Thursday, 15 October 2020

HWF October Blog Hop - A long tale of 2 men!

Tacitus & Agricola

When the Historical Writers Forum suggested an October Blog Hop, with the theme of ‘Our Favourite Historical figures…and why’, I jumped in with both feet! Though, I'm about to cheat since I have two joint-favourite historical figures.

The two previous posts on the October Blog Hop have been about very interesting figures. There's Lynn Bryant's Peninsular war Hero Sir Edward Codrington and my Ocelot Press fellow author Jen Wilson's Mary Queen of Scots.  You can hop on over and read them at your leisure...

But on this hop - here are my big feet! And my long and well-paced-out post of two men...

One foot is for Gnaeus Iulius Agricola.

And the other is for Publius Cornelius Tacitus, the ancient writer to whom I can credit most of what I know of Agricola

This post is about the influence of Cornelius Tacitus on the knowledge of Gnaeus Iulius Agricola, and of Roman Britain in general during the 1st Century AD. Agricola has featured a lot on this blog already, in the context of me writing my Celtic Fervour Series, but today I'm presenting Agricola via the lens of Tacitus, the mannie on the top right corner of the HWF poster. 

Hand up if you’ve ever heard of General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola?

Raise your hand again if you knew that Ancient Roman troops advanced all the way to the Moray Coast in north-east Scotland, and that Agricola possibly camped opposite my house when on that northerly invasion?

No, that isn’t a trick question.

General Agricola- Bath 

My fascination with Agricola starts with the Roman temporary marching camp at Deer’s Den, Kintore, north-east Scotland, and the fact that one corner of the temporary camp rampart was situated about 30 metres from my garden gate. There’s archaeological dating evidence that strongly suggests the huge encampment was created by Agricola’s troops during the Flavian era, c. AD 83/84. (The extent of the camp approx. 60 average football pitches.) Learning that potentially 10,000 Roman soldiers tramped over my garden, it kick-started my need to write about Ancient Roman invasions of northern Britannia. 

There are no written records from the indigenous Iron-Age tribes, and the main ‘GO TO’ reference from antiquity was written by Publius Cornelius Tacitus. (Pliny the elder, Suetonius, Cassius Dio and other ancient writers like Josephus, Statius, Zonoras – make brief mentions but don’t fill in much detail.)

Tacitus - Agricola’s son-in-law - wrote about the life of Agricola in De vita et moribus Iuilii Agricolae, and in the Annals. The purpose of Tacitus’ Agricolae is unclear. It may have been an extended eulogy (laudatio or encomium) to give proper honour to Agricola, though it was written (or published?) about four years after Agricola’s death in AD 93. Some scholars accept it as a biography of Agricola’s military career, spent in Britannia. Others believe it's a political document, only ‘published’ (perhaps orated at the Roman Forum?) after the assassination of Emperor Domitian in AD 96 when Tacitus felt it was safe to write it, and publicly share it. Some scholars name it a historiography, written by someone who lived during the era, even though Tacitus was unlikely to have been present at (most of) the events related.

Cornelius Tacitus
lithograph by Julien

Regardless of Tacitus’ purpose, his statements about Agricola’s achievements fascinate me. They also make me want to fill in the gaps with the known archaeological record. And that, in turn, is totally absorbing since being ‘organic’ archaeological theories are frequently modified, or altered, when up-to-date scientific techniques give us a better (different) perspective of discoveries in Britannia.

So, what do I know about General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola? Does a man become a great invader overnight? I don't think so!

Here are some of the supposed 'facts' about Agricola - as come down to us from Tacitus - and plenty of my own observations which are prefaced by **. Take a deep breath and… read on, because Agricola was in Britannia for the bulk of his career. The problem is that the intertwined stories of Tacitus and Agricola do not follow in absolutely cast-iron chronological order, and the historical record of Tacitus does not always 'match' the archaeological one. Known and guessed-at become confusing! 

Gnaeus Iulius Agricola [most dates are not precise]

Born 13th June AD 40, Forum Iulii, Narbonensis (southern Gaul).

