On 18 September, in AD 96, the 65 year-old senator, Nerva, became emperor of Rome (Figure 1). His predecessor, Domitian, was assassinated in the culmination of a palace conspiracy; there is no evidence that Nerva had anything to do with the plot. The Senate officially damned Domitian’s memory, erasing his name from public monuments and tearing down his statues and portraits. Rome’s senatorial aristocracy bitterly resented him on account of his autocratic governance and the excessive treason trials and executions that befell senators towards the end of his reign.
Nerva had no children and ruled for only sixteen months until his death on 27 January AD 98. As historical sources attest, there was palpable tension with the armed forces owing to their affections for Domitian and thirst for vengeance. In the summer of AD 97, the imperial bodyguard surrounded Nerva in his palace and forced him to hand over the conspirators in Domitian’s assassination for punishment. In the fall of that year, Nerva adopted the popular military general, Trajan (ruled AD 98-117) as his son and successor, evidently easing tensions and the threat of civil war. Nerva’s reign is thus often characterized as mere interlude in history, between the Flavian Dynasty and the remarkable reign of Trajan, during which the empire reached its greatest geographical extent, and public building, art, and literature flourished. In most history and art history textbooks, Nerva is given at best a cursory treatment.
Roman authors no doubt convey accurately the tensions between Nerva’s administration and the army, but perhaps it is unfair to characterize Nerva’s rule as a simple interlude and to suggest that he was a relatively weak and ineffective emperor based on these circumstances. The military tensions have prompted scholars to read anxiety and weakness into the coinage, the best source of visual art in Nerva’s reign since his brief rule left little time for public building encrusted with relief sculpture. Images of Victory on Nerva’s coinage are interpreted by scholars as reflective of the emperor’s desperation to capitalize on military victories, or to flatter the army, even though Victory appears only on rare denominations, quinarii, and was the standard image to adorn those coins since the reign of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14) (Figure 2). Historians often read Peace, seated and holding a branch and scepter, on Nerva’s coinage as hope for stability (Figure 3). A closer look indicates, however, that Peace was a standard image on the imperial coinage when a new emperor took power, even when transitions of power were relatively peaceful (e.g., from Vespasian to Titus, or Nerva to Trajan). Indeed, much of Nerva’s coinage program is traditional when viewed in terms of precedents, and later uses, and need not be read as the appeals or aspirations of an impotent and pleading ruler.
The search for the “character” of an emperor in the visual arts is a specious exercise and has sometimes misdirected art historical study. For instance, some art historians have sought to see cruelty and wickedness in the portraits of Caligula and the empress Julia Domna. Political art operated differently than historical texts that faulted certain imperial figures only after their deaths to magnify the virtues of living emperors. Political art would have glorified the living emperor just as any contemporary literature would also have aggrandized him. Additionally, coinage and other state-sanctioned art was probably not produced at the instigation of the emperor to make appeals for support. The Senate and Roman People frequently dedicated monuments, such as arches, to the emperor. Like poetry, panegyric, and honorific monuments that glorified the emperor, one may read coin imagery as praise for the emperor and as communicating expectations of his rule.
In the reign of Nerva, there is a strong correspondence between contemporary text and the coinage. For example, personifications of Fairness and Justice mirror the Martial’s and Frontinus’s praise of these qualities in Nerva (Figures 4 and 5). A common image on each of Nerva’s denominations is Liberty, who holds the cap of a freed slave and a rod (Figure 6). The coins visualize the pronounced rhetoric of liberty espoused by writers such as Tacitus, Martial, and Pliny in the age of Nerva and Trajan.
Tacitus wrote that it was in Nerva’s reign that imperial rule was first joined with liberty. The Senate and Roman People also erected an inscription dedicated to Liberty on the occasion of Nerva’s accession. The rhetoric of liberty, which pervaded literature in the decades after the assassination of Domitian, promoted the new age in which Rome would be ruled by evenhanded emperors such as Nerva and Trajan.
The coinage of Nerva does not communicate, as has been asserted, the realities of Nerva’s vulnerable position and the anxieties of his reign, but instead projected the image of a progressive and capable ruler who was the opposite of Domitian, exercising the qualities of fairness, justice, and liberty. The messages on the coinage were not concocted at the emperor’s instruction to appeal for support, but instead visualized the written and spoken rhetoric in the weeks and months after Nerva assumed power and illustrated the expectation that he would rule differently than his predecessor.
Viewed in this light, and without judgement of historical hindsight, what coins from Nerva’s reign depict is the contemporary praise directed at his administration in the aftermath of Domitian’s assassination. Other coins celebrate new policies and reforms for which Nerva would have been praised, as they corrected Domitian’s abuses and perceived maladministration. When Nerva was alive and wielding power, his public image was that of a progressive reformer, the antidote of hated and demonized predecessor; it was not the image of a desperate ruler in an anxious historical interlude.
Headline image credit: Photo of the Tabula Traiana plaque that is found in the Iron Gate gorge of the Danube on the Serbian coast. Was erected to commemorate the defeat of the Dacian kings by the Romans by Rlichtefeld. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.