIGE: Eusebius was born about 160 years after the facts; he didn’t write “over three centuries after”. Moreover in my translation of C.H. I don’t find neither a paragraph III 18.1.5 nor the sentence of Ireneus supposed to be there (in particular there is no “only”).
    Of course information about ancient events is scarce and subject to different interpretations, but changing data to support a thesis is not acceptable

  20. Helen says:

    At seminary, we understood the persecution of the early Church given by Revelation to have been under Nero. Yes, we also heard that Domitian was responsible for a more widespread persecution and suppression of Christians than previous emperors had done.

    Persecution and suppression of the Christian message has always been a given, depending on who is in control of the state and its power.

  21. bradr23 says:

    Internal and external evidences in John’s writing point far more clearly to Nero than any other. Domitian doesn’t fit the characterization at all, except under the “alternative facts” that Mr. Wilson points out.

  22. George says:

    How does the numismatic evidence reconcile with the conclusion of this article? In particular, what do you make of the denarius featuring the Latin inscription DIVVS CAESAR IMP DOMITIANI F, which features Domitian’s infant son depicted as a young Jupiter seated on a globe with his hands raised toward seven stars? Wasn’t this an implicit claim to divine status, while the Emperor was still living?

  23. Eugene says:

    How does Wilson deny persecution by Domitian when he concedes it was he who exiled John to Patmos? It appears his position is Domitian did persecute but it wasn’t a “General” or wholesale persecution.
    The comment and question by Patrick leads to another: is mark Wilson a preterist? In reality this perspective does not impact much on eschatology, be it preterism or futurism. Domitian is referenced because of the reference by Irenaeus not because of wholesale Persecution by Domitian. It should also be noted or considered, wouldn’t the condemnation of memory alter the amount of available history. Yes, I do hold to futurism.
    Nevertheless, an interesting article.

  24. Didymus says:

    I agree with Patrick. A more preteriat approach needs to be looked into. Although I agree that the book of Revelation does not give a name I believe it clearly identifies the beast as Caesar Nero through the use of his gamatria number (666). Its also of note that the earliest copies of Revelation are in Latin and use the numbers 616 which also come out to be Nero. Plus we know the beast itself is also representative of the Roman Empire and looking at the history of Roman Emperors (kings), Nero would be the 6th (Rev 17:10). Only time will tell which view is correct…

  25. James David Audlin says:

    In my not-yet-published book on the Revelation I have this to say…

    The date of the Revelation’s first publication is easily established. The second century Christian writer Irenæus is a trustworthy source for information about John the Presbyter, being the student of John’s student Polycarp; the latter also edited John’s canonical works, preparing them for publication. Irenæus says (Hæres. 5:30) ουδε γαρ προ πολλου χρονου εωραθη αλλα σχεδον επι της ημετερας γενεας προς τφ τελει της δομετιανου αρχης (“It [the Apocalypse] was seen not long ago, almost in our generation, near the end of Domitian’s reign.” Some writers in the past have been confused by this statement, concluding that Irenæus is referring to the date of Revelation’s composition. However, he refers rather to the date in which this work was first seen, or as we would say today, “when it first appeared”: that is to say, the date of publication. Given that composition of the first draft would have been in 68 and that Domitian reigned from 81 to 96, the intervening time is just right for the Presbyter’s rough draft to be improved, and then his original Aramaic text to be translated into Greek for wide publication.

    This confusion partly results from the similarity of Nero’s given name to that of the later emperor. Robert Young, best known for Young’s Analytical Concordance, explains this well in his commentary on the Revelation. He states that “It was written in Patmos about A.D. 68, whither John had been banished by Domitius Nero, as stated in the title of the Syriac version of the book; and with this concurs the express statement of Irenæus in A.D. 175, who says it happened in the reign of Dometianou – i.e., Domitius (Nero). Sulpicius, Orosins, etc., stupidly mistaking Dimitianou for Domitianikos, supposed Irenaeus to refer to Domitian, A.D. 95, and most succeeding writers have fallen into the same blunder. The internal testimony is wholly in favor of the early date.”

    This confusion of Domitius (Nero) with the later emperor Domitian persists to this day.

    –James David Audlin, author of “The Gospel of John, the Original Version Restored and Translated”

  26. Patrick says:

    Perhaps this would lend credibility to the preterist interpretation of Revelation? Some early Christians believed Revelation was written under Nero’s reign or Cladius…maybe the archeological evidence would lend support to this other opinions? I wonder?

