Few original busts of Nerva have survived; many of them are recarved portraits of Domitian. The original busts and coin portraits show that Nerva had a distinctive profile with a sloping forehead, large hooked nose, piercing eyes and thin lips. He has a prominent Adam’s apple and a long, thin neck. His is a mature face but there are no visible facial lines except in the middle of the forehead. His hair is striking. Nerva has a full head of hair, long down his neck and arranged in curls across his forehead, reminiscent of the coiffure of Augustus. This creates a visual allusion to the new emperor’s desire to be recognized as a Julio-Claudian and a mature statesman.
Mattingly and Sydenham have commented that Nerva’s coin portraits are consistent in depicting his "ungainly" features without modification. This is not an accurate statement. His coin portraits, particularly the bronze issues, present Nerva as nobly idealized, following in the Hellenistic tradition. However, many of his gold and silver issues portray Nerva with grotesque features. The front of his forehead is contracted and his nose is shaped more like an eagle’s beak; the mouth frowns in haughty disdain. These portraits look to be caricatures, but they aim toward the same nobility. Apparently, the celator(s) who carved these dies lacked the technical skill found in the more idealized portraits.
Nerva’s coinage is politically charged. Great care was taken over the development of reverse types issued by the new regime. The dominate types used by Nerva appear in his first issue and continued with the addition of a few new ones until the emperor’s death. His coinage is easily dated to six time periods because of the assumption of Nerva’s third and fourth consulships, his second tribunican year, and the addition of Germanicus and second acclimation for the Pannonian victory.
The gold and silver coins of Nerva’s first issue present the virtues of the new regime. The same types were extensively issued among his base coinage types.
The AEQVITAS AVGVST(I) type (RIC 1 ff.) depicts Aequitas or equity standing, holding scales and a cornucopia replacing the usual scepter. Aequitas can denote a general meaning of fair and reasonable justice which squares with Nerva’s aims. The imperial administration must live up to its standard of honesty and fair dealing.
The MONETA AVGUST(I) type (RIC 8 ff.) is identical to Aequitas, Moneta stands holding scales and a cornucopia. Moneta is an aspect of the goddess Juno as the patroness of money and has an obvious significance to the mint. In Nerva’s coinage, the type is probably linked to money and finance indicating that the new emperor will exercise wisdom in these matters.
The CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM type has two variations: one depicting clasped hands, to represent the army, (RIC 2 ff.) and a second depicting clasped hands holding a legionary eagle set on a prow, representing the navy (RIC 3 ff.). These types represent more of a hope than an idea that was fulfilled. The attitude of the army and the praetorian guards must have been a worry for Nerva, and rightly so as events unfolded.
FORTVNA AVGVST(I) (RIC 4 ff.) depicts the familiar figure of fortune holding a rudder and cornucopia. This type represents the result of the wisdom of the gods in that they have placed Nerva on the throne. FORTVNA P(OPVLI) R(OMANI) or Fortune of the Roman People (RIC 5 ff.) compliments the prior type. Here the goddess holds corn-ears, which may represent an earlier attribute. The message is that the fortunes of the Roman people have prospered with the advent of Nerva.
IVSTITIA AVGVST(I) or the "Justice of the Emperor" (RIC 6 ff.) hold an important place in this coinage. The figure of Justice, a cardinal virtue of Nerva’s reign, appears seated holding a scepter and branch. Not only is Nerva paying himself a compliment as a jurist, from a family of jurists, but he promises fairness and to write the wrongs committed by Domitian.
LIBERTAS PVBLICA (RIC 7 ff.) was a highly significant type issued in a reign recoiling from tyranny. The all important figure of libertas is shown holding the cap of the enfranchised slave (pileus) and the praetor’s wand whose touch conferred liberty. This type was first issued by Galba, and there is much in common between him and Nerva and the restoration of liberty following emperors who were regarded as tyrants. The political message was that after a time of intrigue and misgovernment a new age was beginning.
SALVS AVGVST(I) (RIC 9 ff.) has a different meaning than the usual Salus type in that the goddess is shown holding corn ears. It does not seem possible that this type represents the "Saving Power of the Emperor." The corn ears could be equated to a cornucopia referring to beneficent power.
VICTORIA AVGUST(I) (RIC 10 ff.) rounds out the imperial virtues by suggesting the emperor has the power to conquer. This type shows Victory walking or seated holding a wreath.
The above are the dominate gold and silver types. Later issues in Nerva’s reign have less political significance but are directed toward the image the emperor wanted to create.
The type depicting Diana in her role of huntress, with the legend COS II DESIGN III (RIC 11), is unique in Nerva’s coinage and difficult to understand its origin. It could be a reference to a spectacle of beasts (venationes) which given Nerva’s frugal attitude would be less costly than a gladiatorial combat and still be counted as a celebration.
The type (RIC 12 ff.) depicting priestly emblems of sempulum, sprinkler, ewer and lituus was in regular use from Nerva’s second issue on and is always accompanied with a legend giving imperial titles. The priestly emblems type occurs with regularity during imperial times and is an unspecific reference to the state religion but not connected to the office of pontifex maximus.
