Scholia Reviews 12 (2003) 25.

John D. Grainger, Nerva and the Roman Succession Crisis of AD 96-99. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0415-28917-3. Pp. xxvii + 162. UK£45.00, US$70.00

D. Wardle
School of Languages and Literatures, University of Cape Town

Grainger gives us the first monograph on Nerva since Albino Garzetti's in 1950 and the first ever in English.[[1]] For this reason alone it is to be welcomed, but Grainger offers a detailed and largely convincing study of the assassination of Domitian, Nerva's reign, the manoeuvres which led to the emergence of Trajan as Nerva's heir and key actions from the first years of Trajan's reign -- far more than a straightforward biography of Nerva. The nature of the primary sources and the kind of analytical work required for Grainger's task does not lead to coruscating prose, but even when the going is toughest, in the heavily prosopographical sections, the reader's persistence is well rewarded.

Grainger has to draw on the relatively meagre ancient sources for his work: Suetonius' brief account of the assassination of Domitian, the abbreviated version of Cassius Dio Book 68, references in Pliny's Letters and Panegyricus and inscriptional material which is not as rich as for many other reigns.

Chapter 1 (pp. 1-3) gives a brief account of the assassination of Domitian which serves to introduce the key characters.

Chapter 2 (pp. 4-27) is far more substantial as Grainger attempts to identify senatorial participants in the conspiracy to kill Domitian: Suetonius' and Dio's accounts both finger only members of the imperial household and soldiers, and are so discrepant that it is clear we have versions of events created and disseminated by the ultimate victors and their successors which obscure any senatorial involvement in the plot. Parallels with the end of Caligula's reign abound, although Grainger does not stress this. Grainger's attempts to identify the bashful senators centre on T. Catius Caesius Fronto, who was suffect consul at the time of the assassination. Grainger reconstructs Fronto as a natural opponent of Domitian appointed as a conciliatory gesture to a hostile Senate. Although such conciliation is a proven element of Domitian's policies toward the Senate, Fronto cannot be proven to be a conspirator nor his consular office as essential to any plot (cf. AD 41). Grainger rightly sees the expanded consular list of 97 as comprising Domitian's original list and six more candidates rewarded by Nerva. Far more conjectural, as Grainger admits, is his reconstruction of the role of the praetorian prefects in the plot and his list of six capaces imperii to whom Nerva was preferred. It is odd that Grainger does not also canvass those who commanded powerful armies and whose acquiescence (at the least) in any plot was crucial, although he is alert to the broad context of the Suebic-Sarmatian war planned for late 96 in which Domitian was to participate.

Chapter 3 (pp. 28-44) considers the family, early career and first imperial acts of Nerva, who advanced from loathsome informer in 65 to honoured supporter of Vespasian in 71, when he was given a prominent consulship. Even if he was no Vicar of Bray, Nerva was capable of nifty footwork in the turbulent years of transition. Grainger spends very little time on the constitutional aspects of the transfer of power -- there were no comitia populi, only an adlocutio. The key necessity for Nerva was to distance himself from the Flavian dynasty, as is seen in his cancellation of sentences for those convicted under Domitian, his choice of new appointees and the search for victims appropriate to a new order.

Chapter 4 (pp. 45-51) with comparative brevity discusses the reactions to Domitian's death across the empire. The sources' silence on the reaction at Rome is deafening -- Suetonius has no more than a sentence occisum eum populus indifferenter . . . tulit (Dom. 23.1) -- so Grainger makes most of the various inscriptions across the empire in which Domitian's name has been erased, although it is not clear that the random survival of inscriptions should be pressed to poll province by province Domitian's posthumous popularity.

Chapter 5 (pp. 52-65) offers a detailed and generally convincing account of Nerva's imperial actions, the problems of continuity with the Flavian administration, the coinage etc. The hoary question of a financial crisis is discussed and dismissed as illusory -- Nerva was in search of a new ethos of restraint rather than actually cash-strapped. While this is not an impossible reconstruction, we know too little about the extraordinary, unscheduled expenditures of the period, the items which made all the difference in what was normally a tightly balanced imperial economy.

