96 - 98 CE
|What can be said of Nerva? Elderly, sick, and apparently without ambition when events propelled him into the emperorship, his most notable accomplishments were to adopt a worthy successor and die of natural causes despite not having the support of the military. But, all things considered, perhaps this is more impressive than it appears.|
|About this coin: Nerva had one of the great "Roman Noses". This coin (a bronze as) is actually much more flattering than most.|
Elected by a Senate tired of being pushed around, Nerva got the nod because he was mostly harmless. Already old and ill, Nerva quickly realized he was not up to the job of keeping all the "emperor wannabees" at bay. The military had been quite fond of his predecessor, Domitian, and it was clear that they would soon elevate someone they liked better if he didn't do something.
The need for action was underscored by a rebellion among his own Praetorian Guards. They burst into the Imperial palace, imprisoned Nerva, and gruesomely executed two of the conspirators who had done in Domitian. Nerva's efforts to protect them, including his offer to die in their place, were humiliatingly ignored. Underscoring his powerlessness, he was required to publicly thank them for their act.
This demonstration of Nerva's weakness threatened an outbreak of general anarchy. It underscored the need for decisive action to prevent a slide into chaos such as had occurred after Nero's death. But without powerful support, what could Nerva do?
Nerva's creative solution was to decide which of the potential usurpers was in the best position to hold on to the emperorship, and adopt him. This not only saved his own skin and avoided a new civil war, but it also ushered in the era of the "Adoptive Emperors" that now shines as the longest unbroken string of good government that the Roman Empire would know. Thus, Trajan, governor of Upper Germany, became Nerva's "son", effectively removing everyone's (including Trajan's) reason for murdering him.
Trajan quickly demonstrated his ability to support Nerva even from afar. He sent for the leaders of the Praetorian rebellion, ostensibly to give them a new posting (perhaps even a promotion?), but instead, once he had them away from their power base, he had them summarily executed. Without ever leaving home or committing troops, Trajan sent the clear message: "You mess with Nerva, you mess with me!" Not surprisingly, the remainder of Nerva's reign was much more peaceful.
Four months later, officially admired and loved by all, Nerva took ill from a sudden fever and died. He was deified without opposition, and his ashes were laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Augustus as a special sign of respect. Certainly a much more pleasant way to go than Galba had managed thirty years before, despite having started in a much more precarious position. So perhaps Nerva's accomplishments weren't so minor after all.