His father: Iulius Graecinus - a senator who achieved the rank of praetor; wrote literary works on vine cultivation. Unfortunately Graecinus was too principled and (probably) too outspoken. Graecinus refused to prosecute M. Silanus (a second-cousin of the emperor) and his execution was ordered by Emperor Gaius/Caligula when Agricola was an infant.

adapted - Nancy Jardine

Agricola’s CareerCursus Honorum  - normal entry at approx. 18 (by virtue of his father’s patrician status.) This was the usual age to do initial army service and to begin on a ‘Roman’ career. Before this, Agricola was said to have been studious and was very inclined towards philosophy, according to his mother. However, philosophy probably didn’t pay the bills, so he embarked on the usual military and political career. 

AD 58-62 Agricola's first posting to Britannia 

Tribune under Governor of Britannia, Suetonius Paulinus. Possibly as a member of Paulinus’ personal staff. Perhaps assigned to Legio II Augusta, since Tacitus mentions the name Poenius Postumus, who was the Legio II Augusta camp prefect. 

**The importance of this military posting? Paulinus was in charge of subduing Boudica’s Iceni rebellion of 61. Agricola may well have been very close to that action and may have experienced his first confrontational engagement with the enemy. He might have gained good knowledge of the tribes of Britannia and perhaps even learned some of the local language/ dialects during his 4 years there. 

AD 62 Back to Rome; marries the well-connected Domitia Decidiana. Civic/military position unknown but probably administrative. 

AD 64 Quaestor (province of Asia) Public official; lowest ranking position but early rung on the political ladder. Tacitus indicates that Agricola was not enamoured with the corruption that was rife across the province, the present governor just a little bit implicated.

AD 66 prestigious post in Rome as a tribune of the plebs An important step if entry to the Senate was on the ‘big’ plan.

AD 68 Praetor in Rome. An elected magisterial position. Agricola appears to have spent the usual time at most of his earlier administrative posts and was in those positions at the earliest possible times, according to the fairly rigid career structure. 

AD 69 he is documented as 'cataloguing the temple treasures' during Galba's short term as emperor. 

**However, regarding the job of Praetor, I like the fact that Agricola seemed to have earned ‘bonus points’ i.e. a year’s remission two times over, by becoming a father to two children in quick succession. This meant Agricola was a Praetor at a ‘young’ age and two years earlier than the normal on the Cursus Honorum. I like to think it was because of his dedication to doing a good job and to his competence levels. Sadly, around this time, his first-born - a son (name not known) - seems to have died the same year that his daughter Julia Agricola was born.

AD 69 -73 Agricola's second posting to Britannia

In AD 69, the civil war across the Roman Empire ended. Vespasian became emperor, and Agricola received a posting in Britannia as Legate of the Legio XX 

**This, I believe, is a pivotal point in Agricola’s career. I think a personal hunger to subdue the whole island of Britannia probably began when he was given this position of higher command. 

AD 69 One of Agricola’s immediate tasks after arriving in Britannia was to whip the Legio XX into better disciplinary shape, since there had been seditious disruption under the command of Roscius Coelius during the Civil War period of 68 into 69. 

**It’s possible that as a follower of Vespasian, Agricola needed to do a bit of persuasion within the Legio XX to bring them over to Vespasian’s side. The three emperors prior to Vespasian had not had sufficient allegiance among the 28 (approx.) legions across the empire to keep themselves in power.  In 69, Vespasian controlled enough legions to assume power, but he also needed to have it continue that way.

**If true that Agricola needed to ensure the obedience of the Legio XX , it would have required him to have a selection of well-used skills of persuasion. He'd have needed to engender sufficient respect and to have instilled firm leadership. This experience would have stood him in good stead for the even more senior commands which were still to come. 

**During the period of 69-71, under Vettius Bolanus as Governor of Britannia, Tacitus doesn’t mention any particular events that put Agricola into the limelight. However, it’s possible that if Bolanus ordered invasion and expansion into northerly territory that had not yet been occupied (Brigantia and maybe Caledonia), and if Agricola was involved in this exploration with the Legio XX, it would have given Agricola very useful first-hand knowledge of the nature of the terrain and of problems in subduing the natives. 

Wikimedia Commons- 'Frere'

**Recent archaeological dating is providing more evidence of occupation of northern Brigantia and southern Caledonia during the late 60s. Tacitus does not write about this – though it's unknown if this was on purpose. However, not hearing about activity in these areas from Agricola himself seems unlikely - unless the lack of settled success at that time meant Tacitus did not mention it because he had no desire to 'spoil' Agricola's record.  

