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Nerva's military troubles - CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM

Hughie Dwyer

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With the Easter break upon us, I had the urge to post about a coin that interests me. I have decided to post about the emperor Nerva and his CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM reverse. 


Marcus Cocceius Nerva was emperor from 96 to 98 AD. As an overview, he was often viewed as a stopgap emperor - as the empire transitioned from the Flavians to the next dynasty, the Adoptive Emperors. Both modern and contemporary historians tend to portray Nerva as this 'irrelevant' old man who spent the entirety of his reign desperately trying to keep the army relatively content. His short reign of just 16 months saw Rome continuously on the edge of a military uprising as tensions between the army and the senate skyrocketed after the death of Domitian. After being completely embarrassed by the Praetorian Guard, Nerva finally eased the situation by adopting the general Marcus Ulpius Traianus thus providing the empire with an heir. For the final few months of his reign, Nerva lived in moderate peace and security.

Nerva was born around 30 AD (30-35 AD) at Umbrian Hill, Narnia - not far north of Rome. He was born into a very affluent and respected family, who'd had strong connections to the imperial family for generations. Very little is known about Nerva's early life; the future emperor was born in somewhat of a black-hole of records, where there are very few known documentations of the time. However, we do know that Nerva grew up to become a distinguished lawyer and friend of the infamous Emperor Nero. It is said that Nerva proved pivotal in uncovering the Pisonian Conspiracy of AD 65. After Nero's death three years later, the Empire broke out into civil war and so began the 'Year of the 4 Emperors', where Verspasian ultimately won the title of Emperor.

Despite his clear connections to the hated Nero, Nerva emerged unscathed and even became a close colleague to the Flavians, earning him his first consulship in 71 AD under Verspasian and another under Emperor Domitian in AD 90. Yet, in the latter parts of his reign, Domitian became very suspicious of almost anything. He began to earn the label of a tyrant but was still held dear by the army: Domitian was the first man to give them a pay rise since Augustus. Domitian was much disliked by the senate as he undermined their power. In response to this, the senate set about overthrowing the current Emperor. They began to plot against his life. Then, on the 18th day of September 96, Domitian was assassinated and Nerva elevated to the vacant position on the very same day. 

It is unknown whether Nerva was aware of the plot to put him in power. Many believe that he was chosen by the conspirators due to his old age and the fact that he would need to adopt an heir. Others think that Nerva was indeed familiar with the plot or that he might have even been at the forefront of the scheme.

Nonetheless, Emperor Nerva, with the backing of the senate, was proclaimed emperor. The ascension unleashed popular resentment, where the Roman civilians tore down statues of Domitian and destroyed his ceremonial arches. This ruthlessness had been kept in check in Domitian’s final, tyrannical years. There seemed to be a prevalent sense of elation; justice and liberty had been re-established.

However, the troubles in Rome only grew when the army was considered. There was an unmistakable bitterness aimed at Nerva as the soldiers felt extremely aggrieved after the death of their warrior-emperor. The unrest came to its peak in the summer of AD 97, when the Praetorian Guard broke out into open mutiny. They came to Nerva and imprisoned him in the imperial palace. They demanded that he surrender the leading conspirators that caused the death of Domitian. The emperor resisted, in great bravery, but was powerless to stop them. The conspirators, Petronius and Parthenius, were put to death. Although Nerva escaped with his life, his reputation and respect as emperor could never be restored. As one of his final acts as Emperor, Nerva adopted an heir. This was a Spanish general, who was governor of Upper Germany at this time, called Marcus Ulpius Traianus - the future emperor Trajan. This event finally saw the end of the mass tensions and Nerva was able to live out his life without the burden of a potential military revolt. 

Overall, he left a legacy of being rather weak and indecisive. Despite this, I believe that his rule was essential in order to secure almost a century of great peace and rule to come. He was also a very generous emperor, even though this is often overshadowed by the situation regarding the military. He gave land and food to the poor as well as repairing much of Rome’s dilapidated infrastructure and roads. 

In late January 98 AD, Nerva suffered a fever and later died. On the same day, Emperor Trajan took his place. The empire then lived through its ‘Golden Age’ with very capable and fair rulers. Nerva was the first of the ‘Five Good Emperors’.





Marcus Cocceius Nerva

Denarius of the Roman Imperial Period - 96 AD

Material: Silver

Diameter: 20mm

Weight: 3.33g

Mint: Rome

Reference: RIC II Nerva 2

Provenance: Ex VCoins - Lodge Antiquities



Head of Nerva, laureate, right. 

The inscription reads: IMP NERVA CAES AVG PM TR P COS II PP for Imperator, Nerva, Caesar, Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Tribunicia Potestas, Consul for the Second time, Pater Patriae.



Clasped hands.

The inscription reads: CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM (Agreement / Harmony of the Armies)

The Roman goddess Concordia is the personification of agreement and harmony.

There is not really one, definite, reason for this reverse (as far as I know). It is likely that this reverse is propaganda as Nerva attempted to restore unity and peace. With that considered, this issue seems interesting. Many similar coins depict a ship's prow and an aquila as well as the emperor himself. This suggests that Nerva was aiming to promote the loyalty and agreement of his armies (naval and land forces). However, to me at least, it seems an odd thing to promote, given the circumstances.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to post other coins of Nerva, Concordia or even another example of the CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM reverse (or anything you feel relevant).

P.S: What do you all think about this reverse; is there something I have missed or would you agree with what I have said? Thanks

Edited by Hughie Dwyer
Series of typos
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Excellent article @Hughie Dwyer! Thank you for posting.

