THE IMAGE OF POLITICAL POWER IN THE REIGN OF NERVA, AD 96-98

Nathan T. Elkins

OUP (2017) h/b 223pp £55 ISBN (9780190648039)

Was Nerva a weak stopgap emperor, who was in thrall to the army and the Senate and shamefully capitulated to the Praetorians’ demand to hand over the assassins of his predecessor, Domitian? Or was he a wise and efficient administrator, paving the way for a sustained era of peace and prosperity?

E., an associate professor of art history (Greek and Roman) at Baylor University, argues in this fascinating and attractively produced book that a significant clue to answering the above question, which he largely does in Nerva’s favour, lies in the study of the coinage issued during his reign. As a numismatist E show boundless enthusiasm and prodigious learning.

He argues persuasively that the most fruitful source of study is the hoards, which have been discovered and which demonstrate that the images on the reverse of coins were to a large extent targeted on their most likely recipients—e.g. military themes for the garrisons, the emperor’s domestic agenda (e.g. to secure the corn supply illustrated by representations of Ceres) for the urban plebs, and so on. He further concludes that the images varied according to the value of the coins and therefore the status of their likely possessors.

He fairly acknowledges that his case for mounting a positive interpretation of Nerva’s reign through the coinage issued involves certain assumptions, which are by no means universally shared by fellow scholars. It is certainly common ground to describe images on the coins as ‘state sponsored art’, but there is no clear agreement as to whether the images were directed by, or at least commended by, the emperor’s inner circle or decided (subject no doubt to imperial approval) by the mint masters, and, if so, were they expressing what they actually believed.

One example of the divergence of views must suffice. The legend Concordia Exercituum (‘the harmony of the armies’) is, as E. readily admits, interpreted unfavourably by some scholars as ‘striking a desperately apologetic note’ or ‘an appeal for military loyalty’ or ‘wishful thinking’. E. counters these negative interpretations by arguing that the distribution of these coins shows that they were not targeted at frontier installations and therefore by implication at potentially rebellious troops, but reflected an increasing reality.

Is E.’s generally positive interpretation of the images justified? Does his analysis support his conclusion that the images on the coins ‘visualize the adulatory rhetoric directed towards the regime by the upper echelons of Rome’s political elite’, praising Nerva’s ‘qualities and the dutiful care of his people’?

E.’s arguments deserve the most careful attention, but even if he succeeds on the intention of the selected images, for your reviewer more work needs to be done on the anticipated and actual impact of the images. Again E. is very honest, commenting early in the book, ‘Some suggest that scholars have overemphasized the importance of the imperial coinage as a medium of political communication, insisting that people would have paid the images on them little attention’. He briefly seeks to counter this view, but is it enough to imply, as he does, that lacking the distractions of the internet and modern media, the Romans paid more attention to the images on their coins?

But it is not fair to criticize E for what he does not discuss or analyse at any length: perhaps this would be a fruitful area for further study to add to this present work for which we are greatly in his debt.

The details of coin denominations, the frequency of images at various stages of Nerva’s reign, the hoards in which they are found etc., are set out in graphs and pie-charts, accompanied by a host of clear illustrations of the relevant coins. The details are followed up in appendices, which demonstrate E.’s remarkable grasp of detail. The bibliography and index are likewise impressive.

Ray Morris

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room