1902 Encyclopedia > Nerva

(full name: Marcus Cocceius Nerva Caesar Augustus)
Roman emperor (from 96 to 98)

NERVA (32-98 A.D.), Roman emperor from 96 to 98, was called to the throne on the murder of Domitian (September 18, 96 ; Suet., Dom., 17 ; Corp. Inscr. Lat., vi. 472). His full name was Marcus Cocceius Nerva (Henzen, 5435), and his family, though of no great antiquity, had attained to considerable distinction under the emperors. The M. Cocceius Nerva who was consul in 36 B.C. was probably his great-grandfather. His grandfather of the same name (consul c. 22 A.D.) was a lawyer of high reputation and an intimate friend of the emperor Tiberius (Tac., Ann., iv. 58, vi. 26 ; Front., De Agumd., 102). His father is usually identified with the " Nerva filius " who is mentioned in the Digest as a prominent jurist, and who was possibly consul in 40 A.D. Of his mother a single inscription tells us that she was Sergia Plautilla, daughter of Lwnas (Orelli, 777).

Nerva must have been born in 32 A.D., for he was sixty-four years old at the time of his accession in 96 A.D. In early manhood he had been on friendly terms with Nero, whose taste for versification he shared (Martial, viii. 70 ; Pliny, Ep., v. 3), and by whom, in 65, he was decorated with the "insignia triumphalia " (Tae., Ann., xv. 72). He had been preetor (l66) and twice consul, in 71 with the emperor Vespasian for colleague (Orelli, 1634), and again in 90 with Domitian. Towards the close of the latter's reign he is said to have excited suspicion and to have been banished to Tarentum on a charge of conspiracy (Dio Cass., Epit., lxvii. 15 ; Philostr., Apoll. Tyan., vii. 8). He is described as a quiet, kindly, dignified man, honest of purpose, but unfitted by age and temperament, as well as by feeble health, to bear the weight of empire. Nevertheless his selection by Domitian's murderers as that prince's successor seems to have been generally approved, and his short rule, in spite of occasional exhibitions of weakness, justified the choice. His accession brought a welcome relief from the terrible strain of the last few years. The reign of terror was at an end and liberty restored. The new emperor recalled those who had been exiled by Domitian ; what remained of their confiscated property was restored to them, and a stop was put to the vexatious prosecutions which Domitian had encouraged. But the popular feeling demanded more than this. The countless informers of all classes who had thriven under the previous regime now found themselves swept away, to borrow Pliny's metaphor (Pliny, Pcineg., 35), by a hurricane of revengeful fury, which threatened to become as dangerous in its indiscriminate ravages as the system it attacked. It was finally checked by Nerva, who was stung into action by the sarcastic remark of the consul Pronto that, " bad as it was to have an emperor who allowed no one to do anything, it was worse to have one who allowed every one to do everything" (Dio Cass., Epit., 1).

Nerva seems to have iollowed the custom established by his predecessors of announcing at the outset the general lines of his future policy. Domitian had been arbitrary and high-handed, and had heaped favours on the soldiery while humiliating the senate; Nerva naturally enough assumed the opposite attitude, and showed himself anxious in every way to respect the traditional privileges of the senate, and such maxims of constitutional government as still survived. He pledged himself to put no senator to death. His chosen councillors in all affairs of state were senators, and the hearing of claims against the fiscus was taken from the imperial procuratores and entrusted to the more impartial jurisdiction of a preetor and a court of "judices" (Dio Cass., Evit., lxviii. 2; Digest, i. 2, 2; Pliny, Paneg., 36). It was thus, as Pliny magniloquently says, that Nerva united the " principate " with ",freedom."

