Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (ca. AD 56 – ca. AD 120) was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors. These two works span the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus in AD 14 to the years of the First Jewish–Roman War, in 70 AD.
The excerpts below come from his biographical notes about his father-in-law Agricola, primarily during his campaign in Britannia (see De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae).
IV – Family Only Recently Elevated to the Senate
iv.1 Gnaeus Julius Agricola was a scion of the ancient and illustrious Roman colony of Forum Julii: each of his grandfathers was ‘Procurator of Caesar,’ a noble equestrian office. His father, Julius Graecinus, reached the rank of senator and was noted for his interest in rhetoric and philosophy; the same virtues earned for him the hatred of Gaius Caesar; in fact, he received orders to accuse Marcus Silanus, and, refusing, was put to death.
iv.2 His mother was Julia Procilla, a woman of rare virtue. Brought up under her loving care he passed his boyhood and youth in the pursuit of all liberal accomplishments; he was shielded from the snares of sinners not merely by his own good and upright nature but because from the outset of his childhood the home and the guide of his studies was Massilia, a blend and happy combination of Greek refinement and provincial simplicity.
iv.3 I remember how he used himself to tell that in early life he was inclined to drink more deeply of philosophy than is permitted to a Roman and a Senator, had not his mother’s discretion imposed a check upon his enkindled and glowing imagination: no doubt his soaring and ambitious temper craved the beauty and splendour of high and exhalted ideals with more ardour than prudence. Soon came reason and years to cool his blood: he achieved the rarest of feats; he was a student, yet preserved his sense of proportion.
V – Military Tribune in Britain under Suetonius Paulinus
v.1 His apprenticeship to war was in Britain, where he commended himself to Suetonius Paulinus, a careful and sound general, being, in fact, selected by him to be tested on Headquarters Staff. Agricola was neither casual, after the manner of young men who turn soldiering into self-indulgence, nor yet indolent. He did not trade upon his tribune’s comission and his inexperience to get pleasures and furloughs; rather he proceeded to know the province, and to make himself known to the army, to learn from the experts, to follow the best men, to aspire to nothing in bravado, yet to shrink from nothing in fear, to behave as one at once cautious and yet eager.
v.2 Certainly at no other time was Britain more troubled, nor its fate more critical: veterans were butchered, Roman colonies burned,¹ armies cut off from their base; one day men fought for their lives and on the next day for triumph –
v.3 all of which things, though the strategy and generalship which handled them were another’s, and though the overall direction and the credit of recovering the province fell to the general, yet furnished science, experience and incentives to the subaltern. There entered his heart adesire for that military distinction which was unwelcome to an age which regarded eminence of every kind unfavourably and in which good report was as perilous as bad.
- Only the colony at Camulodunum (Colchester) was burned; the other three coloniae had not yet been founded.
VI – His Quaestorship, Plebian Tribunate and Praetorship
vi.1 From this field he returned to the city to take up office; there also he married Domitia Decidiana, a woman of high lineage. The marriage proved at once a distinction and a stregth to him in his upward path; their life was singularly harmonious, thanks to mutual affection and putting each other first; though, indeed, a good wife has the greater glory in proportion as a bad wife is the more to blame.
vi.2 The allotment of quaestorships brought him Asia for his province, and Salvius Titianus for his proconsul; neither corrupted him; yet the province was rich and an easy prey to the unscrupulous, and the proconsul, ready for every kind of rapacity, was prepared to show any amount of indulgence in order to purchase mutual silence about wrongdoing. Here his family was increased by a daughter, to his advantage as well as his consolation, for the son he had already carried in his arms he had soon lost.
vi.3 After this he passed in quiet and retirement the year between his quaestorship and his tribunate of the plebs, and not less the actual year of office. He read aright the reign of Nero, wherein to be passive was to be wise.
vi.4 His praetorship followed the same peaceful tenor; in fact, no judicial duties had fallen to his lot. As for the official games and the other vanities of office, in holding them he kept a mean between thrift and lavishness; on the one side he was far from extravagant, but at the same time fairly close to public approval.
vi.5 Next, having been chosen by Galba to investigate the fate of gifts made to temples, his diligent inquiries brought it about that the state ceased at once to be conscious of having suffered from any other temple-robber than Nero.
VII – Mother Murdered by forces of Otho – Supports Vespasian – Given a Command in Britain
vii.1 The following year dealt a heavy blow to his peace of mind and to his home. For Otho’s sailors, roaming at large and with hostile intent, while gathering loot from Intimilium in Liguria,¹ murdered Agricola’s mother on her own estate, and plundered a large proportion of his inheritence: this was the motive for the murder.
vii.2 Agricola, after starting to render the customary dues of filial affection, was overtaken by the news that Vespasian had claimed the throne, and immediately passed over to his side. The first steps of the new reign and the affairs of the city were directed by Mucianus, Domitian being still very young and claiming from his father’s position only the freedom to do as he liked.
vii.3 Mucianus² sent Agricola to levy soldiers, and when he had displayed both loyalty and energy he gave him the command of the Twentieth Legion, which had been slow to transfer its allegiance. His predecessor, it was said, had been conducting himself mutinously. As a matter of fact, the legion had been too much even for consular commanders, and had been a source of alarm; consequently, a mere praetorian commander had no effective control. Whether this was due to his own or to his soldiers’ character may be left open. Agricola accordingly was appointed to succeed and punish this officer; by his singular self-control he preferred to make it appear that he had found the men loyal instead of making them so.
- Now known as ? in ?.
