Much as I hate elections, I couldn’t help noticing that poor Domitian hasn’t gotten a single vote in the evil emperor contest over on the right hand side of this blog. This is understandable, and generally speaks well of the knowledge of history of Classical Values readers. For Domitian is probably the weakest candidate for most evil emperor, although I felt obliged to include him because the traditional view of him is so negative.
However, it has occurred to me that some readers may have overlooked Domitian because they don’t know much about him, in much the same way that voters overlooked, say, the candidacy of Dennis Kucinich. (And no, that is not in any way a suggestion of moral equivalency!)
I hesitate to call this an endorsement of Domitian, though. Perhaps it should be called a get-out-the-vote sort of infomercial.
For starters, Domitian is considered to be a persecutor of Christians — a charge many historians consider overstated, if not unproven. (Here’s the traditional Christian view.)
But without dwelling on whether or not the Christian persecutions may be laid at his doorstep, what kind of guy was Domitian? The following is along the lines of the traditional view:

Historians have described Domitian as “crazy and unbalanced”. He suffered from social inadequacy and preferred solitude to the company of people. He had a distrustful nature and was constant in fear of conspiracies; the pillars of his palace were made of white reflective marble so that he could see what was going on behind him. Like Caligula, Domitian was very sensitive of his baldness and official portraits continued to show him with flowing locks of hair. Domitian was also notorious for his cruelty. He is supposed to have invented a new method of torture: burning the sexual organs of his victims. Domitian was capable of inviting an erring official to supper, dismissing him in such a way that the man retired happy and carefree. Nevertheless, the next day he was executed. Domitian also enjoyed asking senators to dinner-parties at which all the equipment was black, so that the guests were numb with fright. Like Vespasian, Domitian persecuted Stoic philosophers and Jews. He had all Jews, who claimed descent from King David, tracked down and killed. Very peculiar was Domitian’s pleasure in catching flies, stabbing them with the point of a pen and tearing their wings out.

Worth a vote or two maybe?
But according to the more modern view, Domitian “governed the empire well.”
Yeah, well why did his own father (and predecessor, Vespasian) not want him on the throne? Why was there such rejoicing in his assassination (a plot even his wife joined)?
I decided that because Domitian hasn’t gotten a single vote, that it’s fair for me to put in at least one bad word or two for his candidacy.
From a libertarian standpoint, the man’s autocratic style was dreadful:

Domitian was an authoritarian figure for whom people were a means to an end. The elaborate facade of grandeur that he built for the office of emperor has been impossible to breach to find the man behind the mask. His morality was strict and punitive, as was his inflexible application of the rule of law. A quote of Domitian that nobody believes in conspiracies until the emperor is dead reveals the paranoia that motivated him, particularly following the rebellion of Saturninus. Greater security, however, was his ultimate undoing. It is ironic that Domitian?s courtiers were those who murdered him, fearful of the unpredictable nature of their master, while the Senate remained impotent to take action.
After Domitian?s death, aristocratic members of the Senate rejoiced. They saw to it that a damnatio memoria that was passed but this measure appears to have had mixed results. Only 37% of Domitian?s extant inscriptions throughout the empire were re-cut.[4] The reign of Nerva, in contrast, was greeted as a restoration of liberty. But his fellow-consul, Fronto, had the last word on his colleague remarking, “that it was bad to have an emperor under whom nobody was permitted to do anything, but worse to have one under whom everybody was permitted to do everything.” (Dio 68.1.3).

Regarding that last quote, it appears that false dichotomies are nothing new…. And I seriously doubt that “everybody was permitted to do everything.”
This account is, I think, typifies the modern view of Domitian. Excerpt:

In many ways, Domitian is still a mystery – a lazy and licentious ruler by some accounts, an ambitious administrator and keeper of traditional Roman religion by others.[[24]] As many of his economic, provincial, and military policies reveal, he was efficient and practical in much that he undertook, yet he also did nothing to hide the harsher despotic realities of his rule. This fact, combined with his solitary personality and frequent absences from Rome, guaranteed a harsh portrayal of his rule. The ultimate truths of his reign remain difficult to know.

