Roman Emperor
In Power Sep 18, 96 – Jan 27, 98
Born Nov 8, 30
Narni, Italy
Died Jan 27, 98 (aged 67)
Gardens of Sallust, Rome, Italy
Father Marcus Cocceius Nerva
Mother Sergia Plautilla

Nerva was the first emperor in the line of the Five Good Emperors of Rome. He came into power after the Flavian dynasty and was viewed as a temporary emperor to rule over Rome following Domitian’s assassination. He was appointed due to his political experience, poor health, and age, all of which made him an appropriate choice as an emperor for a short period of time. His lack of military prowess was one of his weaknesses. Nerva ruled for 16 months before his death, making way for his adopted successor Trajan. 

Early Life

Born Marcus Cocceius Nerva, he later changed his name to Nerva Caesar Augustus. All of his direct ancestors on his father’s side were also given the name Marcus Cocceius Nerva. They had a long history in the imperial community since the reign of Emperor Augustus. His exact year of birth is debatable, but it was believed to be either AD 30 or 35. He was born on 8 November to Marcus Cocceius Nerva, who was a consul during Caligula’s rule. He was of Italian blood, much like the members of the Flavian dynasty before him and unlike the Roman Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nerva had a sister named Cocceia, who married Lucius Salvius Otho Titianus, who was the brother of Emperor Otho. 

Even before his sister’s marriage, Cocceii were held in high regard as a celebrated political lineage since the late Republic and later on the Empire. For generations, their members attained positions as consuls. Nerva’s great-grandfather was Consul and Governor of Asia in 36 BC. This only continued with his grandfather, who was Consul Suffect. 

Political Career

Information on Nerva’s childhood and career is limited but accounts point to it as unconventional. In 65, he was elected as a Praetor. Similar to those who came before him, he was mobile within imperial structures and served as a diplomat and a strategist. 

Nerva was recognized by Nero for his literary talents, calling him the “Tibullus of our time.” He was honored for helping Nero avoid a Pisonian conspiracy to dethrone the emperor during his rule. It was also during Nero’s reign that Nerva gained a friend in Vespasian, the future emperor of the Flavian dynasty. Despite his relations with Otho as a brother-in-law, Nerva was one of the first supporters of the Flavian dynasty that came into power after Otho’s reign. Nerva went on to hold the position of co-consul in Vespasian’s time. This was a unique appointment because non-Flavians were not commonly given this honor in Vespasian’s time. Vespasian then entrusted his youngest son, Domitian, to Nerva before he left for the Jewish war, which took place in 67. During Titus’s and Domitian’s emperorship, Nerva continued to play a role in advising them. 

In Domitian’s rule, Nerva once again was a co-consul. It is suggested by historical accounts that he was able to share intel on a conspiracy. Another rumor was that Domitian aimed to ensure the stability of his regime. He was known to be a friend of Domitian’s, one of the few that Domitian could trust. 

Domitian was killed in his palace on 18 September 96, giving way to the Senate’s decision to appoint Marcus Cocceius Nerva as the new emperor. Although Nerva had extensive experience in politics, this was a puzzling choice on the part of the citizens due to Nerva’s age and poor health. He also did not have a child. Many of Domitian’s followers did not oppose the idea due to the high probability that he did not take part in Domitian’s assassination. Cassius Dio suggested that the group of conspirators informed Nerva of the plot, which did not make him entirely innocent. Seutonius, on the other hand, failed to acknowledge Nerva’s involvement altogether. 

Nerva as Emperor

Nerva was present during the chaos that ensued after Nero’s suicide which was debated as his reason for accepting the role of emperor hours after Domitian’s death. Traces of Domitian were quickly erased from the palaces, images, and statues. Flavian Palace was called “House of the People,” while Nerva stayed in Vespasian’s old villa. 

In 97, the Praetorian Guard steered by Casperius Aelianus was extremely harsh on Nerva regarding the conspiracy against Domitian, besieging him in the palace until he agreed to punish the conspirators. He was forced to give a speech in gratitude to the Praetorian guard. This event diminished Nerva’s authority for the rest of his rule. Once Nerva had a successor in Trajan, he asked Trajan to avenge him in his time. 

Meanwhile, the senators who received cruel treatment during Domitian’s reign were relieved by Nerva’s decision to end treason trials, swearing that no senator be killed at the hands of imperial power. Those who were in prison due to those reasons were released, and those who were banished from Rome were granted amnesty. 

Although Nerva was considered to be the start of the succession of the Five Good Emperors, his own rule had its weaknesses. He had a lack of support from the military. Additionally, his efforts to win the public’s favor came in the form of monetary gifts to the Roman populace, which made the economy fluctuate as there was heavy use of imperial funds at the start of his reign. Each citizen was given 75 denarii, and the soldiers of the Praetorian Guard obtained 5000 denarii each. Taxation was also decreased for the lowest classes. All of these changes reduced the imperial funds over time. Nerva counteracted this development by eliminating expensive games, horse races, and opulent religious sacrifices. Domitian’s riches were sold, and Nerva did not allow such statues and honors to be bestowed on himself.

Nerva focused on continuing the programs started by the Flavian dynasty. This comprised the restoration of the Roman road system, the Colosseum, and the extension of aqueducts. The aqueducts were improved by Sextus Julius Frontius, who conducted revolutionary studies on Rome’s water supply. In addition to this, there was only one landmark that Nerva had constructed which was the granary called the Horrea Nervae, which was a modest Imperial Forum that Domitian initiated. This connected the Forum of Augustus to the Temple of Peace. 


Once Nerva was emperor, his skeptics pointed to his lack of an heir quickly. He had no children, and his family members were either distant or not fit to rule. This caused tension among the imperial court and the Roman citizens who feared the possibility of another civil war. Nerva was aware of his lack of military prowess and chose to adopt Marcus Ulpius Trajanus, a general of the German frontier. His successor also needed to have descended from a consular family. In 98, Marcus Ulpius Trajanus or Trajan was given the title of Caesar and partnered with Nerva as consul. 


Nerva suffered from a stroke on 1 January 98 in the midst of a private audience. On 27 January, he suffered from a fever which ended his life. His successor Trajan took his place as emperor. Nerva’s life was chronicled by Cassius Dio, who was a 3rd-century historian, but much information is difficult to find due to the scarcity of written documents from this period.