- Gaius Licinius Mucianus was the governor of Syria, who, acting for Vespasian, then in Judaea, captured Rome and proceeded to implement the orders of the new Flavian regime.
VIII – Legate of the Twentieth Legion under Bolanus and Cerialis
viii.1 Vettius Bolanus was then in charge of Britain: his rule was milder than a warlike province requires. Agricola accordingly restrained his own energy and applied a check to his enthusiasm, in order that it might not grow too strong; he was trained to habits of deference, and skilful in tempering duty with expediency.
viii.2 A short time elapsed, and then Britain received Petilius Cerialis as its governor; and now Agricola’s virtues found ample scope for display; but for the moment Cerialis gave him a share only of work and danger. Afterwards he shared distinction also: as he often gave him a part of the army to command, to test him; sometimes on the strength of a success he increased his forces;
viii.3 but Agricola never boasted of his exploits to his own credit. He traced his success to the responsible general whose agent he was: so by scrupulous obedience and modesty in self-advertisement he escaped envy without missing distinction.
IX – Praetorian Governor of Aquitania – Consul – Pontiff – Consular Governor of Britain
ix.1 When he returned from the command of his legion Vespasian of happy memory enrolled him a patrician, and then placed him in charge of the province of Aquitania, a post of signal distinction both from the administrative responsibilities which it involved, and from the promise of consulship for which Vespasian had marked him out.
ix.2 The world imagines that the soldier lacks astuteness because he governs his camp with a light heart and a certain blunt high-handedness, and does not develop the cunning of the lawyer. Agricola, thanks to his native shrewdness, though surrounded with civilians, dealt readily and shrewdly. Further, the distinctions of office hours and off duty were carefully observed.
ix.3 When the business of the assize courts demanded he was serious, keen, strict, yet more often mercifull; when he had fulfilled the demands of office he dropped the official mask: reserve, pompousness, and greed he had from the start discarded; and yet in his case, the rarest of cases, neither did amiability impair authority nor strictness affection.
ix.4 It would be an insult to the qualities of a man so great to dwell upon his probity and self-control. Fame itself, which even good men often court, he never sought by parading his virtues or by intrigue; incapable of rivalry among his colleagues, incapable of wrangling with the Imperial Agents, he counted it inglorious to succeed in such fields, and contemptible to be worsted.
ix.5 He was detained for less than three years in Aquitania and was then recalled with the immediate prospect of the consulship. There accompanied his recall the rumour that Britain was in store for him as his province, not that his conversation was ever directed to this goal, but simply because he was judged competent. Rumour is not always wrong; sometimes it even chooses the winner.
ix.6 The consul betrothed his daughter, already a girl of great promise, to me, then in my youth. On the conclusion of his office he placed her hand in mine, and immediately afterwards was gazetted to Britain, the priestly office of pontiff accompanying this promotion.
X – Geography of Britain
x.1 The geographical position of Britain and the races which inhabit it have been recorded by many writers: if I record them it is not to challenge comparison in the matter of accuracy or talent, but because it was Agricola who first thoroughly subdued it: accordingly, where earlier writers embroidered with rhetoric a theme still legendary, there will be found only a faithful narration of facts.
x.2 Britain is the largest island known to Romans: as regards its extent and situation it faces Germany on the east, Spain on the west; on the south it is actually within sight of Gaul; its northern shores alone have no lands opposite them, but are beaten by the wastes of the open sea.
x.3 Livy and Fabius Rusticus, the most graphic of ancient and modern writers respectively, have likened the shape of Britain as a whole to an elongated shoulder-blade (Latin scapula) or to an axe-head. This is in fact its shape up to the borders of Caledonia, whence also this idea has been extended to the whole; but when you cross the border a vast and irregular tract of land runs out forming the final stretch of coast-line and eventually tapers as it were into a wedge.
x.4 It was only under Agricola that the Roman fleet for the first time rounded this coast, the coast of the remotest sea, and established the insularity of Britain; by the same voyage it discovered the isands called Orcades, up to that time unknown, and conquered them. Thule also was surveyed, their instructions taking them only so far: besides, winter was approaching.
x.5 However, they brought the report that the sea was sluggish and heavy to the oar and comparitively torpid even to the wind – I presume because land and mountain, the cause and occasion of storms, are fewer and further between, and because the deep mass of uninterrupted water is slower to be set in motion.
x.6 The character and tides of the ocean it is beyond the function of this work to investigate and, besides, many have recorded them. I would add but a single word, that nowhere has the sea more potent influence: many tidal currents set in various directions; nor merely do the incoming tides was the shores and ebb again, put penetrate the land deeply and invest it, and even steal into the heart of hills and mountains as though into their native element.
XI – History and Religion of the Britons
xi.1 Be this as it may, the question who were the first inhabitants of Britain and whether they were indigenous or immigrant is one which, as one would expect among barbarous people, has never received attention.
xi.2 The physique of the people presents many varieties, whence inferences are drawn: the red hair and the large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia proclaim their German origin; the swarthy faces of the Silures, the curly quality, in general their hair, and the position of Spain opposite their shores, attest the passage of Iberians in old days and the occupation by them of these districts; those peoples, again, who adjoin Gaul are also like Gauls, whether because the influence of heredity persists, or because when two lands project in opposite directions till they face each other the climatic condition stamps a certain physique on the human body;
xi.3 but, taking a general view of the case, we can readily believe that the Gauls took possession of the adjacent island. You would find there Gallic ceremonies and Gallic religious beliefs; the language is not very different; there is the same recklessness in courting danger, and, when it comes, the same anxiety to escape it;
xi.4 but the Britons display a higher spirit, not having yet been emasculated by long years of peace. The Gauls also, according to history, once shone in war: afterwards indolence made its appearance hand in hand with peace, and courage and liberty have been lost together. This has happened to such of the Britons as were conquered long ago: the rest remain what the Gauls once were.
