Anyone interested in Roman History may like this. It’s a rough draft of my final dissertation.
How successful was the governor Agricola in securing Northern Britain as a Roman province?
The most important and detailed source we have on Agricola’s career is the biography of him, The Agricola, written by his son-in-law, Tacitus, several years after Agricola’s death. It is therefore problematic to use written sources alone to ascertain how successful or otherwise Agricola had been in his post as governor of Britain; since any account written by a close relative is bound to be biased in his favour. Especially if, like Tactitus in this case, the historian follows the standard pattern of latin biographies and praises his subject arguably beyond his worth.
Agricola was undeniably fortunate to have had one of the most famous and prolific of historians as his son-in-law. But Tacitus’ purpose in writing The Agricola was to preserve his father-in-law’s memory.
With many it will be as with men who had
no name or fame: they will be buried in
oblivion. But Agricola’s story is set on
record for posterity, and he will live.
(The Agricola, 43? p99)
It is as a result of Tacitus’ enduring testament to Agricola that his name is as renown and legendary as it was, and as it remains to this day. Other Roman governors of Britain who came before and after Agricola have had their achievements relatively neglected. How much was it really Agricola’s work that secured Britain, and how much did he owe to his predecessors? This I will discuss in my dissertation.
The History of Rome’s Involvement in Britain
Rome made her first real effort to conquer Britain under Julius Caesar, who sent two expeditions. The first, in 55 BC, was intended more as a reconnaissance than as any serois force for invasion. The second, the following year, made progress, but still failed to make any significant impact in bringing Britain in as a Roman province. The feeling in Rome at the time was that the island was just too isolated and far north, and that Julius Caesar was dangerously overreaching himself (or am I thinking of Germany here?)
The Britons were then left outwith the Roman province, as invasion was put off for almost a century, until Claudius, eager to begin his reign with a triumph to demonstate his power to the senate and the people of Rome (Peddie p.23) in AD 43, sent an expedition under Aulus Plautius, which was successful in a very short space of time. In the same year Claudius enjoyed his triumph. The South East of Britain rapidly become ensconced into the Roman empire. But it would be over thirty years before Agricola would be appointed governor. In that time, Plautius’ successors conquered other tribes, and brought most parts of Britain under Roman control before Agricola’s time.
The Thirty Year Gap
What was happening between Plautius’ initial success and Agricola’s government? The answer is that under successive governments, Britain gradually became absorbed into the Roman Empire. There was one solitary glitch under the governor Suetonius Paulinus (58/9 – 61) when the revolt let by Boudicca threatened to undo the consolidated Roman areas such as Londinium, Verulanium and Colchester (Roman name?) But Paulinus butchered the British rebels at the battle of X, sparing no opposing forces.
The governor immediately before Agricola was Julius Frontinus
Julius Frontinus governed Britain between 74 and 78, succeeding Petillius Cerialis. The only mention of him in Tacitus’ account found in The Agricola is to say how he broke the resistance of the Silures in South Wales. This single line found in Tacitus’ boigraphy of his father-in-law is the only record we have of Frontinus’ time in Britain. He is much less illustrious than his successor, although whether or not Agricola deserves his status is the issue in question.
Hanson believes that Frontinus had also operated in the north, as well as having subjugated the Silures in Wales. He attributes Tacitus’ brief mention to the biographer’s desire not to allow the achievements of Agricola’s predecessors to overshadow those of his own (p50). But Frontinus was an influential man in Rome at the time, and was an expert in military science (Hanson, p.62).
Agricola’s successor was Sallustius Lucullus. Again, very little is known of him, although he was probably put to death by Domitian.
Therefore the obscurity of the men who immediately surround Agricola in the same role, goes some way to elevating Agricola to the position of recognition and conceived importance that he enjoys, but which perhaps is only partly deserved.
Agricola the Man
Gnaeus Juilis Agricola knew Britain well long before his appointment of governor to the province. He had been in Britain as early as AD 60, and had been a legate in the twentieth legion which was probably stationed near Wroxeter (Hanson p.34?).
Thus, in Agricola’s favour, he had the advantage of knowing the area he was governing well, which was not true of most governors. Agricola became governor of Britain in 78, under the emperor Vespasian, whom Agricola had long admired and supported.
Agricola spent his life in public service, rising through the ranks until his appointement as legatus praetoris in Britain in AD 78.
