1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nerva, Marcus Cocceius

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20248361911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 19 — Nerva, Marcus CocceiusHenry Francis Pelham

NERVA, MARCUS COCCEIUS, Roman emperor from the 18th of September 96 to the 25th of January 98, was born at Narnia in Umbria on the 8th of November, probably in the year 35. He belonged to a senatorial family, which had attained considerable distinction under the emperors, his father and grandfather having been well-known jurists. A single inscription (C.I.L. vi. 31,297) gives the name of his mother as Sergia Plautilla, daughter of Laenas. In his early manhood he had been on friendly terms with Nero, by whom he was decorated in 65 (Tacitus, Annals, xv. 72) with the triumphal insignia after the suppression of the Pisonian conspiracy (further valuable information as to his career is given in an inscription from Sassoferrato, (C.I.L. xi. 5743).

He was praetor (66) and twice consul, in 71 with the emperor Vespasian for colleague, and again in 90 with Domitian. Towards the close of the latter’s reign (93) he is said to have excited suspicion and to have been banished to Tarentum on a charge of conspiracy (Dio Cass. lxvii. 15; Philostr. Apoll. Tyan. vii. 8). On the murder of Domitian in September 96 Nerva was declared emperor by the people and the soldiers. He is described as a quiet, kindly, dignified man, honest of purpose, but unfitted by his advanced age and temperament, as well as by feeble health, to bear the weight of empire. Nevertheless, his selection, in spite of occasional exhibitions of weakness, justified the choice. His accession brought a welcome relief from the terrible strain of the last few years. The new emperor recalled those who had been exiled by Domitian; what remained of their confiscated property was restored to them, and a stop was put to the vexatious prosecutions which Domitian had encouraged. But the popular feeling demanded more than this. The countless informers of all classes who had thriven under the previous régime now found themselves swept away, to borrow Pliny’s metaphor (Pliny, Paneg. 35), by a hurricane of revengeful fury, which threatened to become as dangerous in its indiscriminate ravages as the system it attacked. It was finally checked by Nerva, who was stung into action by the sarcastic remark of the consul Titus Catius Caesius Fronto that, “bad as it was to have an emperor who allowed no one to do anything, it was worse to have one who allowed every one to do everything” (Dio Cass. lxviii. 1).

Nerva seems to have followed the custom of announcing the general lines of his future policy. Domitian had been arbitrary and high-handed, and had heaped favours on the soldiery while humiliating the senate; Nerva showed himself anxious to respect the traditional privileges of the senate, and such maxims of constitutional government as still survived. He pledged himself to put no senator to death. His chosen councillors in all affairs of state were senators, and the hearing of claims against the fiscus was taken from the imperial procuratores and entrusted to the more impartial jurisdiction of a praetor and a court of judices (Dio Cass. lxviii. 2; Digest, i. 2, 2; Pliny, Paneg. 36).

No one probably expected from Nerva a vigorous administration either at home or abroad, although during his reign a successful campaign was carried on in Pannonia against the Germans (Suebi), for which he assumed the name Germanicus. He appears, however, to have set himself honestly to carry out reforms. The economical condition of Italy evidently excited his alarm and sympathy. The last mention of a lex agraria in Roman history is connected with his name, though how far the measure was strictly speaking a law is uncertain. Under the provisions of this lex, large tracts of land were bought up and allotted to poor citizens. The cost was defrayed partly from the imperial treasury, but partly also from Nerva’s private resources, and the execution of the scheme was entrusted to commissioners (Dig. xlvii. 21, 3; Dio Cass. lxviii. 2; Pliny, Ep. vii. 31; Corp. Inscr. Lat. vi. 1548). He also founded or restored colonies at Verulae, Scyllacium and Sitifis in Mauretania. The agrarian law was probably as short-lived in its effects as preceding ones had been, but a more lasting reform was the maintenance at the public cost of the children of poor parents in the towns of Italy (Aur. Vict. Ep. 24), the provision being presumably secured by a yearly charge on state and municipal lands. Private individuals were also encouraged to follow the imperial example. In the hands of Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines, Nerva’s example bore fruit in the institution of the alimentationes, the most genuinely charitable institution of the pagan world. These measures Nerva supplemented by others which aimed at lightening the financial burdens on the declining industry of Italy. The cost of maintaining the imperial postal system (vehiculatio) was transferred to the fiscus; from the same source apparently money was found for repairing the public roads and aqueducts; and lastly, the lucrative but unpopular tax of 5% on all legacies or inheritances (vicesima hereditatum), was so readjusted as to remove the grosser abuses connected with it (Pliny, Paneg. 37). At the same time Nerva did his best to reduce the overgrown expenditure of the state (Pliny, Ep. ii. 1). A commission was appointed to consider the best modes of retrenchment, and the outlay on shows and games was cut down to the lowest possible point. Nerva seems nevertheless to have soon wearied of the uncongenial task of governing, and his anxiety to be rid of it was quickened by the discovery that not even his blameless life and mild rule protected him against intrigue and disaffection. Early, apparently, in 97 he detected a conspiracy against his life headed by L. (or C.) Calpurnius Crassus, but he contented himself with a hint to the conspirators that their designs were known, and with banishing Crassus to Tarentum. This ill-judged lenity provoked a few months later an intolerable insult to his dignity. The praetorian guards had keenly resented the murder of their patron Domitian, and now, at the instigation of one of their two prefects, Casperius Aelianus, whom Nerva had retained in office, they imperiously demanded the execution of Domitian’s murderers, the chamberlain Parthenius and Petronius Secundus, Aelianus’s colleague. Nerva vainly strove to save, even at the risk of his own life, the men who had raised him to power, but the soldiers brutally murdered the unfortunate men, and forced him to propose a vote of thanks for the deed (Dio Cass. Epit. lxviii. 4; Aur. Vict. Ep. 24) This humiliation convinced Nerva of the necessity of placing the government in stronger hands than his own. Following the precedent set by Augustus, Galba and Vespasian, he resolved to adopt as his colleague and destined successor, M. Ulpius Trajanus, a distinguished soldier, at the time in command of the legions on the Rhine. In October 97, in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, Trajan was formally adopted as his son and declared his colleague in the government of the empire (Pliny, Paneg. 8). For three months Nerva ruled jointly with Trajan (Aur. Vict. Ep. 24); but on the 25th (according to others, the 27th) of January 98 he died somewhat suddenly. He was buried in the sepulchre of Augustus, and divine honours were paid him by his successor. The verdict of history upon his reign is best expressed in his own words—“I have done nothing which should prevent me from laying down my power, and living in safety as a private man.” The memory of Nerva is still preserved by the ruined temple in the Via Alessandrina (il Colonacce) which marks the site of the Forum begun by Domitian, but which Nerva completed and dedicated (Suet. Dom. 5; Aur. Vict. 12).

Authorities.—Dio Cass. lxviii. 1-4; Aurelius Victor 12, and Epit. 24; Zonaras xi. 20; compare also Pliny, Epistolae and Panegyricus; Tillemont, Histoire des empereurs romains, ii.; C. Merivale, History of the Romans under the Empire, ch. 63; H. Schiller, Geschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit, i. pt. 2 (1883), p. 538; J. Asbach, Römisches Kaiserthum und Verfassung bis auf Trajan (Cologne, 1896); A. Stein in Pauly-Wissowa’s Realencyclopädie (s.v. Cocceius, 16); J. B. Bury, The Student’s Roman Empire, ch. 23 (1893).  (H. F. P.)