XII – British Warfare, Weather and Agriculture
xii.1 Their strength lies in their infantry; but certain tribes also fight from chariots: the driver has the place of honour, the combatants are mere retainers. Originally the people were subject to kings: now the quarrels and ambitions of petty chieftains divide them;
xii.2 nor indeed have we any weapon against the stronger races more effective than this, that they have no common purpose: rarely will two or three states confer to repulse a common danger; accordingly they fight individually and are collectively conquered.
xii.3 The sky is overcast with continual rain and cloud, but the cold is not severe. The length of the days is beyond the measure of our world: the nights are clear and, in the distant parts of Britain, short, so that there is but a brief space separating the evening and the morning twilight.
xii.4 If there be no clouds to hinder, the sun’s brilliance – they maintain – is visible throughout the night: it does not set and then rise again, but simply passes over. That is to say, the flat extremities of the earth with their long shadows do not project the darkness, and nightfall never reaches the sky and the stars.
xii.5 The soil, except for the olive and the vine and the other fruits usual in warmer lands, is tolerant of crops and prolific of cattle: they ripen slowly, but are quick to sprout – in each case for the same reason, the abundant moisture of the soil and sky.
xii.6 Britain produces gold and silver and other metals: conquest is worth while. Their sea also produces pearls, but somewhat clouded and leaden-hued. Some people suppose that their pearl-fishers lack skill; in the Red Sea we are to imagine them torn alive and still breathing from the shell, while in Britain they are gathered only when thrown up on shore: for myself I could more readily believe that quality was lacking in the pearls than greed in Romans.
XIII – British History from Julius to Claudius
xiii.1 As for the people themselves, they discharge energetically the levies and tributes and obligations imposed by the government, provided always there are no abuses. They are restive under wrong: for their subjection, while complete enough to involve obedience, does not involve slavery.
xiii.2 It was, in fact, Julius of happy memory who first of all Romans entered Britain with an army: he overawed the natives by a successful battle and made himself master of the coast; but it may be supposed that he rather discovered the island for his descendants than bequeathed it to them. Soon came the civil war, and the arms of Rome’s leaders were turned against the state, and there was a long forgetfulness of Britain, even after peace came. Augustus of happy memory called this ‘policy’; Tiberius called it ‘precedent.’ That Gaius Caesar debated an invasion of Britain is well known; but his unstable mind was quick to repent: besides, his vast designs against Germany had failed.
xiii.3 Claudius of happy memory was responsible for undertking the great task: legions and auxiliary troops were transported across the Channel, and Vespasian was taken into partnership – the first step of the fame soon to come to him: tribes were conquered, kings captured, and destiny introduced Vespasian to the world.
XIV – Roman Governors of Britain
Plautius, Ostorius, Didius, Veranius and Paulinus
xiv.1 The first consular governor to be placed in command of Britain was Aulus Plautius: soon after came Ostorius Scapula, both distinguished soldiers. The nearest portion of Britain was reduced little by little to the condition of a province: a colony of veterans was also planted. Certain states were handed over to King Cogidumnus – he has remained continuously loyal down to our own times – according to the old and long-received principle of Roman policy, which employs kings as tools of enslavement.
xiv.2 Next Didius gallus maintained the ground gained by his predecessors, and pushed forward a few forts into remoter districts in order to gain credit for enlarging his province.
xiv.3 Didius was followed by Veranius, who died within the year. Suetonius Paulinus after him had two successful years, reducing tribes and strengthening the garrisons: presuming upon which success, he attacked the island of Anglesey, a rallying-point of rebellion, and so left his rear open to surprise.
XV – The Causes of the Icenian Revolt
xv.1 For with fear banished and the governor absent the Britons began to discuss the evils of slavery, to compare their wrongs and inflame their grievances. Nothing is gained by submission, they argued, except that heavier commands are laid on those who appear to be willing sufferers:
xv.2 in the old days they had had a king apiece; now two kings are foisted on them – a governor to riot in bloodshed, an Imperial Agent to work havoc on property. The dissentions or the unanimity of the twin rulers are equally fatal to their subjects: the myrmidons of the one ruler or the other, centurions or slaves, deal violence alike and insult: nothing is beyond the reach of their avarice or their lust.
xv.3 On the battlefield it is the braver man who plunders his foe; but under present circumstances it is largely unwarlike cowards who are stealing their homes, abducting their children, demanding levies from them; as though they can die in any cause except their country’s. The soldiers who have crossed the Channel are but a handful, if the Britons also count their own numbers: this the peoples of Germany had done, and had shaken off the yoke, and yet they had only a river to defend them, not the ocean.
xv.4 They had their country to fight for, their wives, their parents: the enemy were fighting only for greed and riotous living; they would withdraw, as Julius of happy memory had withdrawn, if Britons would but emulate the valour of their fathers; nor should they be cowed by the issue of one or two battles: the successful may have more dash but the unfortunate have greater persistence.
xv.5 At last Heaven itself was taking pity on Britain: it was keeping the Roman general at a distance, and his army in the seclusion of another island: already on their side they had taken the step which was most difficult to take – they had opened the question for debate; and in such debates detection was more dangerous than daring.
