Roman Emperor Nerva: Biography, Facts & Accomplishments

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson is going to go over a little-known Roman Emperor by the name of Nerva. You'll learn a bit about his family, his career, and his accomplishments as emperor.


What would you do if you had a very short period of time to appoint a leader to rule an empire, lest it fall into a civil war without one? You'd probably be worried you'd make the wrong choice in such haste. So, whom would you appoint to buy you some more time to make a better decision? Maybe an old and sick man? That pretty much sums up one of the major reasons why a man named Marcus Cocceius Nerva became Roman emperor in 96 A.D.

Let's learn about how all of this happened.

Early Life

Marcus Cocceius Nerva was born on November 8th, 30 or 35 CE. He was born in--get this--Narnia. (Okay, not the mystical world of Narnia.) Narnia (Narni today) is a town about 50 miles north of Rome. Fun fact: There is some evidence that C.S. Lewis actually named his fictional Narnia after this ancient town.

Nerva was born into a family of wealth and connections. His dad was a well off lawyer. His grandfather and great-grandfather used to be part of the upper echelons of politics, and his aunt was a direct descendant of Tiberius, a Roman Emperor.


Nerva himself went on to serve Emperors Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian. While serving Nero, he helped put down a conspiracy to dethrone Nero, for which he was honored. Nero, ever the fan of artists and an emperor who thought he was the best artist in the world, actually thought very highly of Nerva's own lyrical skills.

After Nero and a series of other emperors came and went, Vespasian came to the throne, and Nerva served as co-consul at the time. This position, at the time of the Roman Empire, had lost much of its authority and prestige compared to the Roman Republic. However, some consuls had a few official functions, such as helping the emperor preside over the senate, administering justice, managing revenue, and conducting the public games. After Vespasian, his tyrannical son Domitian eventually came to power, and Nerva served as co-consul under him as well.



As a result, Nerva gained some political experience by the time Domitian was assassinated on September 18th, 96 CE. The Senate, fearful that the empire would plunge into chaos and civil war, partly because Domitian didn't have a successor, needed to quickly appoint an emperor.

They wanted to ensure they appointed someone with at least some political experience but also someone who wasn't crazy either. They knew that they didn't want to appoint someone who would rule for too long, lest he did go crazy.

As a kind of temporary appointment (until they could potentially find someone better later on), the senators recognized Nerva as emperor on the same day as Domitian's assassination.

Nerva was, by this time, sick and old by Roman standards, making him the perfect temporary emperor. He wasn't going to live much longer, he had some experience in the inner workings of Roman politics, and he was considered to be a pretty decent guy too.

As emperor, Nerva denounced the tyranny of Domitian but not until he'd executed many of Domitian's spies. In 97 CE, the Roman Praetorian Guard imprisoned Nerva. The Praetorian Guard was like the Secret Service of ancient Rome. They protected the emperor, but unlike today's Secret Service, they had massive political sway. The Guard wanted the people responsible for assassinating Domitian to be released since the Guard liked Domitian, an emperor who gave them a nice pay raise. Nerva refused and instead offered to be killed instead. The instigators didn't take the offer and were, instead, caught and executed.

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