Gnaeus Julius Agricola is, thanks to the biography written some five years after his death, by Tacitus, the best known Roman governor of Britain. Tacitus was Agricola’s, evidently devoted, son-in-law:
… I dedicate this book to the honour of my father-in-law Agricola, in the hope that as a tribute of dutiful affection it may meet with approval or at least indulgence.Agricola 3
Tacitus’ purpose, then, was clearly not to write an objective history. Like a modern day spin-doctor, his presentation is designed to always show his father-in-law in the best possible light.
Tacitus reveals that Agricola was no stranger to Britain when he was appointed governor of the province:
He served his military apprenticeship in Britain, and won the approbation of Suetonius Paulinus [governor 58–61], an industrious and level-headed general, who, to test Agricola’s worth, chose him to be on his staff. Agricola did not misuse his liberty as so many young men do, who adopt the profession of arms as an excuse for self-indulgence. He worked hard, and did not make his inexperience or his position as a tribune an excuse for seeking pleasure on furlough. His ideal was to know the province and to become known to his men; to learn from experienced soldiers and to follow the best example; not to court danger from bravado, and not to shirk it from fear; and in action always to combine energy with vigilance. Never at any period was Britain in a more excited and dangerous condition. Veterans had been butchered, colonies [coloniae] burnt, and armies cut off. Our troops were fighting for dear life; it was not until later that they fought for victory. All these operations were conducted under the plans and direction of another [i.e. Paulinus]. He held the supreme command, and the glory of recovering the province naturally fell to him. But, in spite of that, the young Agricola acquired skill and experience.Agricola 5
The above is, of course, a reference to Boudica’s Rebellion. Agricola then left Britain, but, after the civil wars of 69[*], returned when he:
… was appointed to command the Twentieth Legion [Legio XX Valeria Victrix]. The men were in no hurry to come over and take the oath [of allegiance to Vespasian], and their previous commander was commonly suspected of treason. Indeed the legion was too strong and formidable even for consular legates [i.e. governors] to control, and the praetorian legate [i.e. the legion’s commander] had no authority over them; which may, indeed, have been either his fault or theirs. So being appointed both as successor and avenger, Agricola, with a most rare moderation, wished it to be thought that he had found, and not created, good discipline among his troops.
The man then governing Britain was Vettius Bolanus [69–71]. His methods were too mild for such a warlike province. Agricola restrained his own ambitious energy for fear of fame. He knew how to obey, and had learnt to combine expediency with duty. Soon afterwards Britain received as consular [i.e. governor] Petilius Cerialis [71–73/4], and Agricola’s talents now had scope for display. But at first Cerialis shared with his subordinate only toil and danger; glory came later. Often, to test his work, he would put Agricola at the head of a small part of the army. Sometimes, on the strength of the result, he gave him a larger command. Agricola never boasted of his achievements to gain credit for himself; but, as befits a subordinate, attributed his success to the general’s strategy. So by the virtues of obedience and modesty he aroused no jealousy yet made a name.
On his return [to Rome] from the command of his legion, the deified Vespasian granted him patrician rank, and subsequently appointed him to govern the province of Aquitania. This was a post of prime importance, both in virtue of its duties and because it implied a prospect of the consulship, for which, in fact, the emperor had destined him. Many people believe that the soldier’s temper lacks discrimination: the justice of courts-martial is summary and blunt, its methods are high-handed and give no scope for legal subtlety. However, though living now among civilians, Agricola’s innate good sense made him both affable and just. He further made a rigid distinction between his hours of work and relaxation. When the business of the assizes required it he was serious, attentive, and strict, though often merciful. When he had satisfied the claims of duty, he no longer wore the mask of power. From moodiness and conceit and avarice he had freed himself entirely; and in his case, what is very rare, his easy manner did not lessen his authority, nor his strictness make him unpopular. To mention honesty and temperance in such a man would be an insult to his character. Nor did he even succumb to the last infirmity of noble minds, and court fame by ostentation or intrigue. Far from being jealous of his colleagues or quarrelsome with the procurators, he considered that there was no glory in getting the better of them, while to be worsted by them would be degrading. He was retained in his command for less than three years, and then recalled with an immediate prospect of the consulship. He brought with him a rumour that Britain was to be his province. This was due to no hints of his own, but merely because he seemed the right man. Rumour is not always wrong: sometimes it has even been known to make appointments. While he was consul, and I still little more than a boy, he betrothed to me his daughter, who was even then a girl of very high promise. After his consulship he gave her to me in marriage, and almost immediately afterwards was appointed governor of Britain …Agricola 7–9
Tacitus says it was “in midsummer”, and hence late in the campaigning season, that Agricola crossed the Channel to Britain. The year was probably 77.