XVI – The Defeat of Boudicca – Governors: Petronius, Trebellius and Vettius
xvi.1 Inspiring each other with these and similar arguments, the whole nation took up arms, under the command of Boudicca, a woman of royal blood – they recognise no distinction of sex among their rulers – and after pursuing the soldiers scattered among the Roman forts and capturing the garrisons, they invaded the colony [Colonia Claudia Victricensis Camulodunensium – Colchester] itself, as the local centre of servitude: no sort of barbarian cruelty was overlooked in the hour of victory and vengeance.
xvi.2 Had not Paulinus learned of the stir in the province, and come hastily to the rescue, Britain would have been lost. The fortunes of a single battle restored it to its old submission; the majority still remained under arms, being exercised by a guilty sense of rebellion and a personal terror of the governor; they feared that, for all his virtues, he might take high-handed measures against such as surrendered, and take unduly stern measures, as a man who never overlooked any injury done to himself.
xvi.3 Accordingly Petronius Turpilianus was sent to the province as less inflexible; a stranger to the crimes of the enemy, he would be in proportion soft-hearted if they repented. He arranged the outstanding difficulties, but, without venturing on any further action, handed over the province to Trebellius Maximus. Trebellius was less energetic, had no military experience, and kept the province in hand by a mild-mannered administration. Even the barbarians now learned to indulge pleasant vices, and the interruption of civil war afforded a sound excuse for his inaction; but there was mutiny and trouble when the army, accustomed to the field, became riotous and idle.
xvi.4 Trebellius, after eluding the violence of the soldiery by escaping to a hiding-place, was then allowed, at the cost of shame and humiliation, to govern on sufferance. They arranged between them, so to speak, that the army should enjoy itself, but should spare its general’s life; so the mutiny came to an end without bloodshed.
xvi.5 Nor did Vettius Bolanus either, so long as the civil war continued, distress Britain with discipline; there was the same inaction in the field, the same rioting in camp, except that Bolanus, who was inoffensive and had done nothing to earn hatred, possessed the affection, if not the obedience, of his me
XVII – Cerialis Invades the Brigantes – Frontinus Reduces the Silures
xvii.1 But when Britain with the rest of the world was recovered by Vespasian, generals became great, armies excellent, and the enemy’s hopes languished. And Petillius Cerialis at once struck terror into their hearts by invading the commonwealth of the Brigantes, which is said to be the most numerous tribe of the whole province: many battles were fought, sometimes bloody battles, and by permanent conquest or by forays he annexed a large portion of the Brigantes.
xvii.2 Cerialis, indeed, would have eclipsed the vigilance or the credit of any other successor; but Julius Frontinus was, so far as a subject of the emperor could be, a great man, and he shouldered and sustained the burden cast on him: his arms reduced the Silures, a powerful and warlike race; he surmounted not only the valour of the enemy but also the physical difficulties of their land.
XVIII – Agricola’s First Campaigns Against the Ordovices
xviii.1 Such was the condition of Britain, such the alternations of war and peace which Agricola found when he crossed over. It was by now mid-summer. The army was looking for a peaceful rest, campaigning being presumably over; the enemy for their opportunity. The tribes of the Ordovices, shortly before his arrival, had crushed almost to a man a regiment of cavalry encamped among them; and this first stroke had excited the province.
xviii.2 Those who wanted war applauded the precedent, and waited to see how the new governor would react. As for Agricola, though the summer was over, though the different units were scattered through the province, though his soldiers had already laid aside service for that year – all factors of delay and hinderance if he was to begin fighting – and although the balance of opinion was in favour of merely guarding the disaffected areas, he decided to confront the danger. He gathered the detachments of the several legions and a small force of auxiliaries, and then, when the Ordovices did not venture to descend from the hills, led his army to the uplands, himself marching in the van to inspire the rest with equal courage to face similar peril.
xviii.3 He almost exterminated the whole tribe: then, recognising the necessity of confirming first impressions, knowing that he depended upon the issue of his first campaign to terrorise the enemy for the future, he determined to reduce the island of Anglesey, from the capture of which, as I have before recorded, Paulinus had been recalled by the general rebellion in Britain.
xviii.4 His plans had been hastily formed and so, as was natural, he had no ships on the spot; yet the resourcefulness and determination of the general bridged the straits. For after unloading all the baggage he picked a body of native auxiliaries who knew the fords, and had that facility in swimming which belongs to their nation, and by means of which they can control simultaneously their own movements, their weapons, and their horses: he then launched them upon the enemy so suddenly that the astonished islanders, who looked for fleets of ships on the sea, promptly came to the conclusion that nothing was hard and nothing invincible to men who fought in this fashion.
xviii.5 Accordingly they petitioned for peace and surrendered the island. Agricola began to be regarded as a brilliant and a great man. At his entry into the province, at the time, that is, which others spend in advertisement and in courting attention, he had chosen hard work and peril;
xviii.6 nor even now did he turn his success to boastfulness, or talk about campaigns and victories, because he had held down a conquered people: he did not even follow up his achievement by affixing laurels to his dispatches; yet his very deprecation of glory increased his glory for eyes which could divine how great must be his hopes for the future when he made light of such a past.
XIX – Overwinter, Eliminates Corruption in the Provincial Government
xix.1 Be that as it may, Agricola was aware of the temper of the provincials, and took to heart the lesson which the experience of others suggested, that little was accomplished by force if injustice followed. He decided therefore to eliminate the causes for war.
xix.2 He began with himself and his own people: he put in order his own house, a task not less difficult for most governors than the government of a province. He transacted no public business through freedmen or slaves: he admitted no officer or private to his staff from personal likings, or private recommendation, or entreaty: he gave his confidence only to the best.
xix.3 He made it his business to know everything; if not, always, to follow up his knowledge: he turned an indulgent ear to small offences, yet was strict to offences that were serious: he was satisfied generally with penitence instead of punishment: to all offences and positions he preferred to advance the men not likely to offend rather than to condemn them after offences.
xix.4 Demands for grain and tribute he made less burdonsome by equalising the burdens: he abolished all the profit-making dodges which were more intolerable than the tribute itself. As a matter of fact, the natives used to be compelled to go through the farce of dancing attendance at locked granaries, buying grain to be returned, and so redeeming their obligations at a price: side roads or distant districts were named in the governor’s proclamations, so that the tribes with winter quarters close at hand delivered at a distance and across country, and ultimately a task easy for everyone became a means of profit to a few.
XX – Agricola Conquers the Brigantes in Northern England During His Second Campaign
xx.1 By repressing these evils at once in his first year he cast a halo over such days of peace as the carelessness or arrogance of previous governors had made not less dreadful than war.
xx.2 But when summer came he gathered his army and was present everywhere on the march, commending discipline, curbing stragglers: he chose himself the camping-ground: he was the first himself to explore estuaries and forests: meanwhile he gave the enemy no peace from the devastation of sudden raids: conversely by his clemency, after he had overawed them sufficiently, he paraded before them the attractions of peace.
xx.3 By these means many states which up to that time had been independant were induced to give hostages and abandon their hostility: they were then so skilfully surrounded with Roman garrisons and forts that no newly acquired district ever before passed over to Rome without interference from the neighbours.
XXI – Overwinter, Instigated Many Public Works and Prompted the Natives to Adopt Roman Mores
xxi.1 The winter which followed was spent in the prosecution of sound measures. In order that a population scattered and uncivilised, and proportionately ready for war, might be habituated by comfort to peace and quiet, he would exhort individuals, assist communities, to erect temples, market-places, houses: he praised the energetic, rebuked the indolent, and the rivalry for his compliments took the place of coercion.
xxi.2 Moreover he began to train the sons of the chieftains in a liberal education, and to give a preference to the native talents of the Briton as against the trained abilities of the Gaul. As a result, the nation which used to reject the Latin language began to aspire to rhetoric: further, the wearing of our dress became a distinction, and the toga came into fashion, and little by little the Britons went astray into alluring vices: to the promenade, the bath, the well-appointed dinner table. The simple natives gave the name of ‘culture’ to this factor of their slavery.
XXII – Agricola Conquers the Selgovae and Votadini of Lowland Scotland in His Third Campaign
xxii.1 The third year of campaigning brought new tribes before the curtain: the natives were harried as far north as the estuary of the Tay. Overawed by terror the enemy did not venure to annoy our army, though it suffered from shocking weather: time was found also for the planting of forts.
xxii.2 Experts noted that no other general selected more shrewdly the advantages of site: no fort planted by Agricola was carried by storm by the enemy, or abandoned by capitulation and flight: sallies were frequent; for they were protected against a protracted siege by supplies for twelve months.
xxii.3 Accordingly winter was shorn of its fears: each commander could protect himself, while the enemy were helpless and therefore despaired. They had been accustomed in most places to weigh the successes of winter against the summer’s losses; but now they were repelled summer and winter alike.
xxii.4 Yet Agricola was never grasping to take credit to himself for the ahievements of others: the other, whether regular officer or officer of irregulars, found in him an honest witness to his feats. Some there were who described him as too sharp-tongued in censure: as gracious to the worthy, but proportionately unpleasant to the undeserving. However it be, his anger left no secret resentment behind it, and no man had cause to fear his silence: he thought it more honourable to hurt than to hate.
XXIII – Agricola Fortifies the Forth – Clyde Line and Subdues the Novantae in his Fourth Campaign
xxiii.1 The fourth summer [81AD] was spent in securing the ground hastily traversed, and, if only the ardour of the army and the glory of Rome had allowed it, he would have found within the limits of Britain itself a frontier; for the Clota (Clyde) and the Bodotria (Forth), which are carried far inland by the tidal waters of opposite seas, are separated by but a narrow distance: this space was fortified during this summer by Roman garrisons, and the whole sweep of country to the south secured, the enemy being pushed back into a separate island, so to speak.
XIV – Campaigning on the West Coast of Scotland
xiv.1 In the fifth year of campaigning he crossed in the leading ship and in repeated and successful battles reduced tribes up to that time unknown: he also manned with troops that part of the British coast which faces Ireland, in hope of future action rather than out of fear; for Ireland, I believe, which lies between Britain and Spain and also commands the Gallic Sea, would unite, to their mutual advantage, the most effective portions of our empire.
xiv.2 That island, compared with Britain, is of smaller dimensions, but it is larger than the Mediterranean islands. In regard to soil, climate, and the character and ways of its inhabitants, it is not markedly different from Britain: we are better informed, thanks to the trade of merchants, about the approaches to the island and its harbours.
xiv.3 Agricola had given shelter to one of the petty chieftains whom faction had driven from home, and under the cloak of friendship held him in reserve to be used as opportunity offered. I have often heard my father-in-law say that with one legion and a fair contingent of irregulars Ireland could be overpowered and held, and that the occupation would be useful with regard to Britain also; for so Roman troops would be everywhere and liberty would sink, so to speak, below the horizon.
XXV – Campaigning beyond the Firth of Forth
xxv.1 Be that as it may, in the summer in which he began his sixth year of office he embraced in his operations the tribes beyond the Forth: fearing a general movement on the part of all the tribes on the further side, and afraid of routes which were dangerous because of the threats of a hostile army, he explored the harbours with his fleet. Agricola was the first to make it a factor in his resources, and it made a fine display as it followed his advance: the war was pushed by sea and land simultaneously, and often infantry, cavalry, and marines, sharing their rations in a joint celebration, magnified their several feats, their several escapes: forest depths and mountain heights on the one side, the trials of tempests and of seas on the other; the conquest of the land and the enemy by these men, of the ocean by those – here were themes for comparison and for a soldier’s boast.
xxv.2 The Britons, equally on their side, as was learned from prisoners, were amazed at the presence of the fleet: it seemed as though the secret places of their seas were being laid bare, and the last asylum barred against the vanquished.
xxv.3 The tribes of Caledonia resorted to arms and violence: their forces were large and were reported larger, as happens usually when the enemy is unknown. They undertook, without waiting, to storm the Roman forts; the challenge made them formidable. Cowards wearing the mask of wisdom began to recommend that he retire south of the Forth and leave the country rather than be put out of it. In the midst of all this he hears that the enemy are about to attack in several divisions:
xxv.4 fearing to be surrounded, since they had the advantage both in numbers and in knowledge of the ground, he divided his own army into three parts and so he also advanced.
XXVI – Night attack on the Ninth Legion
xxvi.1 The enemy, learning this, suddenly changed their plans. They attacked by night with their combined forces the Ninth (and weakest) Legion: they cut down the pickets and burst in on a scene of somnolent confusion. The fighting was in process in the very camp when Agricola, learning of the enemy’s march from his scouts and following on their footsteps, ordered the fastest of his cavalry and infantry to assault the rear of the attackers and then for a general shout to be raised. Dawn was at hand, its gleam already on the Roman standards:
xxvi.2 the Britons were panic-stricken to find themselves between two fires, while the men of the Ninth Legion regained their courage, and, no longer alarmed for their safety, fought for distinction; they even sallied from the camp, and there was hot fighting in its narrow gateway; until the enemy gave way before the efforts of the two Roman armies to prove, the one that they were rescuers, the other that they had not needed rescue. Had not the marshes and forests covered the fugitives that victory would have ended the war.
XXVII – The Britons continue the struggle
xxvii.1 The sense of achievement and the news of victory inspired the army. They began to cry that nothing could bar the way before its courage, that Caledonia must be penetrated, that the farthest shores of Britain must once for all be discovered in one continuous campaign. The men who were yesterday so cautious and prudent were now, after the event, ready and vainglorious. This is the unjustest feature of wars: everyone claims victories; reverses are attributed to one man only.
xxvii.2 The Britons, on the other hand, conceiving that they had been vanquished, not in courage, but by the general’s opportune strategy, abated nothing of their arrogance; but armed their youth, transferred their women and children to safe places, and ratified the confederacy of their tribes by conference and sacrifice. Accordingly the two armies separated with unrest in the mind of each.
XXVIII – Mutiny by the Usipii Battalion
xxviii.1 During the same summer a cohort of Usipi, enrolled in our German provinces and sent across to Britain, perpetrated a signal and memorable crime. After murdering their centurions and such soldiers as had been distributed among their companies to instil discipline, and who passed as models and instructors, they manned three galleys, violently coercing the helmsmen: making one of them join the rowers – for the other two fell under suspicion and were put to death – they caused great surprise as they sailed past before the news was abroad.
xxviii.2 Afterwards, disembarking for water and to forage for necessaries, they gave battle to various bodies of Britons defending their property, and after many victories and some defeats ultimately were reduced to such straits as to eat the weakest of their company, and after them the victims drawn by lot.
xxviii.3 In this fashion they sailed round Britain, and then lost the ships because of their ignorance of navigation. They were treated as pirates and put to death, some by the Suebi, others by the Frisii; some of them also were sold in the way of trade, and so reached by exchange of purchasers our bank of the river, and gained notoriety by the story of their remarkable adventures.
XXIX – Loss of his son, and advance to Mons Graupius
xxix.1 In the beginning of the summer Agricola suffered a domestic blow: he lost the son born a year before. He took the loss neither with bravado, like most strong men, nor yet with the lamentations and mournings of a woman. Among other things he turned to comfort to the war.
xxix.2 Accordingly he sent forward the fleet to make descents on various places, and to spread a general and vague panic; and then, with his army in light marching order, and strengthened by the best of the British soldiers – men tried through long years of peace – he advanced to Mount Graupius, of which the enemy was already in occupation.
xxix.3 For the Britons, in no way broken by the issue of the previous battle, and seeing before them vengeance or slavery, and learning at last that a common danger must be repelled by union, had brought into the field, by means of envoys and treaties, the flower of all their tribes.
xxix.4 Already more than thirty thousand armed men were on view, and still the stream flowed in of all who were in their prime and of those whose age was still fresh and green, famous warriors wearing their several decorations. Pre-eminent by character and birth among the many chieftains was one named Calgacus. To the gathered host demanding battle he is reported to have spoken in the following strain:
XXX – Rhetorical Speech of Calgacus, Warlord of the Caledonians
xxx.1 When I consider the causes of this war and our present situation, my spirit rises at the thought that this very day, and the unity you show, will bring freedom to all Britain; for united here and untouched by slavery, there is no land behind and the very sea is insecure, threatened as we are by the Roman fleet. So weapons and war, virtues to the strong, are also the best refuge of the coward. Previous battles, fought against Rome with varying success, leave the hope of salvation in our hands, for we the noblest of the Britons, dwelling in its furthest reaches, have never seen the shores of slavery, our eyes untouched by the stain of tyranny. To this day, on the last frontier of freedom, we have been protected by our very remoteness and obscurity; now the furthest shores of Britain lie exposed, and while the unknown is always magnified, now there are no more tribes, nothing but sea and stone, for these fatal Romans, whose arrogance you will not escape by humility and restraint. Thieves of the world, lacking lands now to devastate, they rove the sea. Those whom East nor West can satisfy reveal their greed if their enemies are wealthy, their ambition if they are paupers; alone amongst all men they covet rich and poor alike. Theft, slaughter, rapine they misname empire, they make a desert and call it peace.’
XXXI – Calgacus’ speech: of liberty
xxxi.1 ‘Our children and kin are, by nature, the things most dear to us; they are carried off by levy to be slaves in other lands: our wives and sisters, even if they escape the soldiers’ lust, are defiled by so called friends and guests. Our goods, our wealth are lost to tribute; our land and harvest to requisitions of grain; life and limb themselves in forging roads through marsh and forest, to the accompaniment of curses and blows. Slaves born to servitude are sold once and for all, and fed by their masters free of cost: Britain pays daily for her own enslavement, and daily nourishes it. And as among household slaves the newcomer is mocked by his fellows, so in this age-old worldwide house of slaves, we the newest and most worthless, are marked for destruction: we lack the fields, the mines, the harbours that we might have been preserved to labour in.
xxxi.2 Pride and courage, moreover, in a subject displeases their rulers: our distance from them and obscurity, even as they protect us, make us more suspect. Therefore abandon all hope of pardon, and even now take thought, as to which is dearest, safety or glory. A woman led the Trinovantes to storm a camp and burn a colony, and if success had not lapsed to inactivity, they might have thrown off the yoke: let us, whole and indomitable, brought forth in freedom not regret, show at the first encounter, what manner of men Caledonia has chosen for her cause.’
XXXII – Calgacus’ speech: of rebellion
‘Think you the Romans, then, are as brave in war as they are lascivious in peace? Our discords and dissensions bring them success, their enemy’s errors bring their armies glory. Those armies,
recruited from diverse nations, success holds together, defeat will dissolve. Unless you imagine that Gauls and Germans, and even, to their shame, many Britons, who lend themselves to an alien tyranny, its enemies longer than they have been its slaves, are swayed by loyalty and affection. Fear and terror are sorry bonds of love: remove them, and those who cease to fear will begin to hate. Every spur to success is ours: the Romans have no wives here to inspire them, no parents to reproach the deserter, and most have no other than an alien homeland. Few in numbers; fearful in their ignorance; the very sea, sky and forest, all they see around them, unfamiliar to their eyes, the gods have delivered them into our hands like prisoners in a cage. Empty show, the gleam of gold and silver, cannot terrify, that neither protects nor wounds. We shall find helping hands in the enemy’s own battle lines. The Britons will acknowledge our cause is theirs, the Gauls will remember their former freedom: as the Usipii recently deserted them, so will the rest of the Germans. There is nothing beyond them to fear; empty forts, veterans’ colonies, weak and quarrelsome townships of disaffected founders and unjust rulers. Here is leadership, and an army: there lies tribute, toil in the mines, and all the other ills of servitude, that you can perpetuate for ever, or avenge now, upon this field. Think then of your forefathers, and of your posterity, before you enter into battle.’
XXXIII – Agricola’s speech: no retreat
xxxiii.1 They received this speech excitedly, after the manner of barbarians, with shouting and singing and wild cries: then followed the marshalling of hosts and the glitter of arms, as the bravest dashed to the front. No sooner was the line of battle in process of formation than Agricola, thinking that his soldiery, though exultant and with difficulty held back behind their fortifications, ought to receive yet further inspiration, spoke as follows:
xxxiii.2 ‘My fellow-soldiers, with the power and auspices of our Roman Empire backing you, and by loyalty and hard work, you have conquered Britain. Throughout these campaigns, on every battlefield, whether fortitude against our enemies or patience and effort against nature itself was needed, I have never regretted my faith in you, nor you in your leader. Thus I have exceeded the governors before me, and you the armies who preceded you; we mark Britain’s bounds not by rumour and report, but with fortresses and arms: Britain is known, and conquered.
xxxiii.3 Often, on the march, when you were weary of rivers, mountains, marshes, I heard the bravest cry: “When will we see this enemy, test their courage?” They are here, dragged from their lairs; your prayers and effort are rewarded, all is with the victors and against the vanquished. It is honour and glory, now, to have marched so far, pierced forests, crossed estuaries, still advancing; but our prosperity of today makes for greater danger in retreat; we lack their knowledge of the terrain, their abundant supplies, but we have our sword-arms and in them we possess everything. As for me, I long ago determined that there is no safety in retreat for an army or its general. Therefore rather an honourable death than shameful life, and situated as we are safety and glory are one; nor would it be inglorious to die where earth and nature end.’
XXXIV – Agricola Addresses His Troops
xxxv.1 Even while Agricola was still speaking the enthusiasm of his men gave voice, and the close of his speech was followed by wild excitement, and they broke up at once to take their place for battle.
xxxv.2 He drew up his inspired and straining lines so that the detachments of auxiliary infantry, which amounted to eight thousand men, made a strong centre, while the three thousand cavalry were spread out on the wings; the Roman legionaries themselves were posted in front of the palisade, to be a great matter of pride in the event of victory, if the battle were fought without the expenditure of Roman blood, and a reinforcement if the others were repelled.
xxxv.3 The British line, in order to be at once impressive and alarming, was drawn up on higher ground, in such a way that the front rank was on the level, while the rest, on a gentle slope, seemed to be towering higher and higher; the war chariots, noisily manoeuvring, filled the intervening plain.
xxxv.4 Then, because the enemy’s numbers were superior, Agricola, fearing to be assailed simultaneously in front and on the flanks, opened out his ranks, although his line was bound to become thereby too long proportionately, and most of his staff warned him to call up the legions; but he was more sanguine than they and deaf to all prophesies of ill; he sent away his horse and took up position on foot in front of his auxiliaries.
xxxvi.1 The battle began with fighting at long range; the Britons showed determination and skill in evading or brushing aside the Roman missiles, while on their own side they launched dense volleys of spears; until Agricola ordered four battalions of Batavi and two of Tungri to bring things to the sword’s point and to hand-to-hand fighting; a manoeuvre familiar to them from long service and embarrassing to the enemy, whose shields were small and swords too long;
xxxvi.2 for the British swords, without points, did not admit of locked lines and fighting at close quarters. Accordingly when the Batavi began to exchange blows hand to hand, to strike with the bosses of their shields, to stab in the face, and, after cutting down the enemy on the level, to push their line uphill, the other battalions, exerting themselves to emulate their charge, proceeded to slaughter the nearest enemies; in their haste to snatch victory they left many behind them only half killed, or even unhurt.
xxxvi.3 Meanwhile, the squadrons of cavalry (for the charioteers had fled) took a hand in the infantry battle. And here, though they caused momentary panic, they found themselves brought to a standstill by the close ranks of the enemy and the unevenness of the ground; and it began to look very little like a cavalry action as our troops, who had enough difficulty in holding their ground, were pushed forward by the weight of the horses; repeatedly also straggling chariots, the horses terror-stricken and driverless, at the casual prompting of panic made oblique or frontal charges.
xxxvii.1 Meanwhile, such of the Britons as had occupied the hill-tops, still unreached by the fighting and with leisure to deride the small numbers of our men, had begun, little by little, to descend and surround the flanks of the conquering army; they might have succeeded had not Agricola, in fear of this very contingency, thrown across their path four squadrons of cavalry which he had held back for emergencies; the enemy were routed and dislodged with a fury proportionate to the confidence of their advance.
xxxvii.2 Thus the British strategy was turned against themselves, for the squadrons passed over by the general’s order from the front of the battle and attacked the enemy’s line from behind; after this, wherever the open ground permitted, began a grand and gory drama of pursuit, wounds, capture, and then – as other fugitives crossed the path – of butchery for the captive;
xxxvii.3 the enemy either fled now in armed hordes before smaller numbers, or, in some cases, according to the differences of temperament, voluntarily charged even unarmed, and made an offering of their lives. Everywhere were weapons, corpses, lopped limbs, and blood upon the ground; but sometimes even in the defeated was found the courage of resentment.
xxxvii.4 For as they approached the forest they rallied and knowing their ground began to surround the foremost and the most reckless of their pursuers. Had not Agricola been everywhere and ordered his strong, light-armed cohorts to scour the woods, like a cordon, and where the woods were thicker, dismounted cavalry, where thinner mounted cavalry to do the same, undue confidence may have provoked a serious reverse.
xxxvii.5 Be that as it may, when they saw the pursuit again taken up by an array of unbroken ranks, they broke, and no longer in companies as before, nor with thought for one another, but, scattering and avoiding one another, made for distant fastnesses. Night and satiety ended the pursuit.
xxxvii.6 The enemy’s slain amounted to ten thousand men; on our side fell three hundred and sixty, among them Aulus Atticus, the commander of a cohort, whom youthfull ardour and a spirited horse carried into the enemy’s lines.
xxxviii.1 Night was jubilant with triumph and plunder for the victors: the Britons, scattering amid the mingled lamentations of men and women, began to drag away their wounded, to summon the unhurt, to abandon their homes, and even, in their resentment, to set fire to them with their own hands. They selected hiding places and as quickly renounced them: they took some counsel together, and then acted separately: sometimes they broke down at the spectacle of their loved ones, more often it excited them; it was credibly reported that some of them laid violent hands upon their wives and children, as it were in pity.
xxxviii.2 The morrow revealed more widely the features of the victory: everywhere was dismal silence, lonely hills, houses smoking to heaven. His scouts met no one: he sent them in all directions, only to find that the traces of the fugitives pointed nowhere in particular, and that the enemy were nowhere uniting; accordingly, since the war could not be extended at the end of summer, he led his troops down to the territory of the Boresti.
xxxviii.3 From them he took hostages, and gave orders to the commander of his fleet to circumnavigate Britain; he gave him forces for the purpose, and panic already had heralded the voyage. He himself marched slowly in order that the very leisureliness of his passage might strike terror into the hearts of these tribes, until he lodged his infantry and cavalry in their winter quarters.
xxxviii.4 Simultaneously the fleet, favoured by weather and prestige, gained the harbour of Trucculum, whence it had returned intact after coasting along the adjacent shores of Britain.
XXXIX – Tacitus denigrates Domitian and lauds Acricola’s victory
XL – Agricola awarded Triumphal Regalia by Domitian who orders him back to Rome
XLI – Agricola ignored by Domitian and forced into retirement
XLII – Tacitus denounces Domitian and praises Agricola
XLIII – Agricola’s Death is Lamented and His Will Read
XLIV – More Lamentations Over Agricola’s Death
xliv.1 Agricola was born on 13 June, in the third consulship of Gaius Caesar; he died in his fifty-fourth year on 23 August, in the consulship of Collega and Priscinus.
xliv.2 … more lamentations …
XLV-XLVI – Domitian’s Reign Denounced – Agricola Praised
References and Links