Marcus Cocceius Nerva was born in Italy-Narni on November 8, 30 AD (or 35 AD – there are conflicting sources) to a lineage of very well-connected politicians. His grandfather and father were both consuls and the Cocceii family was connected to the Julio-Claudian dynasty through marriage.
Most of Nerva’s life was spent in the background of Roman politics, but was apparently very productive. He was appointed praetor-elect in 65 and was one of Nero’s advisors. He helped expose the Pisonian Conspiracy in 65, plotting the assassination of Nero. Whatever his involvement in exposing the plot, it must have been considerable as Nero gave him triumphal honors and the right to have his statues placed around the palace. Nero was also very fond of Nerva’s literary skills. Also in Nero’s circle at the time was the general Vespasian, who befriended Nerva.
With the suicide of Nero in 69, and the chaos with the rule of four emperors during that year, Nerva stayed in the background, surfacing once again when order was restored, in the service of Vespasian. He must have been an effective asset to the new emperor, as he was awarded a consulship in 71. Nerva “disappears” again for 18 years, presumably being an advisor to Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian. When Nerva is mentioned again in the historical sources, it is to help expose yet another conspiracy, this time a revolt in upper Germany in January 89 AD. The rebellion was suppressed within 24 days and Domitian, now emperor, shared the consulship with Nerva.
In September of 96 AD, Domitian was assassinated and within hours, the Senate proclaimed Nerva the new emperor, despite his age, failing health and childlessness. Still, he understood what needed to be done to avoid yet another civil war, and accepted the position.
Nerva quickly began to undo the harsh edicts enacted under Domitian and underwent many programs to improve the empire. He granted allotments of land to the poorest of the citizens, exempted parents and children from the 5% inheritance tax, enacted economic and tax reforms, reduced non-essential government expenditures, made extensive repairs to the roads, expanded the aqueducts, granted privileges to the provinces, promised no senators would be put to death under his rule and returned to the previous owners the land confiscated by Domitian. These acts made Nerva popular with the Senate and Roman people, but the military was used to being paid off with each new emperor. Although the praetorian guard received possibly as much as 5000 denarii per person, they felt it was insufficient. In Early 97 AD, a plot against the emperor failed, but in October, 97 AD, the praetorians took Nerva hostage and forced him to hand over the conspirators who assassinated Domitian – something they had been pressuring him to do since he took power. He surrendered the information and also adopted Trajan, the very popular general and governor of Upper Germany, as his heir, thus successfully transitioning the Roman Empire from the Flavian dynasty to the “Adoptive Emperors” upon his death of natural causes after a stroke followed by a fever, in January, 98 AD.