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Adoptive Succession

Adoptive Succession

The death of Domitian, though largely greeted with public indifference, did create problems for Nerva's fledgling administration. The Praetorians were unhappy, their charge being murdered without their approval, and demanded retaliation. In order to settle the situation, within a year of his accession Nerva was forced to hand over the very men who helped secure his position, the Praetorian prefects. However, while the Praetorians were angry, and the public largely indifferent the Senate openly rejoiced at their newfound return to political relevance. A damnatio memoriae was immediately voted upon Domitian, abolishing his various laws, erasing his name from public works and statues, and of course, barring his entry into the Imperial Cult pantheon.

The euphoria of the Senate was bolstered by Nerva's early reaction to their 'requirements.' Foremost among these requirements was an agreement to abstain from executing members of the Senate. Political prisoners were released, exiles recalled and some properties reimbursed. The 'Jewish tax' which was largely responsible for suggestions of religious persecution and allowed for much interpretation by over zealous tax collectors, was rescinded in order to stabilize growing social unrest within certain elements of society. Additionally, Nerva allowed the prosecution of political informants, which at first was readily welcomed as a way to heal the rift between opposing factions. However, the end result was a veritable witch-hunt inspired by rivalry and revenge, eventually requiring Nerva's intervention.

Nerva attempted to pattern his governing style after that of Augustus. He attempted to include just enough Senatorial involvement to provide for a smooth relationship, but like most emperors, trusted his own immediate staff for the bulk of imperial administration. While Domitian maintained the treasury by increasing taxation to offset his spending measures, Nerva sought to bring both to a more modest level. Excessive state religious ceremonies, games and celebrations were curtailed while Nerva even sold off possessions of the imperial palace and from his own personal holdings. In a gesture of social goodwill, he created the 'alimentary institutions', which were essentially child welfare payments directed to the urban poor and collected through interest payments on state loans to landowners. In essence, this social welfare system allowed for growth in landownership while the proceeds were used in an attempt to level the economic classes. These popular measures continued largely through to Marcus Aurelius, with the exception only of Hadrian's reign.

Nerva's public works record was certainly diminished by his short reign, but he did finish a project begun by Domitian which became known as the Forum of Nerva. Road building plans begun under previous administrations were continued and flood damage to the Colosseum war repaired. Though not a building project per se, of particular note to historical reference material Nerva appointed Sextus Julius Frontinus as curator of the water supply. It was his De Aquis urbis Romae (Aqueducts of Rome) that provided great insight into the ancient Roman water system. Militarily, the emperor was hampered by a complete lack of formal education or experience, and this showed in the Praetorian's early disapproval. The execution of the Praetorian prefects and Nerva's submissive tone to his bodyguards helped ease tension but military authority was needed to ensure continued order. Minor victories by Trajan in Pannonia may have helped boost a non-existent record, but it was the Nerva's surprising plan of succession that provided true imperial security.

Though the Senate had maintained the belief that the choice of succession would belong to them, Nerva had enough foresight to understand his own precarious position. Trajan was announced publicly as his adopted heir in October AD 97 (in the midst of the Praetorian problem) and with one simple stroke of genius, dangerous levels of political dissention ceased. This decisions was probably resented by the Senate, largely because it took away any opportunity for that body as a whole to direct the course of political events, but also because Trajan was a provincial non-Italian from Hispania. There were distant blood-relatives of Tiberius still alive that could have prompted a return to the original Julio-Claudian principate but their political obscurity made them irrelevant. Trajan's long history of loyalty and service to the empire as well as the overwhelming support of the legions made him perhaps the only legitimate choice for a stable continuation of Imperial rule.

Trajan was immediately given full co-tribunician power along with the Consulship for AD 98, effectively setting the table for the abdication of Nerva. Trajan stayed away from Rome for the entire next year, however, settling military affairs in Germania and leaving the ageing Nerva to governing from the center of the empire. Even Nerva's death, which came shortly after in late January AD 98, did not bring the general to Rome. Nerva passed away, likely of natural causes and in his late 60's, after a lifetime of dedicated service to several emperors and the empire. Though a short reign of only 16 months limited the potential of his reign, Nerva's legacy was the brilliance of his plan of succession. Trajan not only came to power with a military pedigree that would be put to full use over the next few decades, but whose overall effective rule has been arguably deemed second only to Augustus as greatest of the Roman Emperors.

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Did you know?

The adoption of boys was fairly common in ancient Rome, particularly in the upper senatorial class.


Adoptive Succession - Related Topic: Roman Emperors


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