By Gordon Franz
Emperor Domitian, the self-proclaimed “Lord and God” and ruthless dictator, reigned from AD 81 to 96. He was the son of Emperor Vespasian and the brother of Titus, the conquerors of Jerusalem and the Judean people. During the last few years of his life, Domitian became very superstitious. In fact, on the day before he was murdered, he consulted an astrologer. During this time he also consulted Apollo, the god of music and poetry, as well as the god of light, truth and prophecy! To commemorate his superstition, the emperor-minted coins depicting Apollo on one side and a raven, a bird associated with prophecy, on the reverse side (Jones 1990:266). It was believed one could tell the future by watching this bird’s flight (Kanitz 1973-74:47), so Domitian looked to it to foretell his immediate future. Ironically, Suetonius, a Roman historian and senator, records, “A few months before he (Domitian) was killed, a raven perched on the Capitalium and cried, ‘All will be well,’ an omen which some interpreted as follows: ‘… a raven … could not say, “It is well,” only declared “It will be well.”‘” ( Domitian 23:2; 1992:385). Emperor Domitian died soon after and all was well!
The Apostle John, exiled on the island of Patmos about AD 95, received a more sure word of prophecy. Not from a raven, nor Apollo, but from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The Book of Revelation begins, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants – things which must shortly take place” (Rev. 1:1). He goes on to say, “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3).
The Book of Revelation is a polemic (a controversial argument, against some opinion, or doctrine) against Emperor Domitian and the Roman world. While Domitian looked to Apollo and the raven to foretell the immediate future, the Lord Jesus Christ, omniscient and infinitely greater than Domitian, revealed the future of the world in this book. He instructed John to “write the things which you have seen [the vision of the glorified Son of Man (Rev. 1)], and the things which are [the situation of the seven churches in Asia Minor at the end of the first century AD (Rev. 2 and 3)], and the things which will take place after this [all the future events recorded in Rev. 4-22]” (1:9). This paper will examine several aspects of Domitian’s reign and John’s exile to Patmos.
In the nineteenth century, Bible scholars, linguists, pilgrims, travelers and military intelligence officers from America, England and the Continent began to visit the Holy Land and explore the Land of the Bible. In their books they described sites, recorded manners and customs, drew maps and sketched landscapes. This research began to open up the world of the Bible, a Book which was no longer a theological treatise, but a Book about real people, real events and real places. These explorers added a third dimension to Bible study for students back home. In addition they provided intelligence information for the countries of Europe awaiting the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
In the late 19th and early 20th century Sir William Ramsay explored, excavated and wrote about Asia Minor. One of his monumental studies is his book, The Letters to the Seven Churches. A more recent study on the setting of Revelation 2 and 3 is Colin Hemer’s Ph.D. dissertation under F. F. Bruce at the University of Manchester in 1969 entitled, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting.
I have tried to “follow in the footsteps” of these great explorers. First, by reading the accounts of their travels. Second, by travelling to the places they visited and making my own observations and taking pictures.
These observations will help us consider the historical setting of Revelation 1:9 and understand the apostle John’s exile to the island of Patmos. I will begin with the assumption that Revelation was written in AD 95 during the reign of Emperor Domitian, and not in the reign of Nero (Thomas 1994:185-202). Let us begin with Emperor Domitian.
Emperor Domitian had a definite ego problem! In Imperial Rome the senate would deify an emperor upon death (Kreitzer 1990:210-217). However, Domitian, like Gaius Caligula, could not wait until death, so he deified himself. This is well attested to by the ancient writers.
Suetonius (AD 75 – ca. 140), in his book Lives of the Caesars, wrote, “With no less arrogance he began as follows in issuing a circular letter in the name of his procurators, ‘Our Master and our God bids that this be done.'” [“Dominus et deus noster hoe fieri iubet.”] ( Domitian 13:2; 1992:367). He also delighted in the adulation of the people in the amphitheater when they shouted, “Good Fortune attends our Lord and Mistress.” [Domino et dominae feliciter!”] ( Domitian 13:1; 1992:367). A reference to himself and his wife.
Pliny the Younger (born AD 61 or 62 – died before 113), wrote in his Panegyricus, a tribute to Emperor Trajan, “He (Domitian) was a madman, blind to the true meaning of his position, who used the arena for collecting charges of high treason, who felt himself slighted and scorned if we failed to pay homage to his gladiators, taking any criticism of them to himself and seeing insults to his own godhead and divinity; who deemed himself the equal of the gods yet raised his gladiators to his equal.” (33:4; 1992: 395).
