On the life and character of Julius Agricola by Tacitus

Before he composed the weighty historical works for which he is famous, the Roman historian Tacitus (55 -120) wrote three short monographs – a history of oratory, an ethnographic study of the German tribes, and this eulogy of his father-in law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, one of the earliest governors of Roman Britain.

The text is called De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, or On the life and character of Julius Agricola and is a slender 50 pages long in the Penguin edition.

We get the general shape of Agricola’s career but with a frustrating lack of dates (obviously the Romans dated things differently from us, anyway), or places or other people, without all the specifics which make a biography interesting. In fact, as Harold Mattingley says in his introduction, it is more the biography of a career than a person.

What comes across more strongly than Agricola is Tacitus’s deep disillusion at the times he has lived through. Tacitus writing about the reign of Domitian (81-96) sounds like a Soviet writing after the death of Stalin.

The triumvirs were commissioned to burn in the forum those works of splendid genius. They fancied, forsooth, that in that fire the voice of the Roman people, the freedom of the Senate, and the conscience of the human race were perishing, while at the same time they banished the teachers of philosophy, and exiled every noble pursuit, that nothing good might anywhere confront them. Certainly we showed a magnificent example of patience; as a former age had witnessed the extreme of liberty, so we witnessed the extreme of servitude, when the informer robbed us of the interchange of speech and hearing. We should have lost memory as well as voice, had it been as easy to forget as to keep silence. (Chapter 2)

What if during those fifteen years, a large portion of human life, many were cut off by ordinary casualties, and the ablest fell victims to the Emperor’s rage, if a few of us survive, I may almost say, not only others but our own selves, survive, though there have been taken from the midst of life those many years which brought the young in dumb silence to old age, and the old almost to the very verge and end of existence!  (Chapter 3)

In a familiar topos Tacitus compares the uncivilised but brave Britons favourably with the tamed, and thus slack, Gauls.

The Britons exhibit more spirit as being a people whom a long peace has not yet enervated. Indeed we have understood that even the Gauls were once renowned in war; but, after a while, sloth following on ease crept over them, and they lost their courage along with their freedom. This too has happened to the long-conquered tribes of Britain; the rest are still what the Gauls once were. (Chapter 11)

In fact Tacitus is not ambivalent, he is downright hostile to the so-called civilisation which Rome itself represents and brings to its conquered people.

Agricola 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 civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude. (Chapter 21)

Admittedly the following is given as part of the long set-piece speech delivered by the barbarian leader on the eve of Agricola’s great victory at the (possibly fictitious) Battle of Mons Graupius – and it was a sign of a good orator and lawyer that he could argue all sides of an argument – still, the final phrase climaxes a devastating critique of Rome’s greed and rapaciousness which echoes other comments scattered throughout the text, so powerful it has become almost proverbial.

To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace. (Chapter 30)

Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

On the life and character of Julius Agricola, English translation on Wikisource.

Photo of Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (source: Wikimedia Commons)

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  1. Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germanics (Germania) by Tacitus (98) | Books & Boots

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