Friday, 27 April 2018

#Aye. Ken it wis like this…with #Agricola and #Pytheas

Aye. Ken it wis like this…

I thought I had a guest booked for today but, since that failed to happen, I've written a post myself to keep the pot boiling! 

I can't do history without the geography – Agricola and Pytheas what a combination!

My Celtic Fervour Series is set during the invasions of northern Britannia, my novels beginning in AD 71 around the time that the legions of the Ancient Roman Empire flooded the federation of tribes named the Brigantes.

Agricola- Frejus, France
During the writing of the first couple of books in the series, the related geography I was most interested in was that of Brigantia – what we would now term north England: Yorkshire, Cumbria, and Northumberland. However, by the time I was writing the third and fourth books, I was much more interested in what knowledge the Ancient Roman General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola might have had of the whole of Britannia, the interior and the coastal exterior.

Agricola was no stranger to being stationed in Britannia, in fact he spent the best part of twenty years in it, but my interest was in working out what physical, and what intellectual, knowledge of it he actually had before arriving, and how much he gained afterwards. If he already had a familiarity before setting foot on Britannia, how did he come by the information?

Agricola was likely to have first arrived to Britannia at around the age of 18 in AD 58. He (probably) became a tribune of the Legio II Augusta, though his function seemed to have been as a special military aide, a staff member of General Gaius Suetonius Paulinus who was then in command of the Roman armies in Britannia. That first tribune post lasted about four years, after which Agricola was recalled to Rome.

Emperor Vespasian
Agricola's military and political career was not solely in Britannia, some time was spent in other parts of the Roman Empire as he rose through the ranks and followed a fairly usual career path. He returned to Britannia in AD 69 (after Vespasian became Emperor) to take command of the Legio XX Valeria Victrix, and was in this post until AD 73. These two senior postings alone would have given him a reasonably good physical knowledge of the geography, and of the political situation, of a good chunk of England and Wales, if not of all of it.

It's not certain, but it may be possible that during the governorship of Vettius Bolanus (AD 69-71), or Quintus Petilius Cerialis (approx. AD 71-74) , Agricola was involved in sending exploratory Roman troops into what is now termed southern Scotland –recent archaeological explorations are pointing to some form of occupation during this time (small fortlets being created or re-timbered) Whether he accompanied any of these troops, I feel confident that Agricola would have been in a position to keep abreast of any new knowledge of recently explored territory.

When Agricola returned to Britannia in AD 77/78, to take up the roles of commander of all of the Britannic legions and as Governor of the province, his intent seemed to be clear. His aim was to subdue any resisting tribes in what we now call England and Wales, but he also intended to invade and dominate the whole of the island of Britannia. By then he had been in different posts, both administrative and with direct military command. However, I feel that the desire to invade the whole of Britannia came from much deeper in Agricola's past and wasn't born purely of military intent to extend the Roman Empire's boundaries.

What would make me think this?

Cornelius Tacitus
Agricola's son-in-law, Cornelius Tacitus, wrote that Agricola was said to have taken 'an unhealthy interest in philosophy', possibly like the father he had never known and who was dead before Agricola was even walking or talking. Looking at an issue from many approaches, to find practical answers, may not have been typical of all military oppressors but if Agricola enjoyed philosophy as a youth, perhaps that was why it was also written that Agricola was skilled at organising, and encouraging, the civic structure that Rome imposed on subdued tribes across southern Britannia when they were absorbed into the Roman Empire.

Agricola was educated in Massilia (Marseilles) before being sent to Britannia as a tribune. I believe it would have been entirely reasonable that he had been told of, or read of, the Greek explorer Pytheas during his time in Marseilles. Pytheas had been one of Massilia's famous (to some infamous) inhabitants.

Pytheas - Marseilles
During the fourth century BC, Pytheas, a mathematician and seafarer from the Greek colony of Massilia, voyaged into the North Sea. His incredible voyage was known in antiquity but the details of it have now been lost, and we only know of it via some later Roman and Greek writers. Pytheas was said to have been seafaring in search of trading goods, probably including tin, which at the time of his travels was a valuable constituent of bronze. Apart from noting some sources of tin in southern England, it seems Pytheas' voyage was maybe not a complete commercial success.

However, his sailing journal was highly important as he sailed the coastline of what was named the 'Kassiterides Islands' (Britain). His journal details the trip up the east coast of Britain as far north as Orkney, Shetland and possibly a good way into the northern Atlantic towards Iceland and Greenland (Thule/ Hyperborea). Having decided it was impossible to sail through what was like 'water and slush ice', or walk over it; he turned around and sailed home. Derided by other scholars in antiquity, Pytheas' observations of the northern Atlantic deemed too fanciful, his notes are now regarded as being very perceptive of the places and peoples he visited, and relatively accurate in astronomical terms.

Pytheas also claimed to have circumnavigated the Kassiterides Islands and claimed he had 'travelled all over it on foot'. The former is likely, but the latter a whole lot less likely, though he may have set foot on some of it. However, whether Pytheas set foot on any of it, I think that Agricola had heard of the exploits of Pytheas and wanted to prove the seafarer's claim that Britannia was, indeed, a navigable island.

I like to think that the adventures of Pytheas gave Agricola some hunger to find out for himself what the whole island of Britannia was like. It's likely that Agricola's education in Marseilles would have included the military campaign history of the Republic and of the Empire, knowledge which I think he absorbed readily in advance of him coming to Britannia. I like to imagine that Agricola went as a young tribune to Britannia knowing about the landings of Julius Caesar in 55BC, and 54 BC. And he was sure to know a lot more about the invasions of the Emperor Claudius in AD 43 since that was not long after Agricola was born in AD 40.

His aim to control the whole island was ambitious and it was within his grasp, according to Tacitus, but Agricola's recall to Rome in late AD 84 (or early AD 85) probably put paid to Agricola proving his troops had been everywhere – unless new archaeological information surfaces to clarify that Agricola's troops didn't only march to the Moray Firth, but that they marched all the way to Caithness, as well.

What must Agricola have been feeling when he was ordered to return to Rome in late AD 84 (or early AD 85), if he had (personally) come so close to have covered the whole of the island, yet hadn’t quite controlled it all?

Writing about those potentially crushing feelings in Book 4 of my Celtic Fervour series has been a very difficult, but strangely rewarding process for me.

The launch of Book 4, Agricola's Bane, is due soon (summer 2018).
NB: This is a sneak preview of my cover design! 

Till next Friday, when I have a guest contributor, have an exciting week.

ps. My Celtic Fervour series is available in ebooks till Beltane/May 1st. at 99p/99c across Amazon


All images from Wikimedia Commons- including this new one

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