A Liberal Roman?

P. Licinius Nerva’s coin is pretty famous.  At least as an illustration of how the Romans voted.  It seems to celebrate voting reforms that protected the secrecy of the ballot, namely the voting bridges and the urn.  It dates to circa 110 BC [Mattingly, 113/112 Crawford].  It is a unusual coin, one of only a handful that refer directly to the rights of the citizen body that were under contemporary discussion.


With the Saturninus coin of the last post we don’t seem to have any reflection of his ‘radical’ views or concerns over agrarian policies and the grain supply.   This is often the case when we have coins of a known  historical figure.  Memorable deeds usually happened well after a man’s moneyership.  

We only know about one other incident in Nerva’s life.   As governor of Sicily he began mass emancipation of slaves claiming to be held illegally.  In the end that didn’t turn out so well for him and he probably ended up butchering those he originally freed or intended to free, but even so the initial decision is pretty radical in Roman term.  I suspect many of his peers would have thought him very very stupid indeed for trying such a thing.

Here’s Diodorus’ account (36.3 from Photius’ epitome).  Note how the initial impetus is problems with recruitment of soldiers in Asia to fight in Northern Italy!




The Epitome of Cassius Dio put a different spin on the affair.  [I am inclined to put more emphasis on the Diodorus account.]:

Publius Licinius Nerva, who was praetor in the island, on learning that the slaves were not being justly treated in some respects, or else because he sought an occasion for profit, — for he was not inaccessible to bribes, — sent round a notice that all who had any charges to bring against their masters should come to him and he would assist them. 2 Accordingly, many of them banded together, and some declared they were being wronged and others made known other grievances against their masters, thinking they had secured an opportunity for accomplishing all that they wished against them without bloodshed. The freemen, after consultation, resisted them and would not make any concessions. 3 Therefore Licinius, inspired with fear by the united front of both sides and dreading that some great mischief might be done by the defeated party, would not receive any of the slaves, but sent them away, thinking that they would suffer no harm or that at any rate they would be scattered and so could cause no further disturbance. But the slaves, fearing their masters because they had dared to raise their voices at all against them, organized a band and by common consent turned to robbery.

Connecting ideology behind the coin to the ideology to his actions as propraetor seems a stretch, I admit! That said, most everyone is happy to do it to some degree for the Brutus coins of c. 54 BC.