Dio Cassius, in his Roman History, wrote, “For he even insisted upon being regarded as a god [ theos] and took vast pride in being called ‘master’ [ despotus] and “god” [ theos]. These titles were used not merely in speech but also in written documents” ( Epitome of Book 67:5:7; 1995:329). Elsewhere he wrote, “One Juventius Celsus, … [conspired] … against Domitian … When he was on the point of being condemned, he begged that he might speak to the emperor in private, and thereupon did obeisance before him and after repeatedly calling him ‘master’ [ despoton] and ‘god’ [ theon] (terms that were already being applied to him by others)” ( Epitome of Book 67:3:4; 1995:349). Later writers repeat the same claim and then go on to embellish it (Jones 1992:108). However, Statius claims Domitian rejected these titles ( Silvae 1:6:83-84; 1982: 69, 71).
There seems to be other contemporary evidence that backs up Domitian’s claim to deity. Unfortunately, no inscriptions have been discovered with these titles on them. Dio Cassius again adds an important detail, when he wrote, “After Domitian, the Romans appointed Nerva Cocceius emperor. Because of the hatred felt for Domitian, his images, many of which were of silver and many of gold, were melted down; and from this source large amounts of money were obtained. The arches, too, of which a very great number were being erected to this one man, were torn down” ( Epitome of Book 68:1:1; 1995:361). Upon his death, the Roman Senate was, “… overjoyed … [assailed] the dead emperor with the most insulting and stinging kind of outcries. … Finally they passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased, and all record of him obliterated” (Suetonius, Domitian 23:1; 1992:385). This decree, the damnatio memoriae, destroyed all the statues and epigraphical inscriptions of Domitian. Evidence of this can be seen in the arch at Hierapolis, built by Domitian, [Fig. 2] as well as the dedicatory inscriptions for the Temple of the Sabastoi in Ephesus (Friesen 1993a:34). There are a few exceptions. One is a marble portrait of Domitian with an oakleaf crown, the so-called corona civica, in the National Roman Museum (Sapelli 1998:24). This bust, found in Latina, was probably buried before the emperor died.
The only evidence not destroyed was the coins minted by Domitian because it was impossible to recall all of them. Numismatics is able to provide some evidence of Domitian’s boast of deity.
The Numismatic Evidence
Dr. Ernest Janzen, of the University of Toronto, in an article entitled, “The Jesus of the Apocalypse Wears the Emperor’s Clothes,” provides for two lines of evidence from numismatics for Domitian’s claim to deity. The first are coins minted in AD 83 called the DIVI CAESAR (“divine Caesar”) coins. These coins, minted in gold and silver, had the bust of Domitia, the wife of Domitian, on the obverse with the inscription, “DIVI CAESAR MATRI” and “DIVI CAESARIS MATER”, the mother of the divine Caesar! On the reverse was their infant son who was born in the second consulship of Domitian in AD 73 and died in the second year after he became emperor (AD 82) (Suetonius, Domitian 3:1; 1992:345). He is depicted as naked and seated on a zoned globe with his arms stretched out surrounded by seven stars! The inscription surrounding it said “DIVUS CAESAR IMP DOMITIANI F”. Translated it means, “the divine Caesar, son of the emperor Domitian.” The infant is depicted as baby Jupiter (Jupiter being the head of the Roman pantheon). “The globe represents world dominion and power, while stars typically bespoke the divine nature of those accompanied. … the infant depicted on the globe was the son of (a) god and that the infant was conqueror of the world” (1994:645-647). It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that if he is the son of a god, then who is god? Of course, his father, Domitian! I can not help but use my sanctified imagination and wonder if John did not have this coin in front of him when he penned, “and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to His feet … He had in His right hand seven stars” (Rev. 1:13,16). He refers back to this vision in the letter to the church at Thyatira when the Lord Jesus identifies Himself as the “Son of God” (Rev. 2:18).
The second bit of numismatic evidence comes from the coins with the fulmen (“thunderbolt”) on them. The fulmen is the divine attribute of Jupiter. Janzen points out; “In 84 Domitian struck reverse type Jupiter holding thunderbolt and spear. The first issue of 85 continued this type but the second issue witnessed the fulmen in Domitian’s hand. He and Jupiter would ‘share’ the fulmen for the years 85-6 after which Jupiter remained as a regular type, only without fulmen. From 87-96 Domitian alone held the fulmen, persuasive evidence of a developing megalomania which place the fulmen in Domitian’s hand and are clearly patterned after the Jupiter with fulmen type” (1994:648, footnote 55). One numismatic expert says this type “clearly suggests a parallel between himself and ‘Jupiter tonaus’ (the thunderer) or the father of the gods” (Mattingly, cited in Janzen 1994:648, footnote 55).