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28 Responses

  1. BAS FRIEND says:

    I am new to these historical discussions .As a Catholic
    these exchanges of history are fascinating.I just hope they’re accurate.I believe the Apostles were Christions because the followed JESUS CHRIST and put aside the Jewish ways.
    Michael Realo

  2. Phillip says:

    When I finished Jones’ article I was about to go back and pull out the sources that have been so well brought forth by those who were equally as puzzled by Jones’ editorial as I was. Maybe BAR just wants to give platforms to sketchy articles like this just to capitalize on the controversy, but I do enjoy the superior quality of the rebuttals that my peers respond with. They are ALWAYS my favorite reads, and I find them encouraging in a cynical world that seeks to rewrite history well after firmly stablished facts.

  3. jonc18 says:

    Eusebius was not the earliest reference to Domitian being against Christianity (or possibly Jews), Cassius Dio c mid second century mentions In 95 he executed Clemens his fellow consul for atheism which was the reference to him either being a convert to Judaism or Christianity. Whilst it does not mean that Domitian initiated a widespread persecution of the church, he was not well disposed to it.

    Jon

  4. Marius Heemstra says:

    One other glaring omission in this article is the fact that the issues with regard to the Fiscus Judaicus under Domitian between 85 and his death in 96 are not even mentioned. See my “The Fiscus Judaicus and the Parting of the Ways” (WUNT 277) from 2010. Domitian may not have targeted Christians specifically, but Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians may well have been victims in this period.

  5. RYAN says:

    What cracks me up, is everyone’s assumption that John was a “Christian.” John (like the other apostles) were NOT Christian’s, they were Jews. Christianity did not begin until Constantine. There was a sect called “Chrestians” that dated back to 470BCE, mentioned by Homer, and they were Coptics that later adopted Gnosticism. It was THIS heretical sect that Constantine adopted as his “state religion,” and it is the very same sect that are now called “Catholics.” Chrestians were priests, and had altar boys, that were brought in to “service the priests,” and this practice is still visible in the Catholic churches today. Do your research people. You have been fed “fake news, and falsified facts” for the past 2,000 years. Yahoshoa Messiah was a Jew, not a “Christos,” He is the Messiah. “Christos” is a Latin interpretation, invented by the Catholics.

  6. KD Bingaman says:

    One glaring omission from the sources utilized in this article are the stories of the early martyrs & confessors from the reign of Domitian, not to mention the writings of the ante-Nicene fathers. These early accounts clearly document what was perhaps the worst persecution since the time of Nero. It should also be noted that no edict is necessary for persecution to occur (cf Acts of the Apostles).

  7. Steve P Cline says:

    It is my opinion that Revelation was written in the days of Nero. There being proof the he persecuted the Christians.

  8. John T says:

    The problem with using the Revelation as evidence of persecution in the reign of Domitian is that to do so one must assume that the Revelation was written during Domitian’s reign. The reason for doing this is that the Revelation seems to indicate a background of persecution. This reasoning is circular. If Domitian did not engage in an enhanced persecution of Christianity (and a mere exile is not really enhanced persecution) then the Revelation would need to be dated to a different period.

    The persecution of Christianity seems to have been an ever-present background condition after the reign of Nero; Pliny’s letter to Trajan presumes that Christianity is an illegal religion and is to be persecuted in some way, but the response of Trajan, while he agrees with this, is lukewarm about the persecution. Some emperors, however, seem to have undertaken major persecutions of Christianity, for example the Decian persecution or the Great Persecution.
    It would seem that Christianity was never really free from persecution from the time of Nero to that of Constantine, but that there were definite periods of enhanced persecution when an emperor ordered active measures to be taken against it.

  9. davidl299 says:

    Rev 1:9  “I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.” Yes John was there because of persecution against the church and christians. Notice he siad “companion in tribulation” menaing others were experinecing the tribulation as well as him. This was all under Domitian’s reign. Domitian truly allowed it and encouraged it. This was somewhere beween 90-95 A.D.

