The Agricola by Tacitus
Cornelius Tacitus was born around 56 AD and gained distinction as an impressive orator. The biographical work "The Agricola", written in 98 AD on the subject of the life of his deceased father in law is one of his several remaining works and is of outstanding importance in the knowledge it imparts on Britain following the invasion in 43 AD till the end of Agricolas Governorship in 83 or 84 AD. It focuses uniquely and in detail on Agricolas campaigns in Scotland culminating in the battle of Mons Graupius.
The translation from the Latin text (which itself was severally copied into competing versions in medieval monasteries) is based on the translations of Mattingly and Handford with several further minor revisions in the text by Roman Scotland to align it with current interpretations.
FAMOUS men of old often had their lives and characters set on record; and even our generation, with all its indifference to the world around it, has not quite abandoned the practice. An outstanding personality can still triumph over that blind antipathy to virtue which is a defect of all states, small and great alike. In the past, however, the road to memorable achievement was not so uphill or so beset with obstacles, and the task or recording it never failed to attract men of genius. There was no question of partiality or self-seeking. The consciousness of an honourable aim was reward enough. Many even felt that to tell their own life’s story showed self-confidence rather than conceit. When Rutilius and Scaurus did so, they were neither disbelieved nor criticized; for noble character is best appreciated in those ages in which it can most readily develop. But in these times, when I planned to recount the life of one no longer with us I had to crave an indulgence which I should not have sought for an invective. So savage and hostile to merit was the age.
Eulogies, indeed, were written by Arulenus Rusticus and Herennius Senecio-the one, of Thrasea Paetus; the other, of Helvidius Priscus. But both were treated as capital offences, and the savage rage of their enemies was vented upon the books as well as their authors. The public executioners, under official instructions, made a bonfire in Comitium and Forum of those masterpieces of literary art. So much is in the record. In those fires doubtless the Government imagined that it could silence the voice of Rome and annihilate the freedom of the Senate and men’s knowledge of the truth. They even went on to banish the professors of philosophy and exile all honourable accomplishments, so that nothing decent might anywhere confront them. We have indeed set up a record of subservience. Rome of old explored the utmost limits of freedom; we have plumbed the depths of slavery, robbed as we are by informers even of the right to exchange ideas in conversation. We should have lost our memories as well as our tongues had it been as easy to forget as to be silent.
Now at long last our spirit revives. In the first dawn of this blessed age, Nerva harmonized the old discord between autocracy and freedom; day by day Trajan is enhancing the happiness of our times; and the national security instead of being something to be hoped and prayed for, has attained the solid assurance of a prayer fulfilled. Yet our human nature is so weak that remedies take longer to work than diseases. Our bodies, which grow so slowly, perish in the twinkling of an eye; so too the mind and its pursuits can more easily be crushed than brought to life again. Idleness gradually develops a strange fascination of its own, and we end by loving the sloth that at first we loathed. Think of it. Fifteen whole years – no small part of a man’s life – taken from us. Many have died by the chance happenings of fate; all the most energetic have fallen victims to the cruelty of the emperor. And the few of us that survive are no longer what we once were, since so many of our best years have been taken from us – years in which men in their prime have aged and old men have reached the extreme limit of mortality, without ever uttering a word. Yet I shall still find some satisfaction, however inartistic and unskilled my language, in recording the bondage we once suffered, and in acknowledging the blessings we now enjoy. In the meantime, this book, which sets out to honour my father-in-law Agricola, will be commended, or at least pardoned, for the loyal affection to which it bears witness.
Gnaeus Julius Agricola was born in the old and famous colony of Forum Julii. Both his grandfathers were procurators in the imperial service – the crowning dignity of the Equestrian Order. His father Julius Graecinus was a member of the Senate and won fame by his devotion to literature and philosophy. By those very accomplishments he incurred the wrath of the emperor Gaius: he received orders to impeach M. Silanus, and was afterwards put to death for refusing. Agricola’s mother was Julia Procilla, a paragon of feminine virtue. Brought up under her tender care, he passed his boyhood and shielded from the temptations of evil companions, partly by his own sound instincts, partly by living and going to school from his very early years at Massilia, a place where Greek refinement and provincial Puritanism are happily blended. I remember how he would often tell us that in his early youth he was tempted to drink deeper of philosophy than was allowable for a Roman and a future senator, but that his mother, in her wisdom, damped the fire of his passion. One can well understand that his lofty, aspiring nature was attracted strongly, if not too wisely, by the fairness and splendour of fame in its higher and nobler aspects. In time, age and discretion cooled his ardour; and he always remembered the hardest lesson that philosophy teaches – a sense of proportion.
He served his military apprenticeship in Britain to the satisfaction of Suetonius Paulinus, a hard-working and sensible officer, who chose him for a staff appointment in order to assess his worth. Agricola was no loose young subaltern, to turn his military career into a life of gaiety; and he would not make his staff-captaincy and his inexperience an excuse for idly enjoying himself and continually going on leave. Instead, he got to know his province and made himself known to the troops. He learned from the experts and chose the best models to follow. He never sought a duty for self-advertisement, never shirked one through cowardice. He acted always with energy and a sense of responsibility.
Neither before nor since has Britain ever been in a more disturbed and perilous state. Veterans had been massacred, colonies burned to the ground, armies cut off. They had to fight for their lives before they could think of victory. The campaign, of course, was conducted under the direction and leadership of another – the commander to whom belonged the decisive success and the credit for recovering Britain. Yet everything combined to give the young Agricola fresh skill, experience, and ambition; and his spirit was possessed by a passion for military glory – a thankless passion in an age in which a sinister construction was put upon distinction and great reputation was as dangerous as a bad one.
From Britain Agricola returned to Rome to enter on his career of office, and married Domitia Decidiana, the child of an illustrious house. It was a union that brought him social distinction and aid to his ambition for advancement. They lived in rare accord, maintained by mutual affection and unselfishness; in such a partnership, however, a good wife deserves more than half the praise, just as a bad one deserves more than half the blame. On being elected quaestor, the ballot assigned him Asia as his province and Salvius Titianus as his proconsul. Neither the one nor the other corrupted him, though the province with its wealth invited abuses, and the proconsul, an abject slave to greed, was prepared to indulge his subordinate to any extent: ‘You wink at my offences and I will wink at yours.’ While he was in Asia a daughter was born to him, which both strengthened his position and consoled him for the loss, shortly afterwards, of a son born previously. He passed the interval between his quaestorship and his tribunate of the people, and also his year of office as tribune, in quiet retirement; for he understood the age of Nero, in which inactivity was tantamount to wisdom. His praetorship ran the same quiet course, since no judicial duties had fallen to his lot. In ordering the public games and the other vanities associated with his office, he compromised between economy and excess, steering clear of extravagance but not failing to win popular approval. He was afterwards chosen by Galba to check over the gifts in the temples; and by diligently tracing stolen objects he repaired the losses inflicted on the State by all the temple-robbers except Nero.