The troops, thinking campaigning was over, were looking for leisure, the enemy for their opportunity. Not long before his arrival the state of the Ordovices [central/north-western Wales] had surprised and almost annihilated a cavalry regiment [ala] stationed in their district. This outbreak had disturbed the whole province. Those who wished for war applauded the example, but were still waiting to see what was the temper of the new governor. The summer was nearly ended, the army-units were scattered through the province, and the troops took it for granted that the year’s fighting was over. These were serious obstacles to the commencement of a campaign. Many advised Agricola merely to watch the suspected districts; but he was determined to confront the danger. He gathered legionary detachments and a small force of auxiliaries. Finding that the Ordovices would not venture to descend to the level ground, he advanced up into the hills at the head of his troops, wishing to share with them their danger and his courage. Almost the whole of the tribe was put to the sword. He knew well that he must follow up his success, and that the result of his first operations would determine how much fear his later actions would inspire; so he determined to reduce the island of Mona …Agricola 18
News of Boudica’s Rebellion had, in 60, forced Suetonius Paullinus to abandon his conquest of Mona (Anglesey).[*] Presumably Agricola had participated in that action, and was now intent on finishing the job. His decision to attack Mona was swiftly made, there was no naval support, and so:
A picked body of auxiliaries were ordered to lay down their baggage and enter the water. These men were familiar with the fords, and their national method of swimming enabled them to control themselves, their arms, and their horses at the same time.[*] So sudden was this manoeuvre that the enemy were dumbfounded. They were expecting a fleet of ships, an attack by sea; and they felt that no difficulties could be insurmountable to men who came to war like this. So they petitioned for peace, and surrendered the island. Agricola was now famous as a great man. Other governors on first entering their province spend the time in an ostentatious round of ceremonies. He had preferred toil and danger. He did not, however, boast of his success. “This is no ‘campaign’ or ‘victory’,” he wrote; “I have only held a conquered tribe in check.” He did not even follow up his exploits with laurel-wreathed dispatches, but increased his fame by trying to conceal it. People gauged his hopes for the future from his silence on such great achievements.Agricola 18
In his first, short, campaigning season in Britain, Agricola had, in effect, wrapped-up the conquest of, what is today, Wales.
Agricola was well acquainted with the feelings of the provincials, and had learnt from the experience of others that forcible measures profit little, if followed by injustice. So he determined to root out the causes of the war.Agricola 19
He spent his first winter ridding the province’s administration of corruption and sharp-practice.[*]
By checking these abuses in his very first year of rule, Agricola gave peace a good name, though the negligence or tyranny of former governors had made it as terrible as war. With the arrival of summer [of the year 78] he gathered the army, and was constantly present on the march, praising good discipline and forcing the stragglers into line. He chose the positions for pitching camp himself, explored estuaries and forests himself, and meanwhile allowed the enemy no rest from sudden, destructive raids. When they had been sufficiently frightened, he displayed mercy as an incentive to peace. By these means many states, which up to that date had enjoyed independence, offered hostages and became placable. They were surrounded by garrisons and forts with such skill and thoroughness that no new part of Britain ever came over [to Rome] with so little disturbance.Agricola 20
For his second campaigning season, described above, Agricola had evidently marched his army into northern England/southern Scotland.
