Who was Roman Emperor Nerva and what did he do?

Despite a brief reign, Nerva Caesar Augustus was widely seen as a wise and just ruler. He brought stability to Rome after the authoritarian rule of his predecessor Domitian, and he laid solid foundations for the Roman Empire to flourish. Here is the story of Marcus Cocceius Nerva, the founder of the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty and the first of the ‘Five Good Emperors’.

History Rulers
13 May 2023

Marcus Cocceius Nerva emerged from the shadows of Roman history to rise to the imperial throne and steer the Empire from the brink of chaos. His short yet pivotal reign marked the dawn of a golden age, laying the groundwork for the illustrious Nerva-Antonine Dynasty.

A short but pivotal reign of just fifteen months, Emperor Nerva did more for Rome in that time than many of his predecessors, and indeed his successors. He established the precedent of adoptive succession, enacted financial reforms, developed the transport system and improved the food supply. Nerva restored peace to an empire which had threatened to spiral out of control during the reign of Domitian.

Here is the story of Emperor Nerva. Biography and accomplishments. We’ll also answer the question, ‘how did Nerva die?’

The Early Life of Marcus Cocceius Nerva

Head of Emperor Nerva; Italy; 96 - 98; Marble. (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Nerva was probably born in 30 AD, although that date is disputed with some sources suggesting his year of birth was 35 AD. He came from a well-respected political family and it’s believed many of his direct ancestors were part of the imperial court of Augustus Caesar.

Hailing from a small village just north of Rome, his father may have been a suffect consul under the reign of Caligula, and he had a sister who reputedly married into the family of Emperor Otho.

Emperor Nerva’s early life is subject to conjecture and debate, though it’s thought he didn’t pursue the usual rise to power of military service, preferring instead a life of public service.

Nerva: Biography of Imperial Service

Nerva, 30-98 (Photo by Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)

Details of Nerva’s career are largely unknown until he entered public life around 65 AD. While under the employ of Emperor Nero, he helped to expose the Pisonian Conspiracy, a plot to have the emperor killed by Gaius Calpurnicus Piso. Nerva’s precise contribution is unexplained, but whatever he did it warranted ornamenta triumphalia, triumphal honours, and a series of statues erected in the imperial palace.

Unlike many others, Nerva’s reputation didn’t suffer when Nero committed suicide. After the disastrous Year of the Four Emperors in 69 AD – when Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian reigned in quick succession – Nerva largely disappeared from the historical record until 89 AD. He served Emperor Vespasian, becoming consul in 71 AD and was said to have been considered an influential member of the senatorial elite.

Following Vespasian’s death by natural causes in 79 AD, the service of Marcus Cocceius Nerva likely continued under Titus and Domitian, and he was elected consul again in 90 AD. When the latter was murdered on 18th September 96 AD, the Senate moved quickly to name Nerva Caesar Augustus as emperor.

The appointment was significant. Usually, the Senate would simply ratify the choice of the outgoing emperor, the army, or the Praetorian Guard. On this occasion, Nerva, by this time in his mid-60s and supposedly in ailing health, was considered a safe pair of hands and essentially a placeholder. He was an experienced and well-respected political operative, not viewed as biased or blinkered by blood or marital ties to previous regimes. Perhaps most importantly, he could handpick his successor, since he himself was childless.

The Reign of Emperor Nerva

Emperor Domitian (Photo by: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Senate welcomed Nerva after the tyranny of Domitian and proffered upon him the title pater patriae, ‘Father of the Country.’

Nerva’s first months were focused on putting right the wrongs of his predecessor. He granted amnesty to the exiled, set free those imprisoned for alleged treason and returned land and property to those from whom it was forcibly taken.

As was traditional when a new emperor ascended the throne, he gave a donativum, a one-off payment, to the people and to the army. In addition, Nerva Caesar Augustus implemented a number of financial reforms to alleviate the economic burden on the Roman citizens. He reduced taxes, granted financial relief to provinces, and took measures to protect vulnerable groups, such as widows and orphans.

Despite his seemingly wise and just nature, Emperor Nerva’s rule was marred by a perception of anarchy, as he struggled to maintain control over senatorial factions along with the powerful Praetorian Guard. In 97 AD, the Praetorian Guard – who overlooked Domitian’s abject cruelty because he treated them well – revolted due to Nerva’s inability to take action against Domitian’s murderers. They imprisoned Emperor Nerva inside his palace, demanding that Domitian’s murderers be punished. The revolt exposed the fragility of Nerva’s reign and the underlying tensions simmering beneath the surface of the Roman Empire.

Although he was eventually freed after giving in to many demands, this event unnerved the emperor. He began to question his own mortality and decided to adopt an heir. He chose Marcus Ulpius Traianus, or Trajan, who was seen as a capable military leader at the time. From this point on, it’s believed the real power in Rome now lay with Trajan. This method of selecting an emperor became known as adoptive succession. This practice of choosing an adopted heir based on merit rather than bloodline would continue among the so-called Five Good Emperors, ensuring political stability and competent leadership for nearly a century.

Death & Legacy

Statue of Nerva at Imperial Forums, Rome (Photo by Marta Carenzi/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Marcus Cocceius Nerva died in January 98 AD of a fever following a stroke at his home in the Gardens of Sallust. His ashes are believed to have been interred in the Mausoleum of Augustus, although according to Greek historian Cassius Dio, they were placed in the family tomb of the Cocceii.

History speaks positively of the reign of Emperor Nerva. Tacitus, one of the great Roman historians said that he ushered in ‘the dawn of a most happy age, [when] Nerva Caesar blended things once irreconcilable; sovereignty and freedom.’

Just before he died, he reputedly said, ‘I have done nothing that would prevent me laying down the imperial office and returning to private life in safety.’

Although his reign was short, Nerva’s impact is remembered as a turning point that contributed to the flourishing of the Empire under the capable guidance of the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty.


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