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David Corson's Domitia and Domitian

Reviewed by Irene Hahn

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Domitia and Domitian
By David Corson
Paperback - 697 pages (August 2000)
Writer's Showcase Press; an Imprint of iUniverse.com Inc.
ISBN: 0595089372
US$31.95

BASED ON NEW RESEARCH (B.W. Jones, P. Southern) rehabilitating the Emperor Domitian, David Corson presents a sympathetic image of the emperor, who succumbs to "melancholy" in later years.

Mr. Corson creates a big, sprawling novel on the lives and times of Domitian and his empress Domitia, daughter of Corbulo, one of Nero's last victims.

Hardly anything is known about Domitia, but ancient historians and gossips did not treat her any more kindly than they did her spouse. Mr. Corson obviously decided to ignore all and his Domitia is the loving and supportive Augusta to the bitter end, albeit somewhat distant by that time. (Indeed, the real Domitia, in the face of seeing her husband's memory obliterated, and the potential danger of her action, called herself "Domitia, Widow of Domitian" to the end of her life.)

They first meet as children, and Domitia is taken by the shy, retiring boy. We then follow their separate stories through the vagaries of the unstable times, until Domitian is introduced to the young matron after the events of 68/69. Her husband is persuaded to divorce her to please the young Caesar. We often see the personality and the emotional ups and downs of Domitian through her eyes. She seems to be the only one who fully understands this complex man, whom Pat Southern calls "the tragic tyrant," the title of her well reasoned biography.

The meticulously researched book keeps the reader's interest despite the known outcome and the length of the work.

In his afterword, Mr. Corson writes: "...I have tried to see the events and experiences of the characters as they would have seen themselves from within the Roman world view and an ancient belief system..."

And indeed he did. From the deep religiosity of Vespasian and Domitian, to the fractious Senate resenting the upstart Flavians, Domitian's cabinet - the consilium - at work, the Chattan and Dacian wars, and the games in the Colosseum, he recreates the Flavian era. At times, Mr. Corson goes a bit too far in his attempt to educate his readers: Descriptions of the gladiator games, still seen as munera by Domitian and the army, are too drawn out.

There are sumptuous descriptions of various houses, villas, and palaces, and we meet Vespasian's mistress Caenis, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Martial, and Trajan, among other characters of the era, as well as Domitian's nurse Phyllis, loving him to his death and its aftermath.

Mr. Corson also touches on the taxation of and - on the other hand - influence by the Jews of Rome and their religion on Romans, including the nobility. As an example of this influence, he portrays Domitian's cousin Clemens and his wife Domitilla, Domitian's niece, who were, respectively, executed and banned for their Jewish connections. His view is that the Flavian period can be considered as "[both] the origin of the Jewish Diaspora and the seedbed of Western anti-Semitism."

It is too bad that Mr. Corson did not find a better known publisher. As things stand, the book may not make its way into public libraries; nor is its price attractive. History buffs and the reading public at large may be deprived of an excellent read.


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