Gnaeus Julius Agricola

Gnaeus Julius Agricola Governor of Britannia from 77/8AD to 83/4

Gnaeus Julius Agricola was a Roman statesman and Roman Italo-Gallic general. As governor of Britain, conquered large areas of northern England, Scotland and Wales.

We are most fortunate in that the son-in-law of this Roman general was the famous Latin historian Cornelius Tacitus, who documented the rise of the Roman empire in his justly famous Histories and Annals, but was also to immortalise his father-in-law in a biography entitled De vita et moribus Iulii AgricolaeThe Agricola.

Biography of Gnaeus Julius Agricola

Early Life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola

Gnaeus Julius Agricola was born on 13 July 40 AD in  in the colonia of Forum Julii, Gallia Narbonensis (modern southern France), then part of the Roman Empire, into a high-ranking family.

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.

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, The Agricola Book 5 Chapter 1

Both of his grandfathers served as Imperial Governors. His father, Julius Graecinus, was a praetor and had become a member of the Roman senate in the year of his birth. Graecinus had become distinguished through his interest in philosophy. Between August 40 C.E. and January 41 C.E., the Roman Emperor Caligula ordered the death of Graecinus because he refused to prosecute the Emperor’s second cousin, Marcus Junius Silanus Torquatus.

Agricola’s mother was Julia Procilla. The Roman historian Tacitus describes her as “a lady of singular virtue.” Tacitus states that Procilla had a fond affection for her son. Agricola was educated in Massilia (Marseille), and showed what was considered an unhealthy interest in philosophy.

Political career of Gnaeus Julius Agricola

Gnaeus Julius Agricola began his career as a military tribune in Britain He was probably attached to the Legio II Augusta, but was chosen to serve on Suetonius’s staff and thus almost certainly participated in the suppression of Boudica’s uprising in 61 C.E.

His apprenticeship to war was in Britain, where he commended himself to Suetonius Paulinus…”

Tacitus Agricola 5.1

Returning from Britain to Rome in 62 C.E., he married Domitia Decidiana, a woman of noble birth. Their first child was a son. Agricola was appointed to the quaestorship for all of 64 C.E., which he served in Asia under the corrupt proconsul Salvius Titianus. While he was there his daughter, Julia Agricola, was born, but his son died shortly after her birth. He was tribune (chief representative) of the plebians (the common Roman citizens) in 66 C.E. and praetor in 68 C.E., during which time he was ordered by Galba to take an inventory of the temple treasures.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola and the Civil War

In June of 68 C.E., the emperor Nero was deposed and committed suicide, and the period of the Roman civil war, also known as the year of four emperors began. Galba succeeded Nero, but was murdered in early 69 C.E. by Otho, who took the throne. Agricola’s mother was murdered on her estate in Liguria by Otho’s marauding fleet. During the civil war of 69 AD, Agricola supported Vespasian in his successful attempt to become emperor.

Vespasian had claimed the throne, and immediately passed over to his side.

Tacitus Agricola 7.2

Gnaeus Julius Agricola and the Legio Vicesimae Valeria Victrix

Agricola was appointed to command a Roman legion the Legio Vicesimae Valeria Victrix in Britain.

Mucianus sent Agricola to levy soldiers, and when he had displayed both loyalty and energy he gave him the command of the Twentieth Legion

Tacitus Agricola 7.3

He replaced Marcus Roscius Coelius, who had stirred up a mutiny against the governor, Marcus Vettius Bolanus. Agricola reimposed discipline on the legion and helped to consolidate Roman rule. In 71 C.E., Bolanus was replaced by a more aggressive governor, Quintus Petillius Cerialis, and Agricola was able to display his talents as a commander in campaigns against the Brigantes.

In 75 C.E. he then served as governor of Aquitania (south-east France) for three years, and after a period in Rome, in 78 AD he was made governor of Britain.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola as Governor of Britain

As soon as he arrived, Agricola began campaigning to assert Roman authority against the Ordovices in north Wales, who had virtually destroyed the Roman cavalry stationed in their territory. According to Tacitus he crossed the Menai Straits and took Anglesey, which had previously been reduced by Gaius Suetonius Paulinus in 61 C.E., but must have been regained by the Britons in the meantime, and forced its inhabitants to sue for peace. He established a good reputation as an administrator, as well as a commander, by reforming the widely corrupt corn levy. He introduced Romanizing measures, encouraging communities to build towns on the Roman model and educating the sons of the native nobility in the Roman manner.

From 79 – 80 AD, Agricola moved north to Caledonia (modern Scotland) where he consolidated Roman military control and masterminded the building of a string of forts across the country from west to east.

Agricola in Ireland

In 82 C.E. Agricola “crossed in the first ship” and defeated peoples unknown to the Romans until then. Tacitus, in Chapter 24 of Agricola, does not tell us what body of water he crossed, although most scholars believe it was the Clyde or Forth, and some translators even add the name of their preferred river to the text; however, the rest of the chapter exclusively concerns Ireland. Agricola fortified the coast facing Ireland, and Tacitus recalls that his father-in-law often claimed the island could be conquered with a single legion and a few auxiliaries. He had given refuge to an exiled Irish king whom he hoped he might use as the excuse for conquest. This conquest never happened, but some historians believe that the crossing referred to was in fact a small-scale exploratory or punitive expedition to Ireland.

Irish legend provides a striking parallel. Tuathal Teachtmhar, a legendary High King, is said to have been exiled from Ireland as a boy, and to have returned from Britain at the head of an army to claim the throne. The traditional date of his return is between 76 C.E. and 80 C.E., and archaeology has found Roman or Romano-British artefacts in several sites associated with Tuathal.

The conquest of Caledonia (Scotland)

In the year 82, Agricola raised a fleet and encircled the tribes beyond the Forth, and the Caledonians rose in great numbers against him. They attacked the camp of the Legio IX Hispana at night, but Agricola sent in his cavalry and they were put to flight. The Romans responded by pushing further north. Another son was born to Agricola this year, but he died shortly after.

Mutiny Of The Usipi Cohort

An auxiliary cohort of German Usipi warriors launched an ill-fated mutiny against their Roman officers in Britannia. In order to escape the cohort rushed to a nearby harbour and commandeered three Liburnian warships, which are small and quick vessels. Agricola sent the prefect of the fleet to capture them and to sail around the north coast, confirming for the first time that Britain was, in fact, an island.

He was the first of the Romans to discover the fact that Britain is surrounded by water. It seemed 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.

Cassius Dio’s History of Rome LXVI.xx.1-3 – Epitome of Xiphilinus

Battle of Mons Graupius

In the summer of 84 C.E., Agricola faced the massed armies of the Caledonians, led by Calgacus, at the Battle of Mons Graupius. Tacitus estimates their numbers at more than 30,000. Agricola put his auxiliaries in the front line, keeping the legions in reserve, and relied on close-quarters fighting to make the Caledonians’ large/slashing swords useless. Even though the Caledonians were routed, and therefore lost this battle, two thirds of their army managed to escape and hide in the Scottish highlands, or the “trackless wilds” as Tacitus called them. Battle casualties were estimated by Tacitus to be around the 10,000’s on the Caledonian’s side and about 360 on the Roman side. Satisfied with his victory, Agricola extracted hostages from the Caledonian tribes and began to march his army south.

From 81 – 83 AD, Agricola campaigned north of the Forth-Clyde line and confronted the Caledonian tribes under Calgacus at the battle of Mons Graupius in 84 AD. The Caledonians were routed, but despite Agricola’s claim that the island had now been conquered, the threat to Roman security from the north was not completely removed.

The following year, Agricola was recalled to Rome. Tacitus claims that the Emperor Domitian recalled Agricola because his successes in Britain eclipsed the Emperor’s own more modest victories in Germany. On 23 August 93 AD he died on his family estates in Gallia Narbonensis aged fifty-three. Rumours circulated attributing the death to a poison administered by the Emperor Domitian, but no positive evidence for this was ever produced.

But Agricola for the rest of his life lived not only in disgrace but in actual want, because the deeds which he had wrought were too great for a mere general. Finally, he was murdered by Domitian for no other reason than this, in spite of his having received triumphal honours from him.

Cassius Dio’s History of Rome LXVI.xx.1-3 – Epitome of Xiphilinus

Timeline of of Gnaeus Julius Agricola

  • 13th June 40AD Agricola born at Forum Julii in the Province of Gallia Narbonensis (Fréjus, on the Mediterranean coast of Provence in south France), his father Julius Graecinus was praetor in the same year, and his mother Procilla is thought to have come from an aristocratic family in southern Gaul.
  • 58-62AD Tribunus Laticlavius in Britain on the headquarters staff of Gaius Suetonius Paulinus (governor 58-61AD) during the revolt of the Iceni and the Trinovantes led by Boudicca. He subsequently served on the staff of his successor Publius Petronius Turpilianus (governor 61/2-3AD).
  • c.63AD Married Domitia Decidiana, the daughter of Domitius Decidianus.
  • 64AD Quaestor in Asia province, serving under governor Salvius Titianus.
  • 66AD Tribunus Plebis at Rome.
  • 68AD Praetor at Rome.
  • 69AD Declared for Vespasian after his mother was killed by the soldiers of Vitellius.
  • 71-4AD Legatus Legionis in Britain under Quintus Petillius Cerialis (governor 71-73/4AD), in command of Legio XX Valeria who were stationed at this time at Wroxeter in Shropshire.
  • 74-7AD Elected a patrician and sent to govern the peaceful province of Aquitania.
  • 77AD Consule Suffectus in Rome. Cornelius Tacitus marries his daughter.
  • 78-84AD Legatus Augusti Pro-Praetore in Britain:
  • 78AD Defeated the Ordovices tribe in north Wales and conquered the Druid stronghold of Mona (Anglesey).
  • 79AD Consolidated the north-west of England by forts and garrisons.
  • 80AD Advanced north-east by the eastern route as far as the Tay.
  • 81AD Consolidated the Forth-Clyde line by the establishment of forts.
  • 82AD Advanced along the west coast through Galway and Ayrshire.
  • 83AD Consolidated the area around and to the north of the Tay, initiating the building of a new legionary fortress for the Twentieth at Inchtuthil, and for the first time encountered setbacks; the Caledonians tried to storm the camp of the Ninth Legion and a cohort of Usipi mutinied and sailed around the north of Britain.
  • 84AD Advanced to the neighbourhood of the Moray Firth where he crushed the Caledonians in a decisive battle at Mons Graupius. In this year his unprecedented successes incurred the attention of the emperor Domitian, who, perhaps jealous of his success, ordered him back to Rome where he was granted triumphal insignia though not actually afforded a triumph, which was reserved for members of the imperial family.
  • 23rd Aug. 93AD Gnaeus Julius Agricola died on his family estates in Gallia Narbonensis aged fifty-three, after spending the last eight years of his life in enforced retirement.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola – The Epigraphic Evidence

RIB 3123 - Dedication slab to Titus

To the Emperor Titus Caesar Vespasian Augustus, son of the deified Vespasian, Pontifex Maximus, in the 9th year of tribunician power, acclaimed Emperor 15 times, consul for the 7th time, designated for the 8th time, censor, father of his country and to the Caesar Domitian, son of the deified Vespasian, consul for the 6th time, designated for the 7th time, member of all the priestly colleges when Gnaeus Julius Agricola was imperial propraetorian legate…

This fragmentary inscription was recovered from the forum at Verulamium, which has been alternately dated 79AD or 81, and may be taken as evidence that Agricola supported a civil advancement scheme, which he probably supervised during the winter seasons.

Vespasian and Titus both bore the cognomen Vespasianus, but since it occurs twice in line 1 the inscription cannot belong to their joint-reign (71–79): 1 could not contain Vespasian’s name and titles, and the name of Titus as well. Instead, the inscription must belong to the reign of Titus as sole emperor (23 June 79–13 September 81).

1–4.  Lines 1 and 2 carry the name and titles of Titus, and the erased lines, 3 and 4, which can still be read in part, carried the name and titles of his brother Domitian. Titus is described as consul designate, which he was in 79 and 81, but not in 80. The exact restoration of lines 1–4 depends on which year is chosen, whether 79 (after 1 July, when he became TR P VIIII) or 81 (before the news of his death on 13 September), but archaeologically and epigraphically this choice cannot be made. 79 is preferred because of the coincidence with Tacitus, Agricola 21, which dates Agricola’s encouragement of temples, fora and private houses, to his second winter (almost certainly 79/80), but this is not decisive. Titus in 79 (from 1 July) was TR P VIIII, IMP XV, COS VII DESIG VIII; in 81 he was TR P X and XI, IMP XV COS VIII DESIG VIIII. Domitian in 79 was COS VI DESIG VII, and in 81 COS VII DESIG VIII (presumably, since he was COS VIII in 82). The surviving fragments do not allow us to decide exactly how the various titles were abbreviated, or whether the form VIIII or IX was used, so there are too many variables for the question to be decided by reconstruction drawings. No fragment indicates the case of the names of Titus and Domitian, but the dative is much the most likely, the inscription being conceived as a dedication of the forum and its buildings to the Emperor by the town of Verulamium. The status of the town, whether civitas or municipium (see below), is disputed, and this inscription is too fragmentary to resolve the question. 5.  Contains the name and title of Agricola, probably as an ablative absolute, although a preposition (SVB or PER) is possible. 6.  Probably named the dedicator(s), and referred perhaps to the building(s) dedicated, but fragments (c) and (d) are inconclusive. In (c), the letters VE and the vertical stroke can be read as either VER or VEL, part of either [civitas Catu]vel[launorum] or [municipium] Ver[ulamium] (Frere 1967). The second is more likely, if we press Tacitus’ reference to the destruction of Verulamium in 61: eadem clades municipio Verulamio fuit (Ann. xiv 33). His language should be specific, since he has just noted that London was not a colonia. Fragment (d) can be located towards the end of 6, in view of its place in Agricola’s titulature (5). The letters NATA suggest the past participle passive of a first-conjugation verb (e.g. ornata), but the case-ending is not necessarily complete.

RIB 793 - Fragmentary inscription

… Agricola ..

[...  ]GRIC[...]LA COII

The second word may read COH, an abbreviation of Coh[ors] or Coh[ortis], suggesting that the stone perhaps originally included the name of the legionary cohort responsible for building the fort; it may also be read COE, perhaps from Coe[rcitio] ‘restraint, punishment’. I have opted for the imperative Coii!. The Agricola in question may have been a centurion, a cohort commander, or even one of two Roman governors of Britain, Gnaeus Julius Agricola (Praeses Britanniarum 78AD – 84) or Sextus Calpurnius Agricola (Pr. Br. 163/4AD – c.166), however, the archaeological evidence does not support either of these latter two options.

Chester1 - Lead Water Pipe

(made) when Emperor Vespasian was consul for the ninth time and Imperator Titus was consul for the seventh time, when Gnaeus Julius Agricolawas imperial govenor (of Britain)


The inscription was found on a lenght of lead waterpipe, found in peices during 1899 and 1900. It came from under a shop which stood between Eastgate Street and Northgate Street. It is believed that it was the site of the praetorium (the house of the fortress commander).

A Roman lead pipe inscription is a Latin inscription on a Roman water pipe made of lead which provides brief information on its manufacturer and owner, often the reigning emperor himself as the supreme authority. The identification marks were created by full text stamps.