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Nerva: Succession & Reign

We begin today with two denarii: one from before (struck 79 CE) and the other from closer to the end of Domitian's reign (struck 94-5 CE).

Domitian antagonized the Senate during his reign:

  • he centralized power and reduced the influence of the Senate, often bypassing them in decision-making

  • he conducted purges, executing or exiling senators whom he perceived as threats or who opposed his policies

  • he spent heavily on public works, games, and spectacles, which were popular with the general populace and often criticized by the Senate as extravagant

  • he demanded honors and titles from the Senate, including being addressed as "Dominus et Deus" (Lord and God)

"When he became emperor, he did not hesitate to boast in the senate that he had conferred their power on both his father and his brother, and that they had but returned him his own; nor on taking back his wife after their divorce, that he had “recalled her to his divine couch.”"
-Suetonius, Life of Domitian, XIII.1

This antagonism led to to several plots against him which ultimately resulted in his assassination in 96 AD. His wife, Domitia, although aparently loyal to him even after his death, seems to have been implicated in the plot that cost him his life.

Roman Imperial, Domitian, as Caesar, AR Denarius, Rome, struck 79 CE

Obv: CAESAR AVG F DOMITIANVS COS VI, laureate head to right

Rev: PRINCEPS IVVENTVTIS, clasped right hands, holding aquila set on prow.

Ref: RIC II.2 1081 (Vespasian); BMCRE 269 (Vespasian); RSC 393

The reverse shows support of the military (naval and land forces) with the prow representing the navy and the legionary eagle the ground forces. The wreath a symbol of victory and the clasped hands of unity. PRINCEPS IVVENTVTIS speaking to Domitian as the future emperor or leader of the next generation (Prince of Youth).

Roman Imperial, Domitian (81-96), denarius, Rome. struck 93-94 CE

Obv: IMP CAES DOMIT AVG GERM P M TR P XIII, laureate head right.

Rev: IMP XXII COS XVI CENS P P P, Minerva standing left, holding thunderbolt and spear; shield at her right side.

Ref: RIC II.1 763; RSC 283

Blood on the Moon

Domitian had been forewarned by his horoscope of his death.

"On the day before Domitian's assassination someone brought him a present of apples. 'Serve them tomorrow,' he told the servants, adding: '- if only I am spared to eat them.' Then, turning to his companions he remarked: 'There will be blood on the Moon as she enters Aquarius, and a deed will be done for everyone to talk about throughout the entire world.'"
-Suetonius, Life of Domitian, 16

Conspirators shared a false time to give him false comfort.

"Presently he asked for the time. As had been prearranged, his freedmen answered untruthfully: 'The sixth hour,' because they knew it was the fifth he feared. Convinced that the danger had passed, Domitian went off quickly and happily to take a bath; whereupon his head valet, Parthenius, changed his intention by delivering the news that a man had called on very urgent and important business, and would not be put off. So Domitian dismissed his attendants and hurried to his bedroom - where he was killed."
-Suetonius, Life of Domitian, 16


Nerva was named by the Senate as emperor on the same day that Domitian which certainly opens suspicion that there was no shortage of planning for succession before the assassination.

Cassius Dio relates that Domitian, fearing the predictions of horoscopes would have killed Nerva, if an astrologer who was friendly to Nerva had not declared that Nerva was already destined to die within a few days. Additionally, Nerva pardoned and paid 400K sesterces to Larginus Proculus, who had "publicly announced in the province of Germany that the emperor would die on the day when he actually did die" and been condemned to death by Domitian. (Dio's Roman History LXVII)

Mattingly and Sydenham (RIC II) describe the reason for his selection by the Senate as: "as a politician he was colourless and inoffensive to the military".

Nerva was an elderly 60 year old and a long time supporter of the Flavians. To strengthen control, a year into his reign, Nerva adopted Trajan, Governor of Upper Germany (Germania Superior), as his successor after a victory in Pannonia over the Germans in late October, AD 97.

Roman Empire, Nerva, AD 96-98, AR Denarius (16.5mm, 3.44 g, 6h). Rome mint. Struck AD Jan-sept 97.

Obv: IMP NERVA CAES AVG P M TR POT, laureate head right

Rev: COS III PP, emblems of the pontificate: simpulum, aspergillum, capis, and lituus

Ref: RIC II 23; RSC 52

The tools on the reverse of this coin: simpulum, aspergillum, capis, and lituus are associated with the role of the emperor as Pontifex Maximus and convey his religious authority, his legitimacy as ruler, and invoke the favor of the gods for the stability and prosperity of the Roman Empire.

"5 Good Emperors"

Nerva was the first of the emperors known as the "5 Good Emperors". All were chosen for their leadership and qualifications other than being a "son of". Rome reached its territorial and economic apogee during this period. It was a period in which Rome saw no military defeat and no civil war.

To reduce the cost of living and encourage the farming industry, Nerva instituted an expansionary or loose fiscal policy by issuing low-interest loans to farm holders. He also freed Italians from the Vehiculatio, a road tax, and exempted all who didn't self-declare as Jews from the Jewish tax (fiscus Judaicus) imposed by Vespasian in AD 70. Nerva died on January 27, 98 AD, and Trajan succeeded him.

An unexpected modern fact: The city of Gloucester, UK, erected a statue of Emperor Nerva in 2002 in honor of its founding under Nerva as a Roman Colony for retired veterans: Colonia Nerviana Glevensis. See:

References in addition to others linked inline

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