The following year dealt a grievous blow to his heart and to his family fortunes. The men of Otho’s fleet, marauding at large, made a savage raid on the neighbourhood of Intimilium in Liguria, murdered Agricola’s mother on her own estate, and plundered both the estate and a large part of her fortune – which was what had tempted them to commit the crime. Agricola had accordingly set out to pay the last dues of affection, when he was overtaken by the news of Vespasian’s bid for Empire, and without a moment’s hesitation joined his party. Mucianus was directing the inauguration of the new reign and the government of Rome; for Domitian was a very young man, to whom his father’s advancement meant nothing but licence to enjoy himself. Mucianus sent Agricola to enrol recruits, and when he had preformed that task with conscientious zeal put him in command of the twentieth legion. It had been slow to transfer its allegiance, and its retiring commander was reported to be disloyal. Actually, since even governors of consular rank found this legion more than they could manage and were afraid of it, the fact that a praetorian commander lacked sufficient authority to control it may well have been the soldier’s fault rather than his. Appointment, therefore, not merely to take over command, but also to mete out punishment, Agricola took disciplinary measures, but, with rare modesty, did his best to give the impression that no such measures had been necessary.
Britain at that time was governed by Vettius Bolanus with a hand too gentle for a warlike province. Agricola moderated his energy and restrained his enthusiasm, for fear of taking too much upon himself. He had learned the lesson of obedience and schooled himself to subordinate ambition to propriety. Shortly afterwards Petilius Cerealis, a man of consular rank, was appointed governor. Agricola now had scope to display his good qualities. But at first it was merely hard work and danger that Cerealis shared with him. The glory came later. Several times he was entrusted with a detachment of the army to test his ability; eventually, when he has passed the test, he was placed in command of larger forces. Yet he never sought to glorify himself by bragging of his achievements. It was his chief, he said, who planned all his successful operations, and he was merely the agent who executed them. Thus by his efficiency in carrying out his orders, and by his modesty in speaking of what he had done, he won distinction without arousing jealously.
On Agricola’s return from his military command the late emperor Vespasian granted him the status of a patrician, and afterwards placed him in charge of the province of Aquitania – a splendid promotion to an important administrative post that was a stepping-stone to the consulship, for which the emperor had in fact marked him out. It is a common belief that soldiers lack the power of fine discrimination, because the summary proceedings of a court martial - tending, as they do, to be rough and ready, and often, indeed, high-handed give no scope to forensic skill. But Agricola had the natural good sense, even in dealing with civilians, to show himself both agreeable and just. He made clear division between hours of business and hours of relaxation. When the judicial duties of the assizes demanded attention, he was dignified, serious, and austere – though merciful whenever he could be. When duty had been discharged, he completely dropped his official air. As to sullenness or arrogance, he had long overcome any tendency to such faults; and he had the rare faculty of being familiar without weakening his authority and austere without forfeiting people’s affection. To mention incorruptibility and strict honesty in a man of his calibre would be to insult his virtues. Even fame, which often tempts the best of men, he would not seek by self – advertisement of intrigue. He avoided all rivalry with his colleagues and all bickering with the procurators; for he considered it undignified to win such battles and ignominious to be beaten. He was kept in his post for less than three years and then called home to the immediate prospect of the consulship. Public opinion insisted that the province of Britain was being offered to him, not because he said anything himself to suggest it, but because he was obviously the right man. Rumour is not always at fault; it may even prompt a selection. During his consulship, while I was in my early manhood, he betrothed to me his daughter – a girl who already showed rare promise – and after his term of office he gave her to me in marriage. His appointment to the command of Britain, coupled with the priestly office of a pontifex, followed immediately.
though the geographical position and the inhabitants of Britain have been described by many authors, I shall describe them once again, not to match my industry and ability against theirs, but because the conquest was only completed in this period. Where my predecessors relied on graces of style to make their guesswork sound attractive, I shall offer ascertained fact. Britain, the largest of the islands known to us Romans, is of such a size and so situated as to run parallel to the coast of Germany on the east and to that of Spain on the west, while to the south it actually lies within sight of Gaul. Its northern shores with no land facing them, are beaten by a wild and open sea. The general shape of Britain has been compared by Livy and by Fabius Rusticus – the finest of ancient and modern writers respectively – to an elongated diamond or a doubled-headed axe. Such indeed is its shape south of Caledonia, and so the same shape has been attributed to the whole. But when you go farther north you find a huge and shapeless tract of country, jutting out to form what is actually the most distant coastline and finally tapering into a kind of wedge. These remotest shores were now circumnavigated, for the first time, by a Roman fleet, which thus established the fact that Britain was an island. At the same time it discovered and subjugated the Orkney Islands, hitherto unknown. Thule, too was sighted, but no more; their orders took them no farther, and winter was close at hand. But report has it that this sea is sluggish and heavy to the oar, and even in a high wind does not rise as other seas do. The reason, I suppose, is that the lands and mountains, which produce and sustain storms, are apart there, and the deep mass of an unbroken expanse of sea is more slowly set in motion. To investigate the nature of Ocean and its tides lies outside my subject and the matter has often been discussed. I will add just one observation. Nowhere does the sea hold wider sway: it carries to and fro in its motion a mass of tidal currents, and in its ebb and flow it does not stop at the coast, but penetrates deep inland and winds about, pushing its way even among highlands and mountains, as if in its own domain.
Who the first inhabitants of Britain were, whether natives of immigrants, is open to question: one must remember we are dealing with barbarians. But their physical characteristics vary, and the variation is suggestive. The reddish hair and large limbs of the Caledonians proclaim a German origin; the swarthy faces of the Silures, the tendency of their hair to curl, and the fact that Spain lies opposite, all lead one to believe that Spaniards crossed in ancient times and occupied that part of the country. The peoples nearest to the Gauls likewise resemble them. It may be that they still show the effect of a common origin; or perhaps it is climatic conditions that have produced this physical type in lands that converge so closely from north and south. On the whole, however, it seems likely that Gauls settled in the island lying so close to their shores. In both countries you find the same ritual and religious beliefs. There is no great difference in language, and there is the same hardihood in challenging danger, the same cowardice in shirking it when it comes close. But the Britons show more spirit: they have not yet been enervated by protracted peace. History tells us that the Gauls too had their hour of military glory; but since that time a life of ease has made them unwarlike: their valour perished with their freedom. The same has happened to those Britons who were conquered early; the rest are still what the Gauls once were.
