Sep 182016


On this date in 96 CE, the Roman emperor Domitian was assassinated in a palace conspiracy involving members of the Praetorian Guard and several of his freedmen, and on the same day, Nerva was declared emperor by the Roman Senate. This was the first time the Senate had elected a Roman Emperor. Nerva is not exactly a household name, like Caesar or Nero, but he played an important role as emperor for a little over a year, even though he was a generally ineffective ruler. If he had been a Christian he would now be the patron saint of stop-gaps. He kept the seat warm between Domitian who was, among other things the scourge of Christians, but also a vile and cruel dictator, and Trajan who greatly expanded the empire and ushered in a long period of peace and prosperity.

Marcus Cocceius Nerva was born in the village of Narni, 50 km north of Rome, to the family of Marcus Cocceius Nerva, Suffect Consul in 40, and Sergia Plautilla. Ancient sources report the date as either 30 or 35. He had at least one sister, named Cocceia, who married Lucius Salvius Titianus Otho, the brother of the future Emperor Otho.

Like Vespasian, the founder of the Flavian dynasty, Nerva was a member of the Italian nobility rather than one of the elite of Rome. Nevertheless, the Cocceii were among the most esteemed and prominent political families of the late Republic and early Empire, attaining consulships in each successive generation. The direct ancestors of Nerva on his father’s side, all named Marcus Cocceius Nerva, had been associated with imperial circles since the time of Emperor Augustus.

His great-grandfather was Consul in 36 BCE, and Governor of Asia in the same year. His grandfather became Consul Suffect in July of either 21 or 22, and was known as a personal friend of emperor Tiberius, accompanying the emperor during his voluntary seclusion on Capri from 23 onwards, dying in 33. Nerva’s father attained the consulship in 40 under emperor Caligula. The Cocceii were connected with the Julio-Claudian dynasty through the marriage of Sergia Plautilla’s brother Octavius Laenas, and Rubellia Bassa, the great-granddaughter of Tiberius.

Not much of Nerva’s early life or career is recorded, but it appears he did not pursue the usual administrative or military career. He was praetor-elect in the year 65 and, like his ancestors, moved in imperial circles as a skilled diplomat and strategist. As an advisor to Emperor Nero, he successfully helped detect and expose the Pisonian conspiracy of 65. His exact contribution to the investigation is not known, but his services must have been considerable, since they earned him rewards equal to those of Nero’s guard prefect Tigellinus. He received triumphal honors — which was usually reserved for military victories — and the right to have his statues placed throughout the palace.


According to the contemporary poet Martial, Nero also held Nerva’s literary abilities in high esteem, hailing him as the “Tibullus of our time.” In hindsight we’d probably call this damning with faint praise. The suicide of Nero on 9 June 68 brought the Julio-Claudian dynasty to an end, leading to the chaotic Year of the Four Emperors, which saw the successive rise and fall of the emperors Galba, Otho and Vitellius, until the accession of Vespasian on 21 December 69. Virtually nothing is known of Nerva’s whereabouts during 69, but despite the fact that Otho was his brother-in-law, he appears to have been one of the earliest and strongest supporters of the Flavians.

For services unknown, he was rewarded with a consulship early in Vespasian’s reign in 71. This was a remarkable honor, not only because he held this office early under the new regime, but also because it was an ordinary consulship (instead of a less prestigious suffect consulship), making him one of the few non-Flavians to be honored in this way under Vespasian. After 71 Nerva again disappears from historical record, presumably continuing his career as an inconspicuous advisor under Vespasian (69–79) and his sons Titus (79–81) and Domitian (81–96).


Nerva re-emerges in histories during the revolt of Saturninus in 89. On 1 January, 89, the governor of Germania Superior, Lucius Antonius Saturninus, and his two legions at Mainz, Legio XIV Gemina and Legio XXI Rapax, revolted against the Roman Empire with the aid of members of the Chatti. Domitian opened the year following the revolt by sharing the consulship with Nerva. Again, the honor suggested Nerva had played a part in uncovering the conspiracy, perhaps in a fashion similar to what he did during the Pisonian conspiracy under Nero. Alternatively, Domitian may have selected Nerva as his colleague to emphasize the stability and status-quo of the regime. The revolt had been suppressed, and the Empire could return to order.


On 18 September, 96, Domitian was assassinated in a palace conspiracy organized by court officials. The Fasti Ostienses, the Ostian Calendar, records that the same day the Senate proclaimed Nerva emperor. Despite his political experience, this was a strange choice. Nerva was old and childless, and had spent much of his career out of the public light, prompting both ancient and modern authors to speculate on his involvement in Domitian’s assassination.