It is barely thirty years since any extensive knowledge of it [Britain] was gained by the successes of the Roman arms, and even as yet they have not penetrated beyond the vicinity of the Caledonian forest.So, although Tacitus likes to portray Agricola as a trail-blazer, ‘boldly going where no Roman has gone before’, it would appear that the Romans had been active in Scotland since the early 70s. Having said that, Agricola’s achievement was clearly significant (he did retain the governorship for longer than any of his predecessors, and he was granted the ornamenta triumphalia), but he probably had more of a head start than Tacitus cares to admit.Natural History IV, 16
The following winter was spent on measures of the most salutary kind. The uncivilized population living in scattered homes, had a natural bent for war. Agricola’s object was to accustom them to peace and quiet by promoting luxury. By private persuasion and public grants of aid he induced them to build temples, market-places, and private houses. He praised industry and punished indolence, and as they came to covet his approval, competition did the work of compulsion. Further, he gave the sons of the chief men a liberal education, lauding the natural abilities of the Britons above the painstaking efforts of the Gauls, until the natives, who had lately refused to use the Roman language, now burned to become orators. Thus even our style of dress came into fashion, and the toga was often seen. Gradually they yielded to the seduction of our Roman vices, and took to lounges and baths and elegant banquets. All this in their ignorance they called ‘civilization’, when it was part of their enslavement.
The third year of the campaign [i.e. 79] opened up new tribes: the natives were harried as far as the estuary called the Taus [the Tay]. This so terrified the enemy that, although the army was harassed by violent storms, they did not dare to attack it. Thus there was time for building forts. Skilled critics noted that no other general chose sites with greater wisdom than Agricola. None of the forts that he built was ever taken by storm by the enemy, or deserted either by flight or on capitulation: for each was assured against a long siege by a year’s provisions. So the winter passed without alarm. Sallies were frequent: the garrisons were self-sufficient and needed no assistance. The enemy were baffled and in despair: they had been accustomed to balance the summer’s losses by successes in the winter, but now they were harried summer and winter alike.[*] Agricola was never greedy for the credit of other people’s exploits. Every centurion and prefect found in him an impartial witness to their feats. To some he seemed too bitter in his censure; for he was as unpleasant to rascals as he was courteous to honest men. But his anger left no sediment of resentment. None need fear his silence. Better to give offence, he thought, than to harbour hatred.Agricola 21–22
Vespasian died on 24th June 79. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Titus. It seems that the new emperor may have ordered a consolidation of the gains already made in Britain – this, anyway, was the course of action that Agricola embarked upon.
The fourth summer [of 80] was spent in securing the country he had overrun; and, had the spirit of the army and the glory of Rome’s name allowed, a frontier had been found in Britain itself. For the Clota [Clyde] and Bodotria [Forth], carried far inland by the tides of opposite seas, are separated by a narrow space of land, which was now held with a line of garrisons. The whole of the district on the nearer side [i.e. the southern side] was secured, and the enemy had been pushed back into another island, so to speak.
In the fifth year of the campaign , Agricola, himself in the leading ship, crossed [presumably, the Firth of Clyde], and by a series of successful engagements subdued several tribes hitherto unknown. He also manned with troops the coast of Britain facing Ireland, actuated more by hope than fear: for, since Ireland lay half-way between Britain and Spain, and was within easy reach of the Gallic Sea, he felt that it might be used to unite the strongest parts of the empire with great mutual advantage.[*] Compared with Britain, Ireland is small in size, but larger than the islands of our seas. In soil and climate, and in the temperament and manners of its people, it differs little from Britain. Trade takes merchants there, and its coasts and harbours are thus better known. Finding that one of the minor kings of this people had been driven out by internal faction, Agricola had welcomed him under a show of friendship, and now preserved him for future use. I have often heard him say that a single legion with a moderate force of auxiliaries could conquer and hold Ireland. Such a conquest would be, he considered, of great service against Britain: Roman arms would be everywhere and liberty would, as it were, sink out of sight.Agricola 23–24
On 13th September 81 Titus died. His younger brother, Domitian, succeeded him. Agricola resumed the conquest of Britain.
