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Nerva's involvement in Domitian's assassination

PostPosted: Mon Aug 04, 2008 10:39 pm
by Tarquinius Dionysius
I'd like to elaborate on a topic I briefly touched upon in my thread of Grainger's book Nerva and the Succession Crisis of 96-98. As mentioned, I think Grainger (2002) is a little to eager to accept Nerva's involvement in Domitian's assassination, which is by no means certain. As I feel the last word hasn't been said on this topic, a look at the evidence:

Ancient tradition
Cassius Dio and Suetonius report two highly similar, but slightly divergent accounts of the assassination of Domitian. Dio includes Nerva amongst the conspirators by suggesting he was aware of the plot in advance; Suetonius does not mention Nerva, but speaks of unnamed amici who were involved. Considering the bias of both authors, this information (or lack thereof) could be read both ways. If Nerva was indeed involved in the assassination, Suetonius may have omitted him out of political cosiderations. To suggest that Trajan and (indirectly) Hadrian owed their accession through murder might have been insensitive. Dio on the other hand, writing in the early third century, had no such considerations to take into account. He could write more freely, and safely included Nerva amongst the conspirators.

But personally, I do not think this is entirely plausible. It's clear to me (and modern authors) that ancient sources were straining to establish any hostility between Nerva and Domitian, proof be the incredible story about Nerva's supposed exile, or his impending execution which allegedly made him take part in the assassination in the first place. Because Domitian was condemned as a tyrant after his death, Nerva needed to distance himself from the fallen dynasty, while justifying his own ascent. Therefore, Nerva's involvement in the conspiracy served to reinforce the image of Domitian as a despot, hated and finally murdered by even those closest to him (Nerva, Domitia Longina). The assassination was not only necessary to ensure the transition to the much exalted Nervan-Antonine dynasty, it was made inevitable through Nerva's "forced" participation.

Nerva's career
By all accounts, Nerva was a known Flavian loyalist. He had supported their cause since the civil war of 69, was honoured with consulships in 71 and 90 (the only non-Flavian apart from Mucianus to be honoured with multiple consulships), may have helped crush the revolt of Saturninus in 89 (as did Trajan), and even after Domitian's death, maintained relations with the pro-Flavian faction of the Senate. Nevertheless, much of Nerva's life remains a mystery. His early life is a complete enigma, while his political career before 96 seems to have been spent entirely in the shadows of the Flavian government, occassionally assuming a consulship, which he received for services unknown.

Again, the information could be read both ways. Nerva appears to have been a highly adaptable diplomat, able to maintain a low profile and survive multiple regime changes. That he was loyal to Nero is attested by his role in detecting the Pisonian conspiracy of 65. He was rewarded with triumphal honours and had his statues placed throughout the palace. During the civil war of 69 he is conspicuously absent, before re-emerging as consul in 71, the first non-Flavian to be honoured as such under the new dynasty. This suggests that he supported the Flavians early on during the civil war.

The question is, did his support arise more or less "accidentally" out of a genuine friendship between Nerva and Vespasian (as argued by Murison (2003)), or was it precisely his political instinct which kept him away from the doomed emperors Galba, Otho and Vitellius? After 71, Nerva disappears from record until his next consulship in 90. The date is significant, barely a year after the failed revolt of Lucius Antonius Saturninus. As in the Pisonian conspiracy of 65, and the civil war of 69, Nerva seems to have played an unknown part in detecting, alerting or generally supporting the Flavian government (in this case Domitian) during the crisis. Alternatively, Domitian may have selected Nerva for consulship, precisely to emphasise the fact that the uprising had been controlled, and the status-quo maintained.

Nerva's loyalty
From the preceding section, we may deduce that Nerva simply supported whichever ruler was in power, and quietly abandoned ship when the end drew near. Importantly, he knew when not to act: the Pisonian conspiracy and the revolt of Saturninus were premature or ill-conceived. During the civil war of 69, he wisely kept a low profile under Galba, Otho (despite his sister's marriage to Otho's brother!) and Vitellius. Therefore, when a plot was formed against Domitian in 96, he knew the Flavian era was over, and accepted the conspirators' offer to become Emperor.

But there are problems with this interpretation, which suggest that Nerva wasn't quite the political chameleon Grainger makes him out to be. It's true that he abandoned Nero in 68, but then again who didn't? When Nero committed suicide, not even his slaves chose to perish alongside him. Furthermore, Nerva and Vespasian had both been members of Nero's entourage, and if the consulship of 71 is any indication, they were friends too. Flavian propaganda later attempted to diminish Vespasian's successes under Nero, but the fact is that his government was largely composed of Nero's former amici, chief among them Vespasian and Nerva. The "betrayal" against their former emperor seems only minor to me.

