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Flavian Restoration and Innovation in Domitian’s Ludi Saeculares

Susan Dunning

University of Toronto

The Ludi Saeculares (or “Saecular Games”) celebrated after civil wars by Augustus in 17 BCE recreated Republican traditions in order to establish a series of religious festivals that would be held once in a lifespan, that is, once every saeculum of hundred and ten years. In 47 CE, Claudius assigned new significance to the Saecular Games, with celebrations calculated once every century from the foundation of Rome. In this paper, I analyse literary and numismatic evidence for the Saecular Games performed by Domitian in 88 CE, and demonstrate that Domitian strove to present his celebration as a close imitation of the model established by Augustus, rejecting the chronology of Claudius’s Games. At the same time, however, Domitian’s Games competed with those of Augustus and Claudius through innovations that highlighted the unprecedented extent of his imperial authority.

I argue that Domitian and his advisors in the college of the quindecimuiri sacris faciundis, such as Tacitus, took pains to follow the Augustan chronology of the Saecular Games in order to discredit the celebration of 47 CE. Claudius’s version of the festival was therefore set against Augustan tradition, and Domitian’s performance of the Games according to an Augustan saeculum could not be a simple matter of fulfilling expectation by following precedent: his celebration could either reduce the importance of the Claudian festival, or run the risk of losing its own significance by comparison with Games held within living memory. Yet this was not the case: ancient sources like Tacitus (Ann. 11.11), Suetonius (Dom. 4.3), and Zosimus (2.4) confirmed the legitimacy of Domitian’s Games over and against those of Claudius, and only Martial (Ep. 10.63.1–4) subtly hinted that the celebration of 88 CE was untimely. Domitian established the legitimacy of his Games by following closely the Augustan ritual sequence, and he commemorated his piety with a large issue of coins in the same year, each depicting rites that mirror almost exactly the inscribed details of the Augustan performance, but far surpassing in number those issued for 17 BCE. Some of these coin types are nearly identical to Augustan models, and a few may depict the bust of Domitian’s patron goddess, Minerva, which could suggest that the emperor introduced or alluded to her worship in his festival. References in Statius (Siluae 1.4.16–18) and Martial (Ep. 4.1) to an altar at the Tarentum in the Campus Martius, the site of sacrifices connected with the Ludi Saeculares from Republican traditions, demonstrate that this region continued to play an important role in Domitian’s Games.

Domitian’s performance of the Ludi Saeculares will also be set within the wider context of the Flavian dynasty, whose members had come to power after the chaos of civil wars at Rome following the death of Nero. Recent scholarship has highlighted the efforts made by Vespasian and his sons to establish their authority through imitation and restoration of Augustan expressions of influence: building programmes, coinage, concern for religious practices and morality (cf. Boyle, Caradice/Buttrey, Dészpa, Gallia, Komnick). As is shown, Flavian participation in these legitimizing efforts was not limited to emulation of Augustan practice, but could include innovation or even competition with earlier models, such as a new emphasis on offices of priesthoods, the association of the emperor with divinity, and Domitian’s assumption of the office of censor perpetuus prior to the Games in 85 CE (whereas Claudius had only taken the title of censor before his celebration). Domitian’s celebration of the Games is shown to contain representative elements of imitation and innovation, which would in turn serve as a model for the performance of the Games under Septimius Severus. Despite the eventual damnatio memoriae of the emperor, Domitian’s representation of his authority through his central role in the Ludi Saeculares did not diminish their validity and significance, but had the opposite effect, conveying the message that Domitian had properly celebrated these Games on behalf of Rome.

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Spectacle and Authority

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