Tacitus, Agricola XXIX-XXXII

Calgacus’s speech against Rome.
Name of the author: 
98 CE
Literary genre: 
Biography, Eulogy / Panegyric and History
Title of work: 

For a general introduction to Tacitus’s biography and the Agricola, see Tacitus, Agricola XXI.

The text presented here is an excerpt from the part of the work narrating Agricola’s governorship in Britain from 77 to 84 CE (X-XXXVIII). More precisely, it deals with the military operations led by Agricola in 83 CE when the Roman army reached Mons Graupius (a mountain chain crossing modern Scotland from north-east to south-west) where the Caledonians had withdrawn to. Our text is the invented speech that Tacitus assigned to the chief of the Caledonians, Calgacus, before the beginning of the final confrontation between the two armies.

First, it is important to recall that Calgacus’s speech is the second speech in the Agricola that Tacitus assigns to Britons (there is also the collective speech of the Briton leaders in XV.1-3). These speeches fit in with a literary exercise followed by many Roman authors and which consisted of inventing anti-Roman criticisms and in putting these attacks in the mouths of barbarian opponents (studied in Adler, Valorizing the Barbarians, but the author does not deal at length with Calgacus’s speech). Tacitus was not the first author to make such a kind of rhetorical exercise. He may have been inspired by previous narratives of this kind, as for instance by the invented speech that Caesar puts in the mouth of the Arvernian leader Critognatus (Caesar, The Gallic War VII.77), by the word that Sallust assigns to Jugurtha or to Mithridates (Sallust, The War with Jugurtha LXXXI.1; see the letter of Mithridates VI, addressed to the Parthian king, that Sallust composed, Sallust, Histories VI [CUF] = IV.60 [new Loeb edition] = Sallust, Letter of Mithridates; the references given in the commentary are those of the new Loeb edition), or by the various anti-Roman speeches of enemies of Rome invented by Trogus Pompeius (see especially that assigned to Mithridates in Justin, Epitome of the Philippic Histories of Pompeius Trogus XXXVIII.3.10-7.10). Tacitus fits in with this tradition, not only in the Agricola, but also in his following works. He also composed speeches that he assigned to Civilis, the leader of the Batavian rebellion in 69 CE (Histories IV.14.2-4; 32.2-3), to Caracatus, the Briton chief that led the resistance against the Roman armies of Claudius (Annals XII.34), or to the Briton queen, Boudica (Annals XIV.35) (see Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 237; for a comparison of these speeches, see Rutherford, “Voices”). If Ronald Syme suggested that the subversive attacks of Tacitus’s Calgacus against Rome could reflect Tacitus’s awareness of the “double face of Roman rule,” especially regarding the fact that Roman peace was also a synonym for violence (Syme, Tacitus, p. 528-529), it seems preferable to understand this anti-Roman speech of Tacitus’s Calgacus as being part of this literary tradition of anti-Roman speeches put in the mouths of barbarians by Roman authors. Through Calgacus’s exhortation, Tacitus did not want to denounce the violence of Rome’s policy of conquests, as it would totally contradict the main aim of the work: to praise his step-father Agricola for having masterfully submitted the Britons (in this perspective, see Adler, “Speeches of enemies,” p. 298-301; Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 20-21). This speech of Tacitus’s Calgacus has thus to be understood first as a rhetorical exercise showing that Tacitus was both influenced by literary standards and by the writings of classical authors such as Caesar or Sallust – the anti-Roman arguments used by Calgacus are analysed in the second part of the commentary. Secondly, it also takes part in the whole economy of the work: the fact that Calgacus’s attacks are virulent strengthens the violence of the confrontation between the barbarians and the Romans and gives more credit to Agricola’s victory (Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 21). Third, it is also important to not consider this speech of Calgacus only in the framework of the narrative of the confrontation between Roman and Britons. As Myles Lavan has interestingly remarked, this speech – as also for the whole work of Agricola – cannot be analysed as a strict expression of Roman imperial ideology, more particularly of Roman imperialism. Many elements of the Agricola prove that connections 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. It is particularly the case of the metaphor of enslavement – which we will study in the first part of this commentary –, a metaphor that pervades the Agricola, not only the narrative of the conquest of Britain, but also the introductive and conclusive parts (Lavan, Slaves, p. 129-142). The narrative of the conquest of Britain is made to serve contemporary purposes, especially to condemn Domitian’s oppression of senators and, indirectly, to enable Tacitus to prove that, even if he had accomplished a large part of his career under Domitian, he condemned most of his actions. Even if this commentary will study more particularly elements related to the way Tacitus represents, through the voice of an enemy of Rome, Rome’s policy of conquests and submission of foreigners, it shall keep in mind the important role played by the condemnation of Domitian in the whole work.