Their strength is in their infantry. Some tribes also fight from chariots. The nobleman drives, his dependants fight in his defence. Once they owed obedience to kings; now they are distracted between the warring factions of rival chiefs. Indeed, nothing has helped us more in fighting against their very powerful nations than their inability to co-operate. It is but seldom that two or three states unite to repel a common danger; thus, fighting in separate groups, all are conquered. The climate is wretched, with its frequent rains and mists, but there is no extreme cold. Their day is longer than in our part of the world. The nights are light, and in the extreme north so short that evening and morning twilight are scarcely distinguishable. If no clouds block the view, the sun’s glow, it is said, can be seen all night long: it does not set and rise but simply passes along the horizon. The reason must be that the flat extremities of the earth cast low shadows and do not raise the darkness to any height; night therefore fails to reach the sky and its stars. The soil will produce good crops, except olives, vines, and other plants which usually grow in warmer lands. They are slow to ripen, though they shoot up quickly – both facts being due to the same cause, the extreme moistness of soil and atmosphere. Britain yields gold, silver, and other metals, to make it worth conquering. Its seas, too, produce pearls, but they are of a dark, bluish-grey colour. Some think that the natives are unskilful in gathering them; for whereas in the Indian Ocean the oysters are torn alive and breathing from the rocks, in Britain they are collected as the sea throws them up. I find it easier to believe that the pearls are of inferior quality than that people miss a chance of making a larger profit.
The Britons readily submit to military service, payment of tribute, and other obligations imposed by government, provided that there is no abuse. That they bitterly resent; for they are broken in to obedience, but not as yet to slavery. Julius Caesar, the first Roman to enter Britain with an army, did indeed intimidate the natives by a victory and secure a grip on the coast. But he may fairly be said to have merely drawn attention to the island: it was not his to bequeath. After him came the civil wars, with the leading men of Rome fighting against their country. Even when peace returned, Britain was long neglected. Augustus spoke of this as ‘policy’, Tiberius called it an ‘injunction’. The emperor Gaius unquestionably planned an invasion of Britain; but his impulsive ideas shifted like a weathercock, and his grandiose efforts against Germany had come to nothing. It was the late emperor Claudius who initiated the great undertaking. He sent over legions and auxiliaries and chose Vespasian to share in the enterprise – the first step towards his future greatness. Tribes were subdued and kings captured, and the finger of destiny began to point to Vespasian.
The first governor of consular rank to be appointed was Aulus Plautius, and soon after him came Ostorius Scapula – both of them fine soldiers. Not only were the nearest parts of Britain gradually organized into a province, but a colony of veterans also was founded. Certain domains were presented to King Cogidumnus, who maintained his unswerving loyalty right down to our own times – an example of the long-established Roman custom of employing even kings to make others slaves. Didius Gallus, the next governor, merely held what his predecessors had won, establishing a few forts in more advanced positions, so that he could claim the credit pf having made some annexations. Veranius succeeded Didius, only to die within the year. After him, Suetonius Paulinus enjoyed two years of success, conquering fresh tribes and strengthening forts. Emboldened thereby to attack the island of Anglesey, which was feeding the native resistance, he exposed himself to attack in the rear.
For the Britons, their fears allayed by the absence of the dreaded legate, began to canvass the woes of slavery, to compare their wrongs and sharpen their sting in the telling. ‘We gain nothing by submission except heavier burdens for willing shoulders. We used to have one king at a time; now two are set over us – the governor to wreak his fury on our life-blood; the procurator, on our property. Whether our masters quarrel with each other or agree together, our bondage is equally ruinous. The governor has centurions to execute his will; the procurator, slaves; and both of them add insults to violence. Nothing is any longer safe from their greed and lust. In war it is at least a braver man who takes the spoil; as things stand with us, it is mostly cowards and shirkers that seize our homes, kidnap our children, and conscript our men – as though it were only for our own country that we would not face death. What a mere handful our invaders are, if we reckon up our own number! Such thoughts prompted the Germans to throw off the yoke; and they have only a river, not the Ocean, to shield them. We have country, wives, and parents to fight for; the Romans have nothing but greed and self-indulgence. Back they will go, as their deified Julius went back, if we will but emulate the valour of our fathers. We must not be scared by the loss of one or two battles; success may give an army more dash, but the greater staying-power comes from defeat. The gods themselves are at last showing mercy to us Britons in keeping the Roman general away, with his army exiled in another island. For ourselves, we have already taken the most difficult step: we have begun to plan. And in an enterprise like this there is more danger in being caught planning than in taking the plunge.’
Egged on by such mutual encouragements, the whole island rose under the leadership of Boudicca, a lady of royal descent – for Britons make no distinction of sex in their appointment of commanders. They hunted down the Roman troops in their scattered posts, stormed the forts, and assaulted the colony itself, which they saw as the citadel of their servitude; and there was no form of savage cruelty that the angry victors refrained from. In fact, had not Paulinus, on hearing on the revolt, made speed to help, Britain would have been lost. As it was, he restored it to its former state of submission by a single successful action. But many of the rebels did not lay down their arms, conscious of their guilt and of the special reasons they had for dreading what the governor might do. Excellent officer though he was, it was feared that he would abuse their surrender and punish every offence with undue severity, as if it were a personal injury. The government therefore replaced him by Petronius Turpilianus. They hoped that he would be more inclined to listen to pleas in extenuation of guilt or protestations of repentance, since he had not witnessed the enemy’s crimes. He dealt with the existing troubles, but risked no further move before handing over his post to Trebellius Maximus. Trebellius was deficient in energy and without military experience, but he kept control of the province by an easy-going kind of administration. The barbarians now learned, like any Romans, to condone seductive vices, while the intervention of the civil wars provided him with a valid excuse for inactivity. There was, however, a serious mutiny; for the troops, accustomed to campaigns, got out of hand when they had nothing to do. Trebellius fled and hid to escape his angry army. His honour and dignity compromised, he now commanded merely on sufferance. By a kind of tacit bargain the troops had licence to do as they pleased, the general had his life; and so the mutiny stopped short of bloodshed. Vettius Bolanus likewise, as the civil wars still continued, declined to disturb the province by enforcing discipline. There was still the same paralysis in face of the foe, the same insubordination in the camp – only Bolanus was an upright man, with no misdeeds to make him hated, and had won affection where he lacked authority.
But when Vespasian, in the course of his general triumph, restored stable government to Britain, there came a succession of great generals and splendid armies, and the hopes of our enemies dwindled. Petilius Cerealis at once struck terror into their hearts by attacking the state of the Brigantes, which is said to be the most populous in the whole province. After a series of battles – some of them by no means bloodless – Petilius had overrun, if not actually conquered, the major part of their territory. He would indeed have completely eclipsed the record and reputation of any ordinary successor. But Julius Frontinus was equal to shouldering the heavy burden, and rose as high as a man then could rise. He subdued by force of arms the strong and warlike nation of the Silures, after a hard struggle, not only against the valour of his enemy, but against the difficulties of the terrain.
Such was the condition to which Britain had been brought by the ups and downs of warfare when Agricola crossed the channel with the summer already half over. The soldiers thought they had done with campaigning for the present and were relaxing, while the enemy were looking for a chance to profit thereby. Shortly before his arrival the tribe of the Ordovices had almost wiped out a squadron of cavalry stationed in their territory, and this initial stroke had excited the province. Those who wanted war welcomed the lead thus given, and only waited to test the temper of the new governor. The summer was now far spent, the auxiliary units were scattered all over the province, and the soldiers assumed that there would be no more fighting that year. Everything, in fact, combined to hinder or delay a new campaign, and many were in favour of simply watching the points where danger threatened. In spite of all, Agricola decided to go and meet the peril. He concentrated the legionaries serving on detachment duties and small force of auxiliaries. As the Ordovices did not venture to descend into the plain, he led his men up into the hills, marching in front himself so as to impart his own courage to the rest by sharing their danger, and cut to pieces almost the whole fighting force of the tribe. But he realized that he must continue to live up to his reputation, and that the outcome of his first enterprises would determine how much fear his subsequent operations would inspire. So he decided to reduce the island of Anglesey, from the occupation of which Paulinus had been recalled by the revolt of all Britain, as I described in an earlier chapter. As the plan was hastily conceived, there was no fleet at hand; but Agricola’s resource and resolution found means of getting troops across. He carefully picked out from his auxiliaries men who had experienced of shallow waters and had been trained at home to swim carrying their arms and keeping their horses under control, and made them discard all their equipment. He then launched them on a surprise attack; and the enemy, who had been thinking in terms of a fleet of ships and naval operations, were completely nonplussed. What could embarrass or defeat a foe who attacked like that? So they sued for peace and surrendered the island; and Agricola was extolled as a brilliant governor, who immediately on his arrival – a time usually devoted to pageantry and round of ceremonial visits – had chosen to undertake an arduous and dangerous enterprise. Yet he did not use his success to glorify himself. He would not represent his action as a campaign of conquest, when, as he said, he had merely kept a defeated tribe under control. He did not even use Laurel-wreathed dispatches to announce his achievement. But his very reluctance to admit his title to fame won him even greater fame: for men gauged his splendid hopes for the future by his reticence about an exploit so remarkable.
Agricola, however, understood the feelings of the province and had learned from the experience of others that arms can effect little if injustice follows in their train. He resolved to root out the causes of rebellion. Beginning with himself and his staff, he enforced discipline in his own establishment first – a task often found as difficult as the government of a province. He made no use of freedmen or slaves for official business. He would not be influenced by his personal preference, or by recommendations or petitions, in choosing centurions and men for staff duties. The best, he was sure, would best justify his trust. He knew everything that went on, but did not always act upon his knowledge. He would condone minor offences, but dealt severely with major crimes. However, he did not always pronounce sentence: if an offender was truly repentant, more often than not he was content with that. He preferred to appoint to official positions and duties men whom he could trust not to transgress, rather than have to punish transgressions. He made the contributions of corn and tribute less onerous by distributing the burdens fairly, and put a stop to the tricks of profiteers, which were more bitterly resented than the tax itself. For the provincials were made to wait outside locked granaries in order to go through the farce of ‘buying’ corn to deliver to the governor – thus being in fact compelled to discharge their obligations by money payments. Or delivery would be ordered to out-of-the-way destinations at the other end of the country, so that states which had permanent camps close by them were told to send supplies to remote and inaccessible spots. Thus the rendering of a service which should have been easy for all was obstructed in order to line a few men’s pockets.
By checking these abuses in his very first year of office Agricola made the Britons appreciate the advantages of peace, which, through the negligence of arbitrariness of previous governors, had been as much feared as war. But when summer came he concentrated his army and took the field in person. He was everywhere on the march, praising good discipline and keeping stragglers up to the mark. He himself chose sites for camps and reconnoitred estuaries and forest; and all the time he gave the enemy no rest, but constantly launched plundering raids. Then, when he had done enough to inspire fear, he tried the effect of clemency and showed them the attractions of peace. As a result, many states which till then had maintained their independence gave hostages and abandoned their resentful attitude. A ring of garrisoned forts was placed round them; and so skilfully and thoroughly was the operation carried through that no British tribes ever made their first submission with so little interference from their neighbours.
The following winter was spent on schemes of social betterment. Agricola had to deal with people living in isolation and ignorance, and therefore prone to fight; and his object was to accustom them to a life of peace and quiet by the provision of amenities. He therefore gave private encouragement and official assistance to the building of temples, public squares, and good houses. He praised the energetic and scolded the slack; and competition for honour proved as effective as compulsion. Furthermore, he educated the sons of the chiefs in the liberal arts, and expressed a preference for British ability as compared with the trained skills of the Gauls. The result was that instead of loathing the Latin language they became eager to speak it effectively. In the same way, our national dress came into favour and the toga was everywhere to be seen. And so the population was gradually led into the demoralizing temptations of arcades, baths, and sumptuous banquets. The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilization’, when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement.
The third year of Agricola’s campaigns brought him into contact with fresh peoples; for the territory of tribes was ravaged as far north as the river called Taus (River Teith). Our army was buffeted by furious storms, but the enemy were now too terrified to molest it. There was even time to spare for the establishment of forts. It has been observed by experts that no general ever showed a better eye for ground than Agricola. No fort or site of his choosing was ever taken by storm, ever capitulated, or was ever abandoned. On the contrary, the garrisons could frequently venture upon sallies; for they were secured against protracted siege by having supplies sufficient for a whole year. And so winter in these forts held no terrors and every commandant could look after himself. The enemy were baffled and in despair. They could no longer retrieve the losses of the summer by success in the winter, but were equally hard pressed at both seasons.
Agricola was not greedy of fame and never tried to steal the credit for other men’s work. Every centurion and prefect found in him an honest witness to his merit. According to some accounts he was harsh in reprimand; and certainly he could make himself as unpleasant to the wrong kind of man as he was agreeable to the right kind. But his anger left no hidden malice in his heart, and you had no need to fear his silence. He thought it more honourable to hurt than to hate.
The fourth summer was spent in securing the districts already overrun; and if the valour of our army and the glory of Rome had permitted such a thing, a good place for halting the advance was found in Britain itself. The Clyde and the Forth, carried inland to a great depth on the tides of opposite seas, are separated only by a narrow neck of land. This isthmus was now firmly held by garrisons, and the whole expanse of country to the south was safely on our hands. The enemy had been pushed into what was virtually another island.
Agricola started his fifth campaign by sea, and in a series of successful actions subdued nations hitherto unknown. The side of Britain that faces Ireland was lined with his forces. His motive was rather hope then fear. Ireland, lying between Britain and Spain, and easily accessible also from the Gallic sea, might serve as a very valuable link between the provinces forming the strongest part of the empire. It is small in comparison with Britain, but larger than the islands of the Mediterranean. In soil and climate, and in the character and civilization of its inhabitants, it is much like Britain; and its approaches and harbours have now become better known from merchants who trade there. An Irish prince, expelled from his home by a rebellion, was welcomed by Agricola, who detained him, nominally as a friend, in the hope of being able to make use of him. I have often heard Agricola say that Ireland could be reduced and held by a single legion with a fair-sized force of auxiliaries; and that it would be easier to hold Britain if it were completely surrounded by Roman armies, so that liberty was banished from its sight.
