Domitian's Evil Hour

For years the emperor Domitian knew exactly when he was going to be murdered: 18 September 96 A.D. during the 5th morning hour.

For years the emperor Domitian knew exactly when he was going to be murdered: 18 September 96 A.D. during the 5th morning hour.

Reverse-engineering an ancient astrological prediction

No wonder Domitian was gloomy, humorless and paranoid. As the fateful year approached he became increasingly anxious. He had the walls of his exercise room lined with highly polished moonstone to watch what was going on behind his back. With the help of his astrologers he pored over the horoscopes of Rome’s most powerful men, sniffing out potential regicides. He even exiled and then executed his trusted secretary Epaphroditus because the scribe had helped Nero commit suicide 27 years before. 

Domitian was deeply conflicted about astrology. He believed in it but he also hoped its predictions could be avoided if preventative actions were taken. To prove the point, the day before his assassination he commanded the astrologer Ascletario to predict the manner of his own death. When the astrologer forecast that he was fated to be torn to pieces by dogs, Domitian had him executed on the spot and thrown on a funeral pyre. A rainstorm scattered the servants supervising the cremation and doused the fire. The roasted corpse was torn to pieces by a pack a scavenging dogs, just as the astrologer had predicted. 

The coincidence terrified Domitian. That evening, perhaps at dinner, a guest offered him a gift of apples, his favorite fruit. His appetite ruined by fear, Domitian told his servants to save them until tomorrow if he was spared to eat them. He then turned to his guests and said, “The Moon will be bloodied as she enters Aquarius, and a deed will be done that will be the talk of the entire world.”

That night he slept badly, jumping out of bed in terror at midnight. At dawn he had the astrologer Larginus Proculus brought before him. The astrologer fearlessly reaffirmed his prediction that Domitian would die that morning during the fifth hour. Domitian condemned him to death but delayed the execution until the evil hour had come and gone so that the astrologer would die knowing that he was a fraud.

By this time the conspirators must already have been lying about the time to Domitian. When the fourth hour sounded they told him it was the dreaded fifth. Domitian, in a state of nervous agitation, picked at a festering wart on his forehead. When he noticed it had begun to bleed he said, “I hope that this is all the blood required”. When the silvery sound of the trumpet finally announced a new hour, he double checked what hour it was. One of the conspirators, who like Domitian were watching the clock, confirmed that it was the sixth. Immensely relieved that the dreaded fifth hour had passed and so little of his blood spilled, Domitian headed for his bath, perhaps relishing the prospect of executing the false prophet Proculus afterwards. On the way another conspirator told him that there was momentous news that he needed to reveal in private. The news was that this was not the sixth hour, it was the fifth. Domitian’s time had come. When they were alone he stabbed the emperor.

At this very moment in far away Ephesus (modern Turkey) the astrologer and miracle worker Apollonius of Tyana, who had cast the horoscopes of emperors from Nero to Nerva, appeared to wake from a trance of divine inspiration. Then, as if the heavens had opened to him, he declared in a loud voice to his audience: “Bravo! Smite the bloodthirsty wretch! You have struck, you have wounded, you have slain!”

 The fact that the astrologer Proculus first announced his prediction in Germany (which got him sent to Rome in chains) and that Apollonius was aware of the same evil hour in Asia Minor, makes it clear that the prediction’s web was spread far beyond the imperial palace. As suggested by Suetonius’s comment and Vespasian’s cruel dinner quip, it is quite possible that the hex had been common knowledge for at least seventeen years - Vespasian died in 79.

Suetonius, from whom this account is largely drawn, was an ardent believer in astrology as well as prognostications of every sort.  It seems not to have occurred to him that Domitian’s death at the predicted hour was a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy that emboldened enemies and demoralized friends, the theme of my novel The Nero Prediction

Suetonius was about 25 and probably resident in Rome when Domitian was murdered which makes him about as close to an eyewitness as we will get. He went on to become the emperor Hadrian’s secretary and keeper of the imperial archives where he would have been able to examine contemporary accounts of Domitian’s death. There can be no reasonable doubt that he accurately reports Domitian’s reference to the bloodied moon in Aquarius and to his fear of the fifth hour.

Astrological computations are simple mathematical relationships between the positions of the planets around the Zodiac – in fact “mathematicus” was a synonym for “astrologer”. This challenges us with an intriguing numbers puzzle. Why did ancient astrologers fix on this particular day and this particular time for Domitian’s death?

As far as I am aware, there has been only one serious attempt to reverse-engineer the prediction. The astrological code breaker was Michael Molnar who published his report “Blood On The Moon In Aquarius” in 1994 when he was at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Rutgers. Molnar, who has since written an illuminating book on the astrology of the Star of Bethlehem has familiarized himself with ancient astrological lore – several manuals have come down to us intact. Although his article is a treasury of interesting insights, his analysis of Domitian’s birth chart is fatally flawed because he misplaces the position of Mars on 24 October, 51 A.D. by a whole sign (30 degrees). This is doubly unfortunate because Mars was believed to be the most malevolent planet in the sky and therefore critical for all computations concerning violent death and particularly death by means of a sword. Correctly placed, Mars was precisely in opposition to Jupiter on Domitian’s birthday, an unlucky omen according to the astrologer Firmicus Maternus (writing in 334 A.D.) that predicted the “hostility of friends”, among other evils2.