As many anti-Roman speeches assigned by Roman authors to barbarians, Calgacus’s speech is structured by the dichotomy between freedom (libertas), and enslavement or slavery (servitus). This is confirmed by the many occurrences of these terms in the speech: four occurrences of libertas, six occurrences of servitus or of words derived from the verb servire (be the slave of/be enslaved by). The fact that the argumentation of Calcagus’s speech is mainly based on this opposition between freedom and slavery clearly recalls another famous speech that follows the same pattern, the one that Critognatus pronounced in Caesar’s Gallic War, before the decisive battle of Alesia (on the influence of this work on Tacitus, see Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 29; see Caesar, The Gallic War VII.77).
As could be expected from a speech pronounced by an enemy of Rome, Calgacus presents freedom as the ideal state the Britons would reach in case of victory against Rome. For instance, he asserts that only the unity among Britons will lead them to preserve their freedom, libertas (XXX.1). This appeal to unity is reinforced by the fact that Calgacus is the only Briton in the whole work who refers to Britannia as being a single entity (see Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 238). However, in a large part of his speech, Calgacus refers to freedom in connection with the condition of the Caledonians. For instance, in XXX.2, he highlights the contrast between the Calcedonians and the other Britons who can see the enslaved shores, that is the coasts of Gaul. His main argument is that the Calcedonians are the very last men in Britain who can still pretend to know what true freedom is. Actually, in various parts of his speech, Calgacus insists on the remoteness of Calcedonia, remoteness which guarantees the prestigious autochthony of the region, and explains that the Calcedonians had not been threatened by the Romans yet (XXX.1-3). This remoteness of Calcedonia is also presented as a further advantage for its inhabitants as, because of the newness and the strangeness of the region for the Romans, they would probably lose their ability to fight (XXXII.2). Calgacus thus asserts that it is precisely because the Calcedonians are “whole” (integri), that is that they are not debilitated by Roman enslavement, and “indomitable”(indomiti), that they are the best candidates to defeat the Romans (XXXI.4; on the use of integri and on a possible parallel with a passage of the exordia assimilating Domitian’s reign with a “debilitating disease,” see Lavan, Slaves, p. 133-135).

If Calgacus presents the Calcedonians as the last truly free people and explains that the fate of Britain depends on its capacity to fight for its freedom, he puts this in relation to the vocabulary of enslavement with Rome’s past and future conquests. Submission to Rome is thus presented by Calgacus as being equivalent to the harshest slavery.
This metaphor of enslavement is developed through various images. For instance, when Calgacus asserts that the Calcedonians did not see the “shores of slavery,” that is Gallic coasts, contrary to the other Britons, he adds that the eyes of the latter remained “uninfected by the contagion of mastery” (a contactu dominationis inviolatos, XXX.2). It is clear here that the noun contactus and the adjective inviolatus are related to medical vocabulary, more particularly to the lexicon of the epidemic. Such kinds of comparison highlights the violence of Rome’s mastery. According to the words of Myles Lavan: “The condition of provincial slavery is like a disease that can infect those who so much as look upon it” (Lavan, Slaves, p. 135). However, it is interesting to note that, in Roman sources, the analogy between Rome’s conquests or domination and epidemic was not something limited to speeches pronounced by enemies of Rome. Roman authors, such as Florus, used the term contagium to refer to Rome’s expansionism in Italy so as to stress its inexorable and violent nature (Florus, Epitome of the Roman History of Titus Livius I.3.8). Returning to the extent to which Calgacus’s speech uses the analogy between Roman dominion and enslavement of newly conquered peoples, we can see that the Romans not only absorb all the material wealth of the Britons (see later), but they also take their men to serve in their armies and reduce their wife to sexual slaves: “… our wives and sisters, even if they escape the soldiers’ lust (hostilem libidinem), are defiled (polluuntur) by so called friends and guests” (XXXI.1). The verb polluo clearly refers here to the fact that British women were raped by Roman soldiers, even if the latter are presented in a more favourable light as friends or guests. By using these two terms, Calgacus may mock the official Roman rhetoric used to characterise Rome’s relationships with foreign communities. The fact that military operations are presented as something that did not concern only male Britons is part of Calgacus’s argument that Rome wanted to subdue and debase all the population (denunciations of sexual abuses by Romans appears also in Civilis’s speech in Histories IV.14.1, and in Boudica’s speech in Annales XIV.35.1; see Phang, “Intimate conquests,” p. 213-214; Adler, “Speeches of enemies,” p. 300). The presentation of rapes perpetrated by Roman soldiers as a “motif of reproach” in the violence of Rome’s policy of conquest appears also in Jewish sources (Phang, “Intimate conquests,” p. 214). Actually in the Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 11:12, the author(s) discuss the status of a priest’s wife who has been embraced by a soldier (see Isaac, The Limits, p. 117). In a different perspective, in his account of the siege of Masada in 73 CE, Josephus explicitly says that the Jews expected that Roman soldiers would sexually assault their women and enslave the children (Josephus, Jewish War VII.334).
The motif of sexual defilement of the women of the enemies as a symbol of Roman victory and mastery was not exclusively used by the foreigners who wanted to denounce Rome’s excessive violence. Official imperial art itself promoted the association made between Roman conquest and sexual domination and violence (see Phang, “Intimate conquests,” p. 217-220). Many reliefs of the Sebasteion from Aphrodisias show that Rome wanted to represent her power of conquest through very virile imagery: the emperor is represented as a masculine figure dominating, most of the time in a posture of sexual aggression, a female personification of a province. One can particularly highlight the relief in which Claudius violently subdues a female and half-naked representation of Britain (the connection between the sources is made in Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 244; about the representation of women in the Sebasteion see Phang, “Intimate conquests,” p. 217).
The connection between Roman conquests or domination and enslavement is made all the more explicit by Calgacus when he compares the situation of Britain with that of a slave household to prove that the Romans are the worst masters Britons could ever have (XXXI.2). Roman domination of the Britons is thus presented as the worst enslavement they could impose on a people as it will finally lead to their entire destruction: “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 (in excidium petimur)…” (XXXI.2). However, as we have previously noted, by putting the idea that Roman submission of reluctant foreigners logically led the future provincials to endure the harshest enslavement in the mouth of Calgacus, Tacitus did not innovate. Actually, as shown by Myles Lavan, Tacitus was used to applying the language of slavery to qualify Roman rule or conquests, especially in Gaul and in Britain. When Tacitus is the narrator, he often claims or implies that servility is the logical consequence for foreign peoples submitted to Rome’s rule (see the examples taken from the Agricola quoted in Lavan, Slaves, p. 95, 127-131). Thus, he chose to use a very common motif of the rhetoric of provincial slavery which was wide-spread in Roman circles, but he adapted it to the hyper-critical tone of Calgacus’s exhortation by highlighting a more prevalent aspect, the idea of the destruction of the Britons. Finally, it is also important to recall that, in the whole work, Tacitus did not limit the use of the rhetoric of slavery to the peoples conquered by Rome, in the exordium, he explicitly presents the senators under Domitian as being reduced to servility (see II.3; Lavan, Slaves, p. 131-132).

In this second part of the commentary, analysis of some anti-Roman motifs chosen by Tacitus’s Calgacus is presented.
First, Calgacus criticizes Roman greed for conquests and riches. Actually the Romans are presented as “thieves of the world” (raptores orbis, XXX.4), an expression that we find in other statements made by enemies of Rome composed by Roman authors (see Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 242). For instance, in the narrative of the confrontations between the Samnites and the Romans during the Social War, Velleius Paterculus makes the Samnite leader Pontius Telesinus say that “there will never vanish the wolves [i.e. the Romans] who steal the freedom to Italy” (numquam defuturos raptores Italicae libertatis lupos, Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History II.27.1). A similar expression appears also in a speech that Silius Italicus assigns to Hannibal, when the Punic leader assimilates Rome to a “Dardanian thief” (raptor Dardanus, Silius Italicus, Punica IX.200). Finally the expression raptores orbis used by Calgacus may echo another expression originally used by Sallust in the invented Letter of Mithridates, when Mithridates assimilates the Romans to latrones gentium, the“robbers of nations” (Sallust, Histories IV.60.22-23; an expression latter reused by Trogus Pompeius in his invented speech of Mithridates, see Justin, Epitome of the Philippic Histories of Pompeius Trogus XXXVIII.4.2). Rome’s greed for conquests is highlighted by the fact that neither Western nor Eastern territories have satisfied Rome’s appetite for conquests, which is why they now go towards the Northern part of the world, according to Calgacus. This kind of idea also clearly echoes the letter of Sallust’s Mithridates, in which the king of Pontus claims that, after the Ocean had stopped the Romans in their westward progress, they turned their arms towards the East (Sallust, Histories IV.60.17; Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 243).