….thus the native Britons and the Romans again came into conflict where battle became the only resolve. For Agricola, it was the chance to eradicate British resistance once and for all and to claim the consolidation of Britain. For the British, it was their last chance to fight for freedom in order to avoid slavery.
At the battle of Mons Graupius, Peddie claims that Agricola’s forces numbered 21,000; consisting of two legions, 8,000 auxiliary troops and 5,000 cavalry (p.25).
The battle of Mons Graupius ‘should have ended the war’ (?), but of course, it did not, since the native Britons were able to escape to the hills in numbers and disperse. Tacitus’ account of the battle is typically vague. He mentions that the Romans were fighting the Caledonians in the North of Britain, beyond the Tay??, but where precisely the battle took place is not mentioned, and has never been ascertained.
In terms of literary style, Tacitus sets up the battle as the centrepiece of the book, the event towards which all of Agricola’s honest endevour has led, culminating in this magnificent showdown.
Tacitus has the battle as the highlight of his father-in-law’s career, the crowning glory of a long period of governorship in a province Rome was struggling to bring into her empire.
The description of the battle, including speeches by the Caledonian leader Calgacus, and a reply to his own troops by Agricola, to the aftermath of the fighting, form the longest section of the book. Tacitus stresses the importance of the battle, and if he is to be believed, Agricola dominated the field.
‘he was everywhere…’?
But this could be merely because Tacitus did not know the full facts, and the account does seem a little sketchy. We are not even told what became of Calgacus once the fighting had started, which had led some critics to believe that he might have been a fictional creation by Tacitus.
The speeches earlier attributed to Calgacus and Agricola, were of course fictional, since no records could have been kept, and no Romans would have been close enough to hear, let alone understand, Calgacus’ rousing speech.
It seems clear from a study of Calgacus’ speech, that Tacitus’ voice can be heard resoundingly throughout, as he writes a very anti-imperial political statement, in the thin guise of being what the leader of the Britons said. This is problematic because Tacitus is necessarily characterising the people he writes about, and uses them for his own motives, thus creating a bias.
This is the only instance in the book where Tacitus has a Briton speaking (Braund). Tacitus disguises his lack of knowledge about what was said by using vague phrases such as ‘said in the manner of…'(). One hopes that it is with the speeches that Tacitus uses most dramatic licence, but if questions can be raised about the authenticity of one part of the primary source, then other parts may also be suspect. After all, the Agricola survives not for its incisive knowledge of early Roman Britain (Tacitus had probably never been near Britain, although it is impossible to be certain) and factual content, but because Tacitus, the most famous of Roman historians, happened to write it. Tacitus’ priority would seem to have been telling a good story first, and adhering to known facts second.
After the battle, the figures of the dead may also be exaggerated. The figure of Roman dead after battle was not often stated (Braund), but here Tacitus gives the figure of one hundred and sixty, which it is tempting to believe. It demonstrates how skilful and complete was the Roman victory and achievement. It would have been difficult to manufacture the figure of the Roman dead, since many people would know how many men returned to camp. Tacitus, who would have had access to factual information, probably used the official Roman figure.
The figures of British dead are likely to be less accurate, since no official body count of the opposition’s dead would have been undertaken by the Romans. The given figure of ten thousand?? is probably merely an exaggerated estimate based on eye-witness reports. It would have been tempting to exaggerate the figure of enemy dead in order to make the Roman acheivement seem more remarkable and outstanding.
The Influence of the Emperor Domitian
The Agricola was finished in AD98, two years after Domitian’s assassination, immediately after Nerva’s short tenure as emperor and at the start of Trajan’s reign, which was also in 98.
Tacitus was very opposed to the emperor Domitian, and is constantly critical of him throughout The Agricola, blaming him for Agricola’s lack of supposedly deserved recognition. Tacitus also hints that Domitian may have played a part in hastening Agricola’s death by poisoning him, but this allegation is not refuted.
For my own part, I would not venture to assert
that there is any positive evidence.
(The Agricola, ch 43)
Few prominent people alive at the time of Agricola’s death entertained any notion that the emperor had had a hand in it. If Domitian had ever been jealous of Agricola, it would have been ten years earlier when Agricola had won the importanat battle in the north of Britain. Even then, Domitian had given Agricola the appointment and had been eager for success, and Agricola’s life post-Britain is at best obscure. Domitian would have had Agricola put to death when he had scored military success, if he had wanted to, but clearly he had not. Perhaps Domitian did not see Agricola as enough of a threat. After all, he had failed to deliver his promise of total conquest of Britain, which was an obscure Roman province which had lost the early allure that goes with unknown territory. Domitian, by recalling Agricola and his later actions of withdrawing troops from the north of Britain to aid the crisis on the Danube, showed little interest in Britain, and indeed, in Agricola.