I don’t want to ask how they might define ultimate truths….
Anyway, this view is taken to task by Peter Wiseman, who goes so far as to call Domitian The Saddam Hussein of the Roman Empire:

Why is it, then, that modern scholars are eager to whitewash Domitian? His latest biographer, Brian W. Jones, announces in the preface to his book that `the traditional portrait of Domitian as a bloodthirsty tyrant has not completely disappeared and still needs emendation’. Dr Jones begins his section on Domitian and the Senate with a reference to Suetonius’ list of eleven ex-consuls put to death, and he rightly notes that it represents `only the most eminent’ of Domitian’s senatorial victims. But his conclusion runs: `So Domitian’s attitude to the aristocracy was that of a benevolent despot.’ If that is benevolence, what would count as malice?
….Suspicious and implacable, with a manner deliberately calculated to emphasise the supremacy of his power, he picked out and destroyed his victims with what seemed to contemporaries a gratuitous and sadistic cruelty. How many of them were genuine threats to his security, we cannot know. The way Pliny and Tacitus saw it, to be denounced was itself a sentence of death. Are we really in a position to say that they were wrong?
The main reason, I think, why modern biographers are predisposed to minimise the despotism of emperors is that they live in liberal democracies. Dr Jones is Australian, Professor Barrett Canadian. In their countries, as in Britain and the United States, unfettered autocracy has become something practically inconceivable, especially to we academics, who lead the obscure and blameless lives appropriate to our station. People just do not do such things. If our sources say they did, then our sources must be systematically unreliable.
It would look different to a Russian who had lived under Stalin, an East German who had lived under Honeker, a Romanian who had lived under Ceaucescu. And that is to restrict oneself to Europe; what about Marcos, Bokassa, Pol Pot? Our age has seen examples enough of the effects of irresponsible total power, and it is a mere failure of the imagination to assume that such things did not happen in Imperial Rome. `Just remember’, Caligula is reported to have said to his grandmother, `I can do anything to anybody.’ It seems to me to be a kind of treachery to the dead to disbelieve Tacitus and Pliny on merely a priori grounds. Are we to doubt their word just because they survived the experience they describe? It may well be that their conduct in Domitian’s Senate was less than heroic, but would you or I have done any better?
Some historians avoid the issue by the strategy of dismissing Imperial biography altogether.
…. If we resist the temptations of facile `source-criticism’ on the one hand, and inappropriate devotion to the longue duree on the other, we may be able to get the feel of Roman autocracy in the developing Principate by comparing it with a modern analogue, the rule of Saddam Hussein. Of course there are very wide differences in the two historical situations, but there are some striking parallels too: the importance of the family, with the concomitant necessity sometimes to execute close relatives (in Domitian’s case, his cousins Sabinus and Clements); the importance of military success, with grandiose triumphal monuments to commemorate it (Saddam’s twin-scimitar arch is worthy of an emperor); the importance of the personality cult, with images of the leader everywhere (Domitian’s great equestrian statue dominated the Roman Forum); and of course the importance of a totally loyal and ruthlessly efficient security machine (though Domitian’s failed him in the end).
Saddam Hussein took over the Presidency of Iraq from Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr in July 1979. Two weeks later he called a meeting of the Baath Party Regional Congress to announce that a plot to overthrow the regime had been uncovered. Not only that, but the guilty men were present in the hall. Muhyi Abd al-Hussein al Mashadi was called to the podium to confess. Saddam sat calmly smoking a cigar. In horrified silence the audience listened as Mashadi named a long list of fellow-conspirators. Each man in turn was made to stand up, and led out of the hall by armed guards. When it was all over Saddam spoke of the need for loyalty. The survivors stood and fervently applauded.
The entire proceedings were recorded on videotape for the benefit of the party faithful. Copies were sent to friendly governments, and thus eventually became available in the West. The film was shown on television in Britain at the time of the invasion of Kuwait, and I am sure no ancient historian could have seen it without thinking immediately of Tacitus and Pliny on Domitian’s reign of terror.

Of course, it took around 1900 years for the modern revisionists to pooh-pooh Tacitus and Pliny, and decide that Domitian wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
Saddam Hussein is way ahead of that game…..
So far ahead, in fact, that I’d be willing to speculate that by comparing Domitian to him, Mr. Wiseman has inadvertently assisted the modern relativistic view. (I can see it now: “Like Saddam Hussein, who governed Iraq well, Domitian has been much misjudged and misunderstood….”)
But bear in mind that Wiseman was writing way back in 1996.
A time when nearly everyone thought Saddam Hussein was bad….