Biography of Marcus Cocceius Nerva, First of the Good Emperors of Rome

A statue of Roman emperor Nerva, or Marcus Cocceius Nerva Caesar Augustus

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Marcus Cocceius Nerva (November 8, 30 CE–January 27, 98 CE) ruled Rome as emperor from 96–98 CE following the assassination of the much-hated Emperor Domitian. Nerva was the first of the "five good emperors" and was the first to adopt an heir who wasn't part of his biological family. Nerva had been a friend of the Flavians without children of his own. He built aqueducts, worked on the transport system, and built granaries to improve the food supply.

Fast Facts: Marcus Cocceius Nerva

  • Known For: Well-regarded and respected Roman emperor
  • Also Known As: Nerva, Nerva Caesar Augustus
  • Born: November 8, 30 CE in Narnia, Umbria part of the Roman Empire
  • Parents: Marcus Cocceius Nerva and Sergia Plautilla
  • Died: January 27, 98 CE at the Gardens of Sallust, Rome
  • Published Works: Lyric poetry
  • Awards and Honors: Ornamenta Triumphalia for military service
  • Spouse: None
  • Children: Marcus Ulpius Traianus, Trajan, the governor of Upper Germany (adopted)
  • Notable Quote: “I have done nothing that would prevent me laying down the imperial office and returning to private life in safety.”

Early Life

Nerva was born November 8, 30 CE, in Narnia, Umbria, north of Rome. He came from a long line of Roman aristocrats: his great-grandfather M. Cocceius Nerva was consul in 36 CE, his grandfather was a well-known consul and friend of Emperor Tiberius, his mother's aunt was the great-granddaughter of Tiberius, and his great uncle was a negotiator for the emperor Octavian. While little is known of Nerva's education or childhood, he did not become a military professional. He was, however, well known for his poetic writings.

Early Career

Nerva, following in his family's footsteps, pursued a political career. He became praetor-elect in 65 CE and became an advisor to Emperor Nero. He discovered and exposed a plot against Nero (the Pisonian conspiracy); his work on this issue was so significant that he received military "triumphal honors" (though not a member of the military). In addition, statues of his likeness were placed in the palace.

Nero's suicide in 68 led to a year of chaos sometimes called the "Year of Four Emperors." In 69, as a result of unknown services rendered, Nerva became a consul under Emperor Vespasian. Though there are no records to support the assumption, it seems likely that Nerva continued as consul under Vespasian's sons Titus and Domitian until the year 89 CE.

Nerva as Emperor

Domitian, as a result of conspiracies against him, had become a harsh and vengeful leader. On September 18, 96, he was assassinated in a palace conspiracy. Some historians speculate that Nerva may have been involved in the conspiracy. At the very least, it seems likely that he was aware of it. On the same day, the Senate proclaimed Nerva emperor. When appointed, Nerva was already well into his sixties and had health issues, so it was unlikely he would rule for long. In addition, he had no children, which raised questions about his successor; it may be that he was selected specifically because he would be able to handpick the next Roman emperor.

The initial months of Nerva's leadership focused on redressing Domitian's wrongs. Statues of the former emperor were destroyed, and Nerva granted amnesty to many whom Domitian had exiled. Following tradition, he executed no senators but did, according to Cassius Dio, “put to death all the slaves and freedmen who conspired against their masters.”

While many were satisfied with Nerva's approach, the military remained loyal to Domitian, in part because of his generous pay. Members of the Praetorian Guard rebelled against Nerva, imprisoning him in the palace and demanding the release of Petronius and Parthenius, two of Domitian's assassins. Nerva actually offered his own neck in exchange for those of the prisoners, but the military refused. Finally, the assassins were captured and executed, while Nerva was released.

While Nerva retained power, his confidence was shaken. He spent much of the remainder of his 16-month reign attempting to stabilize the empire and ensure his own succession. Among his achievements were the dedication of a new forum, repairing roads, aqueducts, and the Colosseum, allotting land to the poor, reducing taxes imposed on Jews, instituting new laws limiting public games, and exercising greater oversight over the budget.

Succession

There is no record that Nerva married, and he had no biological children. His solution was to adopt a son, and he selected Marcus Ulpius Traianus, Trajan, the governor of Upper Germany. The adoption, which took place in October of 97, allowed Nerva to placate the army by selecting a military commander as his heir; at the same time, it allowed him to consolidate his leadership and take control of the provinces in the north. Trajan was the first of many adopted heirs, many of whom served Rome extremely well. In fact, Trajan's own leadership is sometimes described as a "golden age."

Death

Nerva had a stroke in January 98, and three weeks later he died. Trajan, his successor, had Nerva's ashes put in the mausoleum of Augustus and asked the Senate to deify him.

Legacy

Nerva was the first of five emperors who oversaw the best days of the Roman Empire, as his leadership set the stage for this period of Roman glory. The other four "good emperors" were Trajan (98–117), Hadrian (117–138), Antoninus Pius (138–161), and Marcus Aurelius (161–180). Each of these emperors hand-selected his successor through adoption. During this period, the Roman Empire expanded to include the north of Britain as well as portions of Arabia and Mesopotamia. Roman civilization was at its height and a consistent form of government and culture expanded across the entire empire. At the same time, however, the government became increasingly centralized; while there were benefits to this approach, it also made Rome more vulnerable in the long run.

Sources

  • Dio, Cassius. Roman History by Cassius Dio published in Vol. VIII of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1925.
  • The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Nerva.” Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • Wend, David. "Nerva." An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors.