Fit for Roman Glory: the Life of Agricola

Written by on February 14th, 2014. Subject: History. Filed in Roman, about Tacitus Agricola

|||Tacitus. Agricola, Germany, and Dialogue on Orators. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub, 2006.|||

Satue of Agricola But, as with the faces of men, so are the portraits of faces feeble and transitