Gnaeus Julius Agricola is, thanks to the biography of him, 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:
“... this book, intended to do honour to Agricola, my father-in-law, will, as an expression of filial regard, be commended, or at least excused.”
‘Agricola’ Chapter 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 to the satisfaction of Suetonius Paulinus [governor 58–61], a painstaking and judicious officer, who, to test his merits, selected him to join his staff. Without the recklessness with which young men often make the profession of arms a mere pastime, and without indolence, he never availed himself of his tribune's rank or his inexperience to procure enjoyment or to escape from duty. He sought to make himself acquainted with the province and known to the army; he would learn from the skilful, and keep pace with the bravest, would attempt nothing for display, would avoid nothing from fear, and would be at once careful and vigilant. Never indeed had Britain been more excited, or in a more critical condition. Veteran soldiers had been massacred, colonies burnt, armies cut off. The struggle was then for safety; it was soon to be for victory. And though all this was conducted under the leadership and direction of another, though the final issue and the glory of having won back the province belonged to the general, yet skill, experience, and ambition were acquired by the young officer.”
‘Agricola’ Chapter 5
The above is, of course, a reference to Boudica's Rebellion. Agricola then left Britain, but, after the civil war of 69, returned when he:
“... was appointed to command the 20th Legion [Legio XX Valeria Victrix], which had been slow to take the new oath of allegiance [to Vespasian], and the retiring commander of which was reported to have acted treasonably. Indeed, the legion was too strong and formidable for even consular legates [i.e. governors] to control, and the praetorian legate [i.e. the legion's commander], perhaps from his own disposition, perhaps from that of the soldiers, was powerless to restrain them. Chosen thus at once to supersede and to punish, Agricola, with a singular moderation, wished it to be thought that he had found rather than made an obedient soldiery.
Britain was then under Vettius Bolanus, who governed [69–71] more mildly than suited so turbulent a province. Agricola moderated his energy and restrained his ardour, that he might not grow too important, for he had learnt to obey, and understood well how to combine expediency with honour. Soon afterwards Britain received for its governor a man of consular rank, Petilius Cerialis [71–73]. Agricola's merits had now room for display. Cerialis let him share at first indeed only the toils and dangers, but before long the glory of war, often by way of trial putting him in command of part of the army, and sometimes, on the strength of the result, of larger forces. Never to enhance his own renown did Agricola boast of his exploits; he always referred his success, as though he were but an instrument, to his general and director. Thus by his valour in obeying orders and by his modesty of speech he escaped jealousy without losing distinction.
As he was returning from the command of the legion, Vespasian admitted him into the patrician order, and then gave him the province of Aquitania, a preeminently splendid appointment both from the importance of its duties and the prospect of the consulate to which the Emperor destined him. Many think the genius of the soldier wants subtlety, because military law, which is summary and blunt, and apt to appeal to the sword, finds no exercise for the refinements of the forum. Yet Agricola, from his natural good sense, though called to act among civilians, did his work with ease and correctness. And, besides, the times of business and relaxation were kept distinct. When his public and judicial duties required it, he was dignified, thoughtful, austere, and yet often merciful; when business was done with, he wore no longer the official character. He was altogether without harshness, pride, or the greed of gain. With a most rare felicity, his good nature did not weaken his authority, nor his strictness the attachment of his friends. To speak of uprightness and purity in such a man would be an insult to his virtues. Fame itself, of which even good men are often weakly fond, he did not seek by an ostentation of virtue or by artifice. He avoided rivalry with his colleagues, contention with his procurator, thinking such victories no honour and defeat disgrace. For somewhat less than three years he was kept in his governorship, and was then recalled with an immediate prospect of the consulate. A general belief went with him that the province of Britain was to be his, not because he had himself hinted it, but because he seemed worthy of it. Public opinion is not always mistaken; sometimes even it chooses the right man. He was consul, and I but a youth, when he betrothed to me his daughter, a maiden even then of noble promise. After his consulate he gave her to me in marriage, and was then at once appointed to the government of Britain ...”
‘Agricola’ Chapters 7–9


Tacitus' dating references are vague (as, indeed, are his geographical references). Agricola's first tour of duty in Britain, as a military tribune, was under Suetonius Paullinus (58–61), and he was, clearly, present during the Boudican revolt of 60 (at which time Agricola was 20 years old). His return to Britain, as legate of the 20th Legion, would likely have been in the spring of 70. (Incidentally, his treasonous predecessor, not named in the ‘Agricola’, was one Roscius Coelius, see: Year of the Four Emperors.) Tacitus doesn't mention that Agricola served under Julius Frontinus, who succeeded Petillius Cerialis in Britain, so presumably he was back in Rome in 73. There then followed his governorship of Aquitania (“less than three years”) and his consulship. Traditionally, his final return to Britain, as governor, has been placed in 78, however, many modern historians believe that 77 is a better fit with the evidence.
There were at this time, seemingly, four legions stationed in Britain. The new fortress of Isca (Caerleon, near Newport) – it is believed to have been built, in 74 or 75, by Julius Frontinus – was probably home to the 2nd Legion (Legio II Augusta). The 9th (Legio IX Hispana) were probably based at the fortress of Eboracum (York), which is thought to have been founded by Petilius Cerialis (71–73). It is generally accepted that Cerialis brought the 2nd Adiutrix Legion (Legio II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis) to Britain with him, and that their home was at Lindum (Lincoln). The whereabouts of the 20th (Legio XX Valeria Victrix) can only be guessed at – Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter, Shropshire) is perhaps the most popular notion. In any case, a whole legion and their auxiliaries did not operate en masse at all times.
Tacitus says it was “about midsummer”, and hence late in the campaigning season, that Agricola crossed the Channel to Britain. The year was probably 77.
“Our soldiers made it [the lateness of the season] a pretext for carelessness, as if all fighting was over, and the enemy were biding their time. The tribe of the Ordovices, shortly before Agricola's arrival, had destroyed nearly the whole of a squadron of cavalry quartered in their territory. Such a beginning excited the province, and all who wished for war approved the precedent, and anxiously watched the temper of the new governor. Meanwhile Agricola, though summer was past, though the army units were scattered throughout the province, though the soldiers confidently anticipated inaction for that year – all these a source of delay and difficulty in beginning a campaign – and although most advisers thought it best simply to watch the suspected districts, resolved to face the peril. He collected the legionary detachments and a small body of auxiliaries; then as the Ordovices would not venture to descend into the plain, he put himself in front of the ranks to inspire all with the same courage against a common danger, and led his troops up into the hills. The tribe was all but exterminated. Well aware that he must follow up the prestige of his arms, and that in proportion to his first success would be the terror of the other tribes, he formed the design of subjugating the island of Mona ...”
‘Agricola’ Chapter 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:
“With some picked men of the auxiliaries, disencumbered of all baggage, who knew the shallows and had that national experience in swimming which enables them to take care not only of themselves but of their arms and horses,* he delivered so unexpected an attack that the astonished enemy – who were looking for a fleet, a naval armament, and an assault by sea – thought that nothing could be formidable or invincible to such assailants. And so, peace having been sued for and the island given up, Agricola became great and famous as one who, when entering on his province, a time which others spend in vain display and a round of ceremonies, chose rather toil and danger. Nor did he use his success for self-glorification, or apply the name of campaigns and victories to the repression of a conquered people. He did not even describe his achievements in a laurelled letter. Yet by thus disguising his renown he really increased it, for men inferred the grandeur of his aspirations from his silence about services so great.”
‘Agricola’ Chapter 18
In his first, short, campaigning season in Britain, Agricola had, in effect, wrapped-up the conquest of, what is today, Wales.
“Next, with thorough insight into the feelings of his province, and taught also, by the experience of others, that little is gained by conquest if followed by oppression, he determined to root out the causes of war.”
‘Agricola’ Chapter 19
He spent his first winter ridding the administration of corruption and injustice.Supplement
“Agricola, by the repression of these abuses in his very first year in office, restored to peace its good name, when, from either the indifference or the harshness of his predecessors, it had come to be as much dreaded as war. When, however, summer [of 78] came, assembling his forces, he continually showed himself in the ranks, praised good discipline, and kept the stragglers in order. He would himself choose the position of the camp, himself explore the estuaries and forests. Meanwhile he would allow the enemy no rest, laying waste his territory with sudden incursions, and, having sufficiently alarmed him, would then by forbearance display the allurements of peace. In consequence, many states, which up to that time had been independent, gave hostages, and laid aside their animosities; garrisons and forts were established among them with such skill and diligence that no new part of Britain ever came over [to Rome] with so little disturbance.”
‘Agricola’ Chapter 20
Tacitus doesn't say, but for his second campaigning season (described above in Chapter 20), Agricola had, it will become apparent, moved into northern England or southern Scotland.


Tacitus is intent on enhancing his father-in-law's reputation. He tends, therefore, to downplay the achievements of Agricola's predecessors. The impression he gives is that the Roman advance up Britain had stalled in, what is today, northern England, with a partial conquest of the Brigantes which he credits (‘Agricola’ Chapter 17) to Petillius Cerialis (71–73). This leaves much of northern England and all of Scotland as virgin territory in which he can portray Agricola as the bold pioneer, and, traditionally, the Roman penetration of northernmost England and Scotland (pretty well anywhere north of a York–Chester line) has indeed been attributed to Agricola. In reality, however, Agricola was probably, to a considerable extent, retracing his predecessor's footsteps. In the late 1970s, large timbers from the first Roman fort of Luguvalium (Carlisle) were unearthed. Dendrochronology has revealed that the timber was felled in the winter of 72/73, during the governorship of Cerialis – Agricola, as commander of the 20th Legion under Cerialis, could have been involved in the fort's construction. The combination of mounting archaeological evidence with the odd literary snippet makes it very likely that Cerialis, and even Vettius Bolanus before him, were active in Scotland. A poem by Statius (published c.95) apparently refers to “watchtowers and forts” being set on “Caledonia's plains” by Bolanus. Tacitus mentions only that, Agricola's immediate predecessor, Julius Frontinus campaigned in Wales (‘Agricola’ Chapter 17), but that is no reason to assume that he neglected the North. A passage in the ‘Natural History’ of Pliny the Elder notes:
“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.”
‘Natural History’ Book IV Chapter 30
Though “barely thirty years” is hardly the most precise dating reference, Pliny's statement would seem to place the Roman army in Caledonia during Frontinus' tenure (probably late 73–77). Agricola's contribution to the Roman advance was clearly substantial (he did retain the governorship for longer than any of his predecessors, and he was granted the ‘ornamenta triumphalia’), but he seems to have had more of a head start than Tacitus is prepared to concede.
“The following winter passed without disturbance, and was employed in salutary measures. For, to accustom to rest and repose through the charms of luxury a population scattered and barbarous and therefore inclined to war, Agricola gave private encouragement and public aid to the building of temples, courts of justice and dwelling-houses, praising the energetic, and reproving the indolent. Thus an honourable rivalry took the place of compulsion. He likewise provided a liberal education for the sons of the chiefs, and showed such a preference for the natural powers of the Britons over the industry of the Gauls that they who lately disdained the tongue of Rome now coveted its eloquence. Hence, too, a liking sprang up for our style of dress, and the toga became fashionable. Step by step they were led to things which dispose to vice, the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance they called civilisation, when it was but a part of their servitude.
The third year of his campaigns [79] opened up new tribes, our ravages on the native population being carried as far as the Taus [Tay], an estuary so called. This struck such terror into the enemy that he did not dare to attack our army, harassed though it was by violent storms; and there was even time for the erection of forts. It was noted by experienced officers that no general had ever shown more judgment in choosing suitable positions, and that not a single fort established by Agricola was either stormed by the enemy or abandoned by capitulation or flight. Sorties were continually being made; for these positions were secured from protracted siege by a year's supply. So winter brought with it no alarms, and each garrison could hold its own, as the baffled and despairing enemy, who had been accustomed often to repair his summer losses by winter successes, found himself repelled alike both in summer and winter.* Never did Agricola in a greedy spirit appropriate the achievements of others; the centurion and the prefect both found in him an impartial witness of their every action. Some persons used to say that he was too harsh in his reproofs, and that he was as severe to the bad as he was gentle to the good. But his displeasure left nothing behind it; reserve and silence in him were not to be dreaded. He thought it better to show anger than to cherish hatred.”
‘Agricola’ Chapters 21–22
Vespasian died on 23rd June 79. He was succeeded by, his 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] he employed in securing what he had overrun. Had the valour of our armies and the renown of the Roman name permitted it, a limit to our conquests might have been found in Britain itself. For the Clota [Clyde] and Bodotria [Forth], carried far inland by the tides of opposite seas, are separated by but a narrow strip of land. This Agricola then began to defend with garrisons, and, as all the country to the south was now occupied, the enemy were pushed into what might be called another island.


To the south, the legionary fortress of Deva (Chester) was under construction. Lead piping from there bears the inscription:
Lead piping on display in the Grosvenor Museum, Chester.
Photograph courtesy of
Which translates as:
“[Made] in the 9th consulship of the Emperor Vespasian, and the 7th of Titus Imperator [i.e. in 79], Gnaeus Julius Agricola being propraetorian legate of the emperor.”
It appears that the fortress' first occupants were the 2nd Adiutrix.
In the fifth year of the war [81], Agricola, himself in the leading ship, crossed [presumably, the Clyde], and subdued in a series of victories tribes hitherto unknown. In that part of Britain which looks toward Ireland, he posted some troops, hoping for fresh conquests rather than fearing attack, inasmuch as Ireland, being between Britain and Spain* and conveniently situated for the seas round Gaul, might have been the means of connecting with great mutual benefit the most powerful parts of the empire. Its extent is small when compared with Britain, but exceeds the islands of our seas. In soil and climate, in the disposition, temper, and habits of its population, it differs but little from Britain. We know most of its harbours and approaches, and that through the intercourse of commerce. One of the petty kings of the nation, driven out by internal faction, had been received by Agricola, who detained him under the semblance of friendship till he could make use of him. I have often heard him say that a single legion with a few auxiliaries could conquer and occupy Ireland, and that it would have a salutary effect on Britain for the Roman arms to be seen everywhere, and for freedom, so to speak, to be banished from its sight.”
‘Agricola’ Chapters 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 entered on the sixth year of his office [82], his operations embraced the states beyond Bodotria, and, as he dreaded a general movement among the remoter tribes, as well as the perils which would beset an invading army, he explored the harbours with a fleet – which he employed for the first time as an integral part of his force, and which made a great impression as it followed along. The war was pushed on by sea and land simultaneously, and often infantry, cavalry, and marines, mingled in the same encampment and joyously sharing the same meals, would dwell on their own achievements and adventures, comparing, with a soldier's boastfulness, at one time the deep recesses of the forest and the mountain with the dangers of waves and storms, or, at another, battles by land with victories over the ocean. The Britons, too, as we learnt from the prisoners, were confounded by the sight of a fleet, as if, now that their inmost seas were penetrated, the conquered had their last refuge closed to them. The tribes inhabiting Caledonia flew to arms, and with great preparations, made greater by the rumours which always exaggerate the unknown, themselves advanced to attack our forts, and thus challenging a conflict, inspired us with alarm. To retreat south of the Bodotria, and to retire rather than to be driven out, was the advice of timid pretenders to prudence. Meanwhile he learnt that the enemy were about to attack in several columns. Fearing that their superior numbers and their knowledge of the country might enable them to hem him in, he too distributed his forces into three divisions, and so advanced.
This becoming known to the enemy, they suddenly changed their plan, and with their whole force attacked by night the Ninth Legion, as being the weakest, and cutting down the sentries, they broke into the sleeping camp and created panic. And now the fight was raging within the camp itself, when Agricola, who had learnt from his scouts the enemy's line of march and had kept close on his track, ordered the fleetest of his cavalry and infantry to attack the rear of the assailants, while the entire army were shortly to raise the battle-cry. Soon his standards glittered in the light of daybreak. A double peril thus alarmed the Britons, while the courage of the Romans [i.e. the men of the 9th] revived; and feeling sure of their safety, they now fought for glory. In their turn they rushed to the attack, and there was a furious conflict within the narrow passages of the gates. At last the enemy were driven back before the efforts of two armies – the one to prove that they were rescuers, the other to prove that they had not needed rescue. Had not the flying enemy been sheltered by morasses and forests, this victory would have ended the war.
Knowing this, and elated by their glory, our army exclaimed that nothing could resist their valour – that they must penetrate the recesses of Caledonia, and, by battle upon battle, discover the furthest limits of Britain at last. Those who were lately cautious and prudent, became after the event eager and boastful. It is the singularly unfair peculiarity of war that the credit of success is claimed by all, while a disaster is attributed to one alone. But the Britons, thinking themselves beaten not so much by our valour as by our general's skilful use of an opportunity, abated nothing of their arrogant demeanour, arming their youth, removing their wives and children to a place of safety, and assembling together to ratify, with sacred rites, a confederacy of all their states. Thus, with angry feelings on both sides, the combatants parted.
The same summer a cohort of Usipi, which had been levied in Germany and transported into Britain, ventured on a great and memorable exploit. Having killed a centurion and some soldiers, who, to impart military discipline, had been incorporated with their ranks and were employed at once to instruct and command them, they embarked on board three swift galleys with pilots pressed into their service. Under the direction of one of them – for two of the three they suspected and consequently put to death – they sailed past the coast in the strangest way before any rumour about them was in circulation. After a while, dispersing in search of water and provisions, they encountered many of the Britons, who sought to defend their property. Often victorious, though now and then beaten, they were at last reduced to such an extremity of want as to be compelled to eat, at first the feeblest of their number, and then victims selected by lot. Having sailed around Britain and losing their vessels from not knowing how to manage them, they were looked upon as pirates and were intercepted, first by the Suebi and then by the Frisii. Some who were sold as slaves in the way of trade, and were brought through the process of barter as far as our side of the Rhine, gained notoriety by the disclosure of this extraordinary adventure.”
‘Agricola’ Chapters 25–28


It seems possible that Agricola had a Greek grammarian, Demetrius, in his entourage. This Demetrius figures in an essay by Plutarch (‘On the Obsolescence of Oracles’), in which the action takes place at Delphi, about the year 83. Demetrius is on his way home to Tarsus from Britain.
“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.”
‘On the Obsolescence of Oracles’ Chapter 18
It so happens that two bronze plaques from York bear the inscriptions (the actual text is in Greek):
“To the deities of the governor's headquarters, Scribonius Demetrius [dedicated this].”
“To Ocean and Tethys, Demetrius [dedicated this].”
Plutarch's Demetrius of Tarsus is, it is generally supposed, likely to be the man responsible for both of these dedications.
With the next campaigning season, Agricola's last, Tacitus' story reaches its climax:
“Early in the summer [of 83] Agricola sustained a domestic affliction in the loss of a son born a year before, a calamity which he endured, neither with the ostentatious fortitude displayed by many brave men, nor, on the other hand, with womanish tears and grief.* In his sorrow he found one source of relief in war. Having sent on a fleet, which by its ravages at various points might cause a vague and wide-spread alarm, he advanced with a lightly equipped force, including in its ranks some Britons of remarkable bravery, whose fidelity had been tried through years of peace, as far as Mons Graupius, which the enemy had already occupied. For the Britons, indeed, in no way cowed by the result of the late engagement, had made up their minds to be either avenged or enslaved, and convinced at length that a common danger must be averted by union, had, by embassies and treaties, summoned forth the whole strength of all their states. More than thirty thousand armed men were now to be seen, and still there were pressing in all the youth of the country, with all whose old age was yet hale and vigorous, men renowned in war and bearing each decorations of his own.”
‘Agricola’ Chapter 29
Tacitus says that the senior chieftain of the British alliance was Calgacus, and he has him deliver a lengthy rallying speech to the assembled Britons.Supplement
“They received his speech with enthusiasm, and as is usual among barbarians, with songs, shouts, and discordant cries.* And now was seen the marshalling of hosts and the gleam of arms, as the boldest warriors stepped to the front. As the line was forming, Agricola, who, though his troops were in high spirits and could scarcely be kept within the entrenchments, still thought it right to encourage them ...”
‘Agricola’ Chapter 33
Tacitus then gives a speech to Agricola.Supplement
“While Agricola was yet speaking, the ardour of the soldiers was rising to its height, and the close of his speech was followed by a great outburst of enthusiasm. In a moment they flew to arms. He arrayed his eager and impetuous troops in such a manner that the auxiliary infantry, eight thousand in number, strengthened his centre, while the three thousand cavalry were posted on his wings. The legions were drawn up in front of the entrenchments; his victory would be vastly more glorious if won without the loss of Roman blood, and he would have a reserve in case the auxiliaries were repulsed. The Britons, to make a more formidable display, were drawn up on higher ground; their front rank was on the plain, while the rest rose in an arch-like form up the slope of a hill. The plain between resounded with the noise and with the rapid movements of their chariots. Agricola, fearing that from the enemy's superiority of force he would be simultaneously attacked in front and on the flanks, widened his ranks, though his line was likely to be too extended, and several officers advised him to bring up the legions; but he was always ready to hope for the best and was resolute in the face of danger; he sent away his horse and took his stand on foot before the colours.
The action began with long-range fighting. The Britons with equal steadiness and skill used their huge swords and small shields to avoid or to parry the missiles of our soldiers, while they themselves poured on us a dense shower of darts, till Agricola encouraged the four Batavian and two Tungrian cohorts to bring matters to the decision of close fighting with swords. Such tactics were familiar to them from long service, but were embarrassing to an enemy armed with small bucklers and unwieldy swords – the swords of the Britons are not pointed, and are ill-suited for hand-to-hand fighting at close quarters. As soon then as the Batavians began to close with the enemy, to strike them with their shield-bosses, to stab them in the face, and overthrowing the force on the plain to advance their line up the hill, the other cohorts joined with eager rivalry in cutting down all the nearest of the foe. Many were left behind half dead, some even unwounded, in the hurry of victory. Meantime – for the chariots had fled – the squadrons of cavalry joined in the infantry battle. But although these at first spread panic, they were soon impeded by the solid ranks of the enemy and by the uneven ground. The battle had anything but the appearance of a cavalry action, for our men could hardly keep their footing, and were pushed by the bodies of the horses; and often runaway chariots and terrified riderless horses dashed, as panic urged them, sideways or in direct collision, against the ranks.
Those of the Britons who, having as yet taken no part in the engagement, occupied the hill-tops, and who without fear for themselves sat idly disdaining the smallness of our numbers, had begun gradually to descend and to hem in the rear of the victorious army, when Agricola, who feared this very moment, opposed their advance with four squadrons of cavalry held in reserve by him for any sudden emergencies of battle. Their repulse and rout was as severe as their onset had been furious. Thus the enemy's design recoiled on himself, for the cavalry, by the general's order, wheeled round from the front of the battle, and attacked the enemy's rear. Then, indeed, the open plain presented an awful and hideous spectacle. Our men pursued, wounded, made prisoners of the fugitives only to slaughter them when others fell in their way. On the enemy side each man betrayed his nature: whole battalions of armed men fled before a few pursuers, while some, who were unarmed, actually rushed to the front and gave themselves up to death. Everywhere there lay scattered weapons, corpses, and mangled limbs, and the earth reeked with blood. Even the conquered now and then felt a touch of fury and of courage. On approaching the woods, they rallied, and as they knew the ground, they were able to pounce on the foremost and least cautious of the pursuers. Had not Agricola, who was present everywhere, ordered a force of strong and lightly-equipped cohorts, with some dismounted troopers for the denser parts of the forest, and a detachment of cavalry where it was not so thick, to scour the woods like a party of huntsmen, serious loss would have been sustained through the excessive confidence of our troops. When, however, the enemy saw that we again pursued them in firm and compact array, they fled no longer in companies as before, each looking for his comrade; but dispersing and avoiding one another, they sought the shelter of distant and pathless wilds. Night and weariness of bloodshed put an end to the pursuit. About ten thousand of the enemy were slain; on our side there fell three hundred and sixty men, and among them Aulus Atticus, the prefect of a cohort, whose youthful impetuosity and mettlesome steed had borne him into the midst of the enemy.


