Although short, the reign of Marcus Cocceius Nerva (A.D. 96-98) is pivotal. The first of Edward Gibbon’s so-called “Five Good Emperors,” Nerva is credited with beginning the practice of adopting his heir rather than selecting a blood relative. Claimed as an ancestor by all the emperors down to Severus Alexander, he has traditionally been regarded with much good will at the expense of his predecessor, Domitian.
Nerva could claim eminent ancestry on both sides of his family. On the paternal side, his great-grandfather, M. Cocceius Nerva, was consul in 36 B.C.; his grandfather, a distinguished jurist of the same name, accompanied Tiberius on his retirement to Capri in 26 A.D.[] On his mother’s side an aunt, Rubellia Bassa, was the great-granddaughter of Tiberius. In addition, a great-uncle, L. Cocceius Nerva, played a part in the negotiations that secured a treaty between Octavian and Antony in 40 B.C
Early Career and Life under Domitian
Nerva was born on 8 November, 30 A.D.[] Little is known of his upbringing beyond the fact that he belonged to a senatorial family and pursued neither a military nor a public speaking career. On the other hand, he did hold various priesthoods and was a praetor-designate.[] More importantly, as praetor designate in 65, Nerva was instrumental in revealing the conspiracy of Piso against the emperor Nero.
As a result, he received triumphal ornaments and his statue was placed in the palace.[] Following Nero’s fall in 68, Nerva must have realized that support of Vespasian and the Flavian cause was in his best interests.[] In 71 his loyalty was rewarded with a joint consulship with the emperor, the only time that Vespasian ever held the office without his son Titus. It was under the reign of Vespasian’s other son, Domitian, that Nerva’s political fortunes were ultimately determined, however. He shared the ordinary consulship with Domitian in 90, an honor that was perhaps the result of his alerting the emperor about the revolt of Antonius Saturninus, the governor of Upper Germany, in 89.[] Even so, like so many others of the senatorial class, Nerva came under scrutiny in the final years of Domitian’s reign, when the emperor was unwilling to tolerate any criticism.
Whether or not Nerva was forced to withdraw from public life during Domitian’s final years remains an open question.[] What is not in dispute is that he was named emperor on the same day that Domitian was assassinated in September, 96. Indeed, in some respects the accession was improbable, since it placed the Empire under the control of a feeble sexagenarian and long-time Flavian supporter with close ties to the unpopular Domitian. On the other hand, Nerva had proven to be a capable senator, one with political connections and an ability to negotiate. Moreover, he had no children, thereby ensuring that the state would not become his hereditary possession.
Upon taking office, Nerva made immediate changes. He ordered the palace of Domitian to be renamed the House of the People, while he himself resided at the Horti Sallustiani, the favorite residence of Vespasian. More significantly, he took an oath before the senate that he would refrain from executing its members. He also released those who had been imprisoned by Domitian and recalled exiles not found guilty of serious crimes.[] Nevertheless, Nerva still allowed the prosecution of informers by the senate, a measure that led to chaos, as everyone acted in his own interests while trying to settle scores with personal enemies.[]
In the area of economic administration Nerva, like Domitian, was keen on maintaining a balanced budget. In early 97, after appointing a commission of five consular senators to give advice on reducing expenditures, he proceeded to abolish many sacrifices, races, and games. Similarly, he allowed no gold or silver statues to be made of himself. Even so, there was some room for municipal expenditure. For the urban poor of Italy he granted allotments of land worth 60 million sesterces, and he exempted parents and their children from a 5% inheritance tax. He also made loans to Italian landowners on the condition that they pay interest of 5% to their municipality to support the children of needy families. These alimentary schemes were later extended by Trajan, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.[]
Because he reigned only briefly, Nerva’s public works were few. By early 98 he dedicated the forum that Domitian had built to connect the Forum of Augustus with the Forum of Peace. It became known as the Forum of Nerva, or the Forum Transitorium. Nerva also built granaries, made repairs to the Colosseum when the Tiber flooded, and continued the program of road building and repairs inaugurated under the Flavians.[] In addition, pantomime performances, supressed by Domitian, were restored.[]
In the military realm, Nerva established veterans’ colonies in Africa, a practice that was continued by the emperor Trajan. Normal military privileges were continued and some auxiliary units assumed the epithet Nervia or Nerviana. We are not well informed beyond these details, and any military action that may have occurred while Nerva was emperor is known sketchy at best.[]
Nature of Nerva’s Government
Nerva’s major appointments favored men whom he knew and trusted, and who had long served and been rewarded by the Flavians. Typical was Sextus Julius Frontinus. A consul under Vespasian and governor of Britain twenty years earlier, Frontinus came out of retirement to become curator of the water supply, an office that had long been subject to abuse and mismanagement. He helped to put an end to the abuses and published a significant work on Rome’s water supply, De aquis urbis Romae. As a reward for his service, Frontinus was named consul for the second time in 98.[] Similarly, the emperor’s own amici were often senators with Flavian ties, men who, by virtue of their links to the previous regime, were valuable to Nerva for what they knew. Thus do we find the likes of A. Didius Gallus Fabricius Veiiento, one of Domitian’s ill-reputed counselors, seated next to Nerva at an imperial dinner.[] Nerva was less willing to consult the Senate as a whole. In many cases he preferred the opinions of his own consilium, and was less submissive than many senators would have liked. This attitude may have been responsible for hostile discontent among several senators.[]
Mutiny of the Praetorians and the Adoption of Trajan
It was not long before the assassination of Domitian came to work against the new emperor. Dissatisfied that Domitian had not been deified after his death, the praetorian guards mutinied under Casperius Aelianus in October 97.[] Taking the emperor as hostage, they demanded that Nerva hand over Domitian’s murderers. The emperor not only relented, but was forced to give a public speech of thanks to the mutineers for their actions.[] His authority compomised, Nerva used the occasion of a victory in Pannonia over the Germans in late October, 97 to announce the adoption of Marcus Ulpius Traianus, governor of Upper Germany, as his successor.[] The new Caesar was immediately acclaimed imperator and granted the tribunicia potestas. Nerva’s public announcement of the adoption settled succession as fact; he allowed no time to oppose his decision. From the German victory, Nerva assumed the epithet Germanicus and conferred the title on Trajan as well. He also made Trajan his consular colleague in 98.[]
Death and Deification
On January 1, 98, the start of his fourth consulship, Nerva suffered a stroke during a private audience. Three weeks later he died at his villa in the Gardens of Sallust.[] From his headquarters at Cologne, Trajan insisted that Nerva’s ashes be placed in the mausoleum of Augustus and asked the senate to vote on his deification. We are further told that he dedicated a temple to Nerva, yet no trace of it has ever been found.[] Nor was a commemorative series of coins issued for the Deified Nerva in the wake of his death, but only ten years later.[]
Nerva’s reign was more concerned with the continuation of an existing political system than with the birth of a new age. Indeed, his economic policies, his relationship with the senate, and the men whom he chose to govern and to offer him advice all show signs of Flavian influence. In many respects, Nerva was the right man at the right time. His immediate accession following Domitian’s murder prevented anarchy and civil war, while his age, poor health and moderate views were perfect attributes for a government that offered a bridge between Domitian’s stormy reign and the emperorships of the stable rulers to follow.
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Cary, M. A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine. 2nd ed. New York, 1965.
Earl, D. The Age of Augustus. New York, 1968.
Ehrhardt, C. T. H. R. “Nerva’s Background.” Liverpool Classical Monthly 12 (1987): 18-20.
Garzetti, A. From Tiberius to the Antonines: A History of the Roman Empire, A.D. 14-192. London, 1974.
Grant, M. The Roman Emperors: A Biographical Guide to the Rulers of Rome, 31 B.C. – A.D. 476. New York, 1985.
Scarre, C. Chronicle of the Roman Emperors: The Reign by Reign Record of Imperial Rome. London, 1995.
Sutherland, C. H. V. “The State of the Imperial Treasury at the Death of Domitian.” JRS 25 (1935): 150-162.
Syme, R. Tacitus. Oxford, 1958.
[] See, in addition, the cases of Valerius Licinianus, who was allowed only to change his place of exile, and Arria and Fannia, exiled for their opposition to Domitian, but recalled and their possessions restored. Dio 68.3.2, 68.16.
[] A commemorative issue of coins to the “Deified Nerva,” with the legend Divus Nerva along with Divus Traianus Pater, was not issued until ten years after his death. See H. Mattingly and E. Sydenham, The Roman Imperial Coinage Volume II (London, 1926), 297.