Tacitus, Agricola XXI

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The adoption of Roman culture by the Britons.
Name of the author: 
98 CE
Literary genre: 
Biography, Eulogy / Panegyric and History
Title of work: 

Cornelius Tacitus was born between 56 and 58 CE, in southern Gaul or in northern Italy (concerning Tacitus’s career reconstruction, we follow Birley, “The life”; for his place of birth see p. 233-234; Syme’s studies on Tacitus remains essential, for Tacitus’s origin see Syme, Tacitus, p. 611-624). He was born in an equestrian family, as Pliny the Elder mentions the existence of a Cornelius Tacitus who had been procurator in Gallia Belgica (Pliny the Elder, Natural History VII.76; PIR2 C 1466). Having been educated in grammar and rhetoric – Quintilian may have been one of his teachers –, he went into public life. After that Vespasian granted him the laticlave Tacitus started his cursus honorum in 76 CE. That very year he married the daughter of Cnaeus Julius Agricola (for a presentation of Agricola see later). It is largely admitted that, among the first posts held by Tacitus, there must have been a military tribunate in a legion. Anthony Birley has suggested that he may have served in the legions of his step-father in Britain between 77 and 79 CE. This means that Tacitus may have been an eye-witness to a part of the military operations he describes in his work Agricola (see Birley, “The life”, p. 237-238; Birley, The Roman Government, p. 281). With regards to the rest of his carreer, an inscription identified by Géza Alföldy as being probably Tacitus’s epitaph, mentions that Tacitus had been quaestor Augusti, that is personal quaestor of the ruling emperor (probably Domitian) probably in 81 CE, and tribune of the plebs in 83 CE (see CIL, VI, 1564 = Alföldy, MDAI(R), 102, 1995 = CIL, VI, 41106; Birley, “The life”, p. 237-238). In 88 CE, under Domitian, Tacitus became praetor and a member of the quindecimviri sacris faciundis,who supervised the secular games (quindecimviri sacris faciundis were the fifteen members of a college of priests responsible for preserving and consulting the Sibylline oracles, and for regulating the introduction of foreign cults in Rome). Then, Tacitus left Rome for four years (perhaps in order to command a legion), as he was not present at Rome when his step-father Agricola died on the 23rd of August 93 CE. In 97 CE, probably after having fulfilled another office, for instance a governorship of an imperial praetorian province, Tacitus became suffect consul (see Birley, “The life”, p. 235). During or immediately after this consulship, Tacitus started to write his first work, the Agricola. This was followed slightly after by Germania and later by his oratorical treatise, the Dialogue on Oratory, around 102 CE. Following this, Tacitus may have fulfilled a governorship in a consular province, such as in Upper or Lower Germany (approximatively between 101 and 104 CE), before he went back to Rome and started to write the Histories, a work that may have been completed around 109 or 110 CE (Birley, “The life”, p. 241; Woodman, Kraus, Tacitus, p. 11). Concerning the rest of Tacitus’s career, an inscription attests that Tacitus was proconsul of the province of Asia probably from 112 to 113 CE. Then, after the fulfilment of this mission and his return to Rome, at a date that remains debated, he started or continued the composition of his main work, the Annals (about the fact that the Annals is an “Hadrianic” work, see Syme, Tacitus, p. 465-480, 768-770; for a date of composition around 114-116 CE, see Woodman, Kraus, Tacitus, p. 11). The precise dating of the completion of the Annals – even if it is probable that it remained uncompleted (Woodman, Kraus, Tacitus, p. 11) – and that of Tacitus’s death remain unknown.

Tacitus wrote Agricola to honour his father-in-law, Cnaeus Julius Agricola, who died on the 23rd of August 93 CE. Tacitus explains that he wrote this opuscule because he could not have been present at his funeral to give his eulogy (Tacitus, Agricola XLV.6). Cnaeus Julius Agricola was mainly known for his prestigious career and the military successes he achieved in Britain (PIR2 I 126). Indeed, he commanded the XXth legion in Britain from 70 to 73 CE. Then, having been sent by Vespasian as legate in Gallia Aquitania from 74 to 76 CE, he went back in Britain in 77 CE as governor of the province where he remained until 84 CE. In 85 CE he had to resign because Domitian feared that he could become a dangerous rival (for Domitian’s opposition, see Tacitus, Agricola XXXIX).
Concerning the work in itself, it is usually called Agricola, even if the manuscripts have transmitted the title The life (and death) of Iulius Agricola. It was written after Domitian’s death, probably at the very beginning of Trajan’s reign in 98 CE, before Tacitus’s second opuscule named Germania. The fact that, in various passages of this work Tacitus criticizes Domitian’s tyranny shows that Tacitus also used the Agricola as a means to deflect the attacks of his rival who could have reproached him of having held important offices under or even thanks to Domitian (see Syme, Tacitus, p. 25, 125). Myles Lavan has tried to prove that connections may exist between the narrative of the Roman conquest of Britain and the passages in which Tacitus deals with the oppressive policy that Domitian led towards senators (Lavan, Slaves, p. 129-142). Thus, the narrative of the conquest of Britain may have also served contemporary purposes, especially to condemn Domitian’s oppression of senators. Concerning the nature of the work, Agricola is clearly an encomiastic biography (on the connection between biography and encomium, see Woodman, Kraus, Tacitus, p. 1) however it presents some original ideas. Among them, we can note the extended descriptions of Britain or of the military operations led there, and the insertion of invented speeches into the narrative. These originalities mean that Agricola is quantitatively more a historical and ethno-geographical monograph than a biographical one (see Woodman, Kraus, Tacitus, p. 3). This apparent mixture of literary genres can be explained by the necessity of variatio (rhetorical variation), and by the fact that the description of Britain and of the military operations also appear in the eulogy of Agricola. After a short exordium (I-III), the work is organised in three parts. In the first, Tacitus narrates Agricola’s life before he became governor of Britain in 77 CE (IV-IX). In the second part, the largest one, Tacitus deals with his governorship in Britain from 77 to 84 CE (X-XXXVIII). It opens with quite long descriptions of the main geographic, ethnographic or political characteristics of Britain (X-XII), and of the attempts of conquest and pacification of Britain led by some Roman leaders before Agricola (XIII-XVII). Next, Tacitus deals with the main military operations led by Agricola during his governorship in Britain (XVIII-XXXVIII). In the third part, Tacitus narrates briefly what Agricola became after he was recalled from Britain (XXXIX-XLIII). The work ends with an epilogue in which Tacitus deals with Agricola’s death and presents his life as being an example to follow (XLIV-XLVI).

The text presented here is an excerpt from the part of the work describing the governorship of Agricola in Britain. Having narrated the two military campaigns led in 77 CE (XVIII) and in 78 CE (XX) – two narratives interspersed by a passage about the good and just management of Agricola in the province (XIX) –, Tacitus introduces a short description of the policy followed during the winter of 78-79 CE, when the military campaigns were temporally adjourned. Tacitus offers a general reflection about the cultural effects of the imposition of Roman rule to the Britons. First, Tacitus presents Rome as a civilizing power bringing peace, comfort and culture to these un-civilised Britons. However, the picture gets bleaker when Tacitus deals with the inexorable decline of the Britons because of the enervating effects of some aspects of Roman civilisation. We will analyse the two parts of Tacitus’s reasoning and we will consider more particularly the connection that he makes between the degeneration of mores and the adoption of Roman culture.

