TR P WhateverReconsidering Domitian's accepted dies comitialis

June 10, 2018


quod ut palam factum est . . . senatus prius quam edicto convacaretur ad curiam concurrit, obseratisque adhuc foribus, deinde apertis, tantas mortuo gratias egit laudes que congessit, quantas ne vivo quidem umquam atque praesenti.

As soon as Titus's death was made known . . . the Senate hurried to the Senate House before being summoned, and when the doors, which were barred, were then opened, they proceeded to heap such thanks and praise upon the dead emperor as they never had before when he was alive and present.

--Suetonius, Divus Titus, XI


ὁ δ᾿ οὖν Τίτος ἀποψύχων εἰπε μέν ὅτι, "ἓν μόνον ἐπλημμέλησα."

The dying Titus had this to say, "I only made one mistake."

Dio Cassius, Roman History, LXVI, 3



 HIS IS RIC 1, THE FIRST COIN in the book.



          Does that mean it's the first coin minted by Domitian as emperor?  Probably not.  Truth is, RIC wisely separates Domitian's 13 Sep - 31 Dec, 81, silver issue into four groups without making any claims at all of priority, and RIC 1 just happens to fall into Group 1.  Is there any way to put the coins in these four groups into chronological order?  I believe that there is, but first let me define the scope of the problem before we try to solve it.

          Included among the discrete varieties of denarius minted during the three and a half months between September 13, 81, and December 31 are six obverse inscriptions, four reverse inscriptions, and eight reverse types, giving 192 potential varieties, only sixty-five of which are recorded existing as actual coins.  But even so, these sixty-five varieties represent nearly twenty per cent (in these first three and a half months alone) of all the denarius varieties minted by Domitian in the fifteen years of his reign, from 81 to 96.  Imagine a giant three dimensional bingo card--that's the matrix we're using here, four by six by eight.  We need to make this matrix a little more manageable.

          First of all let's disregard the reverse types.  Except that some reverse types are missing (for now) from Group 1, each one is common to every group and largely derive from the reverse types minted by both Domitian and Titus under the reign of Titus, the so-called pulvinaria types.  The same reverse types are used in 82, after the three and half months under consideration here.  Though there may be chronological clues hidden among them somewhere somehow, let's save the reverse types for another day.  Today let's confine our study to the inscriptions, identifying the inscription elements that are common to every coin and clear them from the table.  Then we can examine what remains for any hint of chronological sequence.


The obverse inscriptions (utilizng the alphabetical designation used in RIC)

*IMP CAESAR DOMITIANVS AVG (*obverse inscription unique to Group 1)







The reverse inscriptions (using RIC's groupings)

Group 1.  TR P COS VII





          The common inscription elements are IMP, CAESAR or CAES, DOMITIANVS or DOMITIAN, AVG, and COS VII.  These inscription elements appear on every coin so we can disregard them as clues.  What remains are DIVI VESP F or --, P P or --,  PONT or P M or --, DES VIII or --,and TR P or --.  Let's look at each one of these points of difference as a possible chronological hint.

          DIVI VESP F, divi Vespasiani filius, the son of deified Vespasian.  The Senate deified Vespasian in 80.  This point is irrelevant to our chronology of 81.

          P P, pater patriae, father of the country.  This title, created apparently by and for the emperor Augustus, seems to have been honorary and without any particular power attached to it, though perhaps with some provincial significance.  Perhaps it was awarded by the Senate as part of the imperial "package."  I will be discussing the imperial package below.  P P is included on every coin of every group except Group 1.  Even so, I can't imagine that it is relevant to our chronology.

          PONT or P M, pontifex maximus, chief priest.  The college of pontifices was only one of many priestly colleges in Rome.  Domitian was a member of this college as well as every other priestly college and had been since 73 (ILS 267).  I have read the argument that in the interval between being an ordinary pontifex (PONT) and being made the chief pontifex (P M) Domitian would have had to have undergone special purification rites of some sort and that this would have taken days; in other words, PONT vs P M would be some kind of big clue to chronology.  Unfortunately this is incorrect.  In itself the mere title of pontifex was no more coin-worthy than would have been any of the other priesthoods Domitian held.  The only reason to mention PONT on a coin at all would be if it was an alternate abbreviation to P M, because pontifex maximus certainly was a big deal and very coin-worthy, appearing on every coin in every group except Group 1.  Let me restate that, PONT = P M.  Is the lack of its mention on Group 1 coins a chronological hint?  Since the title of pontifex maximus was awarded by the Senate as part of the imperial package, I would say not (cf. T.V. Buttrey, Documentary Evidence for the Chronology of the Flavian Titulature, Meisenheim am Glan, 1980, p. 36.).