**Traditional (early) historians gave Agricola the main credit for invading Caledonia during the period 77-84 because they largely relied on Tacitus' account of Agricola's 7 'summer-long' military campaigns. (campaign season traditionally March - October). Frere's map above was constructed in the 1950s/1960s mainly using the information given to us by Tacitus. The map is now regarded as 'out of date' but if you imagine some of the grey, and pale blue lines of Bolanus and Cerialis extending into Caledonia by the late 60s/early 70s, perhaps even as far as the central belt of Scotland, it's quite mind-blowing. The possibility changes the 'beliefs' of centuries of historians. But what would make Tacitus not mention any Caledonian invasion during the tenure of Bolanus? 

Archaeology is inching closer towards proving more conclusively that there were quite a few Caledonian incursions during the late 60s. If so, it seems reasonable to suggest that a more settled climate in parts of northern Brigantia was necessary for this and maybe Agricola's Legio XX was responsible for some control in western tribal areas. 

It's a good place to note, however, that what was invaded did not always stay settled without serious military control. 

AD 71 Quintus Petillius Cerialis became Governor of Britannia. (Cerialis was Emperor Vespasian's son-in-law. Favouritism? Cronyism? It's definitely not a new concept!) Cerialis had prior knowledge of the province of Britannia having been in command of the Legio IX Hispana during the Boudican rebellion. Even though Cerialis seems to have been unsuccessful in the 'bloody battles with Boudica, Tacitus indicates Cerialis redeemed himself during a later posting in Germania. Cerialis' conduct in Germania was then sufficient for him to be made Governor of Britannia in AD 71. 

Agricola was still in Britannia at this point, still commanding the Legio XX

In AD 71, the Brigantes Tribal Federation (roughly speaking present day Yorkshire/ Cumbria and Northumberland) was causing Rome an even greater headache than before, and this is where Agricola’s career becomes more interesting. General Cerialis stepped up the expansionist /settling processes in Brigantia. According to Tacitus, Cerialis again commanded the Legio IX Hispana and actively subdued more of eastern Brigantia, while Agricola campaigned on the western side with his Legio XX.  

Stamp Legio IX Hispana
Carlaeon Fortress 
Wikimedia Commons

(Think of this as being a positive step for the Romans, but they still had to ensure control everywhere to the south of their latest campaign area and 'Wales' was proving to be continually troublesome.) 

** These northern engagements would have given Agricola a lot more experience of the landscape of northern Britannia, and he would have acquired really useful knowledge of the tribes of the north. I also think that if he did not already understand/speak some of the local language/s then this 4-year posting would have been the perfect time for him to learn. 

**Why do I think Agricola would have bothered to learn anything about the local tribes? I think it was in his interest to do so, but being of a philosophical 'bent' (according to Tacitus) it would have been natural for him to want to know about them so that he could implant Roman values on them more easily. 

**Some linguists, and philological experts, lean towards a theory that there may have been a common 'tongue' that existed across Europe at this time 2000 years ago (a very early form of  'Old Welsh'/ i.e. a basic 'Celtic' language). This, they propose, would have been understood in a basic form across huge areas of Europe, though was probably spoken with regional dialects. This is a notion which I have to say inspires me so much I've used it in Book 5 of my Celtic Fervour Series. 

The Roman army was drawn from so many geographical areas, so spoken Latin is surmised to have been at the most basic level for the bulk of the lower ranks. As Roman citizens of high status, Agricola and his fellow officers would have spoken fluent Latin, but that doesn't mean they'd not have had a smattering of the indigenous language of their birth-region. 

AD 73 Agricola goes back to Rome. Achieved official patrician status 

AD 73-76 (approx.) Governorship of Aquitania. At this time of the empire, Aquitania had no permanent legion stationed there since the area had been settled for decades, and was peacefully 'Roman' oriented. This posting was possibly an easy job as a 'pen pusher' for Agricola and of a civic nature rather than military. Probably useful for picking up the skills he needed later for administration in Britannia. 

AD 76 or 77 Agricola Back in Rome and made Suffect consul A highly prestigious post. He was also elevated to the College of Pontiffs. the highest-ranking priests of the 'state religion'. Tacitus indicates that Agricola took his Pontiff status seriously, being highly religious and typically superstitious. Although being a member of the college of Pontiffs was, by then, a pretty nominal post with few duties attached.

AD 77 (?) Tacitus is betrothed to Agricola's daughter Julia. They marry the following year (78?) 

