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Domitianus – forgotten emperor

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Obverse of Domitianus coin
Obverse of the Domitianus coin with his likeness and the legend IMP(erator) C(aesar) DOMITIANVS P(ius) F(elix) AVG(ustus)

In 1900 a groundbreaking discovery was made near the French town of Nantes. A certain Felix Chaillou found there over a thousand Roman coins from the second half of the third century. However, one unique coin attracted the greatest attention of scholars. A unique copy of an antoninianus with an image of a certain Domitianus, an unknown usurper emperor, on the obverse.

Initially, the attitude of the scientific community to the find was quite sceptical. There was even a hypothesis that it was a counterfeit based on the real coin of the Gallic emperor Tetricus (270–273 CE).

The doubts of most researchers were dispelled only in 2003. Then, in the town of Chalgrove near Oxford, a large treasure of Roman numismatics was discovered. Among them was another coin of the enigmatic usurper Domitianus. It then became clear that he was a historical figure.

Identification attempt

Historians have tried hard to find Domitianus in ancient sources. The research on coins showed that the coins were minted in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The literature from that period briefly mentions a number of usurpations in many regions of the empire. Information on the course of events in these years can be found in several sources. In The History of Augustus, there is information about the riots in Rome during the period when Emperor Aurelian (270-275 CE) was busy fighting the Marcomanni. Epitome de Caesaribus informs about a rebellion in Dalmatia by a certain Septimius. The Roman historian Zosimos provided further evidence about the rebels by writing that:

Several members of the senate being at this time accused of conspiring against the emperor were put to death ; and Rome, which before had no walls, was now surrounded with them. This work was begun in the reign of Aurelianus, and was finished by Probus. At the same time Epitimius, Urbanus, and Domitianus, were likewise suspected as innovators, and were immediately apprehended and punished.

Zosimos, Historia Nova, I 49, 2

The texts provide ephemeral information, mainly about the internal and external problems of the state. Zosimos, however, mentioned the rebels by name, and among them was a certain Domitian. However, it does not approximate when and where the occurrences would take place.

The name Domitianus also appears in the description of Gallien’s reign (253–268 CE). In Historia Augusta we can find the following information:

Macrianus, moreover, now that the East was brought into subjection, left there one of his sons, and came first of all into Asia, and from there set out for Illyricum. Here, having with him one of his sons and a force of thirty thousand soldiers, he engaged in battle with Domitianus,​ a general of Aureolus the emperor, who had assumed the imperial power in opposition to Gallienus.​ He was, however, defeated, together with his son, Macrianus by name, and his whole army surrendered to the Emperor Aureolus.

– HA G 2, 6


It was Domitianus,​ indeed, who won this victory, the bravest and most active of Aureolus’ leaders, who claimed to be the descendant of the Emperor Domitian and Domitilla

– HA TT 12, 13

At first glance, literary sources tend to identify Domitianius with one and the same person. It seems unlikely that in the sixties and seventies not far apart, several heroes with the same unpopular name appeared on the political scene. However, it is complicated by several facts that divide historians. After all, the hero of Zosimos ‘story is not necessarily the commander of Aureolus’ troops with The Story of Augustus, and the emperor Domitianus did not have to be the same man who rebelled against Aurelian. Additionally, interesting is the information according to which Domitianus derived his family from Emperor Domitian (81–96 CE). Historians, however, deny this potential relationship. It is interesting, however, for what reason he was mentioned in The History of Augustus and why the usurper Domitianus derived his lineage from that emperor, by the way, not very well remembered by the aristocracy.

Taking into account the above information, there are three main hypotheses about the identity of Domitianus in the literature:

  1. Domitianus was a rebel from the early days of Aurelian’s reign, and his coin issues arose in Rome in 271. At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that he had previously been Aureolus’ subordinate in the battles with Macrinus (the least likely hypothesis).
  2. Domitianus defeated Macrinus’ army and headed west with Aureolus, who led the forces against Postumus (260-269 CE). Then, perhaps he remained in Gaul, where he led the opposition against Tetrik I, which prompted the last Gallic emperor to surrender to Aurelian. The rebellion itself and the issuance of Domitianus coins took place in Gaul.
  3. Domitianus defeated the Macrins, was proclaimed emperor by his soldiers after his victory, and was killed just as quickly by them.

Unfortunately, the source information does not allow to resolve these doubts. There is no picture of Domitianus’s usurpation in them. At the moment, it can be said that he was certainly a historical figure and assumed the imperial dignity. Most likely it happened during the reign of Aurelian, after his reign over Gaul was restored, around 271. It is possible that this is what Zosimos mentions.

All of the above-mentioned propositions are only hypotheses, and the real story of Domitianus must remain a compelling mystery.

The mystery of the Domitianus coin

It is also worth paying more attention to the coin of Domitianus itself, because it was thanks to it that his ephemeral reign was confirmed.

It was probably minted in one of the Gallic mints. The image of the obverse, which consists of a portrait of the emperor and the inscription IMP(erator) C(aesar) DOMITIANVS P(ius) F(elix) AVG(ustus) is part of the convention typical of the crisis of the 3rd century. more interesting is the inscription on the reverse, which reads CONCORDIA MILITUM. This type of reverse was introduced in the eighties of the 2nd century by Emperor Commodus (180-192 CE). Typically, the inscription was accompanied by a personified concordia with banners or a ruler between two military men. Most likely, the emperors, using this motif, sent an ideological message directly to the soldiers. Perhaps the motive was intended to be emotional in nature and called for individual soldiers to agree between themselves, and above all, between them and their commander.

In the second half of the 3rd century, however, this iconography was used only sporadically. Therefore, one can risk a statement that in this case, the choice of the ideological motive was not accidental. The question arises as to what the intentions of Domitianus in choosing this and not another motive. Did he want to follow the earlier tradition and call for a consent between him and the military, or for a consent between individual units? It could also be an attempt to establish peaceful contacts with the current ruler. Unfortunately, again, due to the scarce source base, none of the assumptions can be taken for granted. It is highly probable, however, that the military must have played a significant role in elevating Domitianus to the imperial purple.

Author: Kacper Derko (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Agata Kluczek, Wokół rzymskiego uzurpatora Domitianusa, [w:] „Magazyn Numizmatyczny” 2004, nr. 32, s. 48–66.
  • Zosimos, Historia Nova, tł. Helena Cichocka, wstęp, bibliogr. i koment. Ewa Wipszycka, Warszawa 1993.
  • Historycy Cesarstwa Rzymskiego: żywoty cesarzy od Hadriana do Numeriana. tł. Hanna Szelest, Warszawa 1996.
  • Epitome de Caesaribus: o życiu i obyczajach imperatorów od Cezara Augusta do Teodozjusza, tł. Anna Hryniewiecka, Warszawa 2015.

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