Tacitus’ constant and sometimes, as in this instance, unjust personal attacks upon the emperor distort the biography, and occasionally, especially in the later chapters, threaten to dominate the biography. Unfortunately for the modern reader, condemnations of Domitian do not fill in the vacuum of knowledge of Agricola’s often obscure and seemingly dull life.
Tacitus would have had to wait until after the death of Domitian to speak out about the former emperor by publicly denouncing him in his historical and biographical works, since Domitian’s unpopular reign was tarnished and infamous for its treason trials and seemingly unwarranted executions of many men of the senatorial classes, of which Tacitus was a member at the time.
Tacitus wrote most of his great works during the Trajanic era, at a happier, more constitutional time, when the freedom to speak out would not have resulted in death. Jones, on his book on the emperor Domitian, attests that Agricola was one of Domitian’s few generals to receive a triumph, which may explain his non-appointment to Syria, sincve few generals were given subsequent appointments having earned such honours.
Although Domitian was an undeniably cruel and autocratic man, Tacitus was clearly prejudiced by personal grievences suffered under his rule, therefore the unremmitingly negative picture that is drawn of the emperor in The Agricola may be too unfairly biased. Modern historians have looked at Domitian’s reign more objectively, and during his fifteen year reign have noted ‘efficient administration’ (Kamm p.74) and an ability to control the budget of the empire, and a popularity with the army (he had increased their pay) (Kamm p.74)but a weakness over foreign policy in that he lacked the initiative of a military mind and wanted only instant glory.
Thus the influence of Domitian over Agricola’s career in
Britain cannot be underestimated.
All of this is probably untrue. Tacitus also criticises Domitian for recalling Agricola from Britain. However, it must be noted that Agricola had spent seven years holding the office, from AD 78 – 85. This was an unusually long time for any governor, and no other governor of Britain ever served as long. Domitian would have had little choice but to recall Agricola. Birley states that Agricola had promised Domitian that Britain would be completely conquered in 82, but Mons Graupius was not the conclusive victory that Domitian and Agricola had hoped for. The weakness could be Agricola’s over-confidence, rather than a jealous emperor. Agricola, after all, believed that Ireland could have been held by one legion and a few auxiliaries. Most modern scholars see this as not optimism, but gross misjudgement. Agricola was perhaps a little fortunate to secure a victory in Anglesey in his first campaign, sending a surprise attack by Batavians. But Ireland was a much larger island, and there was plenty of territory to the north as yet unconquered. It is perhaps understandable, given his desire for fast results, that Domitian’s patience with Agricola began to be tested.
Birley believes that in 82, Agricola must have convinced Domitian that the complete conquest of Britian was within reach (p.81), but Agricola never achieved this, and he may have considered this as a personal failure during his retirement.
In Tacitus’ Agricola, the last decade of Agricola’s life are scantily dealt with. After his return from Britain, Agricola never again held a high status appointment, which left Tacitus with little else to report. Consequently, he again fills the pages of his biography with criticisms of the Emperor Domitian, over Agricola’s recall, and more unfairly, over an alleged involvement with Agricola’s death.
In realistic terms, the campaigns in Britain were expensive and Domitian made this fact no easier by increasing the soldiers’ pay (Jones p.197) but Jones believes that this is another example of Domitian’s lack of initiative, when he should have withdrawn completely from Britain, but didn’t take such a drastic step.
What we don’t have of course is Agricola’s own opinion of the emperor, which would enable us to see the situation regarding Agricola’s recall and death in the correct context. The fact that Agricola named Domitian co-heir with his wife and daughter in his will could point in either direction. Tacitus reports that
…the Emperor was much pleased, taking it as
a sincere compliment. (The Agricola ch. 43)
and, bearing in mind Agricola’s military triumph granted by Domitian, could indicate a friendship between the two men. Tacitus, of course, is of the other opinion, believing that Domitian
…was so blinded and vitiated by incessant
flattery that he did not realize that no
good father would leave property to any
emperor except a bad one. (The Agricola ch. 43)
In Tacitus’ Favour
Tacitus knew his subject matter for the biography. We don’t know how well the two were personally acquainted, but the writing of Agricola was almost contemporary with the achievements of Agricola. Agricola died a few years before Tacitus wrote his account, and we can only guess if the two men discussed Agricola’s career in Britain together.
