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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a section of
The Secret History


published in the Loeb Classical Library,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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The Anecdota
or Secret History

 p364  Appendix III

The Statue of Domitian (Chap. viii.13‑21)

The statement of Procopius that a devoted wife performed the gruesome act described in this passage is devoid of support, as well as extremely improbable. The evidence in the case is well presented by D. Bassi in a note in the (posthumous) edition of the Secret History by Comparetti (1928). The note follows, in translation.​a

"No ancient historian records the details, evidently legendary, which Procopius is pleased to recount. The legend, which is pathetic enough, is based on  p365 two supposed facts which really are both very distressing, but false and purely imaginary, and both entirely deprived of historical consistency. Domitian was not hacked to pieces, but was murdered in his chamber by conspirators, first receiving a wound in the groin, then, in the scuffle which followed, seven other wounds which finished him. His body was not piously buried by his wife Domitia, who instead co-operated with the conspirators to accomplish the murder. This pious office was fulfilled by the nurse of the murdered man, Phyllis by name, who, with the assistance of common undertakers, took charge of the body privately, performed his last rites at his villa on the Via Latina and then, after it had been cremated, deposited the ashes in the tomb of the Flavian family together with those of Julia, daughter of Titus, of whom she had also been nurse.

"With regard to these facts recorded by most authoritative historians, such as Suetonius, Dio Cassius and others, there cannot be any doubt. Still, the fact remains, equally incontestable, of the bronze statue of Domitian extant at the time of Procopius on the slope of the Capitol standing on the right of those ascending from the Forum; this statue, apart from being the only one of that Emperor remaining erect, because all the others had been demolished by order of the Senate, presented also the singular characteristic of being composed entirely of many pieces cleverly set together, but still always easily distinguishable. These facts, which the people at Rome explained at that time (four centuries and a little more since the murder of Domitian) by the pathetic little story which Procopius ingenuously  p366 recounts in the form in which it had been related to him, ought to be, and can be, explained rationally, taking into account what the historians say of what followed at Rome immediately after the murder of Domitian. The news of the murder was heard with indifference by the people, says Suetonius; not so by the army, which was most outraged by it and immediately started an agitation demanding that the murdered Emperor should receive divine honours and that the murderers should be tracked down and severely punished. Held with difficulty to allegiance to their commanders, the troops finally obtained what they sought. The Senate, on the other hand, which Domitian had always slighted and abused, received that news with a burst of joy and exultation, and immediatelyº ordered that the statues of the hated Emperor should be taken off the walls and thrown on the ground, and that all memory of him should be cancelled, abolished, and destroyed. These orders were carried out punctually, beginning, surely, with the statues nearest the Senate, the largest of which was the famous equestrian statue of colossal proportions which dominated the middle of the Forum, described and praised by Statius. Demolished and broken up into fragments, the huge mass of gilded bronze was forthwith put out of sight. Other smaller statues which stood in the vicinity of the Forum and of the Capitol were taken down and destroyed. One bronze statue of Domitian of natural size must have occupied a position in the neighbourhood of the temple of his father Vespasian on the slopes of the Capitol. That statue also was knocked over and reduced to fragments. However, all the fragments of that statue were  p367 gathered up by pious hands, probably soldiers, and secretly preserved. When, then, at a later time the fury of the Senate was abated, and the army, always faithful to the memory of that Emperor, obtained what they had persistently sought for, namely, that those responsible for the assassination be apprehended, tried and punished, they without hesitation formed the purpose of setting up the broken statue, the fragments of which had been religiously preserved. They rebuilt the statue with strong cement, but not so as to conceal the joints, so that everyone could see, as Procopius saw, that it was composed of a quantity of pieces set together. The statue, thus fabricated, was set up in the open on the slope on the right as one went from the Forum to the Capitol, that is, at a short distance from the Senate, and it stood there to record visibly the savage orders of destruction issued by the Senate and punctually carried out, particularly because that statue, thus fabricated, was the only one of the many of that Emperor which remained, or, better, that could be again set up. The Senate, which certainly had not repented of having given those orders, still did not dare to oppose that act of the powerful praetorians, who were devoted to Domitian and who, in spite of the disapproval of the good Nerva, had vindicated Domitian by killing with their own hands the principal authors of the assassination of that tyrant, quietly let matters take their course, and could not be displeased that there remained for future ages that evidence and testimony of the just action performed by them on the statues of that infamous sovereign.

"Thus tolerated by the Senate, this single statue  p368 of the abhorred Domitian, the story of which was familiar to all, remained intact up to the time of Procopius in that very much frequented spot. It was regarded as a curiosity and of such small material value that even the barbarians, Vandals and Goths, allowed it to stand. In fact the respect shewn by those tribes must have been due chiefly to the pious legend which the popular imagination could have created in the course of time regarding that statue and the fragments of which they noticed that it was composed, ignorant, as it was, of the true and genuine facts of history. Little by little they saw in that statue the tyrannical Domitian torn to pieces by the popular fury and the good and virtuous action of his widow who was loved and respected by the Senate, which granted to her the right to collect and put together the scattered members of her husband and to give burial to the body thus assembled. And when the wonderful widow, having got together the body of her husband in this way and with her own hands, had summoned the artisans, she commissioned them to make a statue of bronze exactly like the murdered sovereign's body, composed as it was of many pieces, then took that statue and set it up on the slope of the Capitol; and the Senate permitted her to do all this and did not refuse its approval. It cannot be denied that this story is pretty, moving and also edifying. This could have figured in the Gesta Romanorum Moralisata or in other similar medieval collections of edifying tales. The widow devoted to the memory of the husband, good or bad, who, surmounting grave difficulties, accomplishes his burial, is an appealing character of various legends and tales of every  p369 region; one of the many is that of the famous matron of Ephesus, narrated by Petronius. Procopius, who had noticed the remarkable similarity of the features of Domitian and those of Justinian, recounts the tale of that single surviving statue of Domitian without taking the trouble to investigate whether the account was history or legend. In any case that statue unquestionably represented Domitian and that was enough for him; nor could he go wrong. In his judgment Justinian was just as worthy to be butchered and cut into pieces as, according to the tale, was Domitian, who also resembled him in countenance."

Thayer's Note:

a The original Italian text is found in Bassi's edition of Comparetti's Le Inedite; libro nono delle Istorie di Procopio, pp224-226.

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Page updated: 9 Jun 20