on June 22, 2012
Transitional periods in autocracies are moments of what Grainger calls "infinite dangers," true nowhere more so than in ancient Rome. Augustus established a dynasty based on adoption, but murder was so common among the Julio-Claudian family that, by the time Nero died, of assisted suicide, there were no members of the family left. A chaotic year ensued in which four men attempted to lay claim to the throne through military backing. Vespasian, who was to emerge victorious, established a new dynasty based on hereditary succession. His son Domitian had no sons and again resorted to executing family members in line for the throne, so that by his assassination, in which Nerva played a role, succession was once again uncertain.
Nerva, pushing 70 with little to no military experience and no children to succeed him, was nobody's first choice. What can be said of him is that he was adept at survival - he lived through the tumultuous era of Nero, the four emperors, and the Flavian dynasty. While Rome was a powerhouse throughout these "early" empire years, there was a constant culling of those aligned for power and its individual members did not fare favorably. Even among the aristocracy, men were normally dead by 50. That Nerva was able to become a sexagenarian speaks volumes to his character. The adoption of Trajan was quickly imposed upon him and, upon his death a little over a year later, Trajan ascended to the throne.
The term "Roman succession crisis" refers to this sequence of assassination, succession, and adoption. Unlike the last time a dynasty failed and the next time it would, Roman politics remained homeostatic. Though it became "institutionalized" in the third century and carried on into the fourth and fifth, Nerva was able to avoid a civil war. An interesting result of the crisis was that "Republicans," who planned to reintroduce their favored form of government, were thwarted due to the strength of the army, which now looked solely to the emperor as its paymaster. What made any emperor now successful wasn't the powerless senate but the might of the standing army. Moreover, Grainger argues that during this time Rome was effectively controlled by "senator-officers," now "largely invisible to us," instrumental in the choosing of emperors. Most people, however, were quite indifferent to the events in Rome: for the common citizen, whether or not rule was imposed by a "republic" or an emperor mattered little.
What those unfamiliar with history fail to realize is that we have very little information at all about anybody, including the emperors, from a time that is so removed from our own. Much of what we know has to be gleaned from extrapolation, so conclusions Grainger or any historian reaches are the result of educated conjecture from apocrypha. This book is obviously extensively researched and Grainger's knowledge distilled succinctly and eruditely, and Grainger's theory is plausible, if necessarily speculative. Knowing this, then, the importance of this era is to understand why, unlike any other time when a dynasty ended in the Roman Empire, civil war did not erupt. The "succession crisis" presented here is important not because of (speculation on) what happened but for what was prevented.
on May 12, 2014
John Grainger presents an interesting, readable and highly convincing study of the tense crisis that existed following the assassination of Domitian in September 96 A.D. to the arrival of Trajan in Rome in 99. The efficiency and prosperity of the Roman Empire established under Vespasian, Titus and Domitian was endangered by the sudden, unexpected murder of the autocratic, increasingly suspicious Emperor Domitian. With popularity among elements of the military and Praetorian Guards, Domitian was nevertheless detested by the Senatorial oligarchy that was pleased at his death and wanted to ratify the coup without bloody civil wars such as those that followed the death of Nero in A.D. 68-69. The elderly (mid-60s), childless senator and jurist Nerva, had been among the senators privy to the conspiracy and was quickly selected by the Senate to succeed Domitian. Given his old age, experience and childlessness, it was hoped that he could calm the situation while facilitating the transition to a new era of constructive partnership between the Senatorial aristocracy and military establishment.
Nerva proved to be a wise choice. An affable, diplomatic veteran of court life who had secured high favor in the reigns of Nero, Vespasian and Domitian (three very different emperors), Nerva was also experienced in the art of political timing and maneuver. He also was wise enough to secure advice from Senatorial elite in making a choice of eventual successor to the imperial power. In the face of assassination threats and uprisings among the Guards, Nerva used the occasion of a Roman victory against the German tribes announced in October 97 to defuse the danger by naming as his successor, Trajan, the respected commander of the largest and closest body of legions (frontier of Upper Germany). Bereft of any military reputation himself, Nerva now had the immense military prestige of Trajan at his back and was able to continue his reign peacefully until his death at the end of January 98.
Unlike many of the ancient historians, Grainger gives due credit to Domitian for his military and administrative acumen. Nerva, despite his brief reign, left behind a significant legacy of useful legislation and continuity of the best aspects of the Flavian era into the widely heralded golden age of Trajan. The book is well-written and interesting, but a scholarly and challenging rather than suitable for casual reading.
In writing this relatively short book (128 pages of text, although the print is small), John Grainger, better know for his books on hellenistic kingdoms and cities, has come up with a fascinating but somewhat speculative story as he reconstructs what happened between the murder of Domitian in AD 96 and the rise to power of Trajan and in AD 99. Rather than a biography of Nerva, the man who replaced Domitian (AD 81-96) as emperor but only ruled for 18 months, this little book is about the events and what they really meant, according to Grainger.
The first two chapters (assassination and conspiration) certainly read as a detective story as John Grainger points to the most likely suspects behind the murder. At times, this is mostly speculative, but it is well argumented and the case is well made. Another strong point is that it plunges you into the rather unhealthy atmospheres of the Imperial Palace and the Senate.
The second part is an assessment of Nerva, the reactions to the assassination, and Nerva's actions as an emperor. Nerva was old, in poor health and childless. He was a survivor from Nero's regime. He had no support in the army and could not expect to live for long: he was essentially a caretake or a stop-gap. Grainger argues this is largely why he was not opposed by the army which he sees as the real power.
The next part explains why Trajan was chosen in what Grainger presents as a bloodless coup. He wasn't the only possible candidate but he had all of the necessary requirements, including the links with the other generals - all of which were senators, some military experience, being part of the aristocracy and, most of all, impressive networks with the up and coming aristocracies of the provinces. He was also of the right age group - in his fourties - unlike some of the more distinguished generals which were at least a decade older.
This book is great reading, if at times a bit heavy going when Grainger details all of the marriage connections between the various powerful families. This is of course crucial since it shows to what extent Trajan benefited from these connections which other potential candidates did not have to the same extent. However, it is also get sometimes confusing, despite all of the genealogical trees of the powerful families to show their interconnexions.
One of Grainger's final assessments is a comparison between Domitian's and Trajan's strategic visions. He goes a long way towards rehabilitating Domitian which was blackened by the Senate, his successors (Nerva and Trajan) and, above all, by Tacitus and Pliny. Both of them were stauch supporters and admirers of Trajan, and are those who have done the most to ensure his posterity as one of the "great" Emperor-soldiers, while denigrating Domitian. Domitian is traditionnally portrayed as having failed in his Danubian wars, unlike Trajan, who succeeded. Grainger shows that neither statement were true. Domitian had some significant successes on the Rhine frontier to the extent that this frontier was quiet for about 100 years after his reign. IT is also under Domitian that the frontier was extended beyond the Rhine to the Taunus hills, including all the region that is now called the Black Forest adn was called the DEcumate Fields under the Romans. Grainger also attributes to Domitian a strategic project of conquest which, if it had been pursued and successful, could have pushed the Roman frontiers some 300 km to the north of the Danube.
Grainger does a very good job in showing that Domitian was a much better emperor (even if ruthless toward the Senate - hence the bad press) that what he has been portrayed to be, to the extent that, at times, you get the impression this book is about him rather than about Nerva and the succession. I was, however, less convinced by Grainger's presentation of Trajan whom he obviously seems to dislike and whom he believes to have been both less intelligent, less good as a strategist and less capable than Domitian.
So, well worth four stars, but not quite five.
on January 29, 2010
In his treatment of Nerva's brief reign as Roman Emperor, John Grainger makes the best of the very limited available information from written sources and archaeological evidence to build up a persuasive explanation of what was actually happening in the background during Nerva's reign: the circumstances and participants in the conspiracy to assassinate his predecessor, Domitian; Nerva's own personal and political background; and the circumstances behind Nerva's choice of Trajan as his successor. In order to make his case, he often has to rely on logical thinking and speculation, but he always makes clear that that's what he's doing.
Some of his analyses seem to be on more solid ground than others, for instance, his proposed list for senatorial co-conspirators and their alternative candidates for emperor before settling on Nerva is extensively argued and may well be correct, but must remain speculative. Far more interesting and surprising was his analysis of Trajan's family connections, putting him at the center of a network of influential senatorial families. At least since Pliny the Younger and down to present times, Nerva's choice of Trajan has been often presented as "the choice of the best man for the job". This image is rather shattered by Grainger analysis, which implicitly (and sometime explicitly) portrays Trajan as a relative mediocrity who literally happened to be at the right place at the right time, both in terms of his family connections and his positivion as a provincial governor in Germany and so in command of legions fairly close to Rome.
In this context, I did not find Grainger's proposed scenario of extensive consultations between the several senatorial factions connected to the provincial governors, finally settling on Trajan - and with Nerva himself merely informed of their decision, or at best consulted - to be necessary. No matter what other qualities or defects Nerva may have had, he was clearly a masterful backroom political operator and survivor - moving from Nero's inner circle to the Flavians', and emerging as the chosen candidate for emperor in the conspiracy to murder Domitian. I can't imagine how he could *not* have a map of all the senatorial political and familial networks in his head. So I wonder why it should be even necessary for the choice of his successor to be imposed on him, or even to emerge after consultations - from the point of view of political connections, the choice of Trajan would have been as obvious to Nerva as to anyone. In a way that confirms that Trajan was the "best possible choice", but *not* due to his personal abilities or qualities - merely due to his connections.
Grainger elaborates on the subject of Trajan's choice by making the caae that Trajan was a much worse military strategist than Domitian: by the time of his assassination, Domitian was planning campaigns on the upper regions of the Danube, which Grainger describes as a sounder strategy than Trajan's glory-seeking campaigns against Dacia. Grainger seems to regard Trajan as a relative mediocrity as far as substance was concerned, but much better connected (and better at public relations) than the far more competent Domitian. Whether one agrees with this view or not, Grainger does present his case with a great deal of thought.
Of the recent Roman imperial biographies in English, this is certainly the one that has given me the most to think about and reconsider.
on December 19, 2014
This is a well written book covering the transition from Domitian to the Pax Romana. How did this 'old nobody' get to power? How was a civil war like 69AD averted? How did Trajan come to be his successor? Grainger answers these questions with clarity and readability.
Grainger proves himself at titling books. There is not enough content for a book just on Nerva, but by including the periods before, during, and after the fall of the Flavian Dynasty we get an excellent historical cross section.
on December 4, 2014
Detailed and informative, this is exactly what I hoped it would be and thank the members at Roman Army Talk for the recommendation.