Island Exile

Saturday, May 23rd, 2020

Sailboats in the Fog
Island Exile, Audio Version

Her husband Clemens was executed, by order of the emperor. Flavia Domitilla herself was put on a ship and sent into exile. The emperor had her banished to one of the remote islands off the western coast. Previous emperors had done the same thing. They just shooed away embarrassing or disobedient female relatives. Insufficiently loyal male relatives were usually executed, since alive they were perpetual contenders for the purple. Regrettably, although kin, the males must serve as a mortal example to other wanna-be usurpers. They must die. The females were less of a threat, though. Undesirable female relatives like Domitilla were sometimes shown pity and spared death. Instead, they were simply sent away, shipped into exile. Perhaps someday, if sufficiently remorseful, Domitilla might be be granted clemency. 

Domitilla had offended Uncle Domitian with her infidelity — not of the marital sort, but of the religious sort. Domitilla had withheld due devotion to the ancestral gods, the very gods who had made Rome so great. Like her husband, Domitilla refused to participate in the rites. She would no longer show devotion to Jupiter, Minerva, and the rest of the Roman pantheon. Though she be a near, dear relative of the emperor, Domitilla could not be exempted from punishment, neither her nor her husband. His disgraceful disloyalty to Roma and abhorrent infidelity to its gods meant deserved death, hers meant banishment.

But what about the children? Clemens and Domitilla had children. Emperor Domitian was by no means indifferent to their plight. At least two of Domitilla’s sons already had Domitian’s favor. He had deemed himself their godfather. The emperor himself had no living children. There was thus no heir apparent. Before their parents were even found guilty of treasonous infidelity, the boys had been adopted children by Uncle Emperor Domitian. He had embraced them, adopted them, and renamed them after his father and himself. The boys had been renamed Vespasian and Domitian. Emperor Domitian intended for one or both of the boys to take his place someday, to succeed him. At least one of the boys would someday wear the purple — provided they were loyal, faithful, and worthy, unlike their traitorous parents.    

But Domitilla had an unlikely avenger named Stephanus. Stephanus had been one of Domitilla’s household servants until his services were suspect. Stephanus was accused of stealing from her. Thereafter, Stephanus went rogue and joined the rebellion. He somehow joined up with a group of court conspirators who were plotting to kill Uncle Emperor Domitian. Stephanus either volunteered himself or was designated to do the bloody deed. And do the deed he did. But he himself died in the doing. 

Stephanus assassinated Uncle Emperor Domitian by stabbing him with a concealed dagger. But before he bled out and died, Domitian fought back and returned the favor. 

At news of his death, the Roman Senate was elated. They despised Domitian. And that’s an understatement. Domitian had been a sadistic and vile emperor. He had killed many of them. He had terrorized the rest. Shortly after his death, the Senate damned his memory. Everything that ever glorified Domitian was to be undone, taken down, scratched out, demolished, or scrubbed. Domitian be damned, for all eternity. So it was written, and so it was done.

Domitian was actually bald, and bothered by it.

While all this court intrigue may be interesting to Ancient Roman history buffs, what does it have to do with the Bible? Does it have anything to do with the Book of Revelation?

Yes, it does indeed have something to do with Book of Revelation. Brother Eusebius, who wrote the indispensable history of the early Church, says that Domitian was Emperor when the Book of Revelation was written. And Eusebius is probably right about that. Domitian banished Domitilla because of her infidelity to the Roman pantheon. Both the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church claim that Domitilla was actually a Christian convert and a martyr. Historians generally concur that Domitilla was a convert to Christianity. It seems very likely. If so, Domitilla was exiled because of her steadfast testimony for Christ, just like John, the author of Revelation. Both of them were exiled by decree of Domitian for their faith.      

John was exiled to Patmos.

But wait, there’s more — I would like to suggest the possibility that Emperor Domitian is even prophesied in the Old Testament. Domitian seems to fit the depiction of the arrogant eleventh king in Daniel 7:19-28. Domitian was the eleventh emperor of Rome. And Domitian did enact policies that resulted in the prosecution and persecution of Jews and Christians. 

Further explanation of what exactly Domitian did needs to wait for another blog post, though.

As a take away, realize that God was in control and at work through everything that occurred in those dark days. As a parent, I imagine the anxiety that Clemens and Domitilla must have felt when they were separated from their children by the Roman authorities. Clemens and Domitilla would have been sorely tempted to play along with Domitian’s demands. But they were steadfast. Otherwise, Clemens would have been spared and Domitilla would have stayed home. And we might never have heard of either of them.