The contemporary expert on length-of-life predictions was Tiberius Claudius Balbillus, astrologer to emperors Claudius and Nero whose method of predicting life spans (he wrote a book on the subject) has been preserved in a fragment3. He was also an astrological advisor to Vespasian who honored him with sacred games in his name, the Balbillia. It is very likely that Balbillus was the astrologer who predicted Domitian’s death, quite probably shortly after the boy’s birth, as was the Roman custom. The astrologer almost certainly was in Rome at the time enjoying the patronage of Agrippina, mother of Nero, who became emperor after Claudius's death three years later.

Chart 1

Domitian’s birth 24 October, 51 A.D. Rome 07:43 PM (for choice of this time see below) with two arcs demonstrating Balbillus’s method of determining length of life.

Somewhere in a person’s birth chart is a favorably situated planet, the Starter, which gives 90 years, represented by 90 degrees, in either a clockwise or an anticlockwise direction around the chart. Somewhere within this 90 degree arc the Destroyer lies in wait. Balbillus counted back from the point that was 90 degrees from the Starter until he reached the Destroyer. The number of degrees in this arc, he pronounced, equaled the number of years the person would live.

The problem for us, as it must have been for ancient astrologers, is which planets to select for Starter and Destroyer. Because it is by far the most benevolent planet, Jupiter would be the ideal Starter while Mars and Saturn would be ideal Destroyers because they are malevolent. The Sun, Mercury and the Moon could go either way because they are labile planets.

Fortunately Domitian tells us that his Destroyer is the Moon. But which planet is his Starter? Since this Starter must be within 90 degrees of the Moon, the Sun, Mercury, Venus and Jupiter are the only possible Starters for Domitian. The Sun as Starter would have meant Domitian would have lived over 74 years. Either Venus or Mercury as Starter would have meant he would have lived to 84. But Domitian died at 44 so Balbillus did not choose these as his Starter. This leaves benevolent Jupiter, even though he is weakened by his opposition to Mars. 

Jupiter, placed at 2833 of Sagittarius at Domitian’s birth, gave Domitian ninety years (represented by 90) clockwise around his chart to 2833 of Virgo. Balbillus then counted anticlockwise 4454 from this imaginary point in Virgo until he met the Destroyer, the Moon, which must have been positioned at 1326 of Scorpio at Domitian’s birth for Domitian to live his 44 years and 329 days. (For those checking my math, keep in mind that 96 A.D. was a leap year so of course February had 29 days.) 

To cast an accurate birth chart an astrologer needs to have not only the day but also the time of birth. Since
the Moon moves through the Zodiac at about thirty seconds of arc an hour, she would have occupied
13 26 of Scorpio for only two minutes which sets Domitian’s birth on 24 October 51 at about 7:43 p.m. local Roman time. 

Chart 2

The beginning of the fatal 5th hour: 9:51 AM 18 September 96 A.D.  Rome. Mars is right on the western horizon, the Moon moves into a precise conjunction with Domitian’s natal Saturn positioned at 21 of Aquarius.

Having reverse-engineered how the day of Domitian’s death was arrived at, probably by Balbillus, the final question is: how did the astrologer select the hour of Domitian’s death?

Again we consult Dr. Molnar who points out that during the fateful 5th hour on 18 September 96 A.D. Mars was setting in the west which, according to Firmicus Maternus, “indicates the greatest evils and enormous perils”.4  As Chart 2 shows, Mars is in fact within half a degree of setting during the first minute of the 5th seasonal hour of 62 minutes that began at 9:51 a.m. Placed as it was at ten degrees of Taurus, it was in opposition to Domitian’s natal moon, a configuration that Firmicus says, predicts “an evil death”.5 Two minutes later Mars set after which his evil influence would diminish dramatically. This was Domitian’s moment of peril and his assassins’ moment of opportunity. Quite probably he was murdered within two minutes of the 5th hour being sounded.

Mars, in direct opposition to his life giver Jupiter at his birth and ominously placed at his death, cast an astral curse on Domitian. But so did the other malevolent planet, Saturn. It is likely, as I presumed above, that ancient astrologers, like their disciples today, predicted what lay in store for their client at any specific time in the future by superimposing the positions of the future planets (“transits”) on the birth chart’s natal planets.

As the 5th hour was being announced, the homicidal transit Moon in Aquarius was moving into a perfect conjunction with Domitian’s natal Saturn. The Moon and Saturn in conjunction is an unfortunate omen, according to Firmicus Maternus, because they “attack all thoughts and activities with witless weakness of fear”.6

This phrase perfectly captures Domitian’s state of mind during the last few hours of his life. The fateful Destroyer of his birth chart, the Moon, had returned to fulfill her destiny. There would indeed be blood on her hands, his blood, as predicted not just to the hour, but to the minute.

According to Suetonius, Domitian was so conscientious in dispensing justice that he “kept such a tight hold on magistrates and provincial governors that the general standard of honesty and justice rose to an unprecedented high level” (Domitian 8). Suetonius concludes that Domitian was not an evil person, it was “fear of assassination that made him cruel.” (Domitian 3).

The reverse-engineering of an ancient astrologer’s hex shows that the era's gullible belief in astrology must take the blame for that.

1 Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars: Domitian 14

 Firmicus Maternus, Matheseos VI.16.1

3 Roger Beck, Ancient Astrology p 121

4 Matheseos III.4.17

5  Matheseos V1.17.5

6 Matheseos V1.22.17

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Lucy Knipe