According to Cassius Dio, the conspirators approached Nerva as a potential successor prior to the assassination, which indicates that he was at least aware of the plot. Suetonius by contrast does not mention Nerva, but he may have omitted his role out of tactfulness. Considering the works of Suetonius were published under Nerva’s direct  successors, Trajan and Hadrian, it would have been less than politic of him to suggest the dynasty owed its accession to murder. On the other hand, Nerva lacked widespread support in the Empire, and as a known Flavian loyalist his track record would not have recommended him to the conspirators. The precise facts have been obscured by history, but modern historians believe Nerva was proclaimed Emperor solely on the initiative of the Senate, within hours after the news of the assassination broke. My reading, based on these limited sources, is that he was deliberately chosen as emperor  precisely because he was an ineffective leader (which he demonstrated admirably, albeit briefly) who could be manipulated by the Senate. He was also considered a safe choice because he was old, in poor health, and childless (precedent for later choices of a number of popes). Furthermore, he had close connexions with the Flavian dynasty and commanded the respect of a substantial part of the Senate. Nerva had seen the anarchy which had resulted from the death of Nero. He knew that to hesitate even for a few hours could lead to violent civil conflict. Rather than decline the invitation and risk revolts, he accepted.

Following the accession of Nerva as emperor, the Senate passed damnatio memoriae on Domitian: his coins and statues were melted, his arches were torn down and his name was erased from all public records. In many instances, existing portraits of Domitian, such as those found on the Cancelleria Reliefs, were simply recarved to fit the likeness of Nerva. This allowed quick production of new images and recycling of previous material. In addition, the vast palace which Domitian had erected on the Palatine Hill, known as the Flavian Palace, was renamed the “House of the People”, and Nerva himself took up residence in Vespasian’s former villa in the Gardens of Sallust.

The change of government was welcome particularly to the senators, who had been harshly persecuted during Domitian’s reign. As an immediate gesture of goodwill towards his supporters, Nerva publicly swore that no senators would be put to death as long as he remained in office. He called an end to trials based on treason, released those who had been imprisoned under these charges, and granted amnesty to many who had been exiled. So far, so good.

All properties which had been confiscated by Domitian were returned to their respective families.[22] Nerva also sought to involve the Senate in his government, but this was not entirely successful. He continued to rely largely on friends and advisors that were known and trusted, and by maintaining friendly relations with the pro-Domitian faction of the Senate, he incurred hostility which may have been the cause for at least one conspiracy against his life.

Having been proclaimed emperor solely on the initiative of the Senate, Nerva had to introduce a number of measures to gain support among the Roman populace. As was custom by this time, a change of emperor was expected to bring with it a generous payment of gifts and money to the people and the army. Accordingly, a congiarium of 75 denarii per head was bestowed upon the citizens, while the soldiers of the Praetorian Guard received a donativum which may have amounted to as much as 5000 denarii per person. This was followed by a string of economic reforms intended to alleviate the burden of taxation from the most needy Romans.


To the poorest, Nerva granted allotments of land worth up to 60 million sesterces. He exempted parents and their children from a 5% inheritance tax, and he made loans to Italian landowners on the condition that they pay interest of 5% to their municipality to support the children of needy families; alimentary schemes which were later expanded by Trajan, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. Furthermore, numerous taxes were remitted and privileges granted to Roman provinces. Namely, he probably abolished the Fiscus Iudaicus, the additional tax which all Jews throughout the Empire had to pay: some of his coins bear the legend FISCI IUDAICI CALUMNIA SUBLATA (abolition of malicious prosecution regarding the Jewish tax).

Before long, Nerva’s expenses strained the economy of Rome and necessitated the formation of a special commission of economy to drastically reduce expenditures. The most superfluous religious sacrifices, games and horse races were abolished, while new income was generated from Domitian’s former possessions, including the auctioning of ships, estates, and even furniture. Large sums were obtained from Domitian’s silver and gold statues, and Nerva forbade the production of similar images in his honor.


Because he reigned only briefly, Nerva’s public works were few, instead completing projects which had been initiated under Flavian rule. This included extensive repairs to the Roman road system and the expansion of the aqueducts. The latter program was headed by the former consul Sextus Julius Frontinus, who helped to put an end to abuses and later published a significant work on Rome’s water supply, De Aquis Urbis Romae. The only major landmarks constructed under Nerva were a granary, known as the Horrea Nervae, and a small Imperial Forum begun by Domitian, which linked the Forum of Augustus to the Temple of Peace. Little remains, partly because the Via dei Fori Imperiali cuts across it.

Despite Nerva’s measures to remain popular with the Senate and the Roman people, support for Domitian remained strong in the army, which had called for his deification immediately after the assassination. In an attempt to appease the soldiers of the Praetorian Guard, Nerva had dismissed their prefect Titus Petronius Secundus—one of the chief conspirators against Domitian—and replaced him with a former commander, Casperius Aelianus.

Likewise, the generous donativum bestowed upon the soldiers following his accession was expected to swiftly silence any protests against the violent regime change. The Praetorians considered these measures insufficient, however, and demanded the execution of Domitian’s assassins, which Nerva refused. Continued dissatisfaction with this state of affairs would ultimately lead to the gravest crisis of Nerva’s reign.

While the swift transfer of power following Domitian’s death had prevented a civil war from erupting, Nerva’s position as an emperor soon proved too vulnerable, and his benign nature turned into a reluctance to assert his authority. Upon his accession, he had ordered a halt to treason trials, but at the same time allowed the prosecution of informers by the Senate to continue. This measure led to chaos, as everyone acted in his own interests while trying to settle scores with personal enemies, leading the consul Fronto to famously remark that Domitian’s tyranny was ultimately preferable to Nerva’s anarchy. Early in 97, a conspiracy led by the senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso Crassus Frugi Licinianus failed, but once again Nerva refused to put the conspirators to death, much to the disapproval of the Senate.


