The affable and cultivated Nerva got off to a surprisingly good start, working in partnership with the Senate and promoting reconciliation. He moved fast and with sure judgment.
The first step was to sweep away the evidence of his predecessor’s reign. The Senate withheld the compliment of deification, which they had conferred on his father and brother, and endorsed a condemnation of his memory—damnatio memoriae. Now that the tyrant was dead, this was the worst punishment they could inflict. His body was disposed of with the minimum of ceremony, buried by his nurse in the temple of the Flavian clan. Innumerable statues and arches, symbols of Domitian’s personality cult, were removed. To refill a depleted treasury, imperial possessions, from estates to clothes, were sold off.
Rome did not possess the bureaucracy to establish a police state, but Domitian had gone as far in that direction as possible through the use of denunciation and what were in effect show trials, with death or banishment the almost invariable outcomes. Now all those facing trial for treason, or maiestas, were immediately released, and all the exiles recalled. For the future, maiestas charges were outlawed, as was the accusation of “adopting the Jewish mode of life”: in other words, Flavius Clemens was rehabilitated. The emperor swore never himself to put a senator to death.
These negative, if necessary, measures underpinned a positive vision that carried signs of forethought. Nerva used the coinage as a universal means of conveying his message. An aureus, a gold coin worth one hundred sesterces, showed the head of the new emperor on one side and on the other the personification of Liberty holding a pileus and a ruler’s scepter: a pileus was a felt cap shaped like half an egg that was given to a slave on his enfranchisement. A legend read “Public Liberty.”
Other coins marked achievements, either real or wished for, that indicated fault lines about which the regime was worried. One of them celebrated the provision of grain for the capital city, underlining Nerva’s anxiety to keep the plebs on his side. They had welcomed Domitian’s departure but needed practical reassurance that the new emperor could feed them. Another numismatic image reflected hope rather than experience—beneath a pair of clasped hands a slogan read “Harmony of the armies.” It was still unclear whether or not the military would accept Domitian’s demise.
This in no way signified a return to the old days of the Republic. Even the most idealistic “noble Roman” could see that a rowdy six-hundred-strong committee, the Senate, was a defective mechanism of government. Nerva’s clever trick was to transform the Flavian despotism into something approaching a constitutional monarchy. The emperor kept his all-trumping imperium, but framed it within the rule of law and institutional convention. The days of the dominus et deuswere over and the old term devised by Augustus—princeps or leading citizen, first among equals—regained its common use. Tacitus, ferocious critic of imperial misrule, offered words of warm praise:
Assuredly we have been given a signal proof of our submissiveness; and even as former generations witnessed the utmost excesses of liberty, so we have the extremes of slavery … Now at last heart is coming back to us. From the first, from the outset of this happy age, Nerva has united things long incompatible—autocracy and liberty.
In the opening weeks of the new reign, vengeful prosecutions had been brought against run-of-the-mill delatores. One of the consuls remarked that it was a bad thing to have an emperor under whom no one was allowed to do anything, but worse to have one under whom anyone was allowed to do anything. Nerva agreed, and ordered that cases of this kind should cease.
Despite the embargo, Pliny the Younger found it unjust that no senator had yet been charged. “Once Domitian was dead,” he confessed, “I decided on reflection that this was a truly splendid opportunity for attacking the guilty, avenging the injured, and making oneself known.”
His colleagues in the Senate did not agree. “Let us survivors stay alive,” one of them said. Too many of their number had compromised themselves under Domitian, and they were determined that bygones should be bygones.
Nerva appointed many onetime supporters of the Flavian dynasty to high office, and had no intention whatsoever to revisit the “bloodstained servility” of the recent past. A discreet forgetfulness veiled it from view. An exchange at a small dinner party summed up the situation well. Nerva was lying next to one of Domitian’s closest supporters, a noted delator. The conversation turned to another even more celebrated delator, the blind Lucius Valerius Catullus Messalinus, a man “whose loss of sight increased his cruel disposition.” An amicus, he was a member of Domitian’s consilium.
“I wonder what would have happened to him if he were alive today,” Nerva remarked.
“He would be dining with us,” said another guest drily, a member of the Stoic opposition who had recently returned from exile.