Another anti-Roman argument used by Calgacus is related to their thirst for power that led them to oppress every people they conquer. This argument is developed when Calgacus says: “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” (XXX.4). The paupers here mentioned are the Caledonians as he latter says that they can provide no field, no mine, no harbour for the Romans (XXXI.2). The assimilation of Rome to a tyrannical power appears also when Calgacus alludes to the superbia of the Romans, a vice generally attributed to tyrants: “… 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 (infestiores Romani), whose arrogance (superbiam) you will not escape by humility and restraint (per obsequium ac modestiam )…” . Once again the lexicon of the epidemic is put in relation with the Romans. In this passage, Calcagus seems to exclude any possibility of the Britons accommodating the Romans. Finally, concerning the identification of Romans with tyrants, we can add that it is also a commonplace of the rhetoric of Rome’s enemies. For instance, in the invented speech that Trogus Pompeius (as we know it from Justin) assigned to Mithridates, the Romans are assimilated to wolves: “being insatiable of blood and tyranny, and eager and hungry after riches” (Justin, Epitome of the Philippic Histories of Pompeius Trogus XXXVIII.6.8).

Another motif that Calgacus uses to criticise Rome is the fact that they are a deceitful power. This is illustrated by the fact that imperial rhetoric is fickle, as noted above with the names of friend or guest. One could add that condemnation of Roman hypocrisy was also a commonplace of the rhetoric of enemies of Rome as for instance when Ariovistus denounces the fact that Roman friendship is nothing else than an “damaging loss” (see Caesar, The Gallic War I.44.5 commented in Caesar, The Gallic War I.45). Betrayals of friendships and alliances are also presented as a Roman characteristic in Mithridates’s invented letter and speech written by Sallust and Trogus Pompeius (Sallust, Histories IV.60.5-9, 17; Justin, Epitome of the Philippic Histories of Pompeius Trogus XXXVIII.5; about Roman hypocrisy, see Griffin, “Iure plectimur,” p. 96-98). Calgacus interestingly insists on the fact that the Roman rhetoric of peace is totally fickle: “To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname ‘empire’, and where they make a desert, they call it with the false name of ‘peace’ (atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant)” (XXX.5, we modify Kline’s translation). By embellishing their plunders by the name of imperium and by promising the next coming of pax, Romans are inventing “false labels” (expression taken from Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 20). Calgacus’s criticism of the fact that violence was constitutive of Roman power and that the Romans had a false conception of peace may be understood as being a logical distortion of Roman official speeches praising Rome’s power and peace. Actually, as Anthony Woodman and Christina Kraus rightly recall, for the Romans, peace was intrinsically connected to victories at war and to the subjection of former enemies. This idea appears clearly in Res Gestae XIII. It was also largely accepted that the Romans’ destiny was to rule and civilise the peoples who submitted to them, and also to suppress the peoples who would resist (this idea appears in Virgil, Aeneid VI.851-853; Woodman, Kraus, Tacitus, p. 243). This Roman conception of peace appears in the Agricola when Tacitus recalls what happened at the end of the second military campaign during the summer of 78 CE: “Yet when he (i.e. Agricola) had sufficiently overawed them, by sparing them he again revealed the attractions of peace” (XX.2: … atque ubi satis terruerat, parcendo rursus invitamenta pacis ostentare, trans. Anthony S. Kline). The idea that the Britons feared Roman peace because they perceived it as fake, is also developed in Annals XII.33, when, after the invasion of Claudius, the Britons decided to unite themselves to fight the Romans because they “feared” (metuebant) their peace (see Lavan, “Peace and Empire,” p. 113, n. 15). Thus, Calgacus interestingly distorts the official Roman discourse surrounding the notion of peace to present it as a lure, the aim of which was to seduce foreign peoples before subduing them harshly.

