Coin Relief 27 – Nerva

Welcome to the latest edition of Coin Relief. This time Dr. Andrew Brown examines the coinage of Nerva.

Nerva, AD 81-96

The tyranny of Domitian (AD 81-96) ended on the 18th of
September AD 96 in conspiracy and assassination that brought about the end of Flavian dynasty. Despite the bloody coup, the result was that the “the kind deities gave a second Augustus to the earth” (Martial Epigrams XI.3). Marcus Cocceius Nerva (AD 96-98) was something of an odd choice. He was a career politician born in Narnia (Italy) in AD 30 to a noble family and had provided counsel to Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian, for the latter two also serving as consul in AD 71 and 90 respectively. At the age of 65 and with no children Nerva wasn’t an obvious candidate for power, but he was a respected politician and for the senate at least he was respite after Domitian. Moreover, as ‘their emperor’ – the senate reportedly acclaimed his rule immediately upon Domitian’s death – the senate might have greater stability and control with him at the helm.

The situation was not straightforward, however. While the senate were relieved, even overjoyed at Domitian’s demise, the populous were indifferent, but the army were angry. While the soldiers called for Domitian to be deified and to avenge his murder, he was subject to official damnatio memoriae by the senate with his image and name destroyed or defaced. This was just the second time, after Nero, that such official condemnation of memory had occurred. For Nerva, this meant a difficult balancing act. On the one hand he had an unhappy military out for revenge and not overly supportive of him, since under Domitian they had prospered, had received pay rises, and Nerva had, after all, rather been forced on them by the senate. On the other hand, he had a senate that needed appeasing and a largely indifferent populous that had not done too badly under the previous emperor but whose support he needed to encourage. From the outset there was tension. Many contemporary sources are complimentary to the new emperor though, Tacitus remarks that “at the dawn of
a most happy age Nerva Cæsar blended things once irreconcilable, sovereignty and freedom” (Tacitus Agricola 3). Later sources (e.g. Cassius Dio or Aurelius Victor) generally
cast him in a good light, but also point out his age and fragility and perhaps a lack of decisive leadership. A munity by the Praetorian guards in AD 97 seeking justice against the
conspirators against Domitian resulted in Nerva being imprisoned by the guards in the imperial palace until order was restored (well, until the guards had finished off two of the
conspirators at least!). This may have contributed to his adoption in October of that year of Marcus Ulpius Traianus, a military commander and governor in Germany, as his imperial
heir thus ensuring the succession and with some support from the legions.

Nerva’s reign is generally seen as benevolent and he is well
regarded, if perhaps somewhat overshadowed by his more
competent successor, Trajan. He was in power for just 16 months
but instigated numerous social, fiscal, and political reforms that
sought to undo many of the problems associated with Domitian
and generate good will from multiple opposing factions. While
this obviously did not immediately help with the military, it did
win him popularity from many corners – it is notable that from
the outset he was afforded the title pater patriae (Father of the
Country). The short length of his reign means there is little
surviving art or architecture from this period. The Forum Nervae
(also known as the Forum Transitorium) in Rome was completed
under Nerva, although largely a product of Domitian’s reign, and
there were further public works on Rome’s aqueducts and a
granary complex. Many of the few surviving portraits are recut
busts of Domitian in Nerva’s likeness, and perhaps reflect the
senate’s Damnatio of Domitian if not re-use of existing spolia
during what was, after all, a very brief reign (Fig. 1).

On January 28th AD 68, Nerva died following a fit and short fever. He was quickly deified by the senate and was the last Roman emperor to have his ashes interred in the Mausoleum of
Augustus in Rome. His rule had provided a brief interlude between the tyranny of Domitian and a new high point of imperial power under Trajan – for which he had a not insignificant formative role.


Given the short period of time Nerva was emperor, his coinage is necessarily relatively limited in scope, struck in six main issues at Rome. He has a very recognisable bust type, with distinctive nose(!), not to be confused with either the coinages of Domitian (AD 81-96) before him or Trajan (AD 98-117) after him. Gold, silver, and bronze denominations were all struck and with few exceptions (see below) all of his issues carry dated types that
allow us to place them quite closely within his reign (where the legends are visible, of course!). The PAS has no gold of Nerva, which is in any case very rare in Britain.

The six issues of Nerva’s coinage and their associated dates.

The PAS contains records of 393 coins of Nerva, including 122 IARCW Welsh records, 187 of these are for denarii, with 70 sestertii, 45 dupondii, 66 asses, and the remainder unclear
smaller bronze denominations (dupondii or asses). In this post we follow the outline of Nerva’s coinage used by Mattingly and Sydenham in RIC II, but see also: BMC III; N. Elkins’ excellent recent study on Nerva, The Image of Political Power in the Reign of Nerva, AD 96-98 (OUP, 2017), provides a necessary update on the coinage and its interpretation.