From the beginning of the passage presented here to the words … et frequens toga, Tacitus pays particular attention to the civilising effects of Roman rule on Britons who are presented as “scattered” (dispersi), un-civilised(rudes), and war-like (in bella faciles). These three characteristics are conventional ways to qualify barbarians such as Germans, Gauls or Britons (see Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 200).
The positive effects of Roman rule, as presented by Tacitus, are of two kinds: the establishment of peace (quies) and of leisure (otium). As noted by Anthony J. Woodman and Christina S. Kraus, it is quite common in an encomium to praise the man honoured for his exploits in war, as well as for his good actions in peacetime (see Woodman, Kraus, Tacitus, p. 200). However the repetition of the two words quies and otium in XLII.1 has been variously interpreted by scholars. In XLII.1, that is after Agrippa’s recall from Britain, some confidants of Domitian came to Agrippa to ask him to not take part into the sortitio, that is the attribution of the proconsulship of Africa and Asia by drawing lots. One of their arguments was to praise “peace and leisure” (quietem et otium) that Agricola could enjoy if he was not chosen as governor and sent into a province. This repetition of the expression has been interpreted differently. For Anthony J. Woodman and Christina S. Kraus, it proves that Agrippa “accustoms the Britons to two conditions which characterised his own life” (see Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 200). For Myles Lavan, Agrippa’s withdrawal may be implicitly compared by Tacitus to the Britons who slavishly submit themselves to Rome’s rule, but also to the senators who remained sluggish under Domitian’s reign (Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 141). The debate remains thus open concerning the interpretation of this repetition in two distinct parts of the work.
What is more certain however, is that Tacitus presents the construction of temples, forums and houses as the most visible and beneficial manifestation of Rome’s presence and rule. The choice of these three precise kinds of building is not a coincidence. These three kinds of buildings best represent Roman civilisation: the temple and the fora being the centres of the religious and political activities, and the houses, domi, symbolizing the residence of the civic elites. The urban model promoted by the Romans went thus against the natural tendency of the Britons to live in a scattered way (in this perspective, see Woolf, Becoming, p. 70).
Building activity is not the only manifestation of the Romanisation of Britain; Tacitus adds the appetite of the Britons for Roman eloquence (§ 2). The sentence: “As a result, those who used to spurn the Latin language began to covet its eloquence” (… ut qui modo linguam Romanam abnuebant, eloquentiam concupiscerent) is particularly interesting. The Britons’s first rejection of Latin can be explained by the fact that here, as in other Roman sources, Latin language embodies the power of Rome – note the use of the adjective Romanam and not Latinam. The idea that the spread of the Roman Empire went inexorably with the extended use of Latin appears in other Roman sources. For instance, Pliny the Younger asks one of his correspondents to make his works travel wherever the lingua Romana has reached (Pliny the Younger, Letters II.10.2; see Adams, “Romanitas’,” p. 195, he also quotes examples taken from Virgil and Velleius Paterculus). According to the words of James N. Adams: “It is not a specific dialect of Latin that is spreading, but rather the Latin language as an instrument of the imperialism of the Roman people. The Romans now have their imperium Romanum abroad, and so, as was suggested above, their lingua Romana extends its sway with that imperium” (Adams, “Romanitas” p. 196). Moreover, it is also interesting to note the contrast between the talented Britons and the Gauls who were still in the process of being cultivated. Such a distinction is purely rhetorical as it enables to give a positive image of the Britons, compared to the Gauls who are assimilated several times in the Agricola to a subjected and docile people (Tacitus, Agricola XXX.2). However, Juvenal compares the two peoples in a very different way when he ironically says that Britain has learned its eloquence from Gaul (Juvenal, Satires XV.111-112; quoted in Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 203).
The last element that Tacitus presents as an essential characteristic of Roman civilisation is that some Britons adopted the toga. The toga was traditionally connected with peace, but it also symbolised membership within the community of Roman citizens (Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 204). The link between toga and Roman citizenship is made explicit in the Aeneid when the Romans are called the gens togata (Virgil, Aeneid I.282; the expression also appears in Statius, Silvae I.6.36 but the author uses it to refer to Roman citizens with the exception of senators and knights). In addition, the connection between toga and Roman citizenship is also made by Seneca when he reproaches Claudius to grant Roman citizenship too widely to provincials and when he jokes that his aim was to see every Briton in a toga (see Seneca, Apocolocyntosis III). Whatever Seneca’s fears and Tacitus’s assessment of the fact that, at the end of the 70’s, the wearing of the toga was frequens, that is ubiquitous, in Britain, it must be recalled that only a few members of Briton’s elites were concerned at that time with that privilege.

From paulatimque discessum onwards, Tacitus develops the other aspect of his presentation: if every civilising process led first to a phase of continual improvement, it inexorably led also to a phase of decline. Thus, Tacitus’s approach fits in with an ancient tradition of Roman historiography and declamation, whose two most famous representatives are Cicero and Sallust. For instance, Sallust defends the idea that the Romans progressively ceased to be true and virtuous warriors when they started to enjoy the benefits – wealth, comfort and peace – granted by the Roman policy of conquests (such a thesis is developed in various passages of the work but see in particular Sallust, Conspiracy of Catiline IX-X; XII.5; Griffin, “Iure plectimur,” p. 106-107). In this passage of the Agricola of Tacitus, we find a quite similar reasoning. The advantages brought by Roman civilisation led the Britons to forget to be the enduring and war-like people they intrinsically were. The “seductions of vice” (delenimenta vitiorum) of Roman comfort and luxury led progressively to their distress, that is to their enslavement (servitutis) to the Romans.

The nature of the buildings or social events that Tacitus associates with vices is interesting. They have actually in common to be places where women could be charmed or that could even lead to debauchery. If public baths were buildings that perfectly symbolized the advantages and the greatness of Roman civilization because of their impressive dimensions and their degree of sophistication and of comfort (on this point see the letter of Pliny the Younger recalling the construction of public baths at Prusa, Pliny the Younger, Letters X.23-24-70-71), they were also frequently associated with porticoes as places in which men could seduce women (in that perspective see Ovid, Ars Amoris III.387; Juvenal, Satires VI.60-61; references quoted in Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 204-205). It is also a commonplace of Roman literature that dining and banquets were the occasions of transgression of social conventions; transgressions which were often symbolised by excesses of food and wine and by debauchery (Roller, Dining posture, p. 96-156). The last interesting point in this enumeration of buildings or social events symbolizing moral decadence and luxury, is that we can find a quite similar association between some emblematic Roman buildings and debauchery in a much later rabbinic source, Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 33a-b. In this text, one speaker first praises Rome for building markets, bath-houses and bridges, but another one criticizes the Romans for building these monuments for their own benefit. He thus enumerates that they build markets in which to put their prostitutes, bath-houses for their own enjoyment, or bridges to collect customs. The fact that markets were surrounded by porticoes, and that the bath-houses are here connected by the author(s) of the source to debauchery and pleasures, strikingly echoes Tacitus’s text.

