Domitianus (1) , a.d. 81-96. This emperor, though placed by Lactantius (de Mort. Persecut. c. 3) and others among the persecutors of the church, can hardly be considered as having made any systematic effort to crush Christianity as such. Through the greater part of the empire the Christians seem to have been unmolested. The traces of persecution, such as they are, seem rather to belong to his general policy of suspicion and cruelty. Indirectly they are of interest in shewing how the new religion was attracting notice and spreading.
(1) Vespasian, before his death, had given orders (Eus. H. E. iii. 12) that inquiry should be made for all who claimed to be descendants of the house of David, seeking thus to cut off all who might incite the Jews to a fresh revolt. The fears of Domitian led him to continue the search, and Hegesippus (in Eus. H. E. iii. 19, 20) records one striking incident connected with it. The grandchildren of Judas, the brother of the Lord, were taken to Rome and brought into the emperor's presence. They acknowledged that they were of the kingly line, but stated that the only kingdom they looked for was one spiritual and angelic, to be manifested at the end of the world. The emperor, Hegesippus tells us, thought them beneath his notice, released them, and allowed them to go back to Judea, and put a stop to the persecution against the church which he had begun . This persecution was probably the inquiry itself. The Judean followers of the Christ, whom they habitually spoke of as the seed of David, would inevitably be suspected of being likely to appeal to the hopes of the conquered population.
(2) Towards the close of Domitian's reign a domestic tragedy occurred which there is good reason for connecting with the progress of Christianity. The emperor had a cousin named Flavius Clemens, whom at one time he held in high favour. He gave him his niece Flavia Domitilla in marriage, changed the names of his sons to Vespasian and Domitian and designated them as heirs to the empire, and nominated Clemens as his colleague in the consulship. Suddenly, almost within the year of his consulship, he put Clemens to death, banished his wife to Pandataria, and his daughter (or niece), who was also called Domitilla, to Pontia. Revenge for these acts had apparently no small share in the emperor's assassination. One of the most prominent conspirators concerned was Stephanus, an agent and freedman of the banished widow of Clemens. Thus the story is told by Suetonius (Domit. cc. 15, 17). It remains to see on what grounds church writers like Eusebius (H. E. iii. 18) claim the three members of the Flavian house as among the first illustrious martyrs of royal rank. (i) Flavius Clemens is described by Suetonius ( l.c. ) as "contemptissimae inertiae." A Christian would naturally be so described by men of his own rank and by the outer world, just as Tertullian complains that the Christians of his time were stigmatized, when other charges failed, as "infructuosi negotiis" (Apol. c. 42). (ii) The specific charge against Clemens and the two Domitillae is reported by Dio Cassius (lxvii. 14) and Xiphilinus (p. 766) to have been atheism. The same accusation, the latter adds, was brought against many others who shewed a bias towards Jewish customs. This again agrees with the general feeling of the Roman world towards the Christians at a later period, and may be regarded as the first instance of that feeling. (iii) Later tradition confirms these inferences. Jerome tells us ( Ep. 27) how Paula visited Pontia on her way to Jerusalem, as already an object of reverence, and saw the three cells in which Domitilla and her two eunuchs Achilleus and Nereus had lived during their exile. They were said to have returned to Rome and suffered martyrdom under Trajan. A church on the Coelian Hill at Rome dedicated to S. Clement, in which a tablet was discovered in 1725 to the memory of Flavius Clemens, martyr, and described by Cardinal Albiani ( T. Flavii Clementis Viri Consularis et Martyris Tumulus Illustratus , 1727), seems therefore to have commemorated the consul and not the writer of that name. The name of Clement of Alexandria, Titus Flavius Clemens, may be regarded as an indication of the honour in which the martyr's memory was held. On the whole, everything seems to indicate that the received tradition is true, and that the Christian church was almost on the point, even before the close of the 1st cent., of furnishing a successor to the imperial throne.
(3) With the reign of Domitian is also connected the legend of St. John's presence at Rome, and of his being thrown, before the Porta Latina, at the command of the emperor, into a cauldron of boiling oil, and then banished to Patmos. Tertullian (de Praescript. c. 36) is the first writer who mentions it. The apostle, as the chosen friend of the Son of David, may have been pointed out by the delatores of Ephesus as the descendants of Judas were in Judea. Tertullian, in speaking elsewhere ( Apol. c. 5) of Domitian's conduct towards the church, describes him as only attempting a persecution, and then, thinking better of it, recalling those whom he had condemned to exile. In other accounts (Eus. H. E. iii. 20) the decree of recall was connected with the accession of Nerva.