30 pages 1 hour read



Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 98

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: "Agricola"

“Agricola” is an essay by Roman senator and historian Tacitus in praise of his father-in-law, Roman general Gnaeus Julius Agricola. Written c. 98 AD, five years after Agricola’s death, the work encompasses several genres. In one sense, it is a biography, a genre that in ancient Greece and Rome could also encompass history and oratory. “Agricola” also serves the function of a funeral oration, a speech praising the deceased that is meant to provide comfort to his survivors. Tacitus’s lack of specificity regarding dates, people, and places do not meet the standards of modern historians. Thus, some scholars believe his work is best understood as a literary work through which Tacitus provides a tribute to a respected general and a meditation on tyranny and its consequences.

The Penguin Classics edition discussed below was translated by Harold Mattingly and updated and revised by J. B. Rives. Mattingly and Rives follow a convention established by an early modern editor of Tacitus who created numbered divisions known as chapters. These numerical divisions are not Tacitus’s design. Clusters of chapters are grouped around topics, as indicated below in the summary and analysis.

Chapters 1-3

Tacitus notes that it is a tradition to tell great men’s stories. However, in the current climate, it is easier to write an invective than to recount the life of a virtuous man, which he points out as a sign of how times have changed. He cites the case of eulogies written by Arulenus Rusticus for Paetus Thrasea and Herennius Senecio for Priscus Helvidius, which were “treated as capital offenses” and burned (54). Those who burned these texts, Tacitus says, may have thought they were extinguishing the Senate’s freedom and “the moral consciousness of the human race,” but erasing people’s memories is not as easy as burning texts (54).

Tacitus heralds a new era, that of Nerva Caesar, but notes that it takes time to outgrow the vices learned under an old regime that encouraged them. He says he will find “some satisfaction” in “recording the servitude” he and his fellows once suffered and “gratefully acknowledging the blessings we now enjoy” (55).

Chapters 4-9

These chapters focus on Agricola’s family lineage and early life (40-76 AD). Tacitus notes that both of Agricola’s grandfathers were “procurators of Caesars,” which he says is the “equivalent of nobility” (55). Agricola’s father was a Senate member revered for his “eloquence and philosophy” and his mother “a paragon of feminine virtue” (55). Under her “tender care,” Agricola studied liberal arts in his youth and avoided “bad companions” due to “his own sound instincts” and community (55). Tacitus recalls Agricola saying that his mother prevented him from overindulging in philosophy and encouraged a “sense of proportion” (56).

Tacitus praises Agricola’s performance while serving his military apprenticeship in Britannia, emphasizing that he focused on his job rather than using it as an excuse to engage in debauchery. Agricola was energetic and brave and chose proper role models. He learned from everything he did. Upon returning to Rome, he married Domitian Decidiana, with whom Agricola lived in perfect unity. He continued to rise professionally, but his success did not corrupt him, despite many temptations. Receiving the quaestorship of Asia during the time of Nero, Agricola understood that it was best not to draw too much attention to himself.

During the Roman civil wars of 69, Agricola’s mother was murdered and her estate pillaged. Agricola joined those who supported Vespasian’s attempt to take over the empire and was appointed commander of the Twentieth Legion, whose commander was suspected of being disloyal. Tacitus praises Agricola for showing restraint in his handling of the legion. Agricola “never bragged of his achievements,” and “credited every success to his inspirer and leader, ensuring he never cultivated envy from others” (58). After again returning to Rome, Agricola received command of Aquitania, a province in southwestern Gaul, where he continued to distinguish himself as a man of excellent morals and impeccable judgment. He returned home within three years and was given command of Britannia. At this time, Tacitus married Agricola’s daughter.

Chapters 10-17

Chapters 10-12 provide a brief ethnography of Britannia. Tacitus describes where the island is situated in relation to other regions, how it was discovered to be an island (a Roman fleet rounded the coast), and the strength of the sea’s currents. He describes the region’s climate (misty and foggy), natural resources (fertile soil, metals), the physical characteristics and background of the people (red hair, coarse faces), and their strengths (infantry) and weaknesses (“inability to cooperate” amongst themselves) as battle opponents (60).

Roman conquests of Britannia are the topics of Chapters 13-17. Tacitus notes that the Britanni “readily submit” to “the obligation of empire” (levy, tribute) as long as they are not abused or enslaved (61). Divus Claudius and Vespasian—in “the first step towards his future greatness”—led the successful initial invasions (61). A governor was appointed to the region and parts of Britannia were “shaped into a province” (61). Tacitus reviews the line of governors and their territorial gains. He also reports the native peoples’ various grievances (the Romans’ greed and lust, conscription of men) and their belief that they fought for their “country, wives, and parents” while the Romans only for “greed and self-indulgence” (62).

These grievances prompted a revolt led by Boudicca, the widow of Iceni king Prasutagus, which the Romans suppressed. Tacitus cycles through the various Roman commanders, inactivity during the civil wars, and mutiny by soldiers bored by peacetime. He praises Vespasian’s recovery of Britannia, the restoration of greatness among the generals, and the diminishment of their enemies’ hopes.

Chapters 18-38

Agricola’s governorship is the subject of Chapters 18-38, his first six years occupying Chapters 18-27.

Agricola arrived in the middle of the summer of 77, a time, Tacitus notes, when Roman troops typically rested and native populations sought tactical opportunities. Agricola gathered troops to confront the Ordovices, defeating them in an ensuing battle. Capitalizing on his victory, Agricola used unorthodox methods to subdue the island of Mona, winning “great reputation and respect” (65). Tacitus praises Agricola’s work ethic and tendency to downplay his own achievements as well as his muted response to his victories. He “enforced discipline” in his household, remained objective when making staffing decisions, chose men of strong character, and rooted out abuses, earning respect and love (65). In his ensuing campaign, Agricola’s tactics inspired fear in his enemies, after which he practiced mercy to promote peace. To make peace amenable to the people, Agricola encouraged the building of “temples, public squares and proper houses” and “trained the sons of the leading men in the liberal arts” (66).