AD 77-84 (or very early 85) Agricola's third posting to Britannia 

AD 77 (approx.) marks the beginning of Agricola's 3rd term in Britannia. His title was Legatus Augusti pro praetore, the ‘Augusti’ part meaning he was governor of a province where legions were stationed, and that Agricola had been specially chosen by the emperor (Vespasian). Agricola commanded in place of Emperor Vespasian across the province - top dog over any other Britannic official! 

**It was fairly unusual to be serving in a place for a third time, so Agricola may have been regarded as a bit of a 'specialist' regarding Britannia. Because Agricola had a typical career background, including posts as a civic administrator, he perhaps also felt compelled to mould Britannia into shape as a better-run province both in military and 'municipal' terms. Tacitus notes that Agricola had been disturbed and appalled by the corruption that was rife at the top echelons of Roman administration when he was a quaestor in the province of Asia and was firm about it being eradicated from the running of Britannia. Tacitus speaks of Agricola being proud of the civic reforms that he instigated and the Roman customs that he established.  

**I think by AD 77 Agricola was also hell-bent on conquering all of the Britannic territory that had not been invaded and already deemed to be settled.

c. Nancy Jardine (some of the known forts)

What then were Agricola's targets between approx. AD 77 and the end of 84?

During his very long tenure of some seven years as Governor of Britannia, Agricola systematically seems to have made his mark on, and/or subdued many of the northern tribes. He either re-used temporary camp sites, or forts, established by his predecessors (Bolanus, Cerialis, Frontinus) or he created new ones. 

Archaeology is truly wonderful, but it's really difficult to be absolutely sure of what Agricola and the Roman legions managed during the years 77-84. Interpretative evidence suggests that he conquered, or at least had permanent forces monitoring stability in:

  • What we would now term Wales.
  • What we now call all of northern England
  • Probably most of southern and some of central belt Scotland

Agricolan Era forts c. Nancy Jardine 

**I like to think that the seriously magnificent supply fortress of Inchtuthil was ordered to be built by Agricola. Inchtuthil is the most northerly fortress in the whole Roman Empire and might be the one Ptolemy names as Pinnata Castra (not Victoria since the map created from his co-ordinates is very skewed). Since I'm a writer of fiction, I've included Inchtuthil/ Pinnata Castra in my Celtic Fervour Series, Agricola visiting it in Book 5 Beathan The Brigante. There is also a short story the Ocelot Press Anthology Doorways To The Past where Ruoridh of Garrigill is a bit perplexed about Pinnata Castra in late AD 86, after the Romans have abandoned the huge supply fortress. 

It's hotly contested exactly how much of northern Tayside and Aberdeenshire could have been termed conquered by Agricola. Stracathro (about 37 miles south of Aberdeen) is the most northerly known wooden fort. It's  possibly originally Agricolan, though was also likely to have been used by later Roman forces (Antonine, or more likely Severan).

Beyond Stracathro there's only evidence for temporary camps in north-east Scotland, but there is a wonderful line of them which roughly follows the present-day trunk road named the A 96 (Aberdeen to Inverness). This road skirts the fringes of the Grampian mountains and was possibly much the same route taken by the Agricolan infantry. 

William Roy, the military cartographer of the mid 1700s, made some fascinating maps which indicate stretches of road which may have originally been laid down by Roman troops. [Roy's drawings of some of the Roman forts in Perthshire and Tayside - like Ardoch - are absolutely splendid, and are truly works of art!] When he 'scoped' out some of the Roman activity in the north-east, the construction of the installations was still very visible which meant very accurate measuring. The ditches and ramparts had not yet been ploughed out by aggressive farming techniques.

(Check out The National Library of Scotland for Free online access to the fabulous ROY maps)

Roman Forts and temporary camps
c. Nancy Jardine

Agricola is thought to have built, or reinforced many impressive forts, though it's presently an archaeological guessing game of exactly who ordered the building of which installation. 

But back to my friend Tacitus!

What does Tacitus mention regarding Agricola's exploits in northern Caledonia? Well...we have the magnificently eloquent and prosaic description of the Battle of Mons Graupius. We have Tacitus' poetic version of what Agricola said before the battle when rallying his troops, which may have been upwards of 20,000 men. We have Tacitus' version of what the Caledonian leader Calgacus shouted to rouse his 30,000 warriors into a frenzy. We have Tacitus' version of how the battle progressed and of how after a horrendous bloody conflict some 350 Romans died compared to 10,000 of Calgacus'  Caledonians.

