Who was Nerva?
Nerva was a first century Roman emperor, who ascended the throne at an advanced age and without any royal lineage. During his short reign of fifteen months, he ushered in the era of the five most glorious emperors of the Roman empire. He brought stability to an erstwhile unstable monarchy. Born into nobility, he rose to the fore when he helped expose a conspiracy against Emperor Nero. A succession of failed rulers followed, and when Vespasian became the emperor, he rewarded Nerva with a consulship for his loyalty to the ‘Flavian’ dynasty. Nerva continued to hold the position under Vespasian’s son, Domitian’s, reign as well. After Domitian’s assassination, he was appointed as the emperor and implemented several significant social, cultural and financial reforms. But his lack of assertiveness, poor health and general unrest among the senate led to a revolt by the royal guards, where he was imprisoned for some time. In the aftermath of the revolt, he adopted a popular military leader as his heir, who eventually became the next emperor after his death. Statues have been erected in Nerva’s honour and films have been made on him too.
Childhood & Early Life
Marcus Cocceius Nerva was born on November 8, 30 CE, in Narni, Italy. He was named after his father Marcus Cocceius Nerva , who was a royal cosul. His mother’s name was Sergia Plautilla. He also had a sister named Coccesia. His family was quite wealthy and well-connected in the royal circles.
Not much is known about his early life, but it is believed that in the year 65 CE, he became the praetor-elect, following in the footsteps of his ancestors. He was not a military personnel, but was a successful diplomat.
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In 65 CE, Nerva helped foil the ‘Pisonian conspiracy’ that was hatched by Rome’s ruling class to assassinate Emperor Nero for his despotic ways. Nero honoured and rewarded Nerva for this.
In June 68, after Nero committed suicide, a succession of rulers, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, ascended the throne.
In December 69, Vespasian took the reins of the empire and appointed Nerva as the co-consul, even though the position had lost most of its prestige and power by that time.
In 71 CE, he was awarded a consulship by Domitian, Vespasian’s son, when he became the emperor.
Thereafter, he was part of the political and imperial affairs of the empire, but not many details are available about his whereabouts during that time.
In January 89, it is believed that he helped Domitian uncover and thwart the revolt of Saturninus, for which he was again rewarded with a consulship.
By September 18, 96, when Domitian was assassinated, Nerva had acquired a significant amount of political knowledge, and hence, was appointed the emperor on the same day. The urgency of his appointment was fueled by the Roman senate’s fear of civil war and public unrest.
Soon after his appointment, he tried to win the confidence of the senate by pardoning political prisoners, granting amnesty, end to treason-based trials, etc. He also reformed taxation, improved infrastructure, restored cultural activities, and carried out several economic and military reforms.
He appointed his most trusted men to important political positions and consulted his own people, rather than the entire senate, which led to a dissatisfaction among many senators. Many also thought that he lacked assertiveness and it led to a crisis of confidence in him.
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In 97 CE, the ‘Praetorian Guard’, sought revenge for Domitian’s death by executing his assassinators, an act which Nerva opposed and was imprisoned for, but later released.
In the aftermath of the revolt, he thought of abdicating and pondered over the question of his successor, given his advanced age. He ultimately adopted a young military general shortly before his death.
In 97 CE, Nerva implemented many economic and administrative reforms like land allotments to the urban poor, inheritance tax exemptions, loan facilities to landowners, advisory panel for state expenditure reductions, etc.
He abolished brutal games, races and sacrifices, and restored pantomime performances that were banned by Domitian. He also prohibited the construction of any gold or silver statues in his honour.
He took forward the repair and construction of the Roman road system initiated by the ‘Flavian’ rulers. Construction of granaries, expansion of aqueducts and repairing the Colosseum were also undertaken under his reign.
He also ordered the creation of military veterans colonies in Africa.
Awards & Achievements
In 65 CE, he was given a traditional Roman triumphal honour, generally given only to victorious military leaders, after he helped uncover the ‘Pisonian conspiracy’.
A commemorative statue of him is installed in a town that was founded in his honour, Gloucester, England. Another statue of him is also believed to have been installed at Narni, his birthplace.
Family & Personal Life
Nerva did not marry and had no biological heir.
In October 97, he adopted a military general, Marcus Ulpius Traianus (Trajan), in a public ceremony.
On January 1, 98, he is believed to have suffered a stroke, followed by a fever. On January 28, 98 CE, he passed away at his villa in the Gardens of Sallust, Italy.
He was deified by the Roman senate and his ashes were placed in the ‘Mausoleum of Augustus’, becoming the last Roman emperor to be laid to rest there.
It is believed that all his direct male ancestors from his father’s side had the same name, Marcus Cocceius Nerva.
Many historians have quoted him to be an exemplary lyricist and poet, and was even called ‘Tibullus’ (a famous Latin poet) of that era by the Roman emperor, Nero.
His aunt is said to have been a direct descendant of the Roman emperor, Tiberius.
In 1951, he was featured in an American historical drama film ‘Quo Vadis’.
In 1964, he was featured in the film ‘Revolt of the Praetorians’.