In the summer in which he began his sixth year of office , Agricola’s operations embraced the states beyond the Bodotria. There were fears of an organized rising among these northern tribes, and it seemed dangerous to expose the army to attack while on the march. Agricola accordingly explored the harbours of the coast with his fleet. This fleet, which now became a regular part of his forces, made a great impression as it followed his march. The war was now urged on as well by sea as by land. Infantry, cavalry, and marines might often now be seen sharing their rations and their fun in a common camp. Each extolled their own exploits and their own dangers, bragging as soldiers will, comparing the deep ravines of wood and mountain with the dangers of the storm and tide, or their victories on land with the conquest of the Ocean. The Britons too, as was learnt from prisoners of war, were dumbfounded at sight of the fleet: it seemed as though their sea had yielded up its secret, and the last refuge of the vanquished was closed. The tribes of Caledonia turned to armed resistance. Great as were their preparations, the rumours of them were greater still, as always happens where certain knowledge is impossible. They went so far as to attack our forts, and inspired alarm by taking the offensive. Cowards posed as sages, and warned Agricola to return across the Bodotria, and to retire before he was driven to retreat. Meanwhile he learnt that the enemy intended to attack in several columns. Fearing their superior numbers and their superior knowledge of the country, he split his forces into three divisions to avoid being outflanked, and so advanced.
Directly the enemy learnt this, they suddenly changed their plans, and massed in full force for a night assault on the Ninth Legion, which was by far the weakest [i.e. numerically[*]]. Cutting down the sentries, they broke into the sleeping camp and created panic. The fight was still raging in the camp itself when Agricola, learning of the enemies’ march from his scouts, and following hard upon their tracks, ordered the most mobile of his horse and foot to charge the combatants in the rear: later the whole army were to swell the hue and cry. The standards gleamed in the light of dawn. The Britons were beset with a double terror, and the spirit of the Romans [i.e. the men of the 9th] revived: assured of safety, they fought now for glory. They even ventured on a sally, and a fierce fight ensued in the narrow gateway. At last the enemy were driven back, while the two Roman armies strove in rivalry, the one to show that they had come to the rescue, the other that they had not needed assistance. Had not marshes and woods concealed the fugitives, this victory would have ended the war.
The consciousness of their success and the glory they had won fired our army with pride. Their courage knew no obstacle. “We must go deep into Caledonia,” they cried, “and by battle upon battle find the furthest limit of Britain at last.” Those who were lately so cautious and sage, after the event grew keen and boastful. Of all the conditions of war this is the most unfair: all claim the credit of success and impute failure to one man only. The Britons, however, believed they had been beaten not by the courage of our troops but by an accident and by the general’s skill. They lost none of their spirit, continued to arm their young men, to transport their wives and children into safety, and to ratify the alliance between their states by meetings and sacrifices. And so both sides parted with mutual animosity.
