Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.03.33

John D. Grainger, Nerva and the Roman Succession Crisis of AD 96-99.   London:  Routledge, 2003.  Pp. xxvii, 162.  ISBN 0-415-28917-3.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by P.A. Roche, University of Otago (
Word count: 2380 words

John Grainger (hereafter 'G.') clearly states the aims of his new study in his preface. He addresses 'how and why Domitian was killed, and by whom; the rule of Nerva; the choice of his successor; and the effects of all this inside and outside the ruling group' (xxvi-xxvii). As an introduction to the issues facing Nerva and his contemporaries, I would have little hesitancy in recommending this new work to students. It should also find a broad general readership thanks to the judicious arrangement and presentation of its material and, especially, to the warm, lucid style adopted by the author. In light of the nature and relative paucity of the evidence for the period, it is inevitable that some qualifications accompany this recommendation, but ultimately these are less significant than G.'s achievement in presenting the first book-length study of Nerva to an English readership.

The task G. has set himself brings with it some particular difficulties. Pliny's letters and Panegyricus, along with the epitomised third-century account of Cassius Dio, provide most of the information for the period 96-100 A.D. Next to nothing documents the sixty years of Nerva's life prior to his accession: even the pretence of biography is foreclosed. But there are other factors. Nerva's reign and the adoption of Trajan were treated emphatically by a towering figure of twentieth-century scholarship and in one of his most celebrated works. The challenge to shrug off the anxiety of Syme's influence, added to the brevity of the reign and the shortcomings of the ancient evidence, has for forty-five years deterred a re-treatment of Neva's reign. It is to our benefit that these considerations did not prevent G. from undertaking his study in the first place; it is to his credit that the voice emanating from the pages is distinctively his own.

The ten chapters of the book proceed in chronological order from the assassination of Domitian on September 18, 96 to Trajan's entry into Rome as sole emperor in late October of 100. They are clearly divided into the four broad themes outlined in his preface: the death of Domitian (chapters 1 and 2); Nerva's rise and reign (3-5); the choice and adoption of Trajan (6-8); the consolidation of Trajan's power up to 100 (9 and 10).

Chapter 1 comprises a narrative assembled from Dio and Suetonius that reconstructs the events of Domitian's last day. It provides an elegant and concise introduction to the study that should also effectively orient readers new to the period. At three pages, however, it is ultimately no more substantial than the 'brief and passing mentions' cited by the author (p. 129), in particular that of Jones,1 which is of precisely the same length.

Chapter 2 aims to establish and identity senatorial participation in the conspiracy to remove Domitian and to suggest which senators were likely to have been approached as imperial candidates by the conspirators before Nerva. In the first of these issues, one feels G. straining against the limitations of the ancient evidence to produce a plausible catalogue of senatorial conspirators. In particular, the role and importance of Ti. Catius Caesius Fronto and his position as suffect consul of September 96 are surely overstated. His hostility towards Domitian is inferred from an inflated estimate of the stoic convictions of Silius Italicus and L. Silius Decianus, whose philosophical inclinations were considered safe enough to find open praise from the court poet Martial (Mart. 1.8). The interpretation of Domitian's granting of a suffect consulship to a member of a distinguished family of demonstrable harmlessness as an attempt to deter him from becoming 'an even more dangerous enemy' (p. 10) is, to me, especially unconvincing. Finally, the 'particular importance' ascribed to Fronto's ability to call the meeting of the senate (p. 12) is far from certain: Fronto need not be implicated in the plot in order to explain the senate's prompt meeting on the morning following the assassination. Fronto and Nerva are G.'s most certain plotters. These aside, he understandably draws upon the obvious sources: the conspicuous suffect consuls of 97, the prefects of the urban cohorts and uigiles who are implicated ex silentio, and the praetorian prefects (with whom he is on firmer footing). The list of men assembled as possible imperial candidates approached before Nerva is pure guesswork. Undoubtedly some of the names mentioned by G. were approached, but there is no way of telling who with any certainty. In this context, the suggestion that Nerva accepted without knowing the potential reaction of the armies (p. 21) assumes an ability to forget the lessons of AD 69 that is beyond any credibility. It is to his credit that G. repeatedly and responsibly reminds us of the speculative nature of assembling these lists of conspirators and their candidates. I would advise any newcomer to the period to pay particular heed to these disclaimers whenever they appear.