Having exhausted the available material on Nerva himself, Grainger moves on to the key question of the succession (Chapter 6. pp 66-72). Nerva's childlessness had been a factor in his suitability as interim ruler to succeed Domitian, but his advanced years brought to the fore the need for an heir. Grainger surveys the likely candidates, from Domitian's surviving heirs, through nobiles resplendent of ancestry, to provincial governors hastily confirmed in position by the new regime which was powerless to replace them. The pressures on Nerva are well brought out by Grainger.

Chapter 7 (pp. 73-88) brings us to Trajan and to extensive prosopographical researches in which Grainger presents a vast network of family relations stretching from Spain to Asia Minor. Grainger's Trajan emerges as a figure central to the Spanish-Narbonensian network which was a crucial power-base for him. Although this chapter is the hardest to read in the book, the effort is worthwhile.

Chapter 8 (pp. 89-102) focuses on Rome and the pressures which led to the adoption of Trajan. The plot by Crassus revealed Nerva's weakness, but for him to choose a successor risked danger from those overlooked or rejected. Grainger duly emphasises (p. 90) that he is attempting a reconstruction, an essential caveat to his survey of the powerful northern generals (Grainger excludes Nigrinus from the list of possibles), the riot of the praetorian guard in the summer of 97 and the nomination of Trajan in October. Grainger minimises the superiority of Trajan's claims, rightly correcting the hysterical rhetoric of Pliny, locating his success in his consular ancestry, youth and political connections (particularly through the Spanish-Narbonensian network). More detailed prosopography reveals that the consuls for 98 were a compromise -- six supporters of Trajan and six originally chosen by Nerva.

Chapter 9 (pp. 103-8) discusses the procedure of the adoption, perhaps unduly minimising the legal aspects[[2]] and, in the light of the s.c. de Pisone patre, not admitting any distinction in the imperium of Nerva and Trajan during the period of virtual joint-rule. Grainger presumes widespread consultation before the eventual announcement, and brings out well the benefits to Trajan of remaining with his legions from October 97.

Chapter 10 (pp. 109-25) focuses on Trajan, his key appointments, creation of his new praetorian guard and punishment of Casperius Aelianus. Grainger considers that Trajan's military policies which resulted in the annexation of Dacia were a change from Domitian's original strategy of advancing the frontier to the Sudeten and Erzebirge mountains, some 300 kilometres north of the Danube. The new emperor took particular care with his provincial appointments in the north and, having secured his rear, finally entered Rome in autumn 99.

Grainger's account of Nerva will no doubt become the standard work in English for a while to come. Its thoroughness and the sobriety of its analyses make it a reliable guide and worthy addition to the ancient historian's bookshelf.[[3]].


[[1]] On a far smaller scale, but equally commendable is Miriam Griffin's contribution 'Nerva to Hadrian' in A. K. Bowman, P. Garnsey, D. Rathbone (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History Volume 11 (Cambridge 2000) 84-131.

[[2]] The discussion by M.-H. Prevost, Les adoptions politiques à Rome sous la République et le Principat (Paris 1949) 48f., is still worth reading.

[[3]] I offer my own version of the standard gripe about Routledge's imperial biographies, the publisher's insistence on endnotes rather than footnotes. A work such as Grainger's will not attract a large non-professional readership and a format more appropriate to the academic market would be preferable. The relegation of the scholarly apparatus encourages undergraduate students in the similar kind of bad habits that we spend much effort in correcting. That said, the standard of production is excellent, the glossy, glaring paper of old has been jettisoned, the standard of proof-reading is high -- a handful of typos in the main text, although the bibliography appears to manifest a rabid anti-continental bias evident in the frequent omission of accents and umlauts.