The denarii form the largest single denominational group within the PAS dataset, the 187 coins demonstrating relatively widespread coverage within England, notably with
concentrations in East Anglia, the Midlands, north to Chester, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire, but not many at all south and west of the Hampshire/Wiltshire area or indeed along the south coast generally. It is perhaps surprising that there are almost no examples close to Gloucester, since as Colonia Nervia Glevensium or Glevum, the Roman fort became a colonia for retired
legionary soldiers in AD 97.

Denarius of Nerva, c.AD 97. Record ID IOW-F3C251 (Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).

One of the most common PAS denarius types for Nerva (at least 44 PAS examples) carries a reverse with clasped hands and the legend CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM that highlights the emperor’s efforts to maintain ‘concord’ with the armies (exercitvvm). There are two varieties that appear in each year of his reign, one that simply depicts the clasped hands and another the clasped hands holding a legionary eagle that rests on a ship’s prow.

Denarius of Nerva, c.AD 96, with Concordia reverse. HAMP-419A81 (Winchester Museum Service, License: CC-BY).

There is a second variant with Fortuna reverse type depicting her seated left holding corn ears and denoting the good fortune of the P[opulus] R[omanus] – the roman state and her citizenry 
– rather than the fortune that guides the emperor (AVGVST[i]). The corn ears perhaps also alluding to provision of grain to the people (see Elkins, 2017). There appear to be only two possible examples on the PAS, both from Norfolk, but lacking images. Iustitia (Justice) appears more regularly as a reverse type from Nerva’s reign onward and in this case likely publicised the emperor’s desire for proper judicial process. In this respect it likely also finds some relation to the Roman concepts of Libertas and Aequitas that both appear as reverse types under Nerva and the idea of just treatment for all, including in the senate’s need for a sense of order following Domitian’s reign, demise, and their desire for damnatio. This type is rare on the PAS, with only two identified examples, one being an IARCW coin without image.

Denarii with reverse types depicting priestly or sacrificial implements have a number of different legends, including this type that carries PATER PATRIAE in full rather than simply
P P. There are about 13 PAS examples with this reverse type.
There are a number of more scarce denarii types that are not represented in the PAS dataset so far, including reverses with Diana (RIC II, p. 224, no. 11) and Moneta (RIC II, p. 223, no. 8 passim – note that this should not be confused with the very similar Aequitas type!).

Denarius of Nerva, c.AD 97, with priestly implements on reverse. Record ID YORYM-97A6E1 (York Museums Trust, License: CC-BY-SA).

All of the denarii from Nerva’s last issue in AD 98 have the same reverse types already seen in AD 96 and 97 but with legends that read IMP II COS IIII P P rather than, for example,
AEQVITAS AVGVST, CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM, etc. These are less common as PAS finds, with only 6 recorded examples, all with either Aequitas (4 examples) or Libertas (2 examples) reverse types.

From AD 97, after Trajan’s adoption as imperial heir in October of that year, Nerva assumes the title Germanicus along with Trajan, presumably in response to the successes of the Roman armies on the German frontier, where Trajan had been a successful military
commander and, under Nerva, governor. If you have a coin of Nerva, therefore, that carries the title GERM in the obverse legend it dates to his last two issues from December AD 97

Bronze coinage

Perhaps more interesting is Nerva’s bronze coinage, which accounts for more than 50% of the total number of PAS coins. As with much of the early imperial aes coinage recovered from ploughsoil contexts, many of the examples demonstrate quite extensive corrosion, damage, and in some instances use wear that renders their types difficult or impossible to identify. However, there are some excellent examples of his bronze issues that help to illustrate their development in the brief time Nerva reigned. Many examples carry reverse types that are replicated in the silver coinage above – coins with Libertas and Fortuna are not uncommon as PAS finds, with the addition of the occasional Concordia and similar types. These are very much standard reverse types that generally relate to peace and stability within the empire, as well as the emperor’s role in good governance. In the Libertas reverse – as noted above with the Ivstitia denarius type – there is perhaps more overt comment on the senate’s (and the people’s) greater freedom from the tyranny of Domitian. The Concordia type, of course, continues the thread of Nerva’s attempts to appease the army, also reflected in a Pax reverse type that appears so far unrepresented within the PAS material.

Dupondius of Nerva, c.AD 97. Record ID SF-F1B5D8 (Suffolk County Council, License: CC-BY-SA).

A number of PAS coins highlight Nerva’s wider policies for stability within the empire and his own attempts to maintain peaceful engagement with the people, senate, and military
following the difficult (even tyrannical) rule of Domitian. Unfortunately, some of these more interesting types lack images on the database, many of them coming from the IARCW
dataset. Three sestertii are recorded (FAPJW-9DCE03; IARCW-63DAF6665; IARCW-63DAFF7F8) that are connected with grain supply to the plebeian population with PLEBEI VRBANAE FRVMENTO CONSTITVTO reverse type depicting a modius (Fig. 21; RIC II, p. 229, no. 89). Similarly linked to the grain supply are probably an issue of quadrantes with modius obverse (RIC II, p. 230, nos. 109-113) – there so far appear to be no examples of
these recorded in Britain however. Interestingly, a distinctive group of die-linked irregular Trajanic sestertii incorporating the PLEBEI VRBANAE FRVMENTO CONSTITVTO modius of Nerva have been studied by B. Woytek and appear to be products of Roman Britain. Several examples are recorded on the PAS database and it is worth looking out for them so that we can further understand their production and distribution.

