Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.06.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.06.09

Nathan T. Elkins, The Image of Political Power in the Reign of Nerva, AD 96-98.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xvi, 207.  ISBN 9780190648039.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Alice König, University of St Andrews (


As Elkins rightly points out, Nerva’s principate rarely gets much focused attention for its own sake. When discussed at all, it is usually as the aftermath of Domitian’s assassination or the prelude to Trajan’s rule. It felt exciting, then, to receive a book which puts the crafting and resonance of political imagery under Nerva centre-stage. The time is certainly ripe for a fresh appraisal of Nerva’s principate as a political phenomenon in itself, however brief and transitional.

Nothing in the title gives away the fact that this book is all about coins. The gleaming aureus on the book’s stylish cover is, admittedly, a bit of a clue; but readers coming across this title in a library catalogue will not know that they are about to be plunged into the world of numismatics. That is perhaps no bad thing, because this book does more than survey the surviving coins from Nerva’s reign. It offers a wide range of readers new food for thought about the production and consumption of Nerva’s image across the Roman empire, reading the rhetoric on coinage in dialogue with other material culture, literary texts and elite discourse. Several times Elkins emphasizes the distorting effect which ancient historians later had on the reception of this ‘interim’ emperor, casting him in particular as weak and vulnerable to manipulation. For many today Nerva remains a bit of a blank, a two-dimensional figure to whom it is easy to attach clichéd assumptions. Elkins’ book presents a thoughtful counterbalance to this trend. In fleshing out our picture both of Nerva himself and the rhetoric that emanated from and was directed back towards his court, he argues that contemporary images of Nerva drew (inevitably) on traditional motifs associated with several of his imperial predecessors but also presented Nerva ‘as a progressive head of state involved with many different segments of the empire’s population’ (p. 137).

One central argument that runs throughout the book is that Nerva was not directly responsible for the imagery we see on his coins. In flagging them—ahead of ‘stationary’ monuments and sculptures—as ‘one of the most important communicative media in the Roman empire’ (pp. 4-5), Elkins argues that they not only offer visual evidence of the emperor’s policies and reforms but also reflect contemporary elite responses to them. Problematising the term ‘propaganda’ (which often implies imperial agency), Elkins sides with scholarship that sees the emperor more as audience than author of the imagery on his coins, with coin-masters ventriloquising elite discourse and panegyric. To bolster this position, Elkins turns frequently to contemporary writing (by Martial, Frontinus, Pliny and Tacitus), arguing that many of the same ideals that appear on Nerva’s imperial coinage are also qualities ascribed to him by such works. Drawing particularly on Noreña 2011,1 among a wealth of other scholarship, he also argues for a degree of imperial acquiescence in the production of this imagery. Thus Nerva’s coins are an example of ‘state-sanctioned art’ that reflects wider contemporary laudatory discourse, directed at both the emperor and his subjects.

Elkins’ arguments on this issue represent a significant scholarly contribution. In throwing further light on the dialogic spaces in which imperial rhetoric and panegyric evolved alongside each other in different media, and on the intricate relationships between various groups within the ruling elite and different audiences around the empire, he draws attention to imperial image- production and consumption as a fundamentally interactive process. Moreover, Elkins’ emphasis on this interactivity proves a productive way of bringing different aspects of Nerva’s short reign to life. I have just one or two reservations about the details of his analysis.

First up is his flattening treatment of contemporary texts. Elkins’ engagement with literary sources is welcome indeed, and it is particularly cheering to this reviewer to see Frontinus discussed alongside his better-known contemporaries. Others might need more convincing, however, that Frontinus, Martial, Pliny and Tacitus can be so straightforwardly lumped together as part of the same panegyrical phenomenon as the coinage under discussion. Elkins does not probe enough into their individual contexts and agenda to give his arguments about them proper nuance or traction. Frontinus, Martial, et al. are hauled in as contextual evidence, often en masse, when Elkins needs them, but his depiction of their socio-literary world leaves a lot out that would both complicate and enrich his discussion. There is also a potential circularity to Elkins’ general point, that the images we find in the texts and on the coins apparently parallel each other, which he might have exploited more in his discussion of the spaces and times when aspects of the imperial image were crystalised and shifted, and by whom.

This brings me onto the issue of agency. At times, Elkins himself does not seem to have fully unraveled the complexities of what he is arguing here. On the one hand, he points to elite culture at large as the ‘author’ of the ideas we see replicated on Nerva’s coins; on the other hand, he inevitably has to pin agency for coin (and therefore image-) production down a bit more precisely. For my money, his account of the status and likely contacts of the empire’s mint-masters comes too late; rather than being slotted in at the end of the book, it might have been more useful in the introduction. That is not because the mint-masters themselves are the key agents in the story, but because the role they played in navigating between different interest groups is central to understanding the wider dynamics of political rhetoric and panegyric. I felt, too, that Elkins’ discussion of these mint-masters (pp. 148-9) perhaps papered over more questions than it answered; for instance, he seizes on the fact that the mint was overseen by an equestrian procurator monetae during the principate, but it is a bit of a leap to suggest as he then does that this official was influenced by exactly the same pressures and had the same kind of impact as Frontinus, Tacitus and Pliny (an argument which allows Elkins to square the circle somewhat between the different agents involved in Nervan image-production). Those niggles aside, his overarching arguments are broadly convincing. Even more importantly, this book should prompt further reflection on the creative and responsive dynamics of political rhetoric and elite discourse in the Imperial period.