Discussing a campaign undertaken during Agricola’s third year, Tacitus points out that none of Agricola’s forts were “ever stormed or ever abandoned through surrender or flight” (67). He frustrated his enemies by ensuring his men could withstand long winters in well-equipped forts, the season when Rome’s opponents typically made their best gains. Agricola spent his fourth summer securing overrun districts and, during his fifth, subdued previously unknown nations by taking to the sea. At the start of his sixth year, Agricola embarked on campaigns by land and sea, demoralizing the enemy, who were shocked to see the Roman fleet penetrate “the mystery of their sea” (68). Caledonian natives went on the offensive, and “[c]owards in the council, pretending prudence,” urged retreat, but Agricola marshaled his forces, which eventually broke the enemy (68). However, they retreated through marshes and woods, preventing Rome’s victory from ending that war. Roman troops’ confidence soared while the Britanni took heart that their loss was a product of chance “exploited by the general’s skill” and continued arming their troops (69).

After a digression about the Usipi—a mutinous Germanic tribe that murdered a centurion and soldiers assigned to discipline them and were reduced to cannibalism after experiencing famine—Tacitus discusses Agricola’s seventh year as governor.

Agricola’s young son died, “a grievous personal loss” that Agricola assuaged in a properly manly manner, according to Tacitus, by waging war (70). With the help of Britanni loyal to Rome, Agricola’s troops reached Mons Graupius, which was already occupied by Rome’s enemies, who finally managed to cooperate to repel their common threat. In Chapters 30-32, Tacitus reports the speech of Calgacus, an enemy leader, in which he presents the Britanni’s grievances against the Roman Empire: rape or seduction of women, conscription of boys, plundering of resources, and robbery in the form of tribute paying, among others. Calgacus encourages his warriors to take heart and show the Romans “what kind of men Caledonia has held in reserve” (72). He reminds them that Rome’s alleged might is built on a weak foundation of enslavement and the product more of their enemies’ weaknesses than Rome’s own strengths.

Though Agricola’s troops were in good spirits, he gave a speech to bolster their courage, presented in Chapters 33-34. Agricola lauded his loyal troops’ years of service to him. Their courage and eagerness for battle enabled them to make more gains than their predecessors in Britannia. He reminded his troops of the ignominy of retreat and the glory of death in battle. He told them that “the best Britanni have fallen long since,” and those the Romans would face “a pack of cowards and cravens” who were not taking a stand but rather had been caught (74).

Agricola marshaled his enthusiastic troops for battle, which Tacitus describes in detail in Chapters 35-37. The Britannic troops had greater numbers and positioned themselves on higher ground to intimidate the Romans. Tacitus remarks on the Britannic troops’ bravery but notes that their style of arms disadvantaged them against the Romans, and the Romans were able to push uphill. The rough terrain and the Britannic troops’ “solid ranks” led to a standstill (75). They mounted an offensive that Agricola intercepted, in an “awe-inspiring and grim” spectacle (75). The Britanni put up staunch resistance against the Romans’ onslaught but ultimately scattered and fled. The Romans lost 360 troops to the Britanni’s 10,000. The Britanni abandoned and burned their homes, and scouts found no troops preparing further resistance. As it was the end of the summer, Agricola began preparing his troops for winter quarters.

Chapters 39-43

Following Agricola’s success against the Caledonians, Domitian recalled him to Rome. Tacitus suggests that Domitian’s motivation was jealousy of generals who achieved success, as no subject should be seen as possessing greater skill than the emperor. Though Domitian gave the appearance of complimenting Agricola and awarding him a new appointment in Syria, the appointment never happened. Agricola’s modesty left others questioning his fame. Tacitus notes that Agricola was both denounced and defended behind his back. The gravest danger he faced was Domitian’s hostility to his subjects’ merit, renown, and advocates.

In the years after Agricola’s return, the empire suffered several defeats, and “public opinion began to clamour for Agricola to take command” (78). Tacitus suggests that when Agricola came up for a proconsulship in Asia or Africa, confidants of Domitian coerced Agricola to decline. Domitian, “his hypocrites’ part prepared,” excused Agricola from service (79).

Agricola died after an illness, and rumors spread that he was poisoned. As to this, Tacitus says that he has “no definite evidence—that is all I can say for certain” (79). He notes that freedmen and court physicians visited Agricola during his illness at a higher rate than normal, but Domitian “made a decent show of genuine sorrow” upon Agricola’s death (80). Agricola’s will made Domitian a co-heir with Agricola’s wife and daughter, leaving Domitian pleased.

Chapters 44-46

Tacitus identifies Agricola’s years of birth and death: from “the Ides of June in the third consulship of Gaius Caesar” to “the tenth day before the Kalends of September in the consulship of College and Priscinus” (89). He reiterates that Agricola was a good man whose premature death at the height of his fame spared him from living through the empire’s ignominies, both military defeats and a tyrannical emperor. Tacitus concludes by addressing Agricola directly, praising him for the “cheerful courage” he reportedly showed at his death and lamenting that Tacitus and his wife (Agricola’s daughter) were not present at Agricola’s death (81). He urges Agricola’s wife and daughter to preserve him in memory, as Tacitus’s composition means to preserve Agricola’s achievements for posterity.