History repeated itself upon the death of Domitian. While Nerva and Trajan were hailed as liberators, Domitian was condemned as a tyrant. In reality, the difference between both regimes was only superficial. Again, the new government was composed of the "tyrant"'s former amici. This time however, Nerva did little to disguise the fact, even if several measures were introduced to appease the Senate and the army. He openly maintained his relations with the pro-Domitianic faction of the Senate. Hardly the sort of conduct expected from a man who is supposed to have actively participated in overthrowing the Flavian government.

Is this the man the conspirators would have approached as their liberator? A known Flavian supporter, perhaps thé single most loyal advisor of Domitian? The man who had exposed the Pisonian conspiracy AND the revolt of Saturninus? It seems too incredible to be true.

Nerva's motivation
The facts will remain what they are. One could probably argue a case for either position (loyal or disloyal) back and forth, but personally I think there are far more persuasive arguments against Nerva's involvement in the assassination. Although he may not have turned out to be a very effective emperor, Nerva was no fool either. Considering his position at the time of Domitian's death, it seems beyond incredible to me that he would ever have imagined himself a potential successor:

* He was old and practically dying
* He was virtually unknown among the people of Rome
* He lacked widespread support among the army
* He had no heir to succeed him

Quite possibly the worst credentials of any man to become emperor since the Year of the Four Emperors. Worse still, because Nerva had virtually no military support. Galba may have been old, and Vitellius decadent, but each could count on a susbtantial and loyal body of troops to support him. Again, this was not the sort of man to ensure stability in the Roman Empire. Even if the conspirators were stupid enough to approach Nerva, and even if he would have offered his support, he hardly would have declared himself as emperor. Therefore, I would have to support Murison's conclusion: Nerva was elected by the Senate, and no-one else, as Domitian's successor.

Domitian's assassination was the result of a conspiracy among court officials. Neither the Senate nor the army appear to have been involved. His death must have been quite unexpected, with the immediate problem being that there was no heir to succeed him. Unless the events of 69 were to repeat themselves, the Senate had to act quickly. In many ways, Nerva was the safest choice available at the time. He was not only the most experienced politician (two ordinary consulships), but if the report of Domitian's death turned out false after all (or a Flavian restoration was still in order), he would have been an uncontested choice of interim. According to Aurelius Victor, Nerva was on his way to the Senate house to be acclaimed as emperor, when he fainted upon a false report that Domitian had survived the assassination. To me, it seems far more likely that he fainted at the news of his proclamation. Only hours ago, Domitian had been murdered, and now to his horror, he found himself to be the ruler of the Roman Empire.

That he knew very well what he was up against is attested by his exorbidant donatives to the people and the army of Rome. As Syme (1930) pointed out, it looks very much like bribery. Numerous coin types of Nerva's reign display the legend "CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM" (unity with the army), a sure sign of Nerva's own uneasiness in controlling the soldiers. Barely a year later, he would be besieged in his own palace by the Praetorian Guard, led by Casperius Aelianus, indirectly leading to the adoption of Trajan.

Some modern historians have treated Nerva a bit too harshly, in my opinion, especially overstating Fronto's remark that Domitian's tyranny was ultimately better than Nerva's anarchy. His administration may have been "inept", as Murison calls it, but ultimately the odds were heavily stacked against him, and I think it is to Nerva's credit that he managed to prevent a civil war from erupting. Consider the following four dates: 69, 96, 193, 235. Four times, a dynasty came to its end (Julio Claudian, Flavian, Antonine, Severan). Three times, a civil war resulted. 96 is the odd one out. Whatever Nerva's defects, the situation could have been far worse. He studiously avoided the pitfalls of Galba and Otho, and in Trajan, he also chose the right successor to maintain peace within the Empire.

My personal conclusion is that Nerva was likely not involved in the assassination on Domitian. His track record attests to his loyalty to the Flavian dynasty, while his position and credentials at the time of Domitian's death would not have recommended him to the conspirators, let alone prompted Nerva himself to attempt a coup.

PostPosted: Thu Aug 07, 2008 12:23 am
by Gaius Iulius Tabernarius
I tend to agree, he had really bad cards to play so calling him incompetent is unfair. He wasn't a demagogue, a military genius, or a sly economist, we was purely a politician. And to say he was an active participant in the conspiracy is to assume that he would have actually wanted the position. Considering the circumstances, it would mean almost certain death. Hence it would be an unlikely move.

I think part of it is that we give the position of emperor too much credit. Really it was one of the toughest, most dangerous jobs in history. Not to mention the psychological damage of the constant intrigue of court life. Its no wonder so many emperors went mad.