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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

A Caretaker's Accomplishments: The Brief Reign of Nerva

The Flavian dynasty ended with the death of Domitian. Those who had plotted to kill him did not carry out their plan until they had agreed on a suitable successor. According to Dio Cassius, the elder statesman Nerva was chosen in part because he was “of the best lineage and most reasonable.” An astrologer had also foretold that Nerva was destined to become emperor, and Domitian would have wanted him to be killed. Dio, however, relates that Domitian's belief in astrology led him to trust a second soothsayer who told him erroneously that Nerva would soon die of natural causes (Dio Cassius 67.15.5–6). But it was Domitian who perished first, and not of natural causes.

Once in power, Nerva was quick to compensate for the damage done by Domitian. He returned unlawfully confiscated property and canceled many extravagant sacrifices and spectacles instituted by his predecessor. Nerva also set out to curb the informants (delatores) who had advanced themselves under Domitian by offering incriminating testimony against others. Domitian encouraged such behavior, for it gave him a pretext to convict Roman citizens and seize their property. Information on senators and other wealthy Romans was especially desirable to Domitian, so it became common practice for slaves and other servants to betray their masters. Nerva put to death these informants and acquitted those who had been convicted with such evidence (Dio Cassius 68.1.2; 2.1–2). Pliny the Younger rejoices that Trajan went beyond the actions of Nerva by sending into exile boatloads of informers who were rightfully cut off “from the lands devastated by their informing” (Panegyricus 34.5).

Dio's comments on these informers include the charges on which their victims were usually convicted. “No one was permitted to accuse anybody of impiety or of living the Jewish life” (Dio Cassius 68.1.2). The first charge of treason (maiestas) was a plausible accusation for an informer to bring. The second, however, is a surprising indication of the extent to which Judaism was restricted during Domitian's reign. As already mentioned, Dio had reported that Domitian's cousin, Flavius Clemens, was executed for atheism and adopting “ways of the Jews.” Dio's tone makes it clear that these charges were often spurious, but they would not have been made unless concern about the spread of Judaism existed. Apparently Jewish proselytizing had interested some Romans in the teachings of the Jewish law.

It is difficult to know how common this practice was, or to assess how the Romans would have understood what “living the Jewish life” meant. For instance, would Romans who joined the Jesus movement have been considered Jews at this time? By the time Dio writes in the late second century, the distinction between Jews and Christians would have been clear, but the same cannot necessarily be said for the late first-century society on which Dio was reporting. Evidence about the church in Rome can be found in the late first-century document known as 1 Clement. Scholars have long speculated that the author of this letter to the church in Corinth was related to Flavius Clemens. If true, this would support the contention that families of prominent Roman senators were involved in the Roman church during the late first century.

Nerva ruled effectively but briefly, and he is reported to have said that “I have done nothing to make it impossible for me to resign from office and live safely in retirement” (Dio Cassius 68.3.1). Unfortunately, his advanced age and ill health made him an easy target for those who sought to gain power during the tumultuous times following Domitian's death. To strengthen his position and maintain the peace, Nerva adopted Marcus Ulpius Trajan and appointed him Caesar and coruler. Trajan had recently won a major military victory over the Germanic tribes, and some have suggested that Nerva did not willingly delegate power. If Trajan and his troops were a threat, it is understandable why Nerva chose to make him coruler and thereby avoid a bloody rivalry. This would also explain how Trajan, who was born in Spain, came to control the Roman Empire.

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