In the last sentence of this development, Tacitus concludes: “In their ignorance they called this culture (humanitas), when it was part of their enslavement (servitutis)”. As Ronald Syme noticed, this is one of only two occurrences of the word humanitas in Tacitus’s entire work (Syme, Tacitus, p. 714; the other one is in Germania XXI.3; humanitas is here used in the sense of hospitality). Before Tacitus, Pliny the Elder already wrote that Italy has been “… chosen by the divine will (...) to bring humanitas to man” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History III.39). Pliny the Elder was one of the few Latin authors who used the word humanitas to refer to the fact that Rome’s civilising process was composed of a clear cultural dimension (Naas, Le Projet Encyclopédique, p. 29-31). In this passage of the Agricola, the reference to humanitas is made in a different perspective (Greg Woolf considers it as “an ironical reworking of the humanitas theme,” a reworking which is “original, rhetorical and unrepresentative,” see Woolf, Becoming, p. 69-70). Tacitus implies that the Britons had been naïve when they welcomed all the accomplishments and benefits of Roman culture without being cautious with regarding some of their enervating and debasing effects. Moreover, the association made by Tacitus between moral decadence and some aspects of Roman culture is not only rhetorical. It is clearly part of Tacitus’s perception of Rome’s destiny, especially given the fact that, under Domitian, Romans were already experiencing moral and political decadence in Rome itself (see Woolf, Becoming, p. 69-70). The idea that the pleasures introduced by the Romans were more efficient for subduing foreigners than weapons is also developed in Tacitus, Histories IV.64.3. Finally, in the Agricola, Tacitus alludes various times to the fact that the Britons do not understand some crucial notions of the imperial discourse of the Romans (for that perspective, see Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 206). Here, they make a mistake when they consider that all the cultural commodities brought by the Romans would have only positive implications for them. In Calgacus’s speech that appears later in Tacitus’s narrative, the Briton chief implies that the Roman rhetoric associated with the notions of power, friendship or peace is totally fickle (see Tacitus, Agricola XIX-XXXII).

As it has been noticed by Myles Lavan that, in spite of the distinction here made by Tacitus between buildings symbolizing Roman rule and more luxurious buildings associated with vice and decadence,  the author probably did not mean that the Britons may have escaped their own enslavement if they had not been seduced by the latter. Actually, in other passages of the work the responsibility of Agrippa and of the Romans in the enslavement of the Britons is assumed and presented as unavoidable. Thus, the “seductions of vice” may have served as some kind of catalyst for the enslavement of the Britons (Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 128). The Britons seem thus to be presented by Tacitus as having been not only passive but also accomplices in their own subjection (idea developed in Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 135-136). This is clearly seen if we consider the impersonal passive form of the verb discedo, discessum (“they stray to”), that refers directly to the responsibility of the Britons (Woodman, Kraus, Tacitus, p. 204). In addition, as rightly recalled by Myles Lavan, the vocabulary of emotions (especially the reference to pleasures, voluptates, or the fact that they covet, concupiscere, Roman eloquence) is used by Tacitus to justify the fact that Britons accepted their condition (Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 136). Myles Lavan has tried to prove that this development about the Britons has to be understood in the whole economy of the work. Tacitus initiates in the whole work a reflection about the attractive power of the servile condition, a reflection that interlaces the examples of senator in his own day (especially under Domitian, see III.1) with that of the Britons (Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 136).

Bibliographical references: 

“Iure plectimur. The Roman Critique of Roman Imperialism”

Griffin, Miriam T.article-in-a-bookEast & West. Papers in Ancient History Presented to Glenn W. BowersockT. Corey Brennan , Harriet I. Flower85-111Iure plectimur. The Roman Critique of Roman Imperialism”CambridgeCambridge University Press2008

Tacitus, I-II

Syme, RonaldbookTacitus, I-IIOxfordClarendon Press1958

Tacitus, Agricola

Woodman, Anthony J., Kraus, Christina S.bookTacitus, AgricolaCambridgeCambridge University Press2014
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Tacitus, Agricola XXI
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Publishing date: Thu, 09/28/2017 - 20:25
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