Nerva (30 - 98 AD)
Emperor: 96 - 98 AD
The place of Marcus Cocceius Nerva in history is largely that of an intermediary, filling the vacuum following the fall of Domitian and setting the stage for a golden era of Roman history as the first of the '5 Good Emperors'.
Born between AD 30 and 35 of a richly traditional consular family, little of Nerva's early life is known, but the prestigious family had played key roles in both late Republican and early Imperial politics. A terribly distant, yet distinguished familial connection to the Julio-Claudians (through Tiberius via marriage) helped thrust Nerva into early political prominence. An apparent disdain for outward ambition and a complete lack of military education or experience certainly helped push Nerva into a trusted role as advisor to several imperial courts.
Under the reign of Nero, Nerva (in his early to mid 30's) was seemingly instrumental in foiling the conspiracy of Piso and was handsomely rewarded for it. Despite the assistance to the much maligned Nero, Nerva does not suffer in the historical record for these actions (likely because the major writers of this period lived during the reign of Trajan and Hadrian, Nerva's adopted heirs). Nerva, having had a statue erected in the imperial palace as part of the reward, also did not suffer with Nero's downfall. Nerva quite possibly may have maintained a healthy friendship with another early Neronian supporter, the future emperor Vespasian.
In the turmoil following the 'Year of the Four Emperors' circa AD 68 and 69, Nerva emerged as a leading member of Vespasian's court. As evidenced by his appointment as junior consul to Vespasian in AD 71, the only year in which Vespasian did not hold the ordinary consulship with his son Titus, Nerva was by this point considered an important and influential member of the senatorial elite. Despite any friendship between the two men, the respect for the future emperor was quite apparent by this gesture.
Nerva maintained an advisory position throughout the Flavian reigns of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. Though evidence is limited, Nerva seemingly played a prominent role in another foiled conspiracy. After the legionary revolt of Saturninus against Domitian, Nerva was elevated to the ordinary consulship once again and received special thanks for his part in revealing the plot (likely because of information provided through a deep intelligence network). The goodwill wouldn't last throughout Domitian's reign, however, and Nerva seems to have been in danger of being targeted by the emperor's conspiracy suspicions.
By the mid 90's AD, though the reports of the ancients are conflicting (Cassius Dio, Apollonius, Suetonius, Victor and Martial), there seems to have been enough evidence suggesting that Domitian had distanced himself from Nerva, and that only horoscopes predicting Nerva's imminent death prevented Domitian from targeting his advisor. The deaths of other senators and close court advisors during Domitian's 'reign of terror' pushed surviving members of his court into action. By September 18, AD 96 a plot, that was necessarily larger than there is evidence for, came full circle and Domitian was murdered by members of his own household staff.
That very same day, Nerva was elevated to the imperial throne, with speculation that Domitian's own wife and prominent members of the Senate were involved. This speculation included the involvement of Nerva, stemming from the ease of the transition following nearly 30 years of Flavian rule to a sudden and 'unexpected' end without an heir in place. Nerva's position and his quick appointment to replace Domitian certainly must have had some reflection on personal ambition, but not only was he a respected elder statesman of the Senate, but as a member of the Flavian supporters, his selection offered a quick and simple opportunity. As a previous and long standing member of Domitian's supporters, those supporters who remained were appeased by Nerva's selection (as a member of their own faction), and the opposition could rest easy with the understanding that the old and new emperors seemingly had had a falling out anyway. Nerva also agreed upon several measures which would bring back a semblance of Senatorial control to the daily government of the empire. While the 'Republic' had long been dead as a political institution, the new government of Nerva would be more reflective of Augustan principals which left an impression of Senatorial authority.
Perhaps the most important consideration, however, in determining Nerva's selection was the age of the new emperor. At least in his mid 60's, Nerva was reportedly in poor health and as suggested by Suetonius, only the astrology that predicted Nerva's imminent natural death prevented Domitian from having him executed anyway. This vulnerable status and the fact that Nerva had no direct male heirs with whom to continue another family dynasty, allowed the Senate to use him as an interim emperor, until another suitable candidate could be found. Nerva's complete lack of military experience also prevented a potential for a legionary revolt based on loyalties to slightest generals. Military candidates to the imperial throne such as Trajan understood that Nerva's appointment was a stopgap measure and that the real game was not played by succeeding Domitian but would be won as Nerva's heir.
Adoptive Succession in Ancient Rome
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 Roman 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 land ownership 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 was 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 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 decision 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 govern from the center of the Roman 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.
Did you know...
Nerva took an oath before the senate that he would refrain from executing its members.
Did you know...
The adoption of boys was fairly common in ancient Rome, particularly in the upper senatorial class.