The situation was further aggravated by the absence of a clear successor, made more pressing because of Nerva’s old age and sickness. He had no natural children of his own and only distant relatives, who were unsuited for political office. A successor would have to be chosen from among the governors or generals in the Empire and it appears that, by 97, Nerva was considering adopting Marcus Cornelius Nigrinus Curiatius Maternus, the powerful governor of Syria. This was covertly opposed by those who supported the more popular military commander Marcus Ulpius Traianus, commonly known as Trajan, who at the time was a popular general of the armies at the German frontier.

In October 97 these tensions came to a head when the Praetorian Guard, led by Casperius Aelianus, laid siege to the Imperial Palace and took Nerva hostage. He was forced to submit to their demands, agreeing to hand over those responsible for Domitian’s death and even giving a speech thanking the rebellious Praetorians. Titus Petronius Secundus and Parthenius, Domitian’s former chamberlain, were sought out and killed. Nerva was unharmed in this assault, but his authority was damaged beyond repair.

He realized that his position was no longer tenable without the support of an heir who had the approval of both the army and the people. Shortly thereafter, he announced the adoption of Trajan as his successor, and with this decision all but abdicated. Trajan was formally bestowed with the title of Caesar and shared the consulship with Nerva in 98. Cassius Dio wrote:

Thus Trajan became Caesar and later emperor, although there were relatives of Nerva living. But Nerva did not esteem family relationship above the safety of the State, nor was he less inclined to adopt Trajan because the latter was a Spaniard instead of an Italian or Italot, inasmuch as no foreigner had previously held the Roman sovereignty; for he believed in looking at a man’s ability rather than at his nationality.

Actually, Nerva had little choice in the matter, and later historians give him too much credit. Faced with a major crisis, he desperately needed the support of a man who could restore his damaged reputation, and the Praetorian Guard made their choice obvious. The only candidate with sufficient military experience, consular ancestry, and connexions was Trajan.

On 1 January, 98, at the start of his fourth consulship, Nerva suffered a stroke during a private audience. Shortly thereafter he was struck by a fever and died at his villa in the Gardens of Sallust, on 28 January. He was deified by the Senate, and his ashes were laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Nerva was succeeded without incident by his adopted son Trajan, who was greeted by the Roman populace with enthusiasm.


I celebrate Nerva today, not because he was a great man (in any respect), nor because he did anything notable. By the standards of his own time he was weak and indecisive. For most of his life he was a bog standard jack in office who got by without attracting attention, and then got thrust into the limelight precisely because of those qualities. The people were tired of Domitian’s tyranny and needed someone banal and controllable to keep the seat warm until a new emperor could be installed. Leaving the throne empty for even a few hours could have precipitated civil war. So Nerva got the short straw. Today let’s celebrate nobodies who end up as celebrities without either the desire or the talent for it.

I’ve combed ancient Roman recipes quite a bit in past posts and could do the same here. But I thought I’d deviate a little from that path. Contemporary Italian cooking does, in many respects, resemble the cooking of ancient Rome, although there are some obvious changes, such as the addition of tomatoes, zucchini, and beans from the Americas. But underneath these changes, some dishes have not changed all that much as best as we can tell. One such dish is testaroli.

A form of testaroli is attested in Etruscan times in northern Italy in the region formerly called Lunigiana, between Tuscany and Liguria, and is still a regional specialty. Whether what is served now bears much resemblance to the Etruscan dish is impossible to say. But ancient descriptions suggest a connexion. Here’s the question: Is it pasta, a crepe, or bread? It’s not really any of these things exactly. It’s not conventional pasta because it is baked before being boiled. But being boiled means that it is not a crepe or bread either. Wheat flour that is made into a paste, hardened, then boiled, sure sounds like pasta – and gives the lie to the idea that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy from China. But it’s not conventional pasta. The initial baking gives testaroli a unique taste.

Testaroli’s name comes from the testo, a terra cotta or cast iron cooking device with a hot, flat surface that testaroli is traditionally cooked on first. Making testaroli involves two steps (usually). First it is baked on a hot surface, then cut into pieces and boiled.

Here’s my recipe in photos (this morning’s breakfast).

Make a thin batter from flour and water with a little salt. It should be the consistency of heavy cream so that it will pour easily.


Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. You can use a dry surface if you wish.


Pour in enough flour batter to cover the bottom evenly — the same thickness as a crepe.


When the bottom has cooked and browned, flip the pancake.


Repeat as needed. Keep the pancakes distinct, do not stack them. Let them dry for a few hours, then cut them into small pieces on the diagonal.


Heat a pot of salted water to boiling.


Turn off the heat and plunge in the testaroli.


When they have heated through fully, remove the testaroli and serve hot with olive oil, basil leaves, and grated cheese. Nowadays, a pesto sauce is also very common.



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