During this summer a cohort of Usipi, which had been recruited in Germany and transferred to Britain, performed a memorable and daring exploit. Having murdered the centurion and soldiers who had been drafted into their companies to maintain discipline by instruction and example, they embarked on three small warships, forcibly seizing the pilots. One of these directed the rowing: the other two were put to death on suspicion. None knew as yet their story, and their passage along the coast seemed a sheer miracle. After a while they landed to seize water and provisions. This brought them into conflict with groups of Britons, who defended their property. After frequent victories, they were at last defeated, and reduced to the extremity of eating first the weakest of their number and then victims chosen by lot. So they sailed round Britain [i.e. around the north of Scotland], and, losing their ships through inability to steer them [they were evidently shipwrecked along the German and Dutch coasts of the North Sea], were taken for pirates and captured, some by the Suebi, the rest by the Frisii. Some were sold into slavery, and, changing hands from master to master, ultimately reached our bank of the river [i.e the Roman side of the Rhine], where they won fame by their story of this amazing adventure.Agricola 25–28
Demetrius said that among the islands lying near Britain were many isolated, having few or no inhabitants, some of which bore the names of divinities or heroes. He himself, by the emperor’s order, had made a voyage for inquiry and observation to the nearest of these islands which had only a few inhabitants, holy men who were all held inviolate by the Britons. Shortly after his arrival there occurred a great tumult in the air and many portents; violent winds suddenly swept down and lightning-flashes darted to earth. When these abated, the people of the island said that the passing of someone of the mightier souls had befallen. “For,” said they, “as a lamp when it is being lighted has no terrors, but when it goes out is distressing to many, so the great souls have a kindling into life that is gentle and inoffensive, but their passing and dissolution often, as at the present moment, fosters tempests and storms, and often infects the air with pestilential properties.” Moreover, they said that in this part of the world there is one island where Cronus is confined, guarded while he sleeps by Briareus; for his sleep has been devised as a bondage for him, and round about him are many demigods as attendants and servants.It so happens that a Demetrius features in Greek inscriptions on two bronze plaques from York:On the Obsolescence of Oracles 18
To the gods of the legate’s residence, Scribonius Demetrius. (RIB 662)And:
To Ocean and Tethys, Demetrius. (RIB 663)These plaques were not found within the precincts of the legionary fortress, so the legate in question is perhaps likely to be the governor (rather than the legionary legate), and the ‘residence’ his quarters whilst visiting York. Anyway, Plutarch’s Demetrius of Tarsus is, it is generally supposed, probably the man responsible for both of these dedications.
With the next campaigning season, Agricola’s last, Tacitus' story reaches its climax:
At the beginning of the next summer [of 83] Agricola suffered a severe blow by the loss of his son born the year before. He bore this misfortune without the ostentatious stoicism in which so many brave men indulge, and yet without giving way to unmanly grief.[*] Indeed, the war helped to heal his sorrow. He sent the fleet ahead to create a vague and widespread panic by making raids at various places. Then, with his army in light marching order, and reinforced by the bravest of the Britons, whose loyalty the long peace had tested, he advanced to the Graupian Mountain [Mons Graupius], which had been occupied by the enemy. For the Britons were in no sense crushed by the result of the last engagement. Either revenge or slavery awaited them. They had learnt at last that union alone could repel the common danger, and by sending embassies and forming treaties had roused the forces of every state. More than thirty thousand armed men could already be seen, and there flowed in a steady stream of all their young men, and of old men whose age was still fresh and green: famous warriors these, each displaying his trophies.Agricola 29
The foremost chieftain of the allied tribes is called Calgacus, and Tacitus has him deliver a lengthy rallying speech to the assembled Britons.[*]
They received this speech with enthusiasm, which they showed, as barbarians do, in songs and cheers and discordant shouts.[*] Now could be seen their advancing columns, and the flash of their arms, as the boldest darted before the ranks. The battle-line was already being formed when Agricola, thinking that his men, cheerful as they were, and scarcely to be kept within their defences, still needed some encouragement, addressed them …Agricola 33
Tacitus then gives a speech to Agricola.[*]
While Agricola was still speaking, the eagerness of the troops could not be concealed. A great outburst of enthusiasm greeted the end of his speech, and immediately they ran to arms. While they were still in this spirit, and eager to advance, he arranged his battle-line. The auxiliary infantry, numbering eight thousand, formed a strong centre, while the three thousand cavalry were distributed on the flanks. The legions were drawn up in front of the rampart: for it would add great glory to the victory if it were won without shedding Roman blood; while he would have a reserve in case the auxiliaries were repulsed. The Britons’ line was drawn up on the higher ground to make more show and to alarm their opponents. The front rank was on the edge of the plain, while the others rose tier upon tier up the slopes of the hill. The chariots clattered briskly across the middle of the plain and seemed to fill it. Agricola, fearing that with the enemy’s superior numbers he might be attacked simultaneously in front and flank, opened out his ranks, although this was likely to extend the line too much, and many advised him to call up the legions. However, he was always ready to hope for the best and resolute in the face of danger; so he sent away his horse and took up a position on foot in front of the standards.
