Domitian and the Persecution That Didn’t Happen

Once we detach Revelation from the idea of a non-existent, lethal persecution under Domitian, so much falls into place.

Bust of Roman emperor Domitian. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Bust of Roman emperor Domitian. Musée du Louvre, Paris. (photo: Photo: Sailko, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s common to encounter claims that the Roman emperor Domitian was a major persecutor of Christians and that he demanded divine worship, insisting on being called “Lord and God.”

It’s even common to hear these “facts” cited as important keys for determining the date and meaning of the book of Revelation, with Domitian serving as its famous “beast.”

But there’s a problem. Here are the real facts . . . 


The Real Domitian

Domitian reigned between A.D. 81 and 96, and like all of the Roman emperors in this period, he had flaws.

Ancient authors even accuse him of being responsible for the death of his brother, Titus, who had preceded him in office. 

He also angered the aristocracy, and he was eventually assassinated by court officials.

However, ancient Roman authors don’t accuse him of being the kind of monster that Caligula or Nero were.

Neither do the earliest Christian sources accuse him of instituting a major persecution of the Faith.


A False Narrative Develops

Biblical Archaeology Review recently ran a piece in which biblical scholar Mark Wilson looked at the origin of how the idea of a Domitianic persecution developed. He writes:

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, [Roman historian Brian] Jones observes that the tradition concerning Domitian’s persecution persists: “From a frail, almost non-existent basis, it gradually developed and grew large.”

Melito of Sardis and Irenaeus of Lyons were individuals who wrote in the late second century, less than a hundred years after Domitian’s reign, and Tertullian wrote at the end of the second and the beginning of the third centuries. They report only that he slandered Christians and exiled some. If they don’t provide evidence of a wide-scale persecution then it’s very unlikely there was one. Furthermore:

No pagan writer of the time ever accused Domitian, as they had Nero, of persecuting Christians. Pliny [the Younger], 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.


“Lord and God”?

What about the claim that Domitian insisted on being worshipped as a god during his lifetime and even demanded the title “Lord and God” (Latin, Dominus et Deus)? Wilson writes:

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.”


The Last Refuge of a False Hypothesis

Wilson writes:

[Biblical scholar] 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.” 

However, that hasn’t stopped some from trying to rescue the hypothesis:

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.

This is a sign of a failing hypothesis: Using the very data that the hypothesis was supposed to illuminate to prop it up instead.

Revelation contains many things that are unclear, and the Domitianic hypothesis was supposed to be a historical certainty that could unlock Revelation and make its meaning clear. Instead, after we realized we don’t have evidence for a Domitianic persecution, the ambiguities in Revelation are now being used to prop up the idea that one occurred.

This is circular reasoning.


Breaking out of the Circle

In fact, we have good evidence that Revelation was written well before Domitian’s reign.

First, in Revelation 11:1-2, John is told:

Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for 42 months.

This is an unambiguous reference to the temple in Jerusalem. It describes the temple as still in operation (“those who worship there”). But the temple was destroyed by Roman forces in August of A.D. 70, indicating that Revelation was written before this date.

Second, in Revelation 13:18, we read:

This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number [lit., “the number of a man”], its number is six hundred and sixty-six. 

A few manuscripts give the number as 616 instead of 666.

From elsewhere in Revelation, we learn that the beast is linked to a line of kings that rules the world, that it demands worship, and that it persecutes Christians. This sounds very much like the line of Roman emperors—especially Caligula and Nero, who portrayed themselves as living gods—and it so happens that both 666 and 616 are the numbers you get when you add up the letters in different ways of spelling “Nero Caesar.”

Nero—the fifth Roman emperor—reigned from A.D. 54 to 68, which suggests that he was or had been on the scene, allowing the original readers to calculate his number.

That would put the writing of Revelation sometime between A.D. 54 and 70. But can we be more specific? We can.

Third, in Revelation 17:9-10 we read:

This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads [of the beast] are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while. 

The most natural reading of this is that the kings are the line of Roman emperors, who reigned from Rome’s famous seven hills. The first five emperors were Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. These are the five who are fallen.

The “one [who] is” would be the sixth emperor—Galba—who reigned from June of 68 to January of 69.

The “other [who] has not yet come” would be the seventh emperor—Otho—and he did, indeed, reign “only a little while,” from January of 69 to April of 69—just three months.

This would put the writing of Revelation during the reign of Galba, between June of 68 and January of 69.

Once we detach Revelation from the idea of a non-existent, lethal persecution under Domitian, so much falls into place.