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The Image of Political Power in the Reign of Nerva, AD 96–98

The Image of Political Power in the Reign of Nerva, AD 96–98

By Nathan T. Elkins. Pp. xvi + 207. Oxford University Press, New York 2017. $85. ISBN 978-0-19-064803-9 (cloth).

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The Roman emperor Nerva held power for barely 16 months before his death on 27 January 98 C.E. Although he is mentioned by several ancient authors, no biography, aside from a brief summary of his life and reign in the Epitome de Caesaribus, survives. He left no major monuments, and his few remaining portraits were mostly recut from those of his predecessor Domitian. In short, the usual sources to which historians and art historians turn for insight into the policies and messaging of an emperor are sorely lacking for the reign of Nerva. Elkins’ book, therefore, is a welcome look at what does survive from Nerva’s reign: imperial coinage. The images (types) and texts (legends) on coins can be interpreted as representing an official viewpoint, a form of “state-sanctioned art” (3), and by analyzing the types and their distribution, Elkins assesses the messages communicated about the emperor’s agenda. The author builds his argument in three main chapters, framed by an introduction and conclusion.

In the introduction, Elkins addresses issues about coinage as a form of communication for imperial ideals. He rejects the use of the term “propaganda” because of its modern connotations and the implication of a central office for such activity, which ancient Rome did not have. His focus is on the imagery and distribution of the coins and what this might tell us about audience targeting. His method involves using “empirical finds-based evidence” (13)—that is, documented coin hoards and excavated finds. To Elkins, the coins constitute their own record of Nerva’s reign that can be interpreted somewhat independently of the ancient historical accounts and thus can help supplement and even correct our views of Nerva’s reign. The coin types fall into three categories that can be described roughly as military themes, imperial policy, and personifications, and each of these is the focus of a chapter.

The first chapter focuses on military-themed types: adlocutio (imperial address), victory, peace, and the stability of the army (concordia exercituum). The historical view, based on ancient texts, has been that Nerva, lacking military experience, had a strained relationship with the army. Elkins, however, argues that the images referencing the military, peace, and war were not intended to placate the army and thus do not reflect Nerva’s weakness. Appearing early in his reign, the military types instead should be understood as emphasizing Nerva’s status as military commander upon becoming emperor. The types project positive ideals of military stability, peace, and security, and they are in accordance with imagery produced since the time of Augustus.

In the second chapter, Elkins examines imagery connected to specific events and policies of Nerva’s reign. Among these historical types are the more standard imperial types, such as a congiarium issue celebrating the distribution of money, as well as some highly specific types representing imperial policy actions. Nerva’s remission of the vehiculatio (the obligation to the imperial courier from Italian communities along the highways) and his elimination of calumnia  (wrongful accusation) of the fiscus Iudaicus were both commemorated on coins. In the first case, Elkins sees the citizens of Italy as the target audience; in the latter, the main audience appears to have been the nobility of Rome and Italy (84–88). An odd revelation is a small group of coins commemorating games for Neptune in the Circus Maximus, most of which were found in Britain. The dissonance between likely audience, the population of Rome, and the find location, Britain, lead Elkins to suggest that the coins came to Britain with settlers of a newly founded colony, Colonia Nervia Glevensium. Another of the historical types is a series of restoration coins featuring the deified Augustus. Citing contemporary poetry praising Nerva as a “second Augustus,” Elkins argues that this series was intended to make a favorable comparison between Nerva and Augustus and, because the series coincided with Nerva’s adoption of Trajan as his heir, to present him as founder of a new dynasty.

The historical types discussed in the second chapter are rarer than the more generic types, and Elkins attributes this to audience targeting. These special messages were each aimed at a narrow audience—the senate, the urban plebs, the Italian population—rather than at the wider empire. Testing his theory by comparing coin finds in Rome and Italy with those outside the region, Elkins concludes that the evidence is suggestive, though not unequivocal, that most of these historical types were aimed at audiences in Rome and Italy. Additionally, Elkins rejects the direct agency of the emperor in the development of the historical types, arguing that their creation was similar to that of honorific monuments, commemorating achievements and communicating imperial ideals to relevant audiences.

The third chapter analyzes the images of personification appearing on Nerva’s coins. Of all the coin types, these had the widest distribution and, according to Elkins, were intended to communicate imperial ideals such as pietas, libertas, providentia, aequitas, and iustitia. Here Elkins demonstrates how the personifications on coins are well aligned with contemporary rhetorical and poetic praises of Nerva. The author makes a strong argument that the coin imagery developed as a complement to the literary portrayal of the emperor that was aimed at the widest possible audience: the whole empire. The book uses graphs and charts to explain the type distributions, and there are four appendices: on typological content of the emissions, types and dates of production, relative frequencies of denarius types, and regional distribution of base-metal types.

The only complaints are minor; for example, why are a few percentages carried out to two decimals (118, 134) when most are expressed as whole numbers? The fractional percentages do not seem necessary to the arguments. And on page 148, the legion should be Legio VII Gemina, not Geminae.

Throughout the book, Elkins makes a strong case for connecting the imagery of Nerva’s coinage to the laudatory ideals expressed in contemporary poetry and rhetoric, offering us a new perspective on Nerva’s reign. By examining the frequency of types among hoards and excavated finds as well as their locations, the author makes a convincing case for audience targeting in the issuance of the coin types. Historians, art historians, and numismatists will find much to think about in this book.

Susann S. Lusnia
Tulane University

Book Review of The Image of Political Power in the Reign of Nerva, AD 96–98, by Nathan T. Elkins

Reviewed by Susann S. Lusnia

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 4 (October 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.lusnia

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