November 8, 2015, by Will Leveritt

On this day in AD 30, the Roman emperor Nerva was born in Narnia.

Text by Thomas Ingram

The future emperor enjoyed eminent ancestry on both sides of his family. His paternal great-grandfather had held the consulship in 36 BC and had been an associate of Marc Antony and Octavian (the future emperor Augustus); similarly, his grandfather had enjoyed membership of the imperial entourage under Tiberius; lastly, his father had held the suffect consulship in AD 40 under Caligula. He also benefited from connections with the Julio-Claudians on his mother’s side, with his aunt Rubellia Bassa being the great-granddaughter of Tiberius.

AE As of Nerva. Obverse has laureate head of the emperor facing right, IMP NERVA CAES AVG P M TR P CO[S II P]P. Reverse has Fortuna facing left with rudder and cornucopia, FORTVNA [AVGVST] S C. 8.89g, 27mm, 6 o’clock. RIC 60.

AE As of Nerva. Obverse has laureate head of the emperor facing right, IMP NERVA CAES AVG P M TR P CO[S II P]P. Reverse has Fortuna facing left with rudder and cornucopia, FORTVNA [AVGVST] S C. 8.89g, 27mm, 6 o’clock. RIC 60. Numismatic information by Rob Stone and Olivia Webster. 

Little is known about Nerva’s upbringing; however, he held a number of official positions throughout his life: as praetor designate in AD 65 under Nero, he received triumphal honours for his role in revealing the Pisonian conspiracy against the emperor. He also shared the consulship with the emperors Vespasian in AD 71 and Domitian in AD 90. Thus Nerva and his family had been close to the centre of power for several generations.

Although only enjoying a brief reign from AD 96 to 98, Nerva’s time as emperor is often seen as an important transition and the beginning of an extended period of stability for the Roman state, following the Flavian dynasty which came to an abrupt and bloody end with the assassination of Domitian on 18 September, AD 96.

Since Domitian had no surviving heirs, the imperial office was left vacant and it fell to the Senate to quickly find a suitable replacement in order to avoid civil unrest and violence. On the same day as the assassination the elderly Nerva was announced as Domitian’s successor, marking the first time a new emperor had been selected by the Senate. He may indeed have been involved in the plot against Domitian, or at least known about it, and may also have been the agreed candidate to succeed the last Flavian emperor.

In any case, Nerva proved to be a wise choice, providing an antidote to the paranoia and cruelty that had come to dominate the final years of his predecessor’s reign. Politically he moved away from the autocratic rule which Domitian came to favour and back towards ruling as a princeps (‘first citizen’).

Upon his ascension, Nerva vowed not to put to death any senators as well as ending treason trials, releasing those who had been imprisoned and recalling those exiled under such charges. He also allowed for the prosecution of Domitian’s informers, resulting in the execution of many slaves and freedmen who had conspired against their masters.

Nerva introduced economic reforms to stabilize the economy and to provide relief to the poor, such as the granting of land allotments worth up to sixty million sesterces. In order to tighten the purse strings and balance the budget, he appointed a commission of senators to advise him on the reduction of expenditures, resulting in the abolition of excessive public games, races and sacrifices.

However, not everyone was content with the new regime, especially the military with whom Domitian had been popular. In AD 97 the Praetorian Guard mutinied under the leadership of Casperius Aelianus. Imprisoning Nerva within the imperial palace, they demanded that the lead conspirators in Domitian’s murder be handed over. These men were seized and executed, with Nerva having to make a public speech praising the mutineers for their exploits.

With his authority now in question, Nerva set about securing both his position and the succession by adopting Marcus Ulpius Traianus, at the time governor of Upper Germany and a man respected by the army, as his son and heir.

The remainder of Nerva’s reign passed in relative peace and in January, AD 98 Nerva died at Rome in his villa in the Gardens of Sallust, aged 67.

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