No one probably expected from Nerva a vigorous administration either at home or abroad. But he seems to have set himself honestly enough to carry through such reforms as were either suggested by his own benevolent inclinations, or imperatively demanded by the necessities of the moment. The economical condition of Italy evidently excited his alarm and sympathy. The last mention of a " lex agraria " in Roman history is connected with his name, though how far the measure was strictly speaking a " law " is uncertain. Under the provisions of this " lex," large tracts of land were bought up and allotted to poor citizens. The cost was defrayed partly from the imperial treasury, but partly also from Nerva's private resources, and the execution of the scheme was entrusted to commissioners (Dig., xlvii. 21, 3; Dio Cass., Epit., lxviii. 2; Pliny, Ep., vii. 31; Corp. In.scr. Lat., vi. 1548). This agrarian law was probably as shortlived in its effects as preceding ones had been, but a reform more lasting in its results was the provision of a regular maintenance at the public cost for the children of poor parents in the towns of Italy (Aur. Vict., Ep., 24), the provision being presumably secured by imposing a yearly charge for this purpose on state and municipal lands. On coins of the year 97 Nerva is represented seated upon his curule chair and stretching out a helping right hand to a boy and a girl. The legend on the coins is " tutela Italim" (Eckhel, vi. 408; Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, ii. 138, note 6). Private individuals were also encouraged to follow the imperial example; and among those who responded was the younger Pliny, whose charitable institution in his own town of Comum seems to have followed directly on that of the emperor himself (Hermes, iii. 101 ; Pliny, Ep. ad T., 8). In the hands of Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, Nerva's example bore fruit in the institution of the " alimentationes," the most genuinely charitable institution of the pagan world. These measures Nerva supplemented by others which aimed at lightening the financial burdens which already weighed heavily on the declining industry of Italy. The cost of maintaining the imperial postal system was transferred to the " fiscus," from the same source apparently money was found for repairing the public roads and aqueducts, and lastly the lucrative but unpopular succession duty " vicesima hereditatum," was so readjusted as to remove the grosser abuses connected with it (Pliny, Paneg., 37). At the same time Nerva did his best to reduce the overgrown expenditure of the state (Pliny, Ep., ii. 1). A commission was appointed to consider the best modes of retrenchment, and the outlay on shows and games was cut down to the lowest possible point. It was these efforts which earned for him the epithet " frugalissimus " (Pliny, Paneg., 51). Nerva seems nevertheless to have soon wearied of the uncongenial task of governing, and his anxiety to be rid of it was quickened by the discovery that not even his blameless life and mild rule protected him against intrigue and disaffection. Early, apparently, in 97 he detected a conspiracy against his life headed by L. Calpurnins Crassus, but he contented himself with a hint to the conspirators that their designs were known, and with banishing Crassus to Tarentum. This ill-judged lenity provoked a few months later an intolerable insult to his dignity. The prietorian guards had keenly resented the murder of their patron Domitian, and now, at the instigation of one of their two prefects, Casperius YElianus, whom Nerva had retained in office, they imperiously demanded the execution of Domitian's murderers, the chamberlain Parthenius, and Petronius Secundus, JElianus's colleague. Nerva vainly strove to save, even at the risk of his own life, the men who had raised him to power, but the soldiers, disregarding his protests, brutally murdered the unfortunate men, and finally forced Nerva to propose a vote of thanks for the deed (Dio Cass., Epit., lxviii. 4; Aur. Vict., Ep., 24). This crowning humiliation convinced Nerva of the necessity of placing the reins of government in stronger hands than his own. Following the precedent set by Augustus, Galba, and Vespasian, he resolved to adopt as his colleague and destined successor a younger and more vigorous man, and his choice fell upon M. Ulpius Trajanus, already well known as a distinguished soldier, and at the time in command of the legions on the Rhine. In October 97, in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, Trajan was formally adopted as his son, and declared his colleague in the government of the empire (Pliny, Paneg., 8). For three months Nerva ruled jointly with Trajan (Aur. Vict., Ep., 24); but on January 27, 98, he died somewhat suddenly. He was buried in the sepulchre of Augustus, and divine honours were paid him by his successor. The verdict of history upon his reign is best expressed in his own words, - " I have done nothing which should prevent me from laying down my power, and living in safety as a private man." In the Rome of to-day the memory of Nerva is still preserved by the ruined temple in the Via Alessandrina (il Colonacce) which marks the site of the Forum begun by Domitian, but which Nerva completed and dedicated (Suet., Dom., 5 ; Aur. Vict., 12).

Authorities. - Dio Cass., Epit., lsviifi. 1-4; Aurelius Victor, 12, and Epit., 24; Zonaras, xi. 20; compare also Pliny, Epistoler and Panegyricus ; Tillemont, Histoire des Empereurs Romains ; Merivale, History of the Romans under the Empire ; H. Schiller, Geschichte d. Kaiserzeit. (H. F. P.)

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