(AD 96 – 98)
(Marcus Cocceius Nerva Caesar Augustus)
Nerva is reckoned as the first of the Antonine (adoptive) emperors, for he set the pattern for the succession of Roman Emperors by adoption in the second century, when he chose the best man available to be his adoptive son and heir.
Nerva is remembered as a good man, who did his best to bring ordered rule to Rome in difficult circumstances. He was born at Narni, near Rome around AD 30 and came from an Italian family that had held consular rank for generations. Both his father and grandfather had been consuls before him. Nerva himself had had a long and moderately successful career as an administrator, before rising to the purple. His calling seems to have been that of a skilful politician and diplomat, rather than as a military man. After his death he was deified at the behest of his adoptive son and successor, Trajan.
He was certainly a survivor, for he always had the knack to go with the flow and choose the winning side in the dangerous arena of imperial politics. He found favour under Nero and is believed to have played a part in exposing the conspiracy of Piso to have Nero assassinated in AD 65 and in consequence earned triumphal ornaments (although he had earned no military distinction. In the struggles following Nero’s suicide, he must have been a strong supporter of Vespasian, as he was made consul jointly with the emperor soon after Vespasian came to power. He was a loyal supporter of all the Flavians and held a full consulship under Domitian in AD 90.
Rise to Power
Although there is no evidence that Nerva was implicated in the plot to assassinate Domitian, we may draw our own conclusions, as he was appointed emperor by the Senate immediately after the event and Domitian was neither deified nor given proper burial and wherever possible, attempts were made to expunge his name and memory from all records and monuments.
Although an aristocrat and a well respected member of the Senate, with a long and distinguished career, Nerva was an unlikely choice for emperor as he was old, sickly and childless. Undoubtedly he was chosen as a safe stand-in by the Roman Senate that just desperately wanted some peace and stability, having survived the reign of terror that had marked the later years of Domitian’s rule. Probably the decision had needed to be rushed through quickly as there was a real threat of civil war breaking out, for there were many supporters of Domitian still holding high office both in the administration and notably in the army.
He was a thoughtful and caring ruler, who did his utmost to produce a balanced budget and cut unnecessary expenses. He avoided the type of excessive ostentation that had characterised some of the previous emperors and was content with more modest honours. He took steps to alieviate the lot of the poor with small grants of land, cut inheritance tax and established the ‘alimenta‘ – a fund to care for destitute orphans, that was funded by the interest on state loans. However the situation on the borders, still required considerable funding to support large standing armies and this remained the major item of fiscal expenditure and was a great drain on state resources.
Unfortunately, although of a generally benign disposition, energetic for his age and certainly an experienced administrator, Nerva was not really a strong ruler and was unable to contain the tensions that were mounting up in the state. Moreover, he had difficulty in raising sufficient funds to run an efficient administration and at the same time placate the army with the regular donatives that they had come to expect in Domitian’s reign.
Although hated by the senators, who had born the brunt of his terror, Domitian had actually been very popular with the troops as he had been open-handed with donations and increases in military pay, and his wars had generally been successful. But much of Domitian’s largesse to the troops had come directly from the assets that he seized from senators, arraigned on trumped-up charges of disloyalty. This was an avenue of funding that was not available to Nerva, both because it was repugnant to him on moral grounds and also because his main support base came from the senators, who were members of his own class.
Thus Nerva, who had no real military credentials and was too cash strapped to had out bribes randomly, as expected by the troops, realised he could not depend on the uncertain loyalty of the armies. The situation quickly got worse and, against his wishes, Nerva was forced to hand over the assassins of Domitian for execution, and before long the Praetorian guard were committing other acts of open rebelliousness. By October of AD 97 Rome was rapidly drifting towards anarchy or civil war.
The Adoption of Trajan
Realising that the state needed a stronger hand in charge to prevent disaster, Nerva took the step of adopting a respected general Trajan, who came from a Romano-Spanish family of consular rank, to be his son and successor. Trajan, was well liked by the Senate and, more importantly, could count on the support of the army. He was made co-consul, given Tribunician Potestas and granted Imperium to act on behalf of the emperor and the state. Although remaining on the border, with the Rhine legions, Trajan quickly took firm control of the situation in Rome. There was urgent need for decisive action and one of his first acts was to execute the leaders of the rebellious praetorians. It was soon apparent to all that Trajan had become the de facto ruler of Rome, enjoying Nerva’s implicit support and that the old emperor had now lapsed unofficialy into a state of semi-retirement.
Early in 98 Nerva suffered a stroke and died shortly after – having been emperor for just over a year. Trajan’s succession as emperor was smooth as he already held all the power and authority of the office and his adoption by the ruling emperor gave him the full legitimacy of a natural born son in Roman law.