I think that Nerva deserves more respect than he typically gets. Reading about him in Cassius Dio, I don't get the impression of a weak and ineffective Emperor. Rather, I see a principled man who filled an important, if brief, role in Roman history and set the stage for the most prosperous and peaceful period the Roman Empire had ever seen.

Among other things, when Nerva came to power he released those who were on trial for maiestas - ostensibly, the crime of acting in a way that degraded the Roman name, but which quickly became a catch-all charge for practically anything the emperor didn't like - employed with carefree abandon by Domitian. Nerva also (in a more conservative vein) forbade servants from conspiring and accusing their masters, which had been encouraged under Domitian and which was wreaking havoc in Roman society. Nerva also forbade that gold statues be made in his honor, he restored to many their property which had been confiscated under Domitian.

He may have been older, but the man had nerve (pun unintended but welcome) - being made known of a senatorial conspiracy against him, Nerva had the two leaders of the conspiracy sit beside him at the public games (they were unaware that he knew of the plot.) Nerva then had the cool to hand the pair a couple of swords, "just to check and make sure that they were sharp", as a part of the ceremony, but also sending them a subtle yet powerful message that he knew and did not fear their disloyalty.

And of course, one of the last acts of Nerva as emperor was to appoint his successor, Marcus Ulpius Trajanus. In doing this, he broke from the vaguely hereditary system of dynastic succession which had been unofficially adopted by Augustus, and instead, not wishing to appear guilty of favoritism, chose to nominate a successor based solely on merit. This in spite of the fact that Nerva himself (according to Dio) had close relatives who would have been eligible for succession. In this one act, Nerva made it far less likely that the Roman people would have to suffer through another Nero or Caligula; IMO this fact alone ought to place Nerva in higher esteem than is usually afforded him.

I don't have a Concordia type coin of Nerva, but I have this worn denarius:



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Here's my CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM denarius. It also happens to be the Nerva portrait with the biggest nose!

Nerva, AD 96-98.
Roman AR denarius, 3.21 g, 18.5 mm, 7 h.
Rome, January - September, AD 97.
Obv: IMP NERVA CAES AVG P M TR P COS III P P, laureate head, right.
Rev: CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM, clasped hands.
Refs: RIC 14; BMCRE 25-26; Cohen/RSC 20; RCV 3020; CBN 15.
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Great coins, everyone! My example also has the standard resting on a prow:

Nerva AR Denarius, Rome Jan-Sep 97 AD. Obv. Laureate head right, IMP NERVA CAES AVG PM TRP COS III P P / Rev. Two clasped hands in front of legionary eagle left at top of standard resting on prow left, CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM. RIC II Nerva 15, RSC II (Cohen) 29, BMCRE III Nerva 29, cf. Sear RCV II 3021 var. (COS II, otherwise same). 18 mm., 3.37 g. Purchased from Patrick Guillard Collection, Paris, France, May 2021.


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The best Nerva reverse out there in my opinion. here's mine:




I actually give Nerva almost zero credit for the adoption of Trajan. I think the idea that an emperor who gets kidnapped and extorted by the Praetorian guard and forced to make concessions had much of an independent say is quite strange. The choice of Trajan completely betrays this. Trajan was actually the one who put down a previous revolt against Domitian by the Rhine legions under Saturninus, and was extremely influential in the pro-Domitianic military. Nerva's lack of control is epitomosed by the famous quote found in Dio:

When, now, no little commotion was occasioned by the fact that everybody was accusing everybody else, Fronto, the consul, is said to have remarked that it was bad to have an emperor under whom nobody was permitted to do anything, but worse to have one under whom everybody was permitted to do everything

Nerva (in my opinion) was almost certainly aware of the plot to assasinate Domitian. I think the speed of his accension following the killing points to a stage managed  sequence of events by the senatorial order. I think Nerva's legacy largely depends on how you view Domitian. If you think Domitian was a bad emperor whose extermination benefitted the Empire, then you probably rate Nerva as an essential instrument to a brighter future, as his role in this sequence of events is about the only thing he can take credit for. If (like myself) you are skeptical of this claim, and view Domitian's assasination as the machinations of a self-interested Senate, then Nerva's reign appears much more neutral, and the large positivity with which his reign is viewed is largely a result of Trajan being successful, rather than anything Nerva himself did. Nerva can hardly be said to have "scouted" Trajan's talent either, as he was already invested with a lot of power under Domitian and had the role of consul in 91 CE.


Edited by Steppenfool
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Stunning coins! Thank you, everyone.

@CPK and @Steppenfool you both raise very good points.

I also believe that Nerva was aware of the senate's plotting but I do think that he was quite a fair ruler as he reversed some of Domitian's questionable decisions. With that being said, I do think that Nerva took the credit for things that weren't really his to take; for example, the Forum Nervae (Forum Transitorium) because this was mostly completed under Domitian. 

Finally, I believe that, although he certainly had his drawbacks, Nerva was quite a significant figure in securing the better times to come.

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A tale of two pictures. Working on updating my photo file. The first picture is from the dealer in 2004. The second a recent picture with my Nikon using photo stacking.

Nerva. AD 96-98. AR Denarius (19mm, 3.12g, 7h). Rome mint, struck AD 97. Obv: IMP NERVA CAES AVG PM TRP COS III PP; Laureate head right. Rev: CONCORDIA - EXERCITVVM; Clasped right hands. Ref: RIC II 14; RSC 20.


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Silver coin (AR Denarius) minted at Rome during the reign of NERVA in 97 A.D. Obv. IMP.NERVA.CAES.AVG.TR.P.COS.III.P.P.: laur, hd. r. Rev. FORTVNA.AVGVST.: Fortuna stg. l., holding rudder and cornucopia. RCS #953. RSCII #66 pg. 79. RICII #16 pg. 224. DVM #8. RCVSII #3025.


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