Martial, the first century Howard Stern of Rome confirms this idea in his writings. One of his epigrams, written in AD 94, describing the Gens Flavia (Jones 1992:1,199, footnote 1) says, “This piece of ground, that lies open and is being covered with marble and gold, knew our Lord ( domini) in infancy. … Here stood the venerable house that gave the world what Rhodes and pious Crete gave the starry sky [Helios, the sun god, was born on Rhodes according to some traditions, and Zeus, the chief god, was born on Crete]. … But you the Father of the High One did protect, and for you, Caesar, thunderbolt ( fulmen) and aegis took the place of spear and buckler” ( Epigrams 9:20; 1993b: 249). Sometimes Martial even calls Domitian the “Thunderer” (7:99:1; 1993b: 157), a title that usually belongs to Jupiter (Zeus) ( Epigrams 9:91; 1993b: 311)! Domitian is putting himself on the same level as Jupiter.
Elsewhere in Martial’s writings he calls Domitian “lord” ( Epigrams 7:2; 8:82; 9:20, 28, 66; 1993b: 75, 231, 249, 257, 291) and “lord and god” ( Epigrams 5:8; 1993a: 361; 7:34; 8:2; 1993b: 105, 161). Interestingly, after the death of Domitian, Martial repudiates these titles attributed to Domitian ( Epigrams 10:72; 1993b: 391). However, I think he was reflecting the sentiments of the day while Domitian was alive. He may not have believed it, but that’s what Domitian wanted, so that’s what he got.
Another interesting sidelight, on some of Domitian’s coins the initials “PM” appears on the inscriptions. These initials stand for “pontifex maximus,” the high priest as head of the Roman religion. This title, Biblically, belongs only to the Lord Jesus (Heb. 4:14).
It appears that in AD 85/86 something triggered Domitian to openly claim deity. What it was, I do not know, but the response in Asia Minor was a temple dedicated to the Sabastoi (emperors).
The Sabastoi Temple in Ephesus
In 1930, the Austrian archaeologist Josef Keil, began to excavate an artificial terrace near the southwest corner of the Upper Agora in Ephesus. As the excavations progressed, it became clear that this terrace, measuring 85.6 x 64.5 meters, supported the foundation of a temple, but which one (Friesen 1993b:66). In one of the vaults the “head and left forearm of a colossal, akrolithic male statue” was discovered which lead the excavator to identify it as the Temple of the sabastoi (“emperors”) (1993b:60). The structure was an octastyle temple of the Ionic order which measured 34 x 24 meters at its base (1993b:63). “The cella had an interior measurement of about 7.5 x 13 meters” (1993b:64). East of the temple stood and altar (1993b:67). The north side of the terrace had a three-story façade. The top level had engaged figures of various deities supporting the terrace above. Originally the façade probably had 35-40 engaged figures of eastern and western gods and goddesses. Today, only two figures, Attis and Isis, both eastern deities, have been restored (1993b:70,72).
In the last 125 years of research and excavations at Ephesus, 13 inscriptions dedicated to the provincial temple in Ephesus have been discovered. These rectangular marble blocks were set up by various cities of Asia Minor in recognition of Ephesus being the “neokoros” (guardian, or caretaker) of this temple (1993b:29, 35). These inscriptions have the name of Domitian chiseled out and in some cases have “Theos Vespansian” put in its place (1993b:37). The destruction of Domitian’s name was the result of the Roman Senate’s edict to erase any mention of Domitian.
Several questions should be asked regarding this temple. First, to whom was the Temple of the Sabastoi dedicated? Domitian would have a statue and possibly his wife Domitia (1993b:35). Most likely it also included the rest of the Flavians: Vespasian, who was Domitian’s father, and Titus, his older brother.
Second, when was the temple fully functional? Friesen, doing careful detective work with the inscriptions, suggests the date of September AD 90 when the temple was fully functional (1993b:44, 48). Most likely the people began to build it after Domitian began to express his opinion that he was a god in AD 85/86.
Third, whose head did the colossal statue represent? When this statue was first discovered in 1930, the excavator identified it as Domitian. Georg Daltrop and Max Wegner later questioned this identification. Based on facial features from portraits, they suggested it depicted his older brother Titus. However, other art historians still think it belongs to Domitian (1993b:62). This akrolithic statue, made of a wooden body, now disintegrated, and stone extremities, stood 8 meters tall (ca. 25 feet) (Friesen 1993b:63; 1993a:32). The left hand had a groove in it in which a spear was placed. This description accords historically with Ephesian coins depicting the Temple of the Sabastoi with a statue in front holding a spear (1993b:63).
Fourth, where was the statue placed in the temple complex? Some have suggested that it was outside in the courtyard. However, the problem with that suggestion is that the torso was made of wood and would deteriorate in the inclement weather. Most likely it was inside the temple. Friesen notes that the back of the head was not finished, thus “the statue could only have been displayed in front of a wall where visitors were not expected to go behind it” (1993a:32). The most logical place would be inside the temple. Also inside, most likely, were similar statues of the other Flavians (1993b:62).