Tacitus would have had sources of information available to him, since he was a senator, and therefore in aposition to gain access to public records. (p20 Hanson. Tacitus usually praised for his historical accuracy.)
Although Tacitus is a witty and imaginative writer, he becomes vague and sketchy when writing about other areas of the empire of which he has no personal experience. Names of local tribes and geographical areas are often completely ignored or incorrectly stated. This lack of precision leads to speculation (Hanson p.55).
Another major problem with any ancient source is the fictitious element and the artistic licence used in the writing of the speeches. Tacitus would have merely guessed at what Agricola and Caracatus said before battles. There would have been no record of the speeches. Thus again, the historical account of events becomes unavoidably biased towards Tacitus’ opinion.
Had previous governors, especially Plautus and Paulinus broken the back of the work in conquering Britain before Agricola arrived? Were parts of Agricola’s achievements later lost forever with the recall of a legion, resulting in the second century with the construction of Hadrian’s wall, where the very North of Britain proved that bit too far? Or was Scottish territory never consolidated?
It may be necessary to back up the sparse literary material on the subject with evidence from other sources. However, the archaeological evidence from the period is equally sketchy, and often difficult to observe objectively.
The name “Agricola” appears at the fortress at Chester on a lead pipe. Apart from this one example, no other Roman inscriptions have been found in Britain bearing Agricola’s name. This may be suggestive that he was responsible for little by way of constructing fortresses or roads, or in the Romanisation of any area. Of course, Britain had been a Roman province for thirty years before Agricola was appointed, and most permanent fortresses are believed to have been completed before he arrived in Britain again. It is difficult to date precisely any archaeological remains. Even coins found at Roman sites dating to a certain era tell us nothing for sure, since the coins would have been in use for many years afterwards.
Hanson believes that many modern scholars erroneously attribute the construction of many Roman forts in the north of Britain to Agricola, based solely upon Tacitus’ work (p.64). There is certainly too little detail in The Agricola to say with any certainty which forts are Agricolan and which come earlier or later, but there are too many forts in the north of this era to be entirely Agricola’s work, and we have to assume that some forts must have been the work of earlier and later governors. One theory is that forts to the north of England were not established until much later, when Roman forces were retreating from Scotland, in order to hold Northern England.
Whatever the correct attribution of forts is, they are too many in number to be entirely Agricola’s work.
To conclude, it is difficult to do anything more than speculate as to exactly how successful Agricola’s career as governor in Britain was, as I have discussed the limitations and biases of Tacitus’ biography, which can only remain our best source on the subject.
It seems that Tacitus’ moral to his biography of his father-in-law was that Agricola was a good man who was successful in his career despite the malign influences of a bad emperor. I have tried to raise doubts as to whether or not Agricola was as good as Tacitus says he was; and also as to whether or not the Emperor Domitian was as wholly bad as Tacitus is eager for his readership to believe. It is perhaps not so much despite Domitian that Agricola failed in his total conquest of north Britain, after all, it was Domitian who kept him there for an unusually long time, but perhaps because of unfortunate circumstances and his own shortcomings.
That long-promised final push needed to secure the whole of Britain as a Roman province proved to be too elusive. Tacitus hints that had Domitian given Agricola just a little more time before his recall, that promise would have been delivered. This seems to be nothing more than hot air, since such an aim had constantly been outwith Agricola’s abilities, and indeed, those of his predecessors. The North of Britain seemed destined to remain outside of Rome’s reach.
In the later centuries, a frontier boundary demarkating Roman and British territory was set up under the emperor Hadrian, as a long wall from X to X. This wall, built between X and X, probably fell long behind where Agricola’s final campaigns had been. Hadrian recognised that the far north simply wasn’t worth the trouble.
X years later, the Antonine wall was built X miles north of Hadrian’s wall. This new boundary attempted to recoup some of the lost ground of the previous century, but it failed to lead on to further Roman expansion. As Rome’s empire collapsed, the territory of her farthest provinces began to diminish. In the same way that Domitian had withdrawn troops in X and transferred them to the crisis at the Danube, in later years of Roman occupation troops were removed to protect the very heart of the Roman world. They were never to return.
Rome formally renounced Britain in 410.