  10. E Zacharias says:

    Wilson’s conclusions are faulty. First, his citations show consistency on Eusebius’ part, not false assumptions or slander by Eusebius, whose histories records reports what was written by others in various areas at various times. Second, empires can continue to operate as “business as usual” without needing specific edicts. Third, the argument of silence does not prove that Domitian was innocent of persecution; being “not present” at trials hardly shows his lack of endorsement. Wilson shows his connection in the execution of Clemens but tells us it wasn’t for persecution. Is the death sentence for “antisocialism and a decline in support for idols and temples” not a sign of persecution? Trajan’s letter shows that he shares in Domitian’s wisdom of restraint in persecution (see Tertullian), but that doesn’t mean persecution was rare or non-existent during this time. Agreed that later writers may have embellished on the persecution, but it seems false to say that persecution of Christians was not an issue in Domitian’s reign.

  11. Jason Van Bemmel says:

    The problem with recent revisionist history regarding persecution of Christians under Domitian and others is that Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan makes no sense apart from a long-standing, Empire-wide ban on Christianity. Pliny knows well that Christinaity is illegal, and has been for some time, and he testifies that he executed Christians who refused to recant their Christianity, as was in keeping with Roman law and custom. To cite this letter as evidence against widespread Roman persecution of Christians is ridiculous, and it shows a strong bias against established historical tradition, likely for the sake of political agenda.

  12. Jerry mcshan says:

    Christians were mostly used as scapegoats by the Romans. When events or plagues spread it was the Christians who were responsible for it. It was a common occurrence that was later filled by the Jews in Europe. Bad news Christians caused it. What singled them out was they refused to burn incense to Caesar. this made them outlaws and they were condemned to death.

  13. Charlie Baud says:

    “Judging by Gibbon”

    The easiest way to tell how illiterate someone is concerning Roman History. Gibbon was a notorious hack with an axe to grind.

  14. Miker Tower says:

    Awesome. Its enough of portray the most wonderful civilization of human era, as corrupt psychopaths. Thats all lies. Romans were magnificents.

  15. John Smith says:

    Only the “broken reed” Christians were spared. Domitian was a vicious persecutor. Indeed,it was the Roman Empire that judicially murdered Yeshua.

  16. Alan says:

    Playing the “victim card” about history is particularly effective if you are trying to demonstrate the potency of your movement and/or belief system. It can attract sympathy for the plight, admiration for effectiveness, and contempt for the cruel oppressor of your virtuous struggle.

    Judging by Gibbon, the authorities were thoroughly justified in suppressing the terrorist adherents of this new cult, who would keep rioting and trying to burn down other peoples’ temples.

  17. David P. says:

    I could call the use of “alternative facts” in this piece “alternative facts”, but that would be an erroneous use of the term, a use which the author perpetrates, like virtually everyone else who uses the term. Saying something is true when it isn’t true isn’t “alternative facts”–it’s lying. Alternative facts are, on the one hand saying that ice cream is delicious & creamy because you are in the ice cream business, while someone else says it’s high fat and causes weight gain because they are a dietitian. Both are speaking facts, not lies, but they are focusing on a subset of facts that best supports the points most germane to their own cause.
    Sadly, because most people are psychologically dishonest with both facts and themselves, they prefer to imagine this term means what they want to accuse others of, oblivious of the fact that they are making themselves guilty of the exact charge they wish to apply to their supposed opponent. To repeat, pretty much everyone who chooses to use the term “alternative facts” is engaging in what they imagine the term “alternative facts” is supposed to mean, when in reality the term doesn’t mean lying at all, and yet that is what such people are doing. Those attracted to the term ought to take their fondness of the term as a signal that they are the kind of person who likes to play fast and loose with facts, and that they enjoy claiming others are guilty of their own sort of behavior.

  18. Alberto says:

    I would like to add two further issues. It is quite well known that Domitian established a temple in Ephesus, dedicated to the “sebastoi” of the Flavian fanily (Vespasian, Titus and himself) and the akrolitic statue of Titus has been recovered in good conditions (for instance Friese S.J. “Twice neokoros. Ephesus, Asia and the Cult of the Flavian Imperial Family”, published by Brill). Keeping in mind Daniel 3, it is quite obvious why Rome was considered the new Babylon in Revelation. Since August times the province of Asia was for political reasons the center of the imperial cult (see Price S.R.F., “Rituals and Power: the Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor”, Cambridge 1984), and the behavior of Christians could be viewed as seditious. The second issue is that the letter of Pliny is clearly referring to the trials undertaken by other officials of Trajan. The policy adopted under Domitian could in no way be applied to define the will of the emperor in charge. The whole argument ex absentia is therefore frivolous.