The battle began with an exchange of volleys. Steadily and skilfully the Britons with their huge swords and little shields caught or parried our missiles, and themselves returned a hail of spears. At last Agricola urged the four Batavian and two Tungrian cohorts to bring the battle to a close-struggle with swords. They were trained by long service in this mode of fighting, which would also be awkward for the enemy with their small shields and unwieldy swords: for the swords of the Britons, having no point, were ill-suited for hand-to-hand fighting at close quarters. So the Batavians advanced, raining their blows on the enemy, thrusting them down with the bosses of their shields, and stabbing them in the face. When they had cut down all who stood on the level ground and began to advance up the hill, the other cohorts charged in eager rivalry and slaughtered the nearest of the enemy. In the haste of victory many were left behind half-dead or quite unwounded. Meanwhile, when the charioteers fled, our cavalry squadrons [turmae] joined in the infantry battle. But although they at first created panic, they were soon impeded by the uneven ground and the dense masses of the enemy. The fighting bore little resemblance to a cavalry engagement: our men could hardly keep their footing on the slope, and were thrown down by the pressure of the horses, while now and again some strayed chariot, the horses in panic without their drivers, with none but fear to guide them, would come charging in on front or flank.
The Britons who had as yet taken no part in the battle, but held their position on the top of the hills in idle contempt of our small numbers, now began to work round by a gradual descent to the rear of the victorious army. However, Agricola foresaw this danger, and faced their advance with four regiments [alae] of cavalry, which he had reserved to meet the emergencies of battle. No less fierce than the enemy’s charge was the vigour with which he flung them shattered into flight. The Britons were foiled by their own tactics: the cavalry regiments, detached by the general’s orders from the front, now charged the enemy’s rear. There followed on the open plain a great and awesome spectacle: pursuit, wounds, capture, and the butchery of prisoners as fresh foes appeared. Among the enemy each man betrayed his nature: whole crowds of armed men fled before a few; while single men all unarmed charged our line and courted death. On every side lay weapons and bodies, mangled limbs and crimson grass. Sometimes too the vanquished showed their wrath and courage: for, when the woods were reached, they rallied, caught the foremost pursuers off their guard, and knowing the country began to surround them. But Agricola was everywhere. He ordered strong light-armed cohorts to form a cordon: where the wood was thick the cavalry dismounted; the clearings they scoured on horseback. Thus a disaster due to over-confidence was averted. When the enemy saw their pursuers again advancing in good order, they turned in headlong flight, not as before, in marching line, each waiting for the other: now they scattered, avoiding each other, and made for distant inaccessible retreats. Nightfall and fatigue ended the pursuit. Ten thousand of the enemy had fallen, while our losses numbered three hundred and sixty; among them was Aulus Atticus, prefect of a cohort, whose youthful zeal and mettlesome horse had combined to carry him into the enemy’s lines.
* D.J. Woolliscroft ‘Agricola: he came, he saw, but did he conquer?’ (2005), The Roman Gask Project website, freely available online.
* Martin Henig ‘Togidubnus and the Roman liberation’, British Archaeology Issue 37 (September 1998).