The site of Agricola's decisive victory, the hill called Mons Graupius in Tacitus' text, remains uncertain – though opinion seems to be settling on the likelihood that (despite not being as far north as the speeches of Agricola and Calgacus would seem to suggest) it was Bennachie, Aberdeenshire. Nearby, at Durno, the remains of a particularly large Roman camp were discovered in 1975. The word Graupius has no known meaning.* Andrew Breeze (Proc. Soc. Antiq. Scot. 132, 2002) suggests that it may be a corruption of Cripius, which allows a linguistic connection to be made with a cock's crest – a term which could be used to describe a mountain ridge. Dr. Breeze comments: “... Bennachie is a ridge with four prominent peaks, this supports the view (put forward on quite separate archaeological grounds) that Mons Graupius was Bennachie.”  No archaeological evidence of the battle itself has been uncovered, though, in fact, this is not a particularly unusual state of affairs – the site of Boudica's defeat, for instance, has never been found. Nevertheless, there are lingering suspicions that the battle of Mons Graupius might owe more to fiction than to fact. In a paper entitled ‘Agricola: he came, he saw, but did he conquer?’ (2005), D.J. Woolliscroft comments: “... there may even have been a battle of Mons Graupius, although in reality it may actually have been little more than a skirmish ...”  More forcefully, Martin Henig, writing in 'British Archaeology' (Issue 37, September 1998) says: “It is my contention that no such battle ever took place... the notion of a pitched battle in mountainous terrain seems inherently implausible. A battle in such a place has few witnesses and I suggest Agricola himself massaged the truth.”
Elated by their victory and their booty, the victors passed a night of merriment. Meanwhile the Britons, wandering amidst the mingled wailings of men and women, were dragging off their wounded, calling to the unhurt, deserting their homes, and in their rage actually setting fire to them, choosing places of concealment only instantly to abandon them. One moment they would take counsel together, the next, part company, while the sight of those who were dearest to them sometimes melted their hearts, but oftener roused their fury. It was an undoubted fact that some of them vented their rage on their wives and children, as if in pity for their lot. The following day showed more fully the extent of the calamity, for the silence of desolation reigned everywhere: the hills were forsaken, houses were smoking in the distance, and no one was seen by the scouts. These were despatched in all directions; and it having been ascertained that the track of the flying enemy was uncertain, and that there was no attempt at rallying, it being also impossible, as summer was now over, to extend the war, Agricola led his army down into the territory of the Boresti. There he took hostages, and ordered the commander of the fleet to sail round Britain. A force for this purpose was given him, which great panic everywhere preceded. Agricola himself, leading his infantry and cavalry by slow marches, so as to overawe the newly-conquered tribes by the very tardiness of his progress, brought them into winter quarters, while the fleet with propitious breezes and great renown entered the harbour of Trucculum, whence it had coasted along the whole length of the adjacent shore, and to which it now had returned.”
‘Agricola’ Chapters 35–38


Dio Cassius, in the abridgement of Xiphilinus, presents a highly compressed account of Agricola's tenure in Britain:
“Meanwhile war had again broken out in Britain, and Gnaeus Julius Agricola overran the whole of the enemy's territory there. He was the first of the Romans whom we know to discover the fact that Britain is surrounded by water. It seems that some soldiers rebelled, and after slaying the centurions and a military tribune took refuge in boats, in which they put out to sea and sailed round the western portion of the country just as the wind and the waves chanced to carry them; and without realizing it, since they approached from the opposite direction, they put in at the camps on the first side again. Thereupon Agricola sent others to attempt the voyage around Britain, and learned from them, too, that it was an island. As a result of these events in Britain Titus received the title of imperator for the fifteenth time.”
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXVI Chapter 20
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 “opened up new tribes, our ravages on the native population being carried as far as the Taus [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’, 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), Birgitta Hoffmann said:
“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 79AD. 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 83/84AD. 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 actually appear to be a circumnavigation of just northern Britain, not the whole island.* Earlier in the ‘Agricola’, Tacitus makes another reference to the voyage:
“The form of the entire country has been compared by Livy and Fabius Rusticus, the most graphic among ancient and modern historians, to an elongated shoulder-blade or an axe. And this no doubt is its shape without Caledonia [i.e. up to the Forth-Clyde line], so that it has become the popular description of the whole island. However, if you cross [into Caledonia] there is a large and irregular tract of land which juts out from its furthest shores, tapering off in a wedge-like form. Round these coasts of remotest ocean the Roman fleet then for the first time sailed, ascertained that Britain is an island, and simultaneously discovered and conquered what are called the Orcades [Orkneys], islands hitherto unknown. Thule too was descried, their instructions taking them only so far: besides, winter was approaching.”
‘Agricola’ Chapter 10
It had been taken on trust that Britain was an island since the travels of, the Greek, Pytheas in the 320s BC (see: First Contacts), but now it had been proven to Roman satisfaction. Tacitus, though, is not being honest when he claims that the Orkneys were “islands hitherto unknown” – Pomponius Mela mentions them in his ‘Description of the World’ (Book III Chapter 54) written c.AD43 (the earliest surviving Latin work of geography).
It was Pytheas who introduced Thule to the classical world, and it acquired a somewhat legendary status as the most northerly known country. Presumably, it was Shetland (Mainland) that Agricola's men believed to be Thule, but it may be that Pytheas reached Iceland – there are various theories about just where Pytheas' Thule was. Stan Wolfson (‘Tacitus, Thule and Caledonia’, 2002) – who argues that Shetland was the Thule of both Pytheas and Tacitus (and, indeed, “all the classical geographical sources” in between) – suggests that the phrase, rendered above (in Chapter 10), as:
“Thule too was descried, their instructions taking them only so far ...”
better reflects the Latin when rendered:
“A close examination of Thule also was made because they had been instructed to go this far.”*
In the existing Latin text, the sense of the last passage of Chapter 38, with its mention of the, otherwise unknown, port of Trucculum, is very obscure. It is generally interpreted along the lines:
“... while the fleet with propitious breezes and great renown entered the harbour of Trucculum, whence it had coasted along the whole length of the adjacent shore, and to which it now had returned.”
