Domitian, who ruled between 81 and 96 AD, expanded the fiscus Iudaicus [Jewish tax] to include not only born Jews and converts to Judaism, but also on those who concealed the fact that they were Jews or observed Jewish customs. Suetonius relates that when he was young an old man of 90 was examined to see whether he was circumcised, which shows that during this period the tax was levied even on those above the age of 62. Louis Feldman argues that the increased harshness was caused by the success of the Jewish (and possibly Christian) proselytism.
Domitian applied the tax even to those who merely “lived like Jews”. Suetonius records:
Besides other taxes, that on the Jews [A tax of two drachmas a head, imposed by Vespasian; see Josephus, Bell. Jud. 7.218] was levied with the utmost rigor, and those were prosecuted who, without publicly acknowledging that faith, yet lived as Jews, as well as those who concealed their origin and did not pay the tribute levied upon their people [These may have been Christians, whom the Romans commonly assumed were Jews]. I recall being present in my youth when the person of a man ninety years old was examined before the procurator and a very crowded court, to see whether he was circumcised. [c. 90]
Domitian’s ruling opened the door to possibilities of blackmail in Rome and in all Italy. Charges of following Judaism were easily made, but difficult to disprove, not least because the practices of certain philosophical sects resembled some Jewish customs. As a result, many people chose to settle with the accusers out of court rather than risk the uncertainties of judicial hearings, thus effectively encouraging the blackmailers. Titus Flavius Clemens was put to death for “living a Jewish life” or “drifting into Jewish ways” in the year 95 AD, which may well have been related to the administration of the fiscus Judaicus under Domitian.
Reflection and Prayer: Whilst the full circumstances are not clear, it seems Domitian extends the fiscus judaicus to apply to Christians of Jewish background and those who adopted Jewish ways even though they were not Jews, such as declining to offer sacrifices in pagan temples. The church grew through persecution, and Domitian’s harsh rule marked a turning point in this growth, as well as an indicator of continuity between Yeshua-believing Jews and those from the nations.
Lord, have mercy on your people, and may their witness to you speak to all nations of your saving power. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.
Eusebius records that Domitian ordered the execution of all those who were of David’s line and it is believed that a group of heretics accused the descendants of Jude (the half-brother of Christ) of being in the line of David, which, in turn prompted a meeting between them and Domitian. Eusebius provides some of the details of the meeting by quoting the writer Hegesippus:
And there still survived of the Lord’s family the grandsons of Jude, who was said to be His brother, humanly speaking. These were informed against as being of David’s line, and brought by the evocatus before Domitian Caesar, who was afraid of the advent of Christ as Herod had been. Domitian asked them whether they were descended from David, and they admitted it. Then he asked them what property they owned and what funds they had at their disposal. They replied that they had only 9,000 denarii between them, half belonging to each; this, they said, was not available in cash, but was the estimated value of only thirty-nine plethra of land, from which they raised the money to pay their taxes and the wherewithal to support themselves by their own toil.
Furthermore Eusebius writes:
When Domitian asked the descendants of Jude about Christ and His kingdom, they explained that it was not of this world or anywhere on earth, but angelic and in heaven. They explained that it would be established at the end of the world, when Christ would come in glory to judge the quick and the dead and give every man payment according to his conduct.
Domitian found no fault with them and let them go. He then issued an order to terminate the persecution of the church.
Domitian’s persecution, however, was not without much bloodshed and martyrdom. For a time, embracing Christianity became a crime against the state. It must be said that while persecution occurred in Rome there is not, at this time sufficient empirical evidence to suggest that the persecution was empire-wide. That dubious distinction belongs to Emperor Trajan. But that is for another teaching.
Andrew, Mark, Onesimus, and Dionysius the Aeropagite, are all said to have been martyred during his reign.
The Apostle John is said to have been exiled to the isle of Patmos under the reign of Domitian and then brought back to Ephesus when the persecution ceased.
Even Domitian’s own cousin, Flavius Clemens, was sentenced to death on the charge of ‘atheism’. And Clemens’ wife, Domitilia, is said to have had her property confiscated before being sent into exile.
In summary, as Schaff notes:
“The Martyrium of Ignatius speaks of ‘many persecutions under Domitian.’”
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Domitian (/dəˈmɪʃən, -iən/; Latin: Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus; 24 October 51 – 18 September 96) was Roman emperor from 81 to 96. Domitian was the third and last emperor of the Flavian dynasty.
Domitian’s youth and early career were largely spent in the shadow of his brother Titus, who gained military renown during the First Jewish–Roman War. This situation continued under the rule of his father Vespasian, who became emperor in 69 following the civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors. While Titus held a great many offices under the rule of his father, Domitian was left with honours but no responsibilities. Vespasian died in 79 and was succeeded by Titus, whose own reign came to an unexpected end when he was struck by a fatal illness in 81. The following day Domitian was declared Emperor by the Praetorian Guard, commencing a reign that lasted fifteen years – longer than any man who had ruled since Tiberius.
As Emperor, Domitian strengthened the economy by revaluing the Roman coinage, expanded the border defenses of the Empire, and initiated a massive building program to restore the damaged city of Rome. Significant wars were fought in Britain, where his general Agricola attempted to conquer Caledonia (Scotland), and in Dacia, where Domitian was unable to procure a decisive victory against king Decebalus. Domitian’s government exhibited totalitarian characteristics; he saw himself as the new Augustus, an enlightened despot destined to guide the Roman Empire into a new era of brilliance. Religious, military, and cultural propaganda fostered a cult of personality, and by nominating himself perpetual censor, he sought to control public and private morals. As a consequence, Domitian was popular with the people and army but considered a tyrant by members of the Roman Senate.
Domitian’s reign came to an end in 96 when he was assassinated by court officials. The same day he was succeeded by his advisor Nerva. After his death, Domitian’s memory was condemned to oblivion by the Roman Senate, while senatorial authors such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger and Suetonius published histories propagating the view of Domitian as a cruel and paranoid tyrant. Modern revisionists have instead characterized Domitian as a ruthless but efficient autocrat whose cultural, economic and political program provided the foundation of the peaceful 2nd century.