Nerva was one of the most remarkable Roman emperors, who ruled from 96 to 98 CE. He was the first of the Five Good Emperors, a group of rulers who are praised by ancient historians for their wisdom and moderation. He was also the founder of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty, which lasted until 192 CE and produced some of the most famous and successful emperors in Roman history.
Nerva was born on November 8, around 30 or 35 CE, in the village of Narni, near Rome. He belonged to a new Italian nobility that emerged during the early empire. His father, Marcus Cocceius Nerva, was a suffect consul under Caligula, and his mother, Sergia Plautilla, was from a distinguished senatorial family. He had at least one sister, Cocceia, who married Lucius Salvius Otho Titianus, the brother of Emperor Otho.
Nerva began his political career under Nero, as a member of his imperial entourage. He played a vital role in exposing the Pisonian conspiracy of 65 CE, a plot to assassinate Nero and replace him with Gaius Calpurnius Piso. For his loyalty and service, he was rewarded with honors and privileges by Nero and his successors.
He continued to rise in prominence under the Flavian dynasty, which came to power after the civil war of 69 CE. He was consul twice, in 71 and 90 CE, under Vespasian and Domitian respectively. He also held various important offices and commands, such as governor of Africa and prefect of Rome. He was known for his integrity, generosity, and eloquence.
However, his relationship with Domitian deteriorated in the last years of his reign. Domitian became increasingly paranoid and oppressive, executing or exiling many senators and nobles on charges of treason. Nerva was among those who suffered from his tyranny. He was forced to divorce his wife and give up his property. He was also implicated in a conspiracy against Domitian in 93 CE, but he managed to escape punishment.
On September 18, 96 CE, Domitian was assassinated by a group of conspirators from his own household and the Praetorian Guard. The same day, Nerva was proclaimed emperor by the Senate, who saw him as a safe and respectable choice to restore stability and harmony to the empire. He was almost 66 years old when he became emperor.
Nerva’s reign was short but significant. He tried to undo the damage caused by Domitian’s autocracy and restore the liberties and dignity of the Senate and the people. He abolished treason trials and released or recalled those who had been exiled or imprisoned by Domitian. He also reduced taxes and initiated public works projects, such as repairing roads and aqueducts. He established a system of alimenta, or trusts for the maintenance of poor children in Italy.
One of Nerva’s greatest achievements was securing a peaceful succession by adopting Trajan as his heir in 97 CE. Trajan was a popular and successful general who commanded the army on the German frontier. By choosing him as his son and colleague, Nerva ensured the loyalty of the military and avoided a potential civil war.
Nerva died on January 27, 98 CE, after a brief illness. He was deified by the Senate and buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus. He was succeeded by Trajan, who continued his policies and expanded the empire to its greatest extent.
Nerva is remembered as a wise and moderate emperor who restored peace and prosperity to Rome after a period of turmoil and oppression. He was praised by ancient writers such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Dio Cassius for his virtues and achievements. He is also regarded as one of the Five Good Emperors , along with Trajan , Hadrian , Antoninus Pius , and Marcus Aurelius .