The implication of this might be that the fleet did circumnavigate the whole island – returning to their departure point, Trucculum, from the opposite direction. Mr. Wolfson, however, proposes that Trucculum is the product of a corrupt manuscript, 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 in the ‘Agricola’ (Chapter 10), Tacitus mentions that, during their voyage around northern Britain, the ship-borne Roman force conquered the Orkneys, and he asserts that Britain was ‘for the first time thoroughly subdued’. Domitian was, says Tacitus, jealous of Agricola's success:
“Of this series of events, though not exaggerated in the despatches of Agricola by any boastfulness of language, Domitian heard, as was his wont, with joy in his face but anxiety in his heart. He felt conscious that all men laughed at his late mock triumph over Germany, for which there had been purchased from traders people whose dress and hair might be made to resemble those of captives, whereas now a real and splendid victory, with the destruction of thousands of the enemy, was being celebrated with just applause... To other glories he could more easily shut his eyes, but the greatness of a good general was a truly imperial quality. Harassed by these anxieties, and absorbed in an incommunicable trouble, a sure prognostic of some cruel purpose, he decided that it was best for the present to suspend his hatred until the freshness of Agricola's renown and his popularity with the army should begin to pass away.
For Agricola was still the governor of Britain. Accordingly the Emperor ordered that the usual triumphal decorations, the honour of a laurelled statue, and all that is commonly given in place of the triumphal procession, with the addition of many laudatory expressions, should be decreed in the senate, together with a hint to the effect that Agricola was to have the province of Syria, then vacant by the death of Atilius Rufus, a man of consular rank, and generally reserved for men of distinction... Meanwhile Agricola had handed over his province in peace and safety to his successor. And not to make his entrance into Rome conspicuous by the concourse of welcoming throngs, he avoided the attentions of his friends by entering the city at night, and at night too, according to orders, proceeded to the palace, where, having been received with a hurried embrace and without a word being spoken, he mingled in the crowd of courtiers.”
‘Agricola’ Chapters 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 Chapter 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.*
At the Empire's Edge    
Silius Italicus ‘Punica’ by Stan Wolfson
Dio Cassius ‘Romaika’ by Earnest Cary
Suetonius ‘Lives of the Twelve Caesars’ by J.C. Rolfe
Pliny the Elder ‘Natural History’ by John Bostock & H.T. Riley
Pomponius Mela ‘Description of the World’ by Frank E. Romer
Plutarch ‘On the Obsolescence of Oracles’ by Frank Cole Babbitt
Statius ‘Praises of Crispinus, son of Vettius Bolanus’ by D.R. Shackleton Bailey
Tacitus ‘Agricola’ based on that by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb
The surviving text of Tacitus' ‘Agricola’ is, it seems, derived from a single 9th century manuscript. In the 15th century copies were made from this ‘original’, which itself was lost. Its remains were discovered in 1902 – the beginning and end sections being 15th century replacements. At any rate, there are a number of places where the meaning of the text as it now exists is not clear. The translation used in this webpage was made in the 1860s, by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, but it has been modified, sometimes considerably, in the light of more recent scholarship.
Apparently, the correct spelling is with a double ‘L’, i.e. Paullinus.
Apparently, the correct spelling is with a double ‘L’, i.e. Petillius.
The official in charge of a province's finances.
Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD23–79), better known as Pliny the Elder (born at Novum Comum, in Gallia Transpadana – now Como, in northern Italy), is remembered as the author of ‘Natural History’, a 37 book encyclopedia, to which he was putting the final touches in 77.
The implication of this last sentence would seem to be that Agricola's predecessors had also campaigned as far north as the Tay.
The previous passage is, it seems reasonable to assume, a reference to Batavian auxiliaries – certainly, as will be seen, Agricola had Batavians at his disposal in 83. Their homeland, in modern terms, was in the Netherlands, and their speciality was, indeed, crossing rivers in full battle-kit. Although, as here, they are not specifically named, their particular skill had been crucial to the success of Paullinus' earlier assault on Anglesey, and also, during the invasion of 43, at the Medway and the Thames. Batavian cohorts were, by custom, led by Batavian noblemen, and, during the civil war of 69, one such commander, Julius Civilis, stirred his countrymen into rebellion against Rome. They were forced to come to terms in 70.
Ireland does not, of course, lie between Britain and Spain. See: British Tribes.
Quite where Agricola was operating is not clear from Tacitus' text. “That part of Britain which looks toward Ireland” is clearly south-western Scotland. However, since Ayrshire and Galloway would appear to have been secured by Agricola in the previous year, it would seem reasonable to suppose that Agricola's shipborne crossing was of the Firth of Clyde, to Arran and the Kintyre peninsula.