With the loot and the joy of victory the night passed merrily for us. Meanwhile the Britons wandered far and wide, men and women mingling their tears; dragging off the wounded, calling out to the unhurt; deserting their homes and even setting fire to them in their rage; choosing hiding-places and immediately abandoning them; meeting to form some plan, and then dispersing again. Sometimes their spirit was broken by the sight of their loved ones, but more often it was roused to fury. There was good evidence that some laid violent hands upon their wives and children, as though in pity. The light of the morrow broadened the vista of our victory. Everywhere a vast silence reigned: hills deserted, homesteads smouldering in the distance, not a man to meet our scouts. These were dispatched in all directions; but the fugitives’ tracks were random, and it was ascertained that they were not gathering anywhere. Since the summer was far spent, and the scope of the war could not be extended, Agricola led his army down into the territory of the Boresti. There he took hostages and instructed the prefect of the fleet to sail round Britain: forces were allocated for this purpose, and panic had paved the way. He himself, proceeding by slow marches to cow the spirit of new tribes by the delay of his passage, placed his infantry and cavalry in winter quarters. Meanwhile the fleet, aided alike by the wind and their renown, lay in the harbour of Trucculum. Starting thence, it had coasted along all the adjoining shore of Britain and returned thither.Agricola 35–38
In the mean time, war broke out again in Britain, and Gnaeus Julius Agricola overran all the enemy’s territory there. He was the first Roman of whom we have any information to discover that Britain is surrounded by water. For some soldiers mutinied and, having murdered their centurions and a tribune, they took refuge in boats, put out to sea and sailed round the western part of Britain just as the current and winds took them. And they escaped detection on the other side when they put in at the forts there. As a result of this, Agricola sent others to attempt the circumnavigation, and learned from them too that it was an island. These were the events in Britain and as a result Titus was given the title Imperator for the fifteenth time.[*]Titus was declared Imperator for the fifteenth time in the year 79, after 8th September – which is nicely compatible with Agricola’s successful third campaigning season (when he advanced as far as the Tay) – but, according to Tacitus, the mutiny of the Usipi actually occurred three years later, and the rounding of Britain by Agricola’s fleet another year after that. It seems a reasonable assumption that, as Anthony R. Birley (The Roman Government of Britain, p.83, 2005) remarks: “Either Dio or Xiphilinus has condensed events misleadingly.” Once again, though, there are those who suspect that it is Tacitus who has been a little economical with the truth. In a lecture entitled Archaeology Versus Tacitus’ Agricola, a 1st Century Worst Case Scenario (15th December 2001, freely available online), Birgitta Hoffmann said:Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXVI, 20
He [Dio] reports that when Agricola was governor in Britain, there was some fighting and that he then proved, by sailing around it, that Britain was an island and that for this reason Titus accepted his 15th acclamation as imperator in 79 AD. Tacitus also mentions the circumnavigation of Britain in the Agricola, but he conveniently dates its successful conclusion to the end of the seventh season as the crowning achievement, to happen at the same time as the decisive victory at Mons Graupius in 83/84 AD. So we don’t get quite the truth, as the circumnavigation really happened four years earlier. Instead by shifting the date Tacitus creates a much more satisfying effect, on a par with some of the best Hollywood blockbusters.The famous circumnavigation by Agricola’s fleet would appear to be a circumnavigation of just northern Britain, not the whole island.[*] Earlier in the Agricola, Tacitus makes another reference to the voyage:
Its [Britain’s] northern shores, which have no land opposite, are washed by a vast and open sea. The best historical authorities, Livy among the older writers, and Fabius Rusticus of the more modern school, have compared the shape of the whole island to an elongated shoulder-blade or an axe. This comparison applies in fact only to Britain, excluding Caledonia [i.e. up to the Forth-Clyde line]. The description of a part has been applied to the whole island. But if you cross [into Caledonia] you find running out from the point where the coasts converge an immense, shapeless tract of country narrowing into a sort of wedge. This was the first occasion on which the Roman fleet coasted round the shores of this distant sea, and established the fact that Britain was an island. On the same voyage they discovered and subdued the islands called the Orcades [Orkney], hitherto unknown. They also inspected Thule, but did not land, since they had orders to proceed no further, and winter was at hand.[*]Agricola 10
Meanwhile the fleet, aided alike by the wind and their renown, lay in the harbour of Trucculum. Starting thence, it had coasted along all the adjoining shore of Britain and returned thither.The implication of this might be that the fleet did circumnavigate the whole island – returning to their departure point, Trucculum, from the opposite direction. Stan Wolfson (Tacitus, Thule and Caledonia, published online 2002) proposes that Trucculum is a figment of textual corruption,[*] and that the passage should actually read:
And at the same time the fleet, its ruthlessness enhanced by rumour and favourable weather, reached Shetland [Thule] harbour; having sailed on from the nearest side of Britain it had encountered every scenario.