In the summer in which his sixth year of office began, Agricola enveloped the tribes beyond the Forth. Fearing a general rising of the northern nations and threatening movements by the enemy on land, he used his fleet to reconnoitre the harbours. It was first employed by Agricola to increase his striking-power, and its continued attendance on him made an excellent impression. The war was pushed forward simultaneously by land and sea; and infantry, cavalry, and marines, often meeting in the same camp, would mess and make merry together. They boasted, as soldiers will, of their several exploits and adventures, and matched the perilous depths of woods and ravines against the hazards of storms and waves, victories on land against the conquest of the ocean. The Britons for their part, as was learned from prisoners, were dismayed by the appearance of the fleet; now that the secret places of their sea were opened up, they felt that their last refuge in defeat was closed against them. The natives of Caledonia turned to armed resistance on a large scale – though the facts were exaggerated, as the unknown always is, by rumour. They went so far as to storm some of our forts, and inspired alarm by their challenging offensive. There were cowards in the council who pleaded for a ‘strategic retreat’ behind the Forth, maintaining that ‘evacuation was preferable to expulsion’. But just then Agricola learned that the enemy was about to attack in several columns. For fear that their superior numbers and knowledge of the country might enable them to surround him, he moved his own army forward in three divisions.
As soon as the enemy got to know of this they suddenly changed their plans and massed for a night attack on the ninth legion. That seemed to them the weakest point. Striking panic into the sleeping camp, they cut down the sentries and broke in. The fight was already raging inside the camp when Agricola was warned by his scouts of the enemy’s march. He followed close on their tracks, ordered the speediest of his cavalry and infantry to harass the assailants’ rear, and finally made his whole force raise a shout. Dawn was now breaking, and the gleam of the legions’ standards could be seen. Caught thus between two fires, the Britons were dismayed, while the men of the ninth took heart again; now their lives were safe they could fight for honour. They even made a sally, and a grim struggle ensued in the narrow gateways. At last the enemy were routed by the efforts of the two armies – the one striving to make it plain that they had brought relief; the other, that they could have done without it. Had not marshes and woods covered the enemy’s retreat, that victory would have ended the war.
This success inspired with confidence all the troops who had taken part in it or heard about it. They declared that nothing could stop men like them, that they ought to drive deeper into Caledonian and fight battle after battle till they reached the farthest limits of Britain. Even the cautions strategists of yesterday were forward and boastful enough after the event. That is the crowning injustice of war: all claim credit for success, while defeat is laid to the account of one. The Britons, on their part, felt that they had not lost through any lack of courage, but through the Roman general’s skilful use of a lucky chance. With unbroken spirit they persisted in arming their whole fighting force, putting their wives and children in places of safety, and assembling together to ratify their league by sacrificial rites. Thus the campaign ended with angry feelings excited on both sides.
That same summer a cohort of the Usipi that had been enrolled in Germany and transferred to Britain ventured upon a memorable exploit. They murdered a centurion and some soldiers who, to teach them discipline, were serving in their ranks as models and instructors. Then they boarded three small warships, forcing the pilots to do their will; but one of these escaped and went back, and the other two were then looked on with such suspicion that they killed. News of these events had not yet got about, and the ships seemed liked a ghostly apparition as they coasted along. But the time came when they had to put in to land to get water and other supplies. This brought them into collision with parties of Britons who tried to protect their property. Though often successful the raiders were sometimes driven off; and in the end they were so near starvation that they began to eat one another; first they picked out the weakest, then they drew lots. In this fashion they sailed round North Britain; then they lost their ships through bad seamanship, were taken for pirates, and were cut off first by the Suebi and then by the Frisii. Some of them were sold as slaves and passed from hand to hand till they reached our bank of the Rhine, where they gained notoriety by telling the story of their wonderful adventure.
At the beginning of the next summer Agricola suffered a grievous personal loss in the death of a son who had been born a year before. He accepted this blow without either parading the fortitude of a stoic or giving way to passionate grief like a woman. The conduct of the war was one means he used to distract his mind from its sorrow. He sent his fleet ahead to plunder at various points and thus spread uncertainty and terror; then, with an army marching light, which he had reinforced with some of the bravest of the Britons who had proved their loyalty by long years of submission, he reached Mons Graupius, which he found occupied by the enemy. The Britons were, in fact, undaunted by the loss of the previous battle, and were ready for either revenge or enslavement. They had realized at last the common danger must be warded off by united action, and had sent round embassies and drawn up treaties to rally the full force of all their states. Already more than 30,000 men could be seen, and still they came flocking to the colours – all the young men, and famous men, and famous warriors whose ‘old age was fresh and green’, every man wearing the decorations he had earned. At that point one of the many leaders, a man of outstanding valour and nobility named Calgacus, addressed the close-packed multitude of men clamouring for battle. This is the substance of what he is reported to have said:
‘When I consider the motives we have for fighting and the critical position we are in, I have a strong feeling that the united front you are showing today will mean the dawn of liberty for the whole of Britain. You have mustered to a man, and all of you are free. There are no lands behind us, and even on the sea we are menaced by the Roman fleet. The clash of battle – the hero’s glory – has now actually become the safest refuge for a coward. Battles against Rome have been lost and won before; but hope was never abandoned, since we were always here in reserve. We, the choicest flower of Britain’s manhood, were hidden away in her most secret places. Out of sight of subject shores, we kept even our eyes free from the defilement of tyranny. We, the most distant dwellers upon earth, the last of the free, have been shielded till today by our very remoteness and by the obscurity in which it has shrouded our name. Now, the farthest bounds of Britain lie open to our enemies; and what men know nothing about they always assume to be a valuable prize. But there are no more nations beyond us; nothing is there but waves and rocks, and the Romans more deadly still than these – for in them is an arrogance which no submission or good behaviour can escape. Pillagers of the world, they have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea. A rich enemy excites their cupidity; poor one, their lust for power. East and West alike have failed to satisfy them. They are the only people on earth to whose covetousness both riches and poverty are equally tempting. To robbery, butchery, and rapine, they give the lying name of “government”; they create a desolation and call it peace.
‘Nature has ordained that every man should love his children and his other relatives above all else. These are now being torn from us by conscription to slave in other lands. Our wives and sisters, even if they are not raped by enemy soldiers, are seduced by men who are supposed to be our friends and guests. Our goods and money are consumed by taxation; our land is stripped of its harvest to fill their granaries; our hands and limbs are crippled by building roads through forests and swamps under the lash of our oppressors. Creatures born to be slaves are sold once for all, and, what is more, get their keep from their owners. We Britons are sold into slavery anew every day; we have to pay the purchase-price ourselves and feed our masters into the bargain. In a private household the latest arrival is made the butt even of his fellow-slaves; so, in this establishment where all mankind have long been slaves, it is we, the cheap new acquisitions, who are marked out for destruction. For we have no fertile lands, no mines, no ports, which we might be spared to work in. Our courage, too, and our martial spirit are against us: masters do not like such in their subjects. Even our remoteness and isolation, while they give us protection, are bound to make the Romans wonder what mischief we are up to. Since you cannot hope for mercy, therefore, take courage before it is too late to strive for what you hold most dear, whether it be life of honour. The Britons, with only a woman to lead them, burned a Roman colony and stormed a camp; and if success had not tempted them to relax their efforts, they might have cast off the yoke. We, who have never been forced to feel that yoke, shall be fighting to preserve our freedom, and not, like them, merely to avenge past injuries. Let us then show, at the very first clash of arms, what manner of men Caledonia has kept in reserve.
‘Do you imagine that the Romans’ bravery in war matches their dissoluteness in time of peace? No! it is our quarrels and disunion that have given them fame. The reputation of the Roman army is built up on the faults of its enemies. Look at it, a motley conglomeration of nations, that will be shattered by defeat as surely as it is now held together by success. Or can you seriously think that those Gauls and Germans – and, to our bitter shame, many Britons too – are bound to Rome by genuine loyalty or affection? They may be lending their life-blood now to the foreign tyrant, but they were enemies of Rome for more years than they have been her slaves. Terror and intimidation are poor bonds of attachment: break them, and where fear ends hatred will begin. All that can spur men on to victory is on our side. The enemy have no wives to fire their courage, no parents ready to taunt them if they run away. Most of them either have no fatherland they can remember, or belong to one other than Roman. See them, a scanty band, scared and bewildered, staring blankly at the unfamiliar sky, sea, and forests around them. The gods have given them, like so many prisoners bound hand and foot, into our hands. Be not afraid of the outward show that means nothing, the glitter of gold and sliver that can neither avert nor inflict a wound. Even in the ranks of our enemies we shall find willing hands to help us. The Britons will recognize our cause as their own; the Gauls will remember their lost liberty; the rest of the Germans will desert them as surely as the Usipi did recently. And beyond this army that you see there is nothing to be frightened of – only forts without garrisons, colonies of greybeards, towns sick and distracted between rebel subjects and tyrant masters. Which will you choose – to follow your leader into battle, or to submit to taxation, labour in the mines, and all the other tribulations of slavery? Whether you are to endure these for ever or take quick vengeance, this field must decide. On, then, into action; and as you go, think of those that went before you and of those that shall come after.’
This speech was received with enthusiasm, expressed, in barbarian fashion, by singing and yelling and by discordant cries. Bodies of troops began to move and arms flashed as the most adventurous ran out in front, and all the time their battle-line was taking shape. Agricola’s soldiers were in such high spirits that they could scarcely be kept within their defences. For all that, he felt it desirable to put the final edge on their courage, and addressed them thus:
‘This is the seventh year, comrades, since by loyal service – yours and my own – you started to conquer Britain in the name of imperial Rome’s divinely guided greatness. In all these campaigns and battles, which called not only for courage in face of the enemy but for toil and endurance in fighting, as it were, against Nature herself, I have had no complaint to make of my men nor you of your general. Thus we have advanced beyond the limits reached by previous armies under my predecessors. The farthest boundary of this land, which they knew only by report or rumour, we hold in our grasp with arms and forts. We have both explored and conquered Britain. Many a time on the march, as you trudged wearily over marshes, mountains, and rivers, have I heard the bravest among you exclaim: “When shall we meet the enemy? When will they come and fight us?” They are coming now, for we have dug them out of their hiding-places. The fair field for our valour that we desired is granted to us. An easy path awaits us if we win, but if we lose the going will be hard indeed. The long road that we have travelled, the forests we have threaded our way through, the estuaries we have crossed – all redound to our credit and honour as long as we keep our eyes to the front. But if we turn tail, our success in surmounting these obstacles will put us in the deadliest peril. We have not the exact knowledge of the country that our enemy has, or his abundant supplies. However, we have our hands, and swords in them, and these are all that matters. For myself, I made up my mind long ago that neither an army nor a commander can avoid danger by running away. So – although an honourable death would be better than a disgraceful attempt to save our lives – our best chance of safety does in fact lie in doing our duty. And there would be glory, too, in dying – if die we must – here where the world and all created things come to an end.
‘If you were confronted by strange nations and unfamiliar troops, I would quote the examples of other armies to encourage you. As things are, you need only recall your own battle-honours, only question your own eyes. These are the men who last year attacked a single legion like robbers in the night, and acknowledged defeat when they heard your battle-cry. These are the greatest runaways of all the Britons – which is the reason why they have survived so long. When we plunged into woods and gorges on the march, all the brave beasts used to charge straight at us, while the timid and slothful ones slunk away at the mere sound of our tread. It is the same now. The most courageous of the Britons have fallen long since; those who remain are just so many spiritless cowards. You have overtaken them at last, not because they have chosen to stand at bay, but because they are cornered. It is only their desperate plight and deadly fear that have paralysed their army where it stands, for you to win a great and brilliant victory over it. Have done with campaigning; crown fifty years with one glorious day and prove to Rome that her soldiers were never to blame if wars have been allowed to drag on or the seeds of fresh rebellion sown.’
Even while Agricola was still speaking the troops showed intense eagerness, and the end of his speech was greeted with a wild burst of enthusiasm. Without delay they went off to arm themselves. The men were so thrilled that they were ready to rush straight into action; but Agricola marshalled them with care. The auxiliary infantry, 8,000 in number, formed a strong centre, while 3,000 cavalry were distributed on the flanks. The legions were stationed in front of the ramparts: victory would be vastly more glorious if it cost no Roman blood, while if the auxiliaries should be repulsed the legions could come to their rescue. The British army was posted on higher ground in a manner calculated to impress and intimidate its enemy. Their front line was on the plain, but the other ranks seemed to mount up the sloping hillside in close-packed tiers. The flat space between the two armies was taken up by the noisy manoeuvring of the charioteers. Agricola now saw that he was greatly outnumbered, and fearing that the enemy might fall simultaneously on his front and flanks, he opened out his ranks. The line now looked like being dangerously thin, and many urged him to bring up the legions. But he was always an optimist and resolute in the face of difficulties. He sent away his horse and took up his position on foot in front of the colours.