Clearly then, Agricola's wife had travelled to Britain with him.
Sometimes rendered as Galgacus, but it is now generally accepted that the correct spelling is with a C. This enables the name to be derived from a Celtic word meaning ‘sword’ – hence Calgacus is ‘Swordsman’.
Previously known as the Mounth, the mountain ranges lying between the Great Glen, in the north, and the Highland Boundary Fault, in the south, were, seemingly, first named the Grampian Mountains by Hector Boece (nationalistic Scottish historian and a founder of the University of Aberdeen), in the 1520s, after a misreading of Mons Grampius for Mons Graupius.
Dr. Woolliscroft is Director of The Roman Gask Project.
Tacitus makes no further mention of Calgacus. His sole purpose in the story is to deliver a speech, which is, without doubt, the work of Tacitus. Rather than being the actual commander of British forces, as is usually assumed, Calgacus may have simply been a name that Tacitus borrowed, to give to the mouth he put words in.
The Boresti is the only Caledonian tribe named by Tacitus, and his is the only record of this people. Stan Wolfson (in ‘Tacitus, Thule and Caledonia’, 2002) suggests that they are, in fact, the result of a corruption in the text. That, instead of:
“in finis Borestorum exercitum deducit”
the text should read:
“in finis boreos totum exercitum deducit”
which turns the meaning from Agricola leading “his army down into the territory of the Boresti” to him leading “his entire army down into the northern extremities”, i.e. to the very end of Britain.
Dr. Hoffmann is Co-director of The Roman Gask Project.
He suggests that:
“et simul classis secunda tempestate ac fama Trucculensem portum tenuit, unde proximo Britanniae latere praelecto omnis redierat.”
should really be:
“et simul classis secunda tempestate ac fama trux Thulensem portum tenuit; de proximo Britanniae latere praevecta omnis res adierat.”
Presumably the fleet sailed from the east coast of Scotland, in the vicinity of Mons Graupius (wherever that might be), around to the west, perhaps to a base on the Clyde. The mutinous Usipi, though, appear to have travelled in the opposite direction.
Tacitus says it was rumoured that Agricola was poisoned, adding:
“For myself, I have nothing which I should venture to state for fact.”
‘Agricola’ Chapter 43
According to Xiphilinus' abridgement of Dio Cassius, however, there is no doubt:
“... he was murdered by Domitian ...”
Dio Cassius (Xiphilinus) ‘Romaika’ Epitome of Book LXVI Chapter 20
Suetonius says that:
“The people received the news of his death with indifference, but the soldiers were greatly grieved ... The senators, on the contrary, were so overjoyed that they raced to fill the House, where they did not refrain from assailing the dead emperor with the most insulting and stinging kind of outcries. They even had ladders brought and his shields and images torn down before their eyes and dashed upon the ground; finally they passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased, and all record of him obliterated.”
‘Lives of the Twelve Caesars’ Domitian Chapter 23
Plutarch (c.AD45–c.120) was born, and lived most of his life, in the Greek town of Chaeronea, about twenty miles east of Delphi.
“He [Titus] served as military tribune both in Germany and in Britain, winning a high reputation for energy and no less for integrity, as is evident from the great number of his statues and busts in both those provinces and from the inscriptions they bear.”
‘Lives of the Twelve Caesars’ The Deified Titus Chapter 4
Titus and Agricola were of similar age, so it is quite possible that they were both military tribunes in Britain at the time of the Boudican revolt.
In the poem by Statius (published c.95), in which the deeds of, Agricola's predecessor, Vettius Bolanus (governed 69–71) are recalled, there appears the phrase:
“... in what greatness he entered Thule darkling in the waves of sunset, where Hyperion comes aweary, bearing his commission ...”
‘Praises of Crispinus, son of Vettius Bolanus’
It is extremely unlikely that Bolanus ventured as far as Shetland. Statius' use of the name Thule may well have been understood by his audience as poetic shorthand for the north of Britain in general. This would certainly seem to be the meaning intended by, a contemporary of Statius, Silius Italicus:
“... the blue-painted native of Thule, when he fights, drives around the close-packed ranks in his scythe-bearing chariot.”
‘Punica’ Book XVII
The actual word Silius uses for ‘chariot’ is ‘covinno’.
Pomponius Mela:
“They [the Britons] make war not only on horseback or on foot but also from two-horse chariots and cars armed in the Gallic fashion – they call them covinni ” – on which they use axles equipped with scythes.”
‘Description of the World’ Book III Chapter 52
Tacitus calls the British charioteers at Mons Graupius ‘covinnarii’ (unlike Julius Caesar, who called the British charioteers he encountered ‘essedarii’), but he (like Caesar) makes no mention of blades attached to the chariots' axles – surely he would have done if they were present. Indeed, there are no recorded instances, anywhere, of Britons using scythed battle chariots. Neither is there any archaeological evidence of them. In short, they are almost certainly a myth.
Tiberius Catius Asconius Silius Italicus (c.26–c.101) completed his epic poem, ‘Punica’, in about 98. Running to 17 books, it is the longest (and, it is often said, the dullest) surviving Roman poem.