Chapter 3 treats the family, career, and first imperial acts of Nerva. Here is much that will be of value, especially to the novice. Particularly clear is the image of Nerva emerging stronger from each major crisis or conspiracy from 65 to 96, and the vital nature of the northern legions' reaction in 96-97. But the idea that Nerva may have assumed a new era of senatorial/imperial relations had dawned appears out of nowhere (p. 37): the fact that Nerva swore the oath not to execute senators means nothing, as G. himself points out. One also gets the impression that Fronto's public criticisms of Nerva, that tyranny (Domitian) is better than anarchy (Nerva), are under-interpreted (p. 40): there is clearly room here to complicate the picture of the consul presented in chapter 2.

Chapter 4 covers the response of the city of Rome and the provinces of her empire to the events of September 96. Again, the unbearable lightness of evidence bedevils the proceedings. The ratio of inscriptions from province to province which show evidence of the damnatio memoriae is on stage for an amount of time disproportionate to its worth (p. 48-51). It should also be noted that Griffin used the same body of evidence with greater economy to allude to the fact that the order to efface Domitian's name was at least being carried out (see below, endnote 4). The evidence from the Dionysia celebrations of 96 is an unreliable index of reaction; worse is the Apollonius of Tyana story. Finally, G.'s 'uneasy' (that is, the soldiers' reaction) does not proffer a strong enough translation of Suetonius' grauissime tulit.

Chapter 5 is the strongest of these middle sections. It offers a detailed and reliable overview of Nerva's imperial acts, including financial measures, building and roads, legislation, the lex agraria, and the alimenta. It will be particularly accessible to students seeking to know the main contribution of Nerva's government and G. rightly emphasises the administrative continuity between the three emperors Domitian, Nerva and Trajan.

Chapter 6 initiates a sequence of three separate studies treating the circumstances and considerations preceding and surrounding the adoption of Trajan. The first of these examines the pressure upon Nerva's administration to solve the succession question, reviews a list of qualified candidates other than Trajan, treats the plot of Crassus, and surveys the distribution of power in the provinces. In this chapter there is sound emphasis upon the pressure Nerva created for his own principate by his own example in acceding through conspiracy, and there is much that will be of value to the student and general reader alike. These should be aware that the use of senators in the financial commission may be invested with too great a significance by G., since Dio 55.25.6 precludes the novelty of the senate's participation. I also doubt that anyone at the end of the first century entertained the possibility of a return to republican government (p. 66f.), and find the notion of Vitellius being read as or promoted by anyone as the avenger of Galba (p. 68) highly unlikely.

Chapter 7 is in my opinion the strongest and most useful in the book. It surveys the networks of familial connections throughout Spain, Italy, Asia Minor and elsewhere in the east at the end of the first century. It thereby effectively contextualises Trajan's importance as a figure at the crossroads of the immensely important Spanish and Gallic networks and as the candidate acceptable to most of the major power brokers of the day.

Chapter 8 returns to Rome, and to Nerva under pressure. It examines the immediate prelude to the adoption, including the position and relative strength of the northern generals, the Syrian disturbance reported by Pliny, the uprising of the guard and the adoption of Trajan. The chapter climaxes with a tentative reconstruction of the mechanics of Trajan's adoption, which sees a subtle shift in emphasis in Syme's thesis of veiled coup d'état,2 from intrigue at Rome to consultation among those generals in the north, followed by a fait accompli presented to Nerva in October 97. G.'s reconstruction of the Syrian disturbance will not convince everyone, nor will his notion that the Pannonian war was suppressed out of existence by Trajan, but these both provide fresh perspectives on the events of Nerva's reign and will need to be addressed by future studies of the period. In his treatment of the guard's uprising, I found the assessment of the danger of the situation overly mild: when G. contends that it was a situation that could well have become more serious (p. 95), one senses the apologetic tendency of the genre of biography behind his appraisal.

The book finishes well in its last two chapters. Chapter 9 covers the legal procedure of Trajan's adoption, his role in Germany as Caesar and Nerva's death. Chapter 10 looks at the assembly and constituents of Trajan's court, his consular appointments for 99 and 100, military operations beyond the Danube, his acts as emperor in the period 98-99, and his return to Rome. Students will find the emphasis upon the gathering of the Ulpian clan and the assembling of Trajan's court helpful, so too the assessment of Trajan's role in Germany after his adoption, although the force of this last reconstruction will necessarily depend on whether one views Trajan as working in consort with Nerva in this period or as staying close to the legions in order to consolidate his position after forcing Nerva's hand. Reference to work on the role of the recusatio in imperial public imagery 3 would have helped to put Trajan's refusal of titles into a more convincing context. In his treatment of the aims and implications of the Pannonian war, G. suggests annexation north of the Danube as far as the Sudeten and Erzgebirge, a project for which competence and impetus died with Domitian and which resulted in a defensive victory for Rome's enemies. This defeat is then turned into the motivating principle of Trajan's foreign policy, which G. denigrates by comparison with the achievements of the Flavian emperors, especially Domitian. This last aspect of G.'s analysis diverges from the recent reconstruction of Berriman and Todd, in which the expansionist policies of Trajan speak to his desire to be seen as continuing Domitian's active attention in this area.4