Nerva was able to bring together sworn enemies not only in a dining room, but also into a harmonious administration. His policy of reconciliation was generally popular. The emperor remarked with satisfaction: “I have done nothing that would prevent my laying down the imperial office and returning to private life in safety.”
The elite may have been content, but the Praetorian Guard had sharp memories. They had been reluctantly persuaded to accept the change of regime, but Domitian’s removal still rankled. In the autumn of 97 their simmering anger brimmed over.
Nerva ill-advisedly, as it turned out, appointed a new prefect of the guard, a certain Casperius Aelianus, who had held the same post late in the previous reign, to serve alongside the compliant Petronius Secundus, who had calmed the Praetorian Guard in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. Casperius sided with his soldiers and gave them the leadership they had lacked twelve months before. The Guard took over the palace, arresting the emperor and keeping him in custody. They demanded that Nerva hand over his predecessor’s murderers, especially Petronius and the freedman Parthenius, who was still in the imperial employ.
Although sick with fear, the emperor strongly resisted, baring his throat and challenging his captors to kill him. As the men were found and led out to execution, Nerva vomited and suffered an attack of diarrhea, but he went on protesting. It would be better for him to die, he said, than to befoul his imperium by colluding in the deaths of those who had given it to him. He was ignored. Petronius was dispatched with a merciful single blow, but Parthenius had his genitals torn off and stuffed into his mouth before being strangled.
Nerva was then forced to address an assembly of the people and offer public thanks to the Praetorian Guard “since they had killed the basest and most wicked of all human beings.” Casperius was paid off, but the damage had been done. The emperor’s humiliation was complete and his authority fatally undermined.
Nerva’s position was untenable, but what was to be done? Things would only be made worse if he were to abdicate or be deposed. No successor had been named and the outcome would very probably be civil strife. Yet again everyone’s mind went fearfully back to the catastrophe of 69. The solution was, in fact, obvious. The emperor had to find an acceptable heir. Bearing in mind his age and state of health, and the fact that he now moved with commendable speed and decisiveness, we can assume that Nerva had already been laying his plans.
As soon as the emperor was ready he staged a compelling piece of political theater. A laureled dispatch arrived in Rome from Pannonia, announcing a victory—presumably by Trajan over Germanic tribes. The emperor walked up the winding path from the Forum to the temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest on the Capitol and laid the laurels on the altar. When he came out of the temple he announced in a loud voice: “May good fortune attend the Senate and People of Rome and myself. I hereby adopt Marcus Ulpius Traianus.”
In theory, adoption was a private matter that brought no necessary political consequence. But the signal was clear, and a complaisant Senate awarded Trajan the cognomen of Caesar. He was also hailed as Germanicus, for his recent victory over the Suebi. In addition, the emperor endowed him with the two key mechanisms of imperial power: the first was the proconsulare imperium maius, which allowed him to give instructions to proconsuls, or provincial governors, and the second was the tribunicia potestas, the authority of a tribune of the people to propose laws, convene the Senate, and veto its decisions.
Nerva sent his adopted son, now styled Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus Caesar, a diamond ring with a message in which he quoted a line from Homer’s Iliad. “May the Danaans by your arrows requite my tears.” So prayed the soothsayer Calchas, when he called on the archer god Apollo to avenge his humiliations at the hands of the Greek army outside Troy. The emperor was hinting that he expected his adopted son to take measures against his Praetorian tormentors.
In the meantime, he moved Trajan from his posting in Pannonia to Germany, where he assumed overall command of the two provinces: it is not altogether clear why, but an unrecorded emergency had supervened. It may have been some unfinished business of Domitian—perhaps a recrudescence of trouble among the Germanic tribes on the far side of the Rhine, or some challenge to the new limes, the chain of forts that demarcated the limit of empire.
There was general surprise at the adoption, and general approval. Pliny noted: “All disturbances died at once.” Although the promotion appeared to come out of the blue, Trajan was a rational choice. The son of a distinguished father, he was a second-generation patrician. He had made a name for himself as an able soldier, popular with both the men and their commanders.
According to Pliny, Trajan was reluctant to accept his appointment as Nerva’s colleague in empire. “You had to be pressed. Even then you could only be persuaded because you saw your country in peril [from the Praetorian Guard] and the whole state tottering to a fall.”