A fourth issue type of PAX AVGUSTI (RIC 32) shows Nerva clasping hands with a soldier representing the Roman army. The type corresponds to the time of Trajan’s adoption but the soldier does not represent the new co-emperor. Rather, the figure is meant to advertise the new harmony existing between Nerva and the army.
The bronze coinage of Nerva, particularly the remarkable sestertii, were also highly significant in promoting the virtues of the emperor. A sestertius was issued with the ADLOCUT AVG type (RIC 50) where Nerva, significantly dressed in a toga, as a civilian not a soldier, harangues his guards. This type occurs at the start of Nerva’s reign and was not repeated. The new emperor is accompanied by two soldiers, perhaps the two prefects of the guards, who are apparently endorsing Nerva. This type has been understood as the new emperor’s appearance before the guards when he awarded them a donative.
The CONGIAR P. R. type (RIC 56, 71) is a typical distribution scene with Nerva, seated on a platform, assisted by an official, distributing the dole to a citizen. The letters P. R. probably are abbreviations for POPVLI ROMANI that suggests the distribution extended to all Roman citizens, excluding the Senate and Knights, instead of the plebes alone. In the background is a statue of Minerva, probably represented because the distribution took place near a shrine of the goddess and the statue was familiar. A statue of Liberalitus, on the right, personifies the generosity of the emperor. Congiarium is an early imperial term for largesse, meaning a gift in kind, usually of oil or wine. The gift became translated to one of money. In Hadrian’s reign, the term liberalitas replaced congiarium.
Another important early type (RIC 58, 72, 82) of Nerva proclaims the suspension of Domitian’s ruthless practices in the payment of the fiscus Iudaicus. This was a tax formerly paid by the Jews to the Temple. Vespasian altered the tax by transferring the proceeds to the maintenance of the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter. Domitian actively sought out those who attempted to conceal their national identity and thereby dodge the tax. Men suspected of being Jewish were subject to strip searches to determine if they had been circumcised (Dom. 12). This sestertius proclaims the justice of the emperor: FISCI IUDAICI CALVMNIA SVBLATA (the false accusation of the Jewish taxes has been annulled). The type shows a palm tree reminiscent of the earlier IUDEA CAPTA types of Vespasian and Titus.
ROMA RENASCENS (RIC 91) depicts Roma seated on a throne holding a victory and spear. This type denotes that a new age has begun with Nerva’s government. The PAX AVG type (RIC 66, 88, 102) goes hand-in-hand with the spirit of justice and may bear on the relationship between emperor and Senate. Pax appears with her usual attributes of branch and scepter. Although this type (issued for sestertii) can be coupled with those depicting the ideas of liberty and justice of Nerva's first issue, no gold or silver issues were struck representing Pax.
ANNONA AVGVST(I) continues a type issued by Domitian and shows Ceres seated, holding corn-ears and a torch. Facing the goddess is Annona holding a cornucopia. Between the two figures is a modius and, in the background, the prow of a ship can be seen. The ship reminds us of the grain fleets bringing the vital supplies of food from Egypt and Africa (RIC 52, 68, 78).
These initial bronze issues were followed by some equally significant types. The third issue includes types relating to measures Nerva has taken during his reign. PLEBEI URBANAE FRUMENTO CONSTITUTO (RIC 89, 103) depicts a modius filled with corn-ears. As the corn dole had not be suspended and re-instated, the type probably refers to the new granaries built by Nerva.
PROVIDENTIA SENATUS (RIC 90) shows the emperor receiving a globe from the Genius of the Senate. This type could be one of succession and is similar to the PROVIDENT AVG issued by Titus, where he receives a globe from Vespasian. The type illustrates the idea that the Senate has delivered to Nerva his share of the burden of government. The appearance of this type, a full year into Nerva’s reign, seems to give the suggestion of the emperor and Senate sharing the responsibility of ruling the empire rather than pointing to his actual succession.
VEHICULATIONE ITALIAT REMISSA (RIC 93, 104) depicts two mules grazing with their harness and shafts from their cart tilting up. This unusual type advertises Nerva’s decision to remit to Italian municipalities the expenses of the Imperial post.
The TVTELA ITALIAE type (RIC 92) shows Nerva seated before a figure representing Italy who presents to him a boy and girl. This reverse celebrates the emperor’s aid the children of the poor, another of his measures of social reform.
Following the precedents of Titus and Domitian, Nerva issued a series of coins that were purported to be a restoration of the coinage of Augustus. The series aided the new emperor in linking himself to his model, Augustus. However, the coins do not have an Augustan model. A denarius, the only silver issue of the series, has a Capricorn reverse but shows Augustus bare headed, instead of representing Divus Augustus wearing a radiant crown. Several of the types record symbols of consecration: an altar (RIC 133 & 134), an eagle on a globe (RIC 129) and a winged thunderbolt (RIC 130). A dupondius (RIC 131 & 132) with a globe and rudder reverse was actually issued by Tiberius. Close examination of the portraits reveals more of Nerva than Augustus in their features. So the purpose of this series is to recall Augustus and not the restoration of his coinage.