In the preceding summary, I have focussed upon some of the less convincing aspects of G.'s study. This is because I am sure that it will be consulted for a long time as the standard treatment of Nerva's reign and often as the first port of call for those readers unfamiliar with the difficulties of reconstructing this important period of transition. In general, the book's strengths are readily apparent. They will be found in G.'s prosopographical analysis of the key players of the period, his synthesis of the epigraphic evidence, and in his reconstruction of the volatile political situation that Nerva partly inherited, partly helped to create.

The bibliography significantly exceeds the number of works actually cited, yet it still suffers through the omission of some relevant material, most crucially Griffin's survey in the second edition of Cambridge Ancient History 11,5 a piece that treats the same period with the same evidence and yet arrives at some significantly divergent conclusions; likewise, American Journal of Ancient History 15.1 (2000) entitled The Year 96: Did it Make a Difference? was absent, and impacts upon much of G.'s material, especially the article therein by T. Corey Brennan.6 In fairness, these works may not have been available to G. before the submission of his manuscript (or a large part thereof), yet there are entries in his bibliography that were published subsequently to these mentioned.

A number of charts both consular and prosopographical (p. xiii-xvii), as well as a variety of maps (p. xviii-xxiv) certainly enhance the accessibility of the book. I would have liked reference to these explicitly in the relevant parts of the text, but few readers will fail to flip back to the beginning for this extra help as they need it. Four images are included, of Domitian, Nerva re-cut from Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan (p. ix-xii). These fulfil a purely ornamental function, since there is unfortunately no discussion of imperial iconography anywhere in the text. Moreover, these images are accompanied by captions that are clearly out of touch with modern approaches to iconography and Roman portrait sculpture. More relevant information could have been supplied here by consulting any of the standard or introductory works on the topic, such as, e.g., Hannestad, Nodelman, Klein, or D'Ambra.7

In feel and presentation, the book is as beautifully presented as it is lucidly written, and has been thoroughly proofed to Routledge's high standards throughout. The (inevitable) one or two minor inconsistencies occur extremely infrequently and are of the order of Persian flaws rather than conspicuous typographical errors (spacing between words [p. 110 paragraph 2, p. 159 col 2 s.v. Nerva]; position of the footnote relative to punctuation [p. 79 paragraph 3]). The only notable misprints appear on p. 44, paragraph 2: 'Calpurius' for 'Calpurnius'; p. 46 'initatives' (sic); p. 129 n.1 'Europius' for 'Eutropius'; p. 131 n. 57 'demonstating' (sic); p. 136 n. 14 frugelissimus (sic); p. 140 and 142 'Antonine Relations' for 'Antonine Relatives'. G.'s study is a pleasure to read thanks to the author's engaging and accessible style. The author is to be commended for a worthwhile addition to Routledge's series of imperial biographies.


1.   B. W. Jones, The Emperor Domitian (London 1992) 193-96.
2.   R. Syme, Tacitus (Oxford 1958) 13f., 150-56, 206f.
3.   e.g. A. Wallace-Hadrill, The Emperor and his Virtues, Historia 30 (1981) 298-323; or the same author's Civilis Princeps: Between Citizen and King, JRS 72 (1982) 32-48.
4.   A. Beriman and M. Todd, A Very Roman Coup: The Hidden War of Imperial Succession, AD 96-8, Historia 50 (2001), 312-31, at 330f.
5.   M. Griffin, Nerva to Hadrian, in A. K. Bowman, P. Garnsey, D. Rathbone (eds.) The Cambridge Ancient History 11 (2nd ed.: Cambridge 2000), 84-131, at 84-96.
6.   T. Corey Brennan, Principes and Plebs: Nerva's Reign as a Turning Point, AJAH 15 (2000) 40-66.
7.   N. Hannestad, Roman Art and Imperial Policy (Aarhus 1986); D. E. E. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture, (Yale 1992); S. Nodelman, How to read a Roman Portrait, in E. D'Ambra (ed.), Roman Art in Context. An Anthology (New Jersey 1993).

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