The other core argument of the book is that the images on Nerva’s coins were (in some cases at least) specifically targeted at different groups within the Roman empire. As this argument guides the book’s organization, it is a good moment to offer some chapter-by-chapter analysis. Elkins’ preface outlines the book’s evolution, noting recent scholarly interest in the social and geographical specificity of some coin types issued during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. His introduction makes the case for using Nervan coinage as a fresh way of looking properly at Nerva’s imperial image as it was constructed during his reign, and discusses the knotty issues of agency/propaganda/audience noted above. Elkins then outlines the range, dating and provenance of the coins under discussion, with an overview of existing scholarship and the methodological challenges and choices he has wrestled with. His approach promises both a more comprehensive and more nuanced analysis of the surviving coinage from Nerva’s reign, with a particular emphasis on the different ways in which different aspects of the imagery were directed at and resonated with different viewers/users.

Chapters 1, 2 and 3 then look at coinage directed at the military; the Senate and People of Rome, and Italy; and the wider Roman Empire respectively. After a recap of the events leading to Nerva’s accession, Ch. 1 opens with an analysis of a unique sestertius from 96 which appears to show Nerva’s accessional adlocutio to the Praetorian Guard, before discussing coins of various types depicting personifications of Victoria, Pax and Concordia on their reverse. Outlining their connections with other coinage from similar stages in other principates, Elkins convincingly argues against previous interpretations which—influenced by the negative press Nerva later received—have read them as evidence of the emperor’s insecurity, weakness and desire to appease a hostile military. While good at deconstructing other people’s theories, he is more hesitant about presenting new ones of his own—arguably with good reason. This chapter sifts through a great deal of material with impressive clarity and contextualization. Elkins pays due attention to sample sizes and distribution (and identifies the occasional forgery), and he gets us thinking about developments in Nerva’s military identity over the course of his reign. He must be credited for presenting these coins in all their incoherent, inconclusive variety and for not trying too hard to extract unifying arguments. His analysis offers readers new interpretative co-ordinates for coming to their own conclusions about the iconography on the coins and the evolution of Nervan rhetoric and imagery.

Ch. 2 offers more of a survey than a discussion, again deconstructing earlier arguments without steering readers forcefully towards definitive new interpretations. It presents a wide range of coins featuring political ideals (Fortuna, Salus Publica, Roma Renascens, Providentia Senatus, etc), which Elkins suggests were directed at different constituencies in and around Rome. Its structure, working from the plebs urbana and people of Italy to senators, takes us on in interesting journey, and it is no mean feat to bring so much evidence into one place so accessibly. The chapter is valuable for its collation of this material and for the wider questions which it raises about audience and iconography. Elkins certainly makes a case for looking at these coins with fresh eyes and from the multiple audience perspectives he identifies. Readers could be forgiven for wishing for some slightly more committed and conclusive arguments.

Ch. 3 looks at the personification of traditional imperial virtues (Pietas, Fortuna Augusti, Aequitas Augusti, Iustitia Augusti, Libertas) on Nervan coinage around the empire. Since Libertas crops up in the finds of coins particularly often, discussion of it dominates the chapter. While acknowledging senatorial (and literary) interest in this ideal, Elkins argues against a predominantly senatorial audience for Nerva’s Libertas coins, insisting that Libertas was a much broader message than has been recognized. The implications of this will be of interest to a wide range of scholars, and Elkins could perhaps have spent more time teasing out the ramifications himself. The book’s structure provides an implicit argument for Ch. 3 as a whole, namely that all of these imperial virtue coins were widely distributed around the empire, but Elkins does not spend as much time exploring this hypothesis here as one might wish.

Elkins’ conclusion pulls the main arguments of the book together (in particular, that the imagery on Nervan coinage emanated from the same stable as the panegyric we find in contemporary texts). He goes over some supporting evidence from earlier principates, before offering Shepard Fairey’s 2008 poster of Obama as a useful parallel for the models of image-production with which he has been wrestling. While his analysis and interpretation stop a little short at times, he presents a wealth of material that (as he puts it, on p. 153) ‘paints a very different picture of the emperor than the historical figure whom we are accustomed to seeing’. Although his claim (p. 154) that Nervan coinage was far more effective in communicating positive expectations and perceptions of Nerva than the writings of Martial and Frontinus might be a bit of an over-simplification, there is no doubt that Elkins’ study offers a stimulating new look at Nerva himself and the processes behind imperial image- production during his reign.

The book ends with four useful appendices (a serious piece of scholarship in themselves), detailing: (1) the typological make-up of Nerva’s imperial coin emissions, (2) Nerva’s coin types and their dates of production, (3) the relative frequencies of denarius types, arranged by their emission, with some region-specific bibliographies on coin hoards, and (4) data on the regional distribution of base-metal coins, arranged by coin type.


1.   Noreña, C.F. Imperial Ideals in the Roman West: Representation, Circulation, Power. (Cambridge, 2011).

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