What we don't have is an attested battle site, or a shred of evidence that a battle actually took place. 

Nonetheless - that lack of battle-site evidence didn't stop me writing in a battle between the Caledons and Agricola in my Celtic Fervour Series (Book 3). It's not called Mons Graupius, for how can I prove it? My battle site is called Beinn na Ciche, the present-day hill range at Bennachie, Aberdeenshire,  being one of the main contender sites according to the topographical information given to us by my joint-favourite  man, Tacitus! 

One of my pile of Roman texts
This image is very like Bennachie! 
Bennachie is directly opposite the encampment marked Durno on the above map and Durno is easily large enough to have housed Agricola's upwards of 20,000 troops. At 58 hectares, the Durno camp is the largest in north-east Scotland  and is also big enough to have sheltered the 30,000 men that Emperor Severus brought to the north of Caledonia in AD 210, though Tacitus couldn't have known that fact!

(I've written about Severus and Caracalla at Durno, Beinn na Ciche, in The Taexali Game, my time travel historical)

And sometime soon after Mons Graupius, Agricola was recalled to Rome by Emperor Domitian. Many theories abound about whether Agricola had totally fallen out with Domitian over the conquest of Caledonia. What Tacitus indicates is that from soon after Domitian became emperor, lots of troops were withdrawn from Britannia leaving Agricola very short-handed. Making a conquest in one rebel area means troops cannot be deployed in  a control and monitoring capacity elsewhere and they become stretched too thin! 

Tacitus tells us that Agricola was given the best triumphant regalia possible on his return to Rome, but for some reason entered at night and without 'fuss'. (Only an emperor could enter Rome with his army in tow, and only an emperor could have a triumphal arch built). Unfortunately, if Agricola did have the statue commissioned that Tacitus mentions, it's never been found or identified. Tacitus says that Agricola refused to accept Domitian's offer of a new post and retired to his 'estates' in Gallia Narbonensis. Rumours abound that Agricola did not die of natural causes at the age of 53, some 8 years after leaving Caledonia. 

I'd dearly love to know about the doctors tending Agricola before his death, you know those ones sent by Emperor Domitian! 

During the course of writing the 5 novels in my Celtic Fervour Series, I've added many different posts to this blog about Agricola's exploits in Caledonia which give lots more information about my 2 favourite men. (Please use the blog search box to find more about Agricola or Tacitus). 

The next post in the Historical Writers' Forum is by Sharon Bennet Connely. Hop on over to her blog from the 17th October 2020 and catch her reasons for choosing Matilda Marshal! 

Thank you for reading and enjoy the HWF Blog Hop. 

Celtic Fervour Series link HERE
Inchtuthil (Pinnata Castra) short story - Ocelot PRESS 2020 Anthology -DoorwaysToThePast

(psst! If you're reading this post on the 15th Oct 2020, you'll find some lovely surprises over on Amazon for The Celtic Fervour Series- some reductions and even a FREEBIE!)

SlĂ inte!


  1. This is wonderfully thorough! Thank you so much for the great information. I love the anecdote about soldiers trampling through your backyard. I too, have an obsession with Agricola and writing historical fiction about his life and the people in it. I would love to read your Celtic Fervor Series about him! Also, I'd love to know your thoughts about whether you believe he died of being poisoned by Emperor Domitianus or not. Thank you again for the fantastic blog! I'm a fan already!

  2. I'm sorry not to be able to contact you directly but thank you for visiting, and for your comments. I hope you enjoy reading my Celtic Fervour Series, which is different from most fiction set in the era since the perspective is mostly from the viewpoint of my 'Celtic' Iron age characters, with a little 'Roman' balance coming from my Agricola and a couple of other Roman characters.
    As to Agricola's death it's definitely an interesting theory. However, considering that Tacitus tells us nothing about what Agricola actually got up during approx. 8 year 'retirement' at his Gallia estates it's hard to know if Agricola continued to be political in some way. I'm very tempted to write a 'spin-off' short story about it, but it would definitely be pure fiction and total speculation. ;-)

  3. That would be fascinating to read! That's what I've attempted to do in my own writing. Also I'm sorry but I thought my post had my email address attached: it's I found your post on the HNS facebook page and immediately checked out your blogspot. I've loved going through your previous blogs. They're truly interesting and will gladly keep coming back for news and updates about your books and your thoughts on historical figures like Agricola! Thank you again!


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