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15 Humble Facts About Nerva

Even though he only ruled over the Roman Empire for a period of 1 year and 4 months, he founded a dynasty consisting of 7 Roman Emperors who ruled for nearly a century.

In this post, you’ll discover the ultimate list of facts about Nerva, an important Roman Emperor at the end of the 1st century A.D.

1. Nerva was born in the year 30 A.D.

Nerva was born in the year 30 A.D. as “Marcus Cocceius Nerva” in a village called Narni, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Rome. All the ancestors of his father’s side were given this name.

Nothing is known about his childhood, only that he had a sister named Cocceia who ended up marrying a man named Lucius Salvius Titianus Otho, the brother of Emperor Otho who briefly reigned during the “Year of the 4 Emperors” in 69 A.D.

Narni in Italy
Narni in Italy / Wiki Commons

2. He came from a noble family

He wasn’t born in an elite family in Rome but was part of a family of the nobility who gradually gained prominence in the late-Republican era and the early Roman Empire.

His great-grandfather held the office of consul, one of the most important political positions in the empire, in 36 A.D. All his successors would hold the same position as well, and his family had close ties to the family of the first Emperor of Rome, Augustus.

It’s fair to conclude that Nerva was born into a very good family in the early days of the Roman Empire!

3. His father was consul under the reign of an infamous emperor

His grandfather was a personal friend of Emperor Tiberius and followed him as he voluntarily moved to Capri to run the Empire away from Rome in the early 20s. This is also the place where later Emperor Caligula resided during Tiberius’ reign.

His father would attain the position of Consul during the reign of the infamous Emperor Caligula (37-41 A.D.).

4. Little is known about Nerva’s early life

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Because none of the historical writings regarding Nerva’s early life remain, we can only assume that he followed in the footsteps of all of his ancestors on his father’s side and got involved in politics.

This theory is made strong by the fact that all of the writings about him later indicate he committed himself to a lifetime of imperial service, starting under the reign of Emperor Nero as he was “praetor-elect” in the year 65 A.D.

5. He helped to discover a massive conspiracy against Nero

Imperial service when it comes to Nerva meant complete obedience and support of the emperor, no matter how crazy things had become.

This means that he played a major role in uncovering a massive conspiracy against Emperor Nero referred to as the Pisonian conspiracy of 65 A.D., named after the main conspirator, Gaius Calpurnius Piso.

What his role exactly was is unknown, but the fact that he was awarded “triumphal honors” and the right to have statues of him created and placed all around the palace, and even in the Forum Romanum.

Let’s assume that he played a critical role in the uncovering of the conspiracy, which saw 19 Senators, 7 Equites, 11 soldiers, and 4 women either executed or exiled.

Statue of Nerva in the Roman Forum
Statue of Nerva in the Roman Forum / Biser Todorov /

6. he was likely a really good friend of Vespasian

After Nero committed suicide on June 9, 68 A.D., a civil war broke out in the year referred to as the “Year of the 4 Emperors.” What’s remarkable is that Nerva didn’t support the brother-in-law of his sister, Otho, but supported the cause of the Flavians.

This clearly indicates that he was a good friend of Vespasian, who would end up as the unlikely winner in the power struggle that ended with his accession in December of the year 69 A.D.

Shortly after Vespasian arrived in Rome, Nerva was given the office of ordinary Consul in 71 A.D., a higher position than Suffect Consul. He was one of the few non-Flavian politicians awarded this position during the reign of Vespasian.

7. Did he uncover yet another conspiracy in 89 A.D.?

Nothing is known about him after his consulship in 71 A.D. and he most probably became a political advisor during the reigns of Vespasian (69-79) and his sons Titus (79-81) and Domitian (81-96).

Apart from his great literary talent, which was praised by Nero, Nerva also seemed to have great talent as a detective. He resurfaces in history during another conspiracy, this time the revolt of Saturninus in 89, the governor of Germania Superior who revolted against the Roman Empire with the Chatti Tribe.

His exact role is again unclear, but he was awarded another consulship in the following year, proving he had a major stake in solving the conspiracy.

8. He was declared Emperor the day Domitian was assassinated

Domitian was assassinated on September 18, 96 A.D., and Nerva was declared Emperor mere hours after the event, an unusual choice at the time because of his old age, weak health, and the fact that he was childless.

Whether or not he was aware of the conspiracy against Domitian is unclear, but historian Cassius Dio claims that the conspirators approached him before the event.

This theory has been refuted by some modern historians, and because he helped to solve conspiracies earlier, this indeed seemed unlikely.

Nerva as Jupiter
Nerva as Jupiter / Shakko /

9. the Senate likely chose him to become Emperor

Even though this remains speculation, the most likely thing that happened was that the Senate, who hated Domitian and had been heavily persecuted during his reign, chose Nerva to become Emperor just hours after the news broke out.

After all, he was a humble, modest, and kind man, who would also get approval from the Domitian faction because of his close ties with the Flavians.

Plus, it was very unlikely he would refuse because he knew exactly what happened after the death of Nero and would have done whatever to avoid such a scenario again, also accepting the highest position in the Empire.

10. He quickly ran out of money after he came to power

In an attempt to gain approval, Nerva started his reign by giving away huge amounts of money and possessions, mainly to the poor and the Roman Army.

The poor reportedly received over 60 million sesterces worth of land and countless taxes which benefited the rich were cut. He also abolished the tax for Jews throughout the Empire.

The result?

Big financial problems for the empire quickly resulted in the abolishing of lavish games and the selling of all of Domitian’s possessions.

11. He was held hostage for 2 reasons

Nerva did just about everything he could to appease both the Senate and the Roman people but still didn’t manage to find enough support from the Roman Army.

The biggest crisis of Nerva’s short reign happened in October 97, when the Praetorian Guard, led by Casperius Aelianus, laid siege on the imperial palace and basically took Nerva hostage to force him to solve 2 crucial issues:

  • Arrest and persecute the conspirators of Domitian.
  • Appoint an heir.

One of the most interesting facts about Nerva is that he caved in which basically shows he was incapable to lead the empire. The main conspirators against Domitian were executed and Nerva appointed an heir as demanded.

12. He appointed Trajan as his heir

One of his most important decision was to appoint an heir, and he made the best choice he possibly could as well. Trajan was a famous and popular Roman Military Commander who achieved major successes on the German border.

Left with no other choice, Trajan was made Caesar in 98 A.D. and would eventually succeed Nerva after his death.

13. He was deified by the Senate after his death

His brief reign was still regarded positively by the Senate, which was finally released from the horrible period it faced under Domitian’s reign of terror.

because of this, Nerva was deified by the Senate after he passed away on January 28, 98 A.D.

Roman coin of the deified Nerva (left), minted by Trajan around 115 A.D.
Roman coin of the deified Nerva (left), minted by Trajan around 115 A.D. / Source

14. He was buried together with Augustus

One of the most fascinating facts about Nerva is that he was buried together with the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, in the “Mausoleum of Augustus,” located on the Campus Martius in Rome.

He was the last emperor to be given this honor, most probably because of the close ties between the family of Nerva and the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

interesting mausoleum of augustus facts
The Mausoleum of Augustus / Wiki Commons

15. He’s considered to be the first of the “5 Good Emperors”

His brief reign itself wasn’t as important as the fact that he chose Trajan as his heir. Because of this, Nerva effectively started the Nerva–Antonine Dynasty which ruled over the Roman Empire from 96 until 192 A.D., ending with the assassination of Commodus.

The term “5 Good Emperors” was given to Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius, by 16th-century writer and philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli in his book “The Discourses on Livy.”

In it he writes:

From the study of this history we may also learn how a good government is to be established, for while all the emperors who succeeded to the throne by birth, except Titus, were bad, all were good who succeeded by adoption, as in the case of the five from Nerva to Marcus. But as soon as the empire fell once more to the heirs by birth, its ruin recommenced.

Niccolò Machiavelli about the 5 Good Emperors.
Nerva facts
Bust of Nerva / Fgiusepp /