In writing this relatively short book (128 pages of text, although the print is small), John Grainger, better know for his books on hellenistic kingdoms and cities, has come up with a fascinating but somewhat speculative story as he reconstructs what happened between the murder of Domitian in AD 96 and the rise to power of Trajan and in AD 99. Rather than a biography of Nerva, the man who replaced Domitian (AD 81-96) as emperor but only ruled for 18 months, this little book is about the events and what they really meant, according to Grainger.
The first two chapters (assassination and conspiration) certainly read as a detective story as John Grainger points to the most likely suspects behind the murder. At times, this is mostly speculative, but it is well argumented and the case is well made. Another strong point is that it plunges you into the rather unhealthy atmospheres of the Imperial Palace and the Senate.
The second part is an assessment of Nerva, the reactions to the assassination, and Nerva's actions as an emperor. Nerva was old, in poor health and childless. He was a survivor from Nero's regime. He had no support in the army and could not expect to live for long: he was essentially a caretake or a stop-gap. Grainger argues this is largely why he was not opposed by the army which he sees as the real power.
The next part explains why Trajan was chosen in what Grainger presents as a bloodless coup. He wasn't the only possible candidate but he had all of the necessary requirements, including the links with the other generals - all of which were senators, some military experience, being part of the aristocracy and, most of all, impressive networks with the up and coming aristocracies of the provinces. He was also of the right age group - in his fourties - unlike some of the more distinguished generals which were at least a decade older.
This book is great reading, if at times a bit heavy going when Grainger details all of the marriage connections between the various powerful families. This is of course crucial since it shows to what extent Trajan benefited from these connections which other potential candidates did not have to the same extent. However, it is also get sometimes confusing, despite all of the genealogical trees of the powerful families to show their interconnexions.
One of Grainger's final assessments is a comparison between Domitian's and Trajan's strategic visions. He goes a long way towards rehabilitating Domitian which was blackened by the Senate, his successors (Nerva and Trajan) and, above all, by Tacitus and Pliny. Both of them were stauch supporters and admirers of Trajan, and are those who have done the most to ensure his posterity as one of the "great" Emperor-soldiers, while denigrating Domitian. Domitian is traditionnally portrayed as having failed in his Danubian wars, unlike Trajan, who succeeded. Grainger shows that neither statement were true. Domitian had some significant successes on the Rhine frontier to the extent that this frontier was quiet for about 100 years after his reign. IT is also under Domitian that the frontier was extended beyond the Rhine to the Taunus hills, including all the region that is now called the Black Forest adn was called the DEcumate Fields under the Romans. Grainger also attributes to Domitian a strategic project of conquest which, if it had been pursued and successful, could have pushed the Roman frontiers some 300 km to the north of the Danube.
Grainger does a very good job in showing that Domitian was a much better emperor (even if ruthless toward the Senate - hence the bad press) that what he has portrayed to be, to the extent that, at times, you get the impression this book is about him rather than about Nerva and the succession. I was, however, less convinced by Grainger's presentation of Trajan whom he obviously seems to dislike and whom he believes to have been both less intelligent and less capable than Domitian.
So, well worth four stars, but not quite five.