Nerva and Trajan: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 3 Part 2

Whatever we may think of the model created by Augustus – it had staying power. Augustus reigned from 27BC. There was an emperor on the throne continually until 479AD – just over 500 years.

This duration was probably thanks to the winning formula Augustus had hit on. The strength of the system was shown best in the reigns of the so-called 5 good emperors. The phrase was coined by Machiavelli but is often associated with Gibbon and he would surely have agreed with it – but I haven’t found the phrase in the book itself. It refers to the people who held power between 96 and 192, and for Gibbon this represented the Golden Age in human history. These men had the power to do whatever they chose, but they chose to work to promote the general well being of the empire that they ruled.

Nerva was the first of the 5 good Emperors. He came to the throne in unusual circumstances. The emperor Domitian, who Gibbon portrays as a brutal tyrant, had been killed out of the blue in his palace by some of his guards over some domestic grievance.

The Senate must have been horrified by this turn of events. Although Domitian’s reign had been hard on many people not least members of the Senate itself, it was clear that his sudden and unplanned departure risked a civil war that would have been even worse. Nerva, aged 65 and without children was selected at great speed. Of the over 100 or so emperors of Rome I think Nerva was the one who must have been most surprised at his sudden elevation to the throne. But a rapid decision was essential. A delay allowing a number of rival claimants to become established could have been fatal.

His short reign wasn’t particularly notable other than for his efficient appointment of a successor who would take over after him, and given his advanced age this must have been high on his agenda. The period immediately following the death of an Emperor was always dangerous but Nerva made sure that his candidate had every advantage in taking over the throne. He selected a successful general and adopted him as his son. He then named him as his successor and immediately started involving him in the running of the empire.

Nerva was clearly both a well meaning and liberal man, bringing in legislation that helped the less well off and avoiding conflict with the faction that had supported Domitian. But he was aware that his age made him vulnerable and that his leniency might be taken advantage of. Having a strong and effective number two made a lot of sense. This at least was Gibbon’s interpretation. Modern scholars are more inclined to the view that Nerva was more of a figurehead and the arrangement of the succession was forced on him by the power of the army. But whatever went on behind the scenes, the early public nomination of a successor did prove a very effective solution to the problem of choosing an emperor and one that was to be followed with good effects for the next four reigns.

Nerva’s successor was Trajan. Trajan was rated highly by his contemporaries and continued to be held in high esteem for centuries. From his time onwards new emperors were routinely wished success comparable to his. Gibbon wryly notes that Trajan’s reputation is secure for as long as men prefer their destroyers to their benefactors, as his accomplishments were all achieved in war or spending the spoils of war. It was under him that the empire reached its greatest extent. In defiance of the advice of Augustus he dared to push the boundaries north of the Danube to create the province of Dacia. This is very roughly modern Romania and the romanisation was so thorough that the Romanians still speak a language based on Latin. Even the country’s name is reminiscent of its origin as a province of the Roman Empire. The current president of the country is called Trajan which remains a common Christian name in Romania. This campaign is commemorated by Trajan’s Column in Rome. At the height of its powers you really didn’t want to get on the wrong side of the empire’s military machine.The Roman army depicted in the column was large, efficient and armed with deadly technology. Trajan himself appears and it is fitting to see him actively leading his army and generally being the man of action par excellence. He campaigned in Persia and beyond extending Roman rule to the borders of India. The size of the Empire at this point in time is truly breath taking.

Domestically he was lenient – freeing political prisoners from earlier regimes and returning confiscated property. His private life was devoted to drinking wine and having affairs with boys. The Romans didn’t entirely approve of this and Gibbon certainly didn’t. It is interesting to consider how attitudes differ between the Roman era, Gibbon’s era and our own. In the ancient world it wasn’t considered that outrageous for an older man to have sexual relationships with a much younger man or boy. The Greeks seemed to take it in their stride, but the Romans were more ambivalent and had some restrictions on it. You could use one of your own slaves, naturally. A slave that you had freed was fair game too. But strictly speaking, anyone else wasn’t legal. However it doesn’t seem to have been considered particularly scandalous and it seems that the only emperor who didn’t partake in this sort of thing was Claudius. Gibbon alludes to all this obliquely but would obviously rather not talk about it.

Nowadays, nothing much shocks us when it comes to sex. But we are very concerned for the well being of the young and find the idea of an older person using their more powerful position to exploit a more vulnerable one as extremely distasteful to put it mildly. If we could resurrect the average Roman emperor the first thing we would do with them would be to put them in jail for child abuse. I think that this is progress, but who knows what future generations will make of our attitudes? But to get back to the Romans, they were obviously philosophical about what Trajan got up to in private. It must have seemed a relatively harmless foible compared to killing citizens and taking all their money, as his predecessor bar one Domitian tended to do.

Trajan’s military campaigns netted large quantities of cash.He spent it on worthy public works as well as his famous column. He built a harbour at Ostia, a new forum and several large bridges. All in all, he really gave the Romans exactly what they wanted from an emperor: fair administration, military success and impressive monuments. That he paid for all from treasure looted from successful campaigns rather than taxes was the cherry on the cake. And his reputation has remained high throughout history – he even gets a positive review in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The story that Dante relates was that the mother of a murdered man successfully got Trajan to break off his preparations for the war in Dacia to settle her case. She used the argument that her grievance would still exist after the war, but Trajan himself may not. Whether or not this actually happened we may never know, but it gives a flavour of the positive image that Trajan has left. Not the least of his achievements was selecting an able successor – Hadrian, a successful general who had made a name fighting the Germans.

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