There is evidence that Trajan had been informally discussed as capax imperii, worthy of rule, for some time. Tacitus states that his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a general who was responsible for much of the conquest of Britannia, “foretold” the principate of Trajan “in our hearing both as something to be prayed for and something that would happen.” The point here is that Agricola had died as long ago as 93, at the height of Domitian’s terror. Gossip of this kind was dangerous then not only to the speaker but to the person he was speaking about. Trajan was lucky that it did not reach the emperor’s ears.
A remark by Pliny, that not to have adopted Trajan would have indicated the “wanton tyranny of power,” suggests that Nerva’s hands were tied in advance. And a late source claims that the dexterous and unscrupulous Licinius Sura had engineered a coup d’état: in other words, the adoption had been a seizure, not a gift. So perhaps Trajan was not as retiring as he seemed.
It is impossible to be sure exactly what happened, but here is a plausible scenario that takes account of what we are told and of the changeless imperatives of political action. During the last terrifying years of the previous reign Trajan’s name began to be whispered in opposition circles as a potential princeps. As a distinguished soldier he could be counted on to adopt a more aggressive military posture than Domitian, which would please the general staff. Domestically, he held moderate views and would be likely to cooperate with rather than browbeat the Senate. If he showed no uncomely enthusiasm for the throne, that was a reassuring bonus.
The conspirators nominated Nerva to the purple rather than Trajan because the latter was physically too distant from the center of events, and the imperial system could not tolerate a vacuum, even for a few days, without risking civil war. The Praetorian Guard needed to be confronted with an immediate fait accompli if they were to tolerate Domitian’s violent removal from the stage. Trajan, marooned in his province, on security grounds surely could not have been informed of the plot to kill Domitian. He would have to wait until the next time for a chance of winning the purple. And to make sure that the next time actually arrived, Licinius Sura was on hand as his confidential “agent” in Rome (in fact, it is not known where he was at this period, but if he was looking after Trajan’s interests, as suggested, he could hardly have done so effectively unless he was in the capital).
Leaving aside his uncertain political health, Nerva knew that he was in poor shape physically, and must already have been thinking about the succession. Trajan had a number of influential friends in Rome or at court who would have spoken for him. At least five of the seven consuls suffecti for 97 had friendly or family connections with him, and some were fellow Spaniards. One of these was Titus Arrius Antoninus, a wealthy man of traditional morals: on Nerva’s accession he had famously congratulated the Senate and people of Rome, but not the emperor himself, so heavy was the burden of rule.
When news of the adoption reached the youthful military tribune in Lower Moesia, he saw at once that his life had reached a turning point. As a student of astrology, Hadrian was aware of the magical power of numbers (another word for an astrologer was mathematicus). He knew that this, his twenty-first year, was the second of his life’s climacterics, a time of great change in fortune, and alterations in body and spirit, which could bring with it danger of death. The first was held to occur in a person’s seventh year, and later ones were multiples of seven, a number believed to be of especial virtue. They culminated in the grand climacteric at the age of sixty-three. To pass that undamaged was no mean achievement, as Augustus noted with relief—once he had reached sixty-four. (It is interesting to note that the shadow of these climacterics survives in the modern convention that children attain the age of reason at seven years, and that in many countries until recently twenty-one years used to mark the onset of adulthood.)
Hadrian’s kinship to Rome’s next emperor meant that he had suddenly become a very important young man. This was more evident when it was remembered that, despite the fact that Trajan had been married to Plotina for nearly twenty years, the union had produced no offspring. They liked and were loyal to each other, but Trajan found sexual pleasure elsewhere. Everyone could see that by this stage, children were most unlikely to be forthcoming. As guardian, Trajan had treated his ward as if he were his own son, and astute men in public life took that into careful account.
Hadrian was intrigued by his prospects, but wished to make assurance doubly sure. Remembering the long-ago prediction made by his great-uncle during his visit to Spain, it was probably now that he checked its veracity with amathematicus in Lower Moesia. The same golden story was foretold. From this moment on, Hadrian understood himself to be a marked man.