Earlier (Agricola 10), Tacitus had noted that, by rounding the northern extremity of Britain, the Roman fleet had proved that it was, indeed, an island; they had also subjugated Orkney and closely examined the fabled land of Thule (actually Shetland). He asserts that, under Agricola, Britain was “for the first time completely conquered”. Domitian was, says Tacitus, jealous of Agricola’s achievement:
Although Agricola did not colour his success with any exaggeration in the wording of his dispatches, Domitian, as his nature was, received the news with outward expressions of pleasure, but with secret anxiety. He knew in his heart that ridicule had been poured on his recent mock triumph over Germany, for which he had purchased slaves who were got up to resemble captives with long hair and appropriate costume. Here was now a real victory of serious import, won with great slaughter of the enemy and world-wide renown. What he feared most was that a commoner’s fame should exceed that of the emperor. It was in vain, he felt, that the claims of eloquence and of all political ambition had been silenced, if another was going to forestall his military glory. Somehow it seemed that other talents could be more easily ignored: good generalship was an imperial quality. Tormented by such fears, he cherished his resentment in silence – this showed his sinister designs – and thought it best for the present to store up his hatred, until the first burst of fame and the army’s enthusiasm for their general began to wane: for Agricola still held Britain.
Accordingly, the triumphal insignia [ornamenta triumphalia], the honour of a public statue, and all the distinctions that are now granted in place of a triumph were decreed by the senate on the emperor’s orders,[*] enhanced by a most flattering speech; with added hints that the province of Syria, which was then vacant through the death of the consular Atilius Rufus, and always reserved for men of more than ordinary distinction, was intended for Agricola. Many people believed that a freedman, one of the emperor’s confidential servants, had been sent to Agricola with dispatches in which Syria was offered to him, under instructions to deliver his message only if Agricola were still in Britain. This freedman, so the story ran, had met Agricola actually in the Channel, and had returned to Domitian without even addressing him. This may be true, or it may be a fiction invented to suit the emperor’s known character. Meanwhile Agricola had handed over to his successor a province peaceful and secure. It was inadvisable that attention should be called to his arrival in Rome by crowds flocking to welcome him. So he avoided the attentions of his friends and came by night to the city, and by night went, as instructed, to the palace. He was received with a hasty kiss, and, without a word, dismissed into the crowd of courtiers.Agricola 39–40
It was probably in the spring of 84 that Agricola returned to Rome. He never went to Syria – his career was over. His unnamed successor in Britain might well have been one Sallustius Lucullus. Suetonius writes that:
He [Domitian] put to death many senators, among them several ex-consuls … He put to death … Sallustius Lucullus, governor of Britain, for allowing some lances of a new pattern to be called ‘Lucullean’, after his own name …Lives of the Twelve Caesars ‘Domitian’ 10
Agricola was in his fifty-fourth year when he died on 23rd August 93 – there were rumours that he had been poisoned on Domitian’s orders.[*] Domitian was himself assassinated on 18th September 96.[*]