The last aspect of Calgacus’s criticism of the Romans is that he justifies the invincibility of the Romans by the disunity of their enemies, and thus undermines the former’s virtus. The sentence “Or do you believe that the Romans have the same degree of manliness in war (virtutem in bello) as they have of indiscipline in peacetime (in pace lasciviam) ?” is highly provocative (XXXII.1, translation proposed in Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 250). By highlighting the opposition between the virtus and the lascivia, Calgacus implies that the Romans are first and foremost depraved men (the reuse by Tacitus of the Sallustian leitmotiv that Roman peace is intrinsically connected with some kind of moral decadence, is further developed in Tacitus, Agricola XXI). The main aim of Calgacus is simple, to prove that the Romans have been victorious until now only because of the disunity of their former enemies. For him, the Britons should defeat the Romans because, as he says in the previous sentence, the Calcedonians were viri, that is they were the truly courageous and virile protagonists of the confrontation (about this last point, see Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 250). Calgacus pursues his demonstration by arguing that the Romans are doomed to fail, because of the heterogeneity of origin of the provincials composing their troops (XXXII.1). Such an idea is repeated slightly later:“most of [the Romans] have either no fatherland or another one” (XXXII.2: aut nulla plerisque patria aut alia est). In other words, the men who remembered where they came from did not come from Italy (Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 252). For Calgacus, all the provincials enlisted in auxiliary cohorts would desert sooner or later. Such an argument had been used already in a speech attributed to Hannibal by Livy (Livy, History of Rome XXI.43.14-18; quoted in Woodman and Kraus, Tacitus, p. 251). Roman legions are absolutely not mentioned in the speech of Calgacus. His aim is to deride the Roman armies by giving the impression that they are some kind of heterogonous gathering of foreigners reduced to a slavish status. However, in the following narrative of the battle, Roman legions have a secondary role  to the auxiliary cohorts who actually fought the Britons (Lavan, Slaves, p. 137-138). This presentation of the decisive battle is of course a way to neutralise the arguments used by Calgacus – the auxiliary troops did not desert –, but it also takes part in a larger reflection that pervades the whole work, namely that the provincials submitted to Rome’s rule accepted their slavish role and became the partners of Roman domination (Lavan, Slaves, p. 135-139; see Tacitus, Agricola XXI).

To conclude, if the metaphor of Roman mastery appears as a very appropriate motif in Calgacus’s speech, as in various other speeches of enemies of Rome, in order to denounce the violence of Roman rule, it is clear however that the use of this metaphor was not specific to the rhetoric of Rome’s enemies. Tacitus, as many Roman senators before him until Cicero, was totally influenced by this vocabulary of Roman mastery. All these Roman authors played an important role in relaying the idea that the Romans were the masters of the world and that most of the provincials conquered and then ruled by Rome had to be maintained in a slavish condition. When Tacitus gave voice to an enemy of Rome in his narrative, he did not put himself in the place of the barbarian to imagine what could have been his real arguments. Such an approach would have been far too critical towards Rome and excessively emboldening a perception of the barbarians. As many Roman authors before him who composed invented speeches of Roman enemies, Tacitus wrote Calgacus’s speech by adapting arguments and motifs which were quite common in the Roman rhetoric related to the relations between Rome, provincials and defeated peoples. Moreover, as Myles Lavan has shown, echoes exist between the narrative of the enslavement of Britain in Agricola and the reduction to servitude of many senators under Domitian. Thus, the narrative of the conquest of Britain has to be seen as influenced by literary traditions that preceded Tacitus as well as by Tacitus’s own political context.

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

“Voices of Resistance”

Rutherford, Richardarticle-in-a-bookAncient Historiography and Its Context. Studies in Honour of A. J. Woodman Christina S. Kraus, John Marincola , Christopher Pelling312-330“Voices of Resistance”OxfordOxford University Press2010

Tacitus, Agricola

Woodman, Anthony J., Kraus, Christina S.bookTacitus, AgricolaCambridgeCambridge University Press2014

Tacitus, I-II

Syme, RonaldbookTacitus, I-IIOxfordClarendon Press1958
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