  19. Alberto says:

    ERRATA CORRIGE: Eusebius was born about 160 years after the facts; he didn’t write “over three centuries after”. Moreover in my translation of C.H. I don’t find neither a paragraph III 18.1.5 nor the sentence of Ireneus supposed to be there (in particular there is no “only”).
    Of course information about ancient events is scarce and subject to different interpretations, but changing data to support a thesis is not acceptable

  20. Helen says:

    At seminary, we understood the persecution of the early Church given by Revelation to have been under Nero. Yes, we also heard that Domitian was responsible for a more widespread persecution and suppression of Christians than previous emperors had done.

    Persecution and suppression of the Christian message has always been a given, depending on who is in control of the state and its power.

  21. bradr23 says:

    Internal and external evidences in John’s writing point far more clearly to Nero than any other. Domitian doesn’t fit the characterization at all, except under the “alternative facts” that Mr. Wilson points out.

  22. George says:

    How does the numismatic evidence reconcile with the conclusion of this article? In particular, what do you make of the denarius featuring the Latin inscription DIVVS CAESAR IMP DOMITIANI F, which features Domitian’s infant son depicted as a young Jupiter seated on a globe with his hands raised toward seven stars? Wasn’t this an implicit claim to divine status, while the Emperor was still living?

  23. Eugene says:

    How does Wilson deny persecution by Domitian when he concedes it was he who exiled John to Patmos? It appears his position is Domitian did persecute but it wasn’t a “General” or wholesale persecution.
    The comment and question by Patrick leads to another: is mark Wilson a preterist? In reality this perspective does not impact much on eschatology, be it preterism or futurism. Domitian is referenced because of the reference by Irenaeus not because of wholesale Persecution by Domitian. It should also be noted or considered, wouldn’t the condemnation of memory alter the amount of available history. Yes, I do hold to futurism.
    Nevertheless, an interesting article.

  24. Didymus says:

    I agree with Patrick. A more preteriat approach needs to be looked into. Although I agree that the book of Revelation does not give a name I believe it clearly identifies the beast as Caesar Nero through the use of his gamatria number (666). Its also of note that the earliest copies of Revelation are in Latin and use the numbers 616 which also come out to be Nero. Plus we know the beast itself is also representative of the Roman Empire and looking at the history of Roman Emperors (kings), Nero would be the 6th (Rev 17:10). Only time will tell which view is correct…

  25. James David Audlin says:

    In my not-yet-published book on the Revelation I have this to say…

    The date of the Revelation’s first publication is easily established. The second century Christian writer Irenæus is a trustworthy source for information about John the Presbyter, being the student of John’s student Polycarp; the latter also edited John’s canonical works, preparing them for publication. Irenæus says (Hæres. 5:30) ουδε γαρ προ πολλου χρονου εωραθη αλλα σχεδον επι της ημετερας γενεας προς τφ τελει της δομετιανου αρχης (“It [the Apocalypse] was seen not long ago, almost in our generation, near the end of Domitian’s reign.” Some writers in the past have been confused by this statement, concluding that Irenæus is referring to the date of Revelation’s composition. However, he refers rather to the date in which this work was first seen, or as we would say today, “when it first appeared”: that is to say, the date of publication. Given that composition of the first draft would have been in 68 and that Domitian reigned from 81 to 96, the intervening time is just right for the Presbyter’s rough draft to be improved, and then his original Aramaic text to be translated into Greek for wide publication.

    This confusion partly results from the similarity of Nero’s given name to that of the later emperor. Robert Young, best known for Young’s Analytical Concordance, explains this well in his commentary on the Revelation. He states that “It was written in Patmos about A.D. 68, whither John had been banished by Domitius Nero, as stated in the title of the Syriac version of the book; and with this concurs the express statement of Irenæus in A.D. 175, who says it happened in the reign of Dometianou – i.e., Domitius (Nero). Sulpicius, Orosins, etc., stupidly mistaking Dimitianou for Domitianikos, supposed Irenaeus to refer to Domitian, A.D. 95, and most succeeding writers have fallen into the same blunder. The internal testimony is wholly in favor of the early date.”

    This confusion of Domitius (Nero) with the later emperor Domitian persists to this day.

    –James David Audlin, author of “The Gospel of John, the Original Version Restored and Translated”

  26. Patrick says:

    Perhaps this would lend credibility to the preterist interpretation of Revelation? Some early Christians believed Revelation was written under Nero’s reign or Cladius…maybe the archeological evidence would lend support to this other opinions? I wonder?

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