Fifth, what was the symbolism of the temple complex? A visitor approaching the Temple of the Sabastoi from the Agora would notice the northern façade with the engaged deities supporting the temenos and wonder what was the intended symbolism. Friesen remarks, “The message was clear: the gods and goddesses of the peoples supported the emperors; and, conversely, the cult of the emperors united the cultic system, and the peoples, of the empire. The emperors were not a threat to the worship of the diverse deities of the empire; rather, the emperors joined the ranks of the divine and played their own particular role in that realm” (1993b:75). Ephesus, with its harbor, was the major commercial center of Asia Minor. The pilgrims and traders would mix their commercial ventures with their cultic worship of the emperors while in Ephesus. I would like to suggest that first century Ephesus is a prototype of the future religious and commercial center predicted in Rev. 17 and 18 called “Mystery Babylon” controlled by the Antichrist. Interestingly, F. Farrar, in his monumental work, The Life and Work of St. Paul says of Ephesus, “It’s markets, glittering with the produce of world’s art, were the Vanity Fair of Asia. They furnished to the exile [of] Patmos the local colouring of those pages of the Apocalypse in which he speaks of ‘the merchandise of gold, silver,…’ (Rev. 18:12,13)” (1888:355). The first century church could relate to this.
In the midst of all this commercial and cultic activities, the believers in the Lord Jesus Christ took a stand for Him (Rev. 2:2, 3). One of their elders, the apostle John, refused to participate in the emperor worship and preached against it. While on Patmos, he received the revelation from the Lord Jesus that was a polemic against emperor worship and Domitian in particular. Revelation 1:9 says that John was on the island of Patmos “for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.” The serious Bible student knows there are at least three different interpretations for that verse. First, the Lord sent John to the island specifically to receive the revelation. Second, John voluntarily went to the island to preach the gospel. Third, he was banished by the Roman government because of preaching the gospel (Thomas 1992:88, 89). Most likely the third is the primary interpretation but the other two are correct as well. John was exiled to Patmos because of preaching the gospel and against emperor worship, but the Lord in His sovereignty used this opportunity for him to receive the book of Revelation and while he was there, he had the opportunities to proclaim the gospel.
Conclusions Regarding Domitian
I wonder if the Apostle John had ever seen the statue of Domitian in the Temple of the Sabastoi? If he had, I’m sure he refused to bow down and worship it, or even burn incense on the altar before it. What a contrast between this lifeless stone statue of a mere mortal man and the vision which John saw of the resurrected and living Savior, the Son of Man, in Revelation 1. On the isle of Patmos he saw, “One like the Son of Man, clothed in a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and His hair were white like wool, as white as the snow (Domitian was bald!), and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in His right hand seven stars (as opposed to a spear in Domitian’s left hand), out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and his continence was like the sun shining in its strength” (Rev. 1:13-16). When John saw this One, he fell down as dead (1:17a). He worshipped Someone infinitely greater than the mortal and dead emperors. He worshipped the One who was the “First and the Last,” and the One who lives, and was dead, and is alive forever more (1:17b, 18).
Is it any wonder that John also recorded the statement of the four living creatures, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God (“Kurios ho theos”) Almighty. Who was and is and is to come” (4:8)? The contrast of the “Lord God’s” was obvious for any believer living in the first century. Domitian tried to legislate public and private morality, yet he himself was immoral: an adulterer, involved in incest, responsible for the murder of his niece. Julia died as a result of a botched abortion after he impregnated her. There were other people murdered by Domitian’s command because he felt they were a threat to his rule. He was blasphemous as well as an animal abuser. He would sit in his room, catch flies, and stab them with a “keenly-sharpened stylus”. On the other hand, the Lord Jesus Christ is “holy, holy, holy.” The One who could not sin, would not sin, and did not sin (James 1:13; II Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15). He was the spotless Lamb of God (I Pet. 1:19). Domitian called himself Dominus Dues Domitianus (D. D. D.). Yet the Lord Jesus is the “Lord God Almighty”, the One who is El Shaddai! Domitian was born on Oct. 24, AD 51 and murdered on Sept. 18, AD 96. He was cremated and his ashes mingled with his niece Julia and buried in the temple of Gens Flavia, built over the house where he was born. This house was located on the Quirinal Hill in the sixth Region (Jones 1992:1; Richardson 1992:181). Yet the Eternal Son of God is the One “who was and is and is to come!” Domitian reigned only 15 years (Sept. 13, AD 81 – Sept. 18, AD 96), yet King Jesus will reign for a thousand years as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 20:4-6; 19:16). Believers in the Lord Jesus during the first century would be encouraged (and blessed) by reading the book of Revelation.
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