          DES VIII, destinatus VIII, designated for an eighth consulship.  The question of Domitian's eighth consulship as co-consul along with Titus's ninth consulship had already been decided back in March.  This point is irrelevant to our chronology.

          Okay, so we have dismissed everything.  No help at all.  What a waste of time!  But wait a minute, didn't we forget something?  What about TR P, tribunicia potestas, the power of the tribunate?

          What about TR P?  It bestowed the power to convoke the Senate, to convene the senators in the curia, and to send them home again, and to veto any Senate resolution simply by saying, "I forbid."  Moreover it gave the possessor personal inviolability, making it unlawful to kill, prosecute, or harm him in any way, and to enforce this protection it even included a small army of armed lictors!  Wow, this title certainly seems important enough to make a person wonder why it wouldn't be included on every coin.  Let's take a closer look.

          It is a commonplace of history that Titus and Domitian didn't like each other.  Perhaps this is why Titus never arranged for his brother to be awarded the TR P, which by tradition and precedent would have made Domitian Titus's heir to the throne of empire.  Augustus began this convention with Tiberius, and most recently Vespasian had done it for Titus.  Was the fact that Titus didn't give TR P to Domitian all spite on Titus's part?

          Or perhaps the two siblings got along fine and Titus would have done it one day, unless he married first and had children of his own.  I think this scenario is actually far more likely.  There wasn't any feud between the two brothers.  Domitian admired the somewhat older Titus very much.  Subsequent memorials attest to that.  Domitian was a very successful poet with big plans to memorialize his brother's military career in an epic poem.  I strongly doubt that his ambitions reached beyond that.

          Unfortunately Titus died on the 13th, the Ides, of September, A.D. 81, while still a relatively young man and never got around to it, either to fatherhood or to confirming Domitian as his heir.  This left Domitian in a terrible pickle.  Was he to be the next emperor or wasn't he?  Would the Senate pick him or somebody else or, as had happened before after the death of Caligula, choose nobody at all?  Would one or more of the northern or eastern generals want the job?  Would there be another civil war?

          Domitian hadn't sought the throne for himself, but he knew that he was the presumptive heir, and that the next emperor, whoever he might be, would have to come through him first.  He knew that the long knives were out and that, without the personal protection afforded by the power of the tribunate, TR P, his life wasn't worth a dime.  Domitian was forced to seek safety somewhere, anywhere at all.  He chose for his bolt hole the Praetorian camp, just outside the city walls; under the circumstances there was nothing else he could do.

          So Domitian, the son of Vespasian, and his wife Domitia, the daughter of Corbulo, presented themselves before the Praetorian Guard who naturally greeted them warmly and with affection.  These were the children of the greatest generals of a generation after all, and the poor young couple was in sore need, in fear for their lives.  Their beloved Titus dead, the Praetorians proclaimed his brother Domitian emperor; under the circumstances there was nothing else they could do.  

          The Senate was neither convoked nor convened, as law and custom decreed, because it was the Ides of September and it wasn't lawful to convoke or convene on the Ides of any month.  Instead, as indicated in the passage quoted above (Suetonius), the senators had already gathered spontaneously to laud Titus--and this is important so I'll say it again--gathered spontaneously at the curia, and in a sufficient number to make up a quorum apparently, when Domitian appeared before them amid an armed guard of Praetorians.  To the senators it probably felt like an invasion.  It was a scary moment for them.  The Senate was cowed.  Of course they voted Domitian Emperor; under the circumstances there was nothing else they could do.

          Though virtually a fait accompli from the time he first entered the Praetorians' camp, barging in on the Senate floor, already proclaimed emperor by the troops and thus abrogating the Senate's prerogative, was not a great first impression.  It was all downhill from here, so far as the Senate was concerned, right up until the tragic end of Domitian's reign and dominating his very memory after that.  The Senate never forgave him for this first transgression.  Talk about faits accomplis, the fate of the Roman empire and all of western history turned on the sad simple fact that Titus didn't get around to awarding his brother TR P!  In my opinion, this was the single mistake that Titus regretted at the end of his life (Dio, above).  Talk about a missed opportunity!  Talk about momentous importance!

          If it is so important, why is TR P missing from the coins of Group 2 and Group 3?  Here are two coins from Group 3, RIC 28 and RIC 36, lacking any mention of TR P--



          How do we explain this?  The tribunican power, derived from the Roman office of the Tribune of the People, was meant from the very beginning to curb the power of the Senate.  It was not awarded by the Senate, obviously, but by the Tribal Assembly, which, according to Richard Talbert (The Senate of Imperial Rome, Princeton, 1984), met even as late as the Third Century (page 342).  In fact the very name "tribune" derives from "tribe."  Therefore, in my opinion, it was not part of the Imperial Package awarded to Domitian by the Senate on September 13, 81*.