The fighting began with exchanges of missiles, and the Britons showed both steadiness and skill in parrying our spears with their huge swords or catching them on their little shields, while they themselves rained volleys on us. At last Agricola called upon four cohorts of Batavians and two of Tungrians to close and fight it out at the sword’s point. These old soldiers had been well drilled in sword-fighting, while the enemy were awkward at it, with their small shields and unwieldy swords, especially as the latter, having no points, were quite unsuitable for a cut-and-thrust struggle at close quarters. The Batavians, raining blow after blow, striking them with the bosses of their shields, and stabbing them in the face, felled the Britons posted on the plain and pushed on up the hillsides. This provoked the other cohorts to attack with vigour and kill the nearest of the enemy. Many Britons were left behind half dead or even unwounded, owing to the very speed of our victory. Our cavalry squadrons, meanwhile, had routed the war chariots, and now plunged into the infantry battle. Their first onslaught was terrifying, but the solid ranks of the enemy and the roughness of the ground soon brought them to a standstill and made the battle quite unlike a cavalry action. Our infantry had only a precarious foothold and were being jostled by the horses’ flanks; and often a runaway chariot, or riderless horses careering about wildly in their terror, came plunging into the ranks from the side or in head-on collision.
The Britons on the hill-tops had so far taken no part in the action and had leisure to note with contempt the smallness of our numbers. They were now starting to descend gradually and envelop our victorious rear. But Agricola, who had expected just such a move, threw in their path four squadrons of cavalry which he was keeping in hand for emergencies and turned their spirited charge into a disorderly rout. The tactics of the Britons now recoiled on themselves. Our squadrons, obedient to orders, rode round from the front of the battle and fell upon the enemy in the rear. The open plain now presented a grim, awe-inspiring spectacle. Our horsemen kept pursuing them, wounding some, making prisoners of others, and then killing them as new enemies appeared. On the British side, each man now behaved according to his character. Whole groups, though they had weapons in their hands, fled before inferior numbers; elsewhere, unarmed men deliberately charged to face certain death. Equipment, bodies, and mangled limbs lay all around on the bloodstained earth; and even the vanquished now and then recovered their fury and their courage. When they reached the woods, they rallied and profited by their local knowledge to ambush the first rash pursuers. Our men's over-confidence might even have led to serious disaster. But Agricola was everywhere at once. He ordered strong cohorts of light infantry to ring the woods like hunters. Where the thickets were denser, dismounted troopers went in to scour them; where they thinned out, the cavalry did the work. At length, when they saw our troops, re-formed and steady, renewing the pursuit, the Britons turned and ran. They no longer kept formation or looked to see where their comrades were, but scattering and deliberately keeping apart from each other they penetrated far into trackless wilds. The pursuit went on till light fell and our soldiers were tired of killing. Of the en¬emy some 10,000 fell; on our side, 360 men-among them Aulus Atticus, the prefect of a cohort, whose youthful impetuosity and mettlesome horse carried him deep into the ranks of the enemy.
For the victors it was a night of rejoicing over their triumph and their booty. The Britons dispersed, men and women wailing together, as they carried away their wounded or called to the survivors. Many left their homes and in their rage actually set fire to them, or chose hiding -places, only to abandon them at once. At one moment they would try to concert plans, then suddenly break off their conference. Sometimes the sight of their dear ones broke their hearts; more often it goaded them to fury; and we had proof that some of them killed their wives and children in a kind of pity. The next day revealed the effects of our victory more fully. An awful silence reigned on every hand; the hills were deserted, houses smoking in the distance, and our scouts did not meet a soul. These were sent out in all directions; and made sure that the enemy had fled at random and were not massing at any point. As the summer was almost over, it was impossible for operations to be extended over a wider area; so Agricola led his army into the territory of the Boresti. There he took hostages and ordered his admiral to sail round the north of Britain. A detachment of troops was assigned to him, and the terror of Rome had gone before him. Agricola himself, marching slowly in order to overawe the recently conquered tribes by the very deliberateness of his movements, placed his infantry and cavalry in winter-quarters. At about the same time the fleet, which aided by favourable weather had com¬pleted a remarkable voyage, reached Trucculensis Portus. It had started the voyage from that harbour, and after coasting along the adjacent shore of Britain had returned intact.
Agricola's dispatch reported this series of events in language of careful moderation. But Domitian reacted as he often did: he pretended to be pleased when in fact he was deeply disturbed. He was conscious of the ridicule that his sham triumph over Germany had excited, when he had bought slaves in the market to have their dress and hair made up to look like prisoners of war. But now came a genuine victory on the grand scale: the enemy dead were reckoned in thousands, and the popular acclaim was immense. He knew that there was nothing so dangerous for him as to have the name of a subject exalted above that of the emperor. He had only wasted his time in silencing forensic eloquence and suppressing all outstanding accomplishment in civil life, if another man was to snatch military glory from his grasp. Talents in other directions could at a pinch be ignored; but the qualities of a good general should be the monopoly of the emperor. Harassed by these anxieties, he brooded over them in secret till he was tired - a sure sign in him of malevolent purpose. In the end he decided that it would be best to store up his hatred for the present and wait for the first burst of popular applause and the enthusiasm of the army to die down. For at that time Agricola was still in command of Britain.
Domitian therefore directed that the customary directions of a triumph, the honour of a complimentary statue, and all the other substitutes for a triumphal procession should be voted to Agricola in the Senate, coupled with a highly flattering address; further, the impression was to be conveyed that the province of Syria, then vacant through the death of Atilius Rufus, an ex-consul, and always reserved for the men of seniority, was intended for Agricola. It was commonly believed that one of the freedmen in Domitian’s closest confidence was sent with a letter offering Syria to Agricola, but with orders to deliver it only if he was still in Britain. The freedman, it is said, met Agricola’s ship in the Channel, and without even seeking an interview with him returned to Domitian. The story may be true, or it may have been invented as being characteristic of Domitian. Agricola, meanwhile, had handed over the province to his successor in a state of peace and security. To avoid publicity, he did not want to be met by a crowd of people when he returned to Rome. So he evaded the attentions of his friends and entered the city by night. By night, too, he went, in accordance with instructions, to the palace. He was greeted with a perfunctory kiss then dismissed, without a word of conversation, to join the crowd of courtiers dancing attendance on the emperor. Wishing to divert attention from his military repute, which was apt to offend civilians, by displaying other qualities, Agricola devoted himself completely to a life of quiet retirement. He was modest in his manner of life, courteous in conversation, and never seen with more than one or two friends. Consequently, the majority who always measure great men by their self-advertisement, after carefully observing Agricola, were left asking why he was so famous. Very few could read his secret aright.
Often during this period Agricola was denounced to Domitian behind his back, and acquitted behind his back. His danger did not arise from any charge against him or any complaint from victim of injustice, but from the emperor’s hatred of merit, Agricola’s fame, and that deadliest type of enemy, the singers of his praises. And indeed the fortunes of Rome in those ensuing years were such as would not allow Agricola’s name to be forgotten. One after another, armies were lost in Moesia and Dacia, in Germany and Pannonia, through the rash folly or cowardice of their generals; one after another, experienced officers were defeated in fortified positions and captured with all their troops. It was no longer the frontier and the Danube line that were threatened, but the permanent quarters of the legions and the maintenance of the empire. So, as one loss followed another and year after year was signalized by death and disaster, public opinion began to clamour for Agricola to take command. His energy and resolutions, and his proven courage in war, were universally contrasted with the general slackness and cowardice. It is known that Domitian’s own ears were stung by the lash of such talk. The best of his freedmen spoke out of their loyal affection, the worst out of malice and spleen; but all alike goaded on an emperor who was always inclined to pursue evil courses. And so Agricola, by his own virtues and by faults of others, was carried straight along the perilous path that led to glory.
At length the year arrived in which he was due to ballot for the proconsulship of Africa or Asia; and the recent execution of Civica was both a warning for Agricola and a precedent of Domitian. Agricola was approached by some of the emperor’s confidants, who had been instructed to ask him outright whether he meant to take a province. They began by hinting at the attraction of peaceful retirement, went on to offer their help in getting his excuses accepted if he wished to decline, and finally, throwing off the mask, prevailed on him by persuasions and threats to go to Domitian. The emperor had his hypocrite’s part prepared. He put on a majestic air, listened to Agricola’s request to be excused, and after granting it allowed Agricola to thank him, without even a blush for such an odious pretence of granting a favour. He did not, however, assign him the usual proconsular salary, which he himself had granted in some cases- perhaps from annoyance that Agricola had not asked for it, perhaps from an uneasy conscience, not wishing people to think he had bribed him to decline when in fact he had forbidden him to accept. It is an instinct of human nature to hate a man whom you have injured. Yet even Domitian, though he was quick to anger, and his resentment all the more implacable because he generally tried to hide it, was softened by the self-restraint and wisdom of Agricola, who declined to court, by a defiant and futile parade of independence, the renown that must inevitably destroy him. Let it be clear to those who insist on admiring disobedience that even under bad emperors men can be great, and that a decent regard for authority, if backed by industry and energy, can reach that peak of distinction which most men attain only by following a perilous course, winning fame, without benefiting their country, by an ostentatious self- martyrdom.
The end of Agricola’s life- a grievous blow to us and a sorrow to his friends- affected even men outside his own circle and complete strangers. The general public, usually so absorbed in their own concerns, flocked to his house to make enquires; and in the public squares, and whenever people met for conversation, he was talked of. When his death was announced, no one was glad and no one quickly forgot him. Sympathy was increased by a persistent rumour that he had been poisoned. For my own part, I would not venture to assert that there is any positive evidence. However, throughout his illness there were more visits from prominent freedmen and court physicians than is usual with emperors when paying calls by proxy. This could have indicated genuine concern, or it may have been spying. All accounts agreed that on the last day, as he lay dying, every change in his condition was reported by relays of couriers, and no one could believe that tidings need have been brought so quickly if they were unwelcome to the emperor. However, Domitian made a decent show of sorrow; his hatred of Agricola no longer made him uneasy, and he could always hide satisfaction more convincingly than fear. It was no secret that on the reading of Agricola's will, which named Domitian as co-heir with his 'good wife' and his 'loving daughter', the Emperor was much pleased, taking it as a sincere compliment. His mind was so blinded and vitiated by incessant flattery that he did not realize that no good father would leave property to any emperor except a bad one.
Agricola was born on 13 June in the third consulship of the emperor Gaius and died in his fifty-fourth year on 23 August in the consulship of Collega and Priscinus. As to his personal appearance - in case the interest of posterity should extend to such a matter - he was good-looking rather than striking. His features did not indicate a passionate nature: the prevailing impression was one of charm. There was no difficulty about recognizing him as a good man, and one could willingly believe him to be a great man. Though he was taken from us in the prime of his vigorous manhood, yet, so far as glory is concerned the longest span of years could not have made his more complete. He had fully attained those true blessings which depend upon a man's own character. He had held the consulship and bore the decorations of triumph: what more could fortune have added? He had no desire for vast wealth, and he had a handsome fortune. He died while his wife and daughter yet lived to comfort him; and we may justly count him even fortunate who, with his honours unimpaired, at the height of his fame, leaving kinsmen and friends secure, escaped what was soon to soon to come. Though he was not permitted to see the dawn of this blessed age and the principate of Trajan - a consummation of which he often spoke to us in wishful prophecy - yet it was no small compensation for his untimely cutting off that he was spared those last days when Domitian, instead of giving the state a breathing-space to recover from one blow before the next fell, rained them upon its head so thick and fast that its life-blood was drained as though by a single mortal wound.
Agricola did not live to see the senate-house under siege, the senators surrounded by a cordon of troops, and that one fell stroke which sent so many consulars to their death, so many noble ladies into banishment or exile. Only a single victory was credited as yet to Carus Mettius; the four walls of the Alban fortress still kept Messalinus's bellow from reaching our ears; and Massa Baebius was still a prisoner in the dock. But before long we senators led Helvidius to prison, watched in shame the sufferings of Mauricus and Rusticus, and stained ourselves with Senecio's innocent blood. Even Nero used to avert his eyes and, though he ordered abominations, forbore to witness them. The worst of our torments under Domitian was to see him with his eyes fixed upon us. Every sigh was registered against us; and when we all turned pale, he did not scruple to make us marked men by a glance of his savage countenance - that blood-red countenance which saved him from ever being seen to blush with shame.
Happy indeed were you, Agricola, not only in your glorious life, but in your timely death. We have the testimony of those who heard your last words that you met your fate with a cheerful courage. You seemed glad to do your best to acquit the emperor of blood-guiltiness. But your daughter and I have suffered more than the pang of a father's loss: we grieve that we could not sit by your sick-bed, sustain your failing strength, and satisfy our yearning for your fond looks and embraces. We should surely have received some last commands, some words to be engraved for ever on our hearts. It was our own special sorrow and pain that through the accident of our long absence we lost him four years before his death. All, more than all, dear father was assuredly done to honour you by the devoted wife at your side. Yet some tears that should have been shed over you were not shed; and, at the last, there was something for which your dying eyes looked in vain.
If there is any mansion for the spirits of the just, if, as philosophers hold, great souls do not perish with the body, may you rest in peace! May you call us, your family, from feeble regrets and unmanly mourning to contemplate your virtues, for which it were a sin to mourn or lament! May we honour you in better ways - by our admiration and our praise, and if our powers permit by following your example! That is the true honour, the true affection of souls knit close to yours. To your daughter and widow I would suggest that they revere the memory of a father and a husband by continually pondering his deeds and sayings, and by treasuring in hearts the form and features of his mind, rather than those of his body. Not that I would forbid likenesses of marble or of bronze. But representations of the human face, like that face itself, are subject to decay and dissolution, whereas the essence of man's mind is something everlasting, which you cannot preserve or express in material wrought by another's skill, but only in your own character. All that we loved and admired in Agricola abides and shall abide in the hearts of men through the endless procession of the ages; for his achievements are of great renown. With many it will be as with men who had no name or fame: they will be buried in oblivion. But Agricola's story is set on record for posterity, and he will live.
©2008 Roman Scotland. All Rights Reserved
First Published January 2008