The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 11
The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. The history of the Roman Empire is perhaps unprecedented in its prosperity, considered by most historians and scholars to have been the “perfect empire” with a stable economy, a strong government and superb military. The men who ruled this empire varied greatly, from noble leaders like Antoninus Pius to oppressive despots like Caligula. The story of Rome’s rulers has it all – love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride. Their history is a roller coaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny. Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the most outstanding rulers that Roman history created – and who created Roman history. This week we focus on Nerva, the first of the five good emperors.
Nerva: The Inept Emperor
Marcus Cocceius Nerva was Roman Emperor from 96 to 98, and his reign brought stability after the turbulent successions of his predecessors. Nerva helped establish the foundations for a new golden era for Rome which his chosen successor Trajan would bring to full fruition.
The assassination of the Roman Emperor Domitian brought an end to the short-lived Flavian Dynasty. Since Domitian left no surviving heirs, the throne of the empire was left vacant. In order to avoid possible civil unrest, violence or a civil war, a temporary appointment was necessary. The answer to the problem came in the form of a man already ill and old even by Roman standards, Nerva.
The new Emperor was born in 35 A.D. in the small town of Narnia in Umbria. He came from a distinguished Roman family and held a number of official positions under various emperors. Unrelated to anybody before him by either marriage or blood, his ascension would usher in an era historians call “The Five Good Emperors.” It would be a time of relative peace and stability; unfortunately, it was followed by one of weak emperors and insecurity.
Although the army would be the only ones to mourn Domitian’s death, the Roman Senate, who had tired of Domitian’s tyranny, welcomed Nerva, quickly recognizing him as Emperor in 96 A.D. They even granted him the title of Pater Patriae or “father of the country.” The general populace also seemed to welcome him, sensing a release from the harsh rule of Domitian. Eventually, “a sense of euphoria” returned to the empire; justice had been restored.
However, while the citizenry and the Senate welcomed the new emperor, there remained many who overlooked Domitian’s cruelty and sought revenge for his death, particularly, the army. In 97 A.D. an uprising occurred and Nerva was imprisoned. His capturers demanded the release of the two of the men responsible for Domitian’s death. Nerva resisted and the conspirators were later seized and executed. Although unharmed, the incident not only damaged Nerva’s authority but left him visibly shaken, making him question not only his own possible death but also who would succeed him.
Without an heir of his own, he realized his only option was adoption and he chose as his “son” Marcus Ulpius Traianus, Trajan, the governor of Upper Germany. Since Nerva knew little about foreign affairs and lacked any military experience, the appointment of Trajan was made not only to provide an heir but to secure the northern provinces.
Nerva’s limited political experience demonstrated to those around him that he lacked decisiveness and originality. Yet, despite his relatively short reign of only 16 months and his tendency to consult the Senate on all policy-making decisions, he did much to stabilize the empire. He dedicated a new forum that had been begun by Domitian and named it in his honor, Forum Nervae. Although some claim his reforms were only to gain popularity, he repaired roads and aqueducts, built granaries, repaired the Colosseum after the Tiber flooded and allotted land to the poor.
Nerva was far from a typical emperor, forsaking the imperial palace, choosing to live in Vespasian’s old residence. His adoption of Trajan enabled him to live the remainder of his life in peace. He reportedly said, “I have done nothing that would prevent me laying down the imperial office and returning to private life in safety.”
In 98 A.D., Nerva died, and on Trajan’s orders was laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Augustus. His ascension to the throne and adoption of Trajan initiated a series of adopted successors and Trajan would bring about a golden age throughout the empire.