          In my opinion, before Domitian could assume this vital power, the Tribal Assembly would have to be convoked and convened in order to vote on the measure.  Even if Domitian had convoked this body for an emergency session on the 14th, the first day he could lawfully do so, it would have taken the assembly at least a day or so to convene, if not longer.  Call it three days from the date of his brother's death.  Thus the delay, in which small amount of time, according to my theory, the entire congeries of coins in both Groups 2 and 3 would have had to have been struck, Sept 13 - c. Sept 16, 81.

          Why am I choosing the 16th of September for the dies comitialis of Domitian's TR P and not the 17th or the 18th or the 29th?  Just before his own death on September 17, 96, almost exactly fifteen years later, there was an issue of coins bearing the date TR P XVI.  I don't own any of these coins.  I have never even seen one come up for sale.  They are that rare.  Nevertheless they do exist and in sufficient quantity to prove an actual issue and not a mint accident.  They are far rarer than the coins of Groups 2 and 3, suggesting more days on the front end of the reign than on the back end for minting these two bracketing issues.  That's my observation anyway.  In fact I would have loved to have pushed the date back to the 17th based on this bit of anecdotal evidence alone, but how could Suetonius have resisted commenting on that, Domitian dying on the fifteenth anniversary of his own TR P!  He didn't comment, so it didn't happen.

          So anyway, QED, Groups 2 and 3, 81, First Issue.

          I may be wrong about some of the specifics leading up to this result, but not the result itself.  This is the bone of contention.  In an email, the same Prof Talbert, after raking me over the coals for my "several misapprehensions" (probably warranted), informed me that TR P was indeed awarded by the Senate as part of a defined package of powers and honors (which I have been calling the "imperial package").  He said, actually, that TR P "must have been in the package" (emphasis mine), but he then admitted that the best evidence of this, the relevant passage in the Lex de Imperio Vespasiani, is in a part of the document that has been lost.  After the Senate awarded the separate powers and honors in the package, according to Prof Talbert, it would be up to the citizen assemblies to ratify each power, which could take as long as fifteen days in the case of TR P.  He went on to suggest that I consult Fredric Hurlet (C. Bruun and J. Edmondson, eds., Oxford Handbook of Roman Epigraphy, 2015, pp. 184-85), which I did.  This selection didn't seem particularly relevant to Domitian's specifics, but it it did bring up the possibility that the anniversary of TR P could be celebrated on the dies imperii, which was interesting to me because I had always assumed that this is what happened in Vespasian's case.  However, it wouldn't even begin to explain Domitian's TR P XVI issue, so as for the coins in this coll. I will be maintaining an anniversary date of c. Sept 16.

          Prof Talbert is a wise and learned man.  I learned a lot from his letter and from the book he recommended.  Personally, though, I don't find his argument particularly convincing.  It relies too much on missing evidence.  Occam's razor would seem to insist that if TR P isn't there now it probably never was there.  Even so, I must bow to this respected scholar's superior knowledge of the subject and present his conclusions as more likely than mine.  In either case, whether as the awarding body or as the ratifying body, the Tribal Assembly would have to be convoked and convened before Domitian could write TR P on his coins, so the result remains the same.

          Thus it is my contention that the coins of Group 2 and Group 3 were minted first while awaiting the bestowal or ratification of TR P, a separate First Issue of 81, Sept 13 - c. Sept 16.  Group 4 comprises a Second Issue, 81, bearing all five obverse inscriptions of Groups 1 and 2, but adding TR P to the reverse, c. Sept 16 - Dec 31.  Group 1 seems to me to have been a special Commemorative Issue struck in 81 sometime after c. Sept 16 to celebrate the new reign, giving Domitian's name in full on the obverse and, on the reverse, setting aside all of the extraneous titles, conjoining the Senate's authority COS VII with the People's authority TR P.  In twain, SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome.


*Epigraphic evidence, other than numismatic, only provides a terminus ante quem, September 30 from the minutes of the Arval Brethren (AFA 49, lines 33-38) and two military diplomata with somewhat earlier dates (M. Hammond, "The Tribunican Day from Domitian through Antoninus:  A Reexamination," Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, 1949) but all three dates too late to account for the TR P XVI issue.


Soon:  SALVTI AVGVSTI: Concerning Domitian's poor health on his return from Germany

© Jim Hazelton, 2018