Nerva: Rome's "Good" Emperor
His reign was short lived, yet pivotal, for the future of the Roman empire. This article explores the rise to fame of the ruler hailed as the first of the “Five Good Emperors.”
Daryn GrahamMar 20, 2023, 12:39 AM
In 1776 in England, historian Edward Gibbon published his first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. At that time, the American War of
Mature, wise and virtuous, Nerva, who became emperor in AD 96 upon the death of his immediate predecessor, Domitian, placed the long-term welfare of the empire ahead of his own. For this
But Nerva’s high reputation was not Gibbon’s invention. In
And nor is Tacitus alone in this view. The equestrian Suetonius,
These comments made by Romans who themselves lived under Nerva’s
If a man were called to fix a period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus [successor to Marcus Aurelius]. The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance and virtue and wisdom . . . [its emperors] delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws.
So who was Emperor Nerva? And why is he remembered so well by historians?
Nerva the Good
Nerva was born on November 8, AD 35, while Tiberius was still ruler, in the Italian city of Narnia, in Umbria just north of Rome. He came from a family of senators and lawyers with close ties to the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nerva’s own mother, Sergia Plautilla, was the daughter of Octavius Laenas, a former consul, and her brother—Nerva’s own uncle—had married a great-granddaughter of the emperor Tiberius.
As you might expect, as a member of a wealthy, well-connected and famous family, Nerva had a privileged upbringing and the good education that went with it. And as a young adult, he rose quickly through the political ranks. However, it was not until later in life when he became consul with Vespasian, in AD 71, that Nerva began to influence Roman politics. He became a most trusted friend of the Julio-Claudian dynasty’s successors (the
However, in AD 96, Domitian was assassinated and the Flavian dynasty came to an abrupt end. But as things turned out, that would become Nerva’s opportunity to become emperor. After Domitian was killed, his murderers and those who had conspired against him made approaches to a number of Senators with an offer to make one of them emperor. But each one dismissed the overture as something of a joke. They came to Nerva, and exasperated at having no willing body to rule, begged Nerva to believe them. On September 18, AD 96, Nerva was acclaimed as emperor in Rome.
Immediately, relief swept through Rome, as people dared hope for a brighter future after the cruel and despotic rule of Domitian. Nerva would not disappoint. Immediately, Nerva had all of Domitian’s silver and gold statues melted down and his triumphal arches demolished; he publicly repealed the extravagant public spending and lavish personal excesses of his predecessors.
In what was a short reign, Nerva showed himself to be fair, including to the marginalised among his subjects. Jews were treated more respectfully than under previous emperors, even permitting people to become Jews, which was a major turn-around since the sacking of Jerusalem just 26 years earlier. But, while Nerva kept the taxes on Jews, he also came down hard on tax collectors who
Christians, too, were treated well by Nerva. According
Nerva also extended kindness to Rome’s senators, even swearing an oath before the Senate House that he would never put a senator to death. It was an oath he kept, even when he uncovered a conspiracy by a number of senators against himself.
Nerva’s maintenance of the administration of the empire was lauded amongst his contemporaries. But his benevolent style of rule was aimed as much at the welfare of the state as his own. According to Cassius Dio, Nerva, near the end of his life, remarked, “I have done nothing of any sort that would make it impossible for me to lay down the imperial power and return to private life in safety” (Cassius Dio, 68. 3. 1).
Self-preservation or otherwise, Nerva’s concern for the state of the empire was genuine. For example, when the state treasury ran a little short, he sold off his own assets to top it up. He also reduced the tribute owed to Rome by its provinces, which had reached exorbitant levels under Domitian. He also devoted himself to overhauling the public postal service, taking the pressure off the provinces by funding its upkeep himself and from the treasury in Rome.
However, despite Nerva’s capabilities, and as a wise and kind ruler, his advanced years were of cause concern in Rome. The Romans had seen how the death of an emperor could cause civil upheaval across the breadth of the empire, and they were nervous that something similar might happen upon Nerva’s death. Learning of their unease, Nerva adopted Marcus Ulpius Traianus—known simply as
It was a momentous announcement, and caused the Roman audience to erupt in celebration. But the choice was not without critics. Nerva had, after all, other relatives
But if the choice of Trajan was not strictly dynastic, it was nevertheless sensible, as it ensured the stability and civil harmony of the entire empire. When Nerva died from old age less than one year later, the wisdom and foresight of Nerva’s choice of successor became apparent: there would be no civil war and the empire flourished as never before.
Nerva’s days as Emperor numbered just one year, four months and nine days, but in that short time he demonstrated statesmanship and wisdom far exceeding all predecessors. By adopting Trajan, Nerva may have offended his own relatives—Trajan may even have pressured him into it—but he showed that he put the interests of the empire ahead of his own and avoided a war of succession. In fact, Rome would not be engulfed by another civil war for almost a century.
After his death, Nerva’s body was interred in the mausoleum of Augustus in a state funeral led by the Roman Senate. He was deified by the new emperor, Trajan, and the Senate, a few days later. Such was the high regard that Romans had for Nerva.
Nerva’s popularity among historians is neither nominal nor sentimental, his reputation as a wise ruler is not hagiographic. Nerva had worked hard to unite Romans right around the empire. As for Nerva’s successor Trajan, he learned from Nerva’s example, and attempted to maintain Nerva’s fairness at court and in the streets. But it was tempered with his military exploits, which will be explored in the next issue.
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