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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
- Birley, A. Lives of the Later Caesars: The First
Part of the Augustan History with Newly Compiled
Lives of Nerva and Trajan. London, 1976.
- 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,
- Grant, M. The Roman Emperors: A Biographical Guide
to the Rulers of Rome, 31 B.C. - A.D. 476. New York,
- Scarre, C. Chronicle of the Roman Emperors: The
Reign by Reign Record of Imperial Rome. London,
- Sutherland, C. H. V. "The State of the Imperial
Treasury at the Death of Domitian." JRS 25 (1935):
- Syme, R. Tacitus. Oxford, 1958.
[] Tac. Ann. 6.26.
[] Aurelius Victor records the year as 35 (Caes.
12.11), Dio (68.4.4) as 30. The latter has been more
[]Nerva's priesthoods: ILS, 273; Nerva as
praetor: Tacitus, Ann 15.72.2.
[] Tac. Ann. 15.72. Nero also delighted in
Nerva's light verse, saluting him as the "Tibullus
of the Age." See Mart. 8.70, Pliny Ep. 5.3.5.
[] Even so, Tacitus makes no mention of Nerva at
this time in his Histories.
[] C. T. H. R. Ehrhardt, "Nerva's Background,"
Liverpool Classical Monthly 12 (1987): 18-20.
[] Philostr. VA 7.8; 7.33; Aur. Vict., Caes. 12;
Mart. 8.70, 9.26.
[] 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.
[] Ibid., 68.1.3.
[] Pliny Pan. 37.6.
[] A. Garzetti, From Tiberius to the Antonines:
A History of the Roman Empire, A.D. 14-192 (London,
[]Pliny, Pan. 46.2
[] A. Garzetti, From Tiberius to the Antonines,
[] For an additional instance, see the case of
Corellius Rufus at Pliny Ep. 1.12.
[] Pliny Ep. 4.22.
[] Dio 68.3.2.
[] Ibid., 68.3.3.
[] On Nerva's speech in gratitude to the
mutineers, see Epitome de Caesaribus, 12.8
[] For evidence that it was Domitian who
celebrated this Pannonian victory, see James B.
Casey, "Minerva Victrix: Domitian's Final War, A.D.
96," Celator (April, 1996): 32-33.
[] Pliny Pan 8.4.5. Victor (Caes. 12) states
that Nerva abdicated.
[] Dio (68.4.2) offers a date of January 27,
Victor (Caes. 12.2) as January 27 or 28.
[] Pliny Pan. 11.1.
[] 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.