The legions in Lower Moesia asked Hadrian to present their congratulations to the new Caesar. This was an appropriate commission for a military tribune, but it must also have fitted in well with his own wishes—the sooner he joined Trajan, the better he would be able to assess and promote his personal interests and join the new governmental team. A long and arduous journey ensued, riding upriver through the wild and mountainous provinces adjoining the Danube—Upper Moesia, Pannonia, Noricum, and Raetia (in today’s terms, Hungary, Austria, and Switzerland). He reached the Rhine and Upper Germania (so-called because it was upstream of Lower Germania), through which he passed. Eventually, toward the end of November or early December, he arrived at Colonia Agrippinensis (today’s Cologne), the capital of Lower Germania, which commanded the wide flow of the Rhine. This was where Trajan had elected to spend the winter of 97–98.
It soon emerged that, for whatever reason, Trajan did not want to keep Hadrian by his side, and he sent him away to the neighboring province of Upper Germania for an unprecedented third posting as a military tribune. He joined the legion XXII Primigenia (the “First Born” of a new breed of legions, formed by Caligula for his abortive invasion of Britain in 39) at Moguntiacum (today’s Mainz). The fortress town stood on the shoulder of the dangerous re-entrant between the upper Rhine and the source of the Danube, where the Black Forest was a wedge pressing into eastern Gaul. Domitian’s limes of forts crossed the eastern, broad end of the wedge to discourage Germanic incursions. The Primigenia was to be a reserve alongside another legion based at Argentoratē (today’s Strasbourg), ready to repel any enemy forces that penetrated the limes. Hadrian was able to see for himself the new system of border defenses, and was impressed.
It is impossible to say whether Hadrian’s third military tribuneship was in recognition of his growing military skills and gave him an opportunity to further perfect them, or a penalty for poor behavior. What is certain is that he made a bad impression on the province’s governor, Lucius Julius Servilius Ursus Servianus. Born about 47, he was a leading member of Rome’s Spanish set and was the husband of Hadrian’s sister, Aelia Domitia Paulina. He may have been a widower (there is speculation that a first wife died during a putative epidemic of 90 that Dio attributed to a wave of poisoning). The couple are likely to have wed at about this time, when Servianus was in his early forties and Paulina about fifteen.
Presumably Servianus was on cordial terms with his wife, but he had little time for his brother-in-law. They got on uncomfortably at Moguntiacum and Servianus complained to Trajan about his ward. He revealed “what he was spending and the debts he had contracted.” The news angered Trajan, as was intended, and reminded him of the boy’s irresponsible goings-on in Baetica. Was he ever going to learn self-discipline?
It is not immediately obvious how easy it was to be extravagant in a frontier fortress. However, Hadrian was a dedicated huntsman and may have bought expensive dogs and horses; he could also have whiled away time by unlucky gambling. Not far away on the eastern side of the Rhine, the small military spa of Aquae Mattiacae offered the pleasures of relaxation: the water of the springs was high in calcium and piping hot, and was reputed to retain its temperature for three days. Baths are seldom far removed from the provision of sexual services, so here was another way of spending money.
Fortunately the standoff between proconsul and tribune did not last long. In early February a courier arrived at Moguntiacum with the news that Nerva had unexpectedly died. The emperor had lost his temper with a notorious delator. His voice rose in anger, he worked himself up into a sweat, and contracted a fever, which he could not shake off. He died on January 28. He was in his sixty-third year, having attained but not passed his grand climacteric.
For most of his life Nerva had subordinated principle to self-interest, but he had common sense and an intelligent understanding of what the imperial system needed if it was to last. He had the tolerance of a man without convictions—a useful quality after two decades of Domitian.
Hadrian seized the hour. If only he could be the first person to give Trajan the news eighty-odd miles downstream at Colonia Agrippinensis, he might be able to retrieve his approval. He set off quickly in a carriage, and made good progress until it broke down. This was no accident, apparently, for according to the Historia Augusta (which probably drew on Hadrian’s lost autobiography), Servianus had found out about his plan and arranged for the carriage to be sabotaged. Nothing daunted, the military tribune walked on for a while until he could find some fresh horses, and made it to Cologne before Servianus’ messenger. Just as Hadrian had hoped, the exploit delighted Trajan and their relations improved.
The years of apprenticeship were at an end. The fortunes of the young Aelian were chained indissolubly to those of the forty-four-year-old Ulpian. The Spanish immigrants had scaled the summit of power. Nothing could alter the fact that, for better or worse, Hadrian was the new emperor’s closest male relative. He was not an adopted son or an heir, Trajan was firm about that, but he was now a high personage in the res publica.