Nerva - Roman Emperors

Emperor Nerva

Marcus Cocceius Nerva was Roman emperor from 96 to 98 AD. His reign brought stability to the ancient Roman Empire in compare to his predecessors. The emperor helped establish the foundations for a new golden era for Rome. He had at least one attested sister, Cocceia, who married Lucius Slavius Titanus Otho, the brother of the emperor Otho. Moreover, he was a member of the Italian nobility. All direct ancestors of Nerva were associated with imperial circles from the time of the first Emperor Augustus. In addition, the great-grandfather of emperor was Consul and Governor of Asia in 36 BC.

Early Life

Nerva was born in the village of Narni, located nearby Rome. He was the son of Marcus Cocceius Nerva, Suffect Consul during the rule of Caligula, and Sergia Plautilla. He had at least one attested sister, Cocceia, and belonged to the Italian nobility. The Cocceii were among the most popular political families of the late Republic and early Empire. Moreover, representatives of this family got consulships in each successive generation.

Imperial Service

There are not that many records left about Nerva’s life. He wasn’t pursuing the usual administrative or military career. First, he served as praetor-elect in 65 AD, was a talented diplomat and strategist. Importantly, Nerva was an advisor to Emperor Nero and helped to detect and expose the Pisonian conspiracy of 65 AD. His services must have been important, since he earned many rewards ad received triumphal honors, which was usually reserved for military victories and gave him the right to have his statues placed throughout the palace.

Interestingly, Nerva was friend of emperor Vespasian and most probably watched over his youngest son Domitian when Vespasian departed for the Jewish war in 67 AD. The suicide of Nero in 68 AD brought the Julio-Claudian dynasty to an end and led to the Year of the Four Emperors, where the rise and fall of the emperors Galba, Otho and Vitellus happened, until the Vespasians reign starting from 21 December in 69 AD. There is not much information about doings of Nerva during 69 AD, but despite the fact that Otho was his brother-in-law, he appears to have been one of the strongest supporters of the Flavian dynasty.

Nerva was rewarded with a consulship early in Vespasian’s leadership in 71 AD

Thus, he became one of the few non-Flavians who were honoured under Vespasian. After 71 AD Nerva disappeared from the historical record again, but most probably he continued his career as an inconspicuous advisor under Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian. In 89 AD, the revolt of Saturninus happened where the governor of Germania Superior, Lucius Antonius Saturnius, and his two legions at Mainz, Legio XIV Gemina and Legio XXI Rapax revolted against the Roman Empire. This rebelliom was crushed in 24 days with all leaders at Mainz punished. The following year was notable for the new revolt by Domitian, where Nerva got the consulship. The revolt had been suppressed, while the Empire could come back to order.

Emperor

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Emperor Domitian was assassianted in a palace conspiracy organized by court officials in 96 AD. At the same day, Nerva became proclaimed a new Emperor by the Senate. The choice was unusual, Nerva did not have children and spent much of his career out of the public vision. Moreover, it is still not clear if Nerva was somehow connected to the assassination of emperor Domitian. Both modern and ancient authors assume that he was involved in it since the conspirators approached Nerva as a potential successor prior to the assassination, thus, he knew about the situation in advance. However, following the historical facts, Nerva was proclaimed Emperor only on the initiative of the Senate right after the assassination.

When Nerva became an Emperor, he did not have children, was old and had a weak health, but for these reasons making him a ruler was considered a safe choice

Also, Nerva had tight relationships with the Flavian dynasty and was respected by the Senate representatives. The emperor avoided civil conflicts, thus, by choosing him, the Senate expected to avoid civil war again. After the death of Domitian, all his coins and statues were melted and arches torn down. Moreover, his name was erased from all public records. All existing portraits of Domitian were carved to make the likeness of Nerva. The palace erected by Domitian on the Palatine Hill, the Flavian Palace, was renamed the “House of the People”, while Nerva was living in Vespasian’s former villa in the Gardens of Sallust.

Changes

The change of government was positive sign for the senators, who had been persecuted during Domitian’s rule. At the beginning of reign, Nerva publicly swore that no senators would be put to death again. He finished trials based on treason and released imprisoners under these charges. Moreover, the new emperor promised amnesty to those, who had been exiled.

All properties once confisticated by Domitian were returned to its owners

Nerva relied so much on friends and advisors whom he trusted. Since the emperor was chosen on the initiative of the Senate, he had to gain support among the Roman citizens, so a “congiarium” of 75 denarii per person was gifted upon the populace and the soldiers of the Praetorian guard received a donativum of about 5000 denarii per person. So the economic reform were made, where the most needy Roman families became free of taxation. Nerva exempted parents and their children from a 5% inheritance tax, so that many taxes were remitted and Roman provinces received new privileges.

Nerva abolished abuses of the “Fiscus Iudacius,” the additional tax for Jews during the time of the Roman Empire

Public Works

However, since Nerva reigned only for 15 months, his public works were few. The emperor repaired the Roman road system and made the expansion of the aqueducts. Several constructions created under him were a granary, known as the Horrea Nervae, and an Imperial Forum which was begun by Domitian.

Nerva’s expenses influenced the economy of Rome and instead of religious sacrifices, games and horse races he created a new way of income, which was generated from Domitian’s former possessions. Among them were the auctioning of ships, estates and other belongings. Also, sufficient amounts of money were gathered from Domitian’s silver and gold statues.

Crisis of Succession

Despite the fact that Nerva made a lot of efforts to stay popular with the Senate and the Roman populace, there was a strong support for Domitian in the army. The Praetorians considered the measures of Nerva unsufficient and demanded the execution of Domitian’s assassins, which the emperor refused. This misunderstanding led to the gravest crisis of Nerva’s reign. Nerva stopped the trason trials, but allowed the prosecution of informers by the Senate, which led to chaos. Everyone started to act in his own interests agains personal enemies. The situation seemed even more difficult since there was no direct successor and Nerva was old and weak. 

Adoption

Since Nerva did not have children, he realized that his only option was adoption. He chose as his son Marcus Ulpius Traianus, known as Trajan, who was the governor of Upper Germany. The adoption took place on the public ceremony in 97 AD. Nerva lacked any military experience and didn’t know much about foreign affairs, so the choice of Trajan was made with aim to provide an heir and to secure the northern provinces.

Interesting Facts

  1. Nerva was a representative of Italian nobility, but his family did not belong to the Roman elite
  2. He had close relationships with representatives of the Flavian dynasty
  3. When he became an emperor, he was old and weak
  4. Nerva ruled only for 15 months
  5. He established the foundations for a new golden era for Rome
  6. Nerva did not have any children
  7. In compare to other emperors, there are not that much historical facts about Nerva
  8. Nerva adopted Trajan, who became the next emperor after his death
  9. He didn’t know much about foreign affairs and lacked any military experience
  10. The Praetorians demanded the execution of Domitian’s assassins, which Nerva refused

Death

At the start of the fourth consulship in 98 AD, Nerva suffered a stroke during a private audience. Shortly after it happened, he got a fever and died in his villa in the Gardens of Sallust, on January, 28. His ashes were laid in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Nerva was succeeded by his adopted son Trajan, who was welcomed by the Roman citizens more positively.

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Author: Kate Zusmann

For the last five years I live in Rome, Italy. Recently, I've graduated from the American university of John Cabot with major in communication and minor in entrepreneurship. I have a passion for writing, traveling, and exploring new things.

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