A total of seven coins (including two IARCW examples) carry the reverse type VEHICVLATIONE ITALIAE REMISSA, S C, depicting two mules grazing with cart and harness behind. This type represents Nerva’s remission of an Imperial tax levied on
the Imperial post within Italy, again reflective of his social policies within the empire. While a single example with ROMA RENASCENS reverse type (IARCW-63DAFF7FD; not photographed) appealed perhaps more strongly to the senate with the sense of a rebirth or new age of the state after Domitian.

An interesting emission of coinage struck in both silver and bronze during Nerva’s lifetime depict the deified emperor Augustus in much the same way as Tiberius and the Flavians had done beforehand. These may have been intended to provide Nerva with an element of legitimacy (given he was not part of an imperial dynasty) to an earlier Roman power prior to the problems associated with Domitian. The similarity of the bust types to Nerva rather than Augustus may have reinforced this and communicated to both senate and people the establishment of a new imperial power in the image of the deified emperor (see
Elkins, 2017).

Another “Coin of British Association”?

As of Nerva, c.AD 97, unlisted in RIC. Record ID LVPL-716282 (National Museum Liverpool, License: CC-BY-SA).

In 2012 a copper-alloy as of Nerva was recorded through the PAS from Mollington, Cheshire (LVPL-716282). This coin is of a type unlisted in RIC, but mentioned by Mattingly and Sydenham in a footnote referencing an example in the British Museum believed to be a fake or modified FORTVNA AVGVST coin (RIC II, p. 228). The reverse type depicts Neptune holding a ship’s prow (acrostolium) and trident, a small figure emerging from the ground to the left probably Triton (son of Neptune and Amphitrite), with the legend NEPTVNO CIRCENS(ibus) CONSTITVT(is) S C. Since the publication of RIC, this coin
type has been subject to various examinations, most notably by D. Shotter in 2013, and has been placed in Nerva’s third issue of coinage in AD 97. The reverse has been interpreted as
referring to Neptune’s association with horse racing in the Circus Maximus in Rome and the type likely indicates the establishment of games to Neptune here. 

Shotter identified 16 known examples of this type, mostly within various museum collections around the world, including three British Museum coins. What is more interesting is that seven of the nine examples listed by Shotter have British findspots and three of the remaining coins are in British collections. In contrast, there are no recorded examples in Rome, or indeed in Italy, despite this coin type being a product of the Rome mint. Shotter suggests that these asses may well have been shipped in batches to Gaul and Britain, specifically for circulation here, perhaps particularly favoured due to the depiction of Neptune and the maritime associations that came with him which might have found affinity with the population of Britannia. Elkins (2017), on the other hand, regards this is a more doubtful interpretation, instead suggesting that the Neptune asses could have reached Britain in AD 97 as a consignment of coinage with those settling the new colonia of Glevum (Gloucester). His argument rests a little on the distribution of the aes coinage of Nerva recorded through the PAS, noting both a spike in coins of AD 97 within the assemblage and that the majority of the sestertii, dupondii, and asses are found within a 70-mile radius of
Glevum. However, while it is clear that Nerva’s coins of AD 97 are the most commonly seen within the PAS data, it is equally notable that the immediate area around Gloucester does not have huge numbers of coins at all. Indeed, a 70-mile radius would account for only 81 of the bronze coins of Nerva (just under 40% of the total) and the Neptune types are for the most part found in the north and east. Of course, this is with an additional 7 years of coins recorded through the PAS, which has changed the picture somewhat since Elkins’ publication.

I have recently noted a further Neptune as from excavation in Lincolnshire published in 2013, bringing the total of known examples to 17. It is quite plausible that the spike in Nerva’s coinage around AD 97 does indeed relate to increased activity generally with the foundation of Glevum, although whether this is directly responsible for the Neptune asses appearing within the province remains to be ascertained on the basis of more provenanced examples and is perhaps not entirely supported by the spread of PAS bronze coinage from this period. It is important that we record more of these coins when they appear – I feel it
likely there are others from excavation or in collections around the country that have not yet been noticed and it is likely others will appear in due course. On current evidence, we might be able to suggest these appear to be largely for circulation in Britain (and possibly Gaul), indicating that, much like the later issues of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, the Neptune as of Nerva perhaps has a specific British Association.

References and further reading:

D. Calomino Defacing the Past: Damnation and Desecration in Imperial Rome (Spink), 2016: pp. 91-95

R. Bland and X. Loriot, Roman and Early Byzantine Gold Coins found in Britain and Ireland (2010) record just two British aurei for Nerva.

D. Shotter ‘The Principate of Nerva: Some Observations on the Coin Evidence’ Historia 32.2, 1983