18 September AD 96 – Domitian is stabbed

Dominic Sandbrook explores how disaffected aristocrats conspired to have the Roman emperor Domitian assassinated...

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

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By September 96, the emperor Domitian had ruled Rome for 15 years, longer than anyone since Tiberius. He had established a reputation as a supremely competent administrator, who concentrated power in his own hands and maintained his popularity through building works, bread and circuses.

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Among one group, however, Emperor Domitian’s name was mud. For the traditional aristocracy, his contempt for the Senate was simply too much to bear. And, as the 15th anniversary of his accession approached, a group of disaffected patricians decided that it was time to act.

At midday on 18 September, the emperor seemed in a restless mood. According to the historian Suetonius, an astrologer had warned him that he would die around midday, so he was never at his best during lunchtime. At one point, Domitian distractedly asked a servant boy what time it was. Well after noon, the boy said. Relieved, the emperor sat down to work, poring over his state papers. At that moment, he was approached by a servant, one Stephanus.

For some days, Stephanus had been wearing bandages, supposedly after an accident. In fact, the bandages were concealing a dagger, which he now produced behind his back. He handed the emperor another document, and as Domitian began to read, Stephanus stabbed him violently in the groin. More servants clustered around; more blows fell. In the confusion, Stephanus himself was mortally wounded. But by now, Domitian’s robes were scarlet with blood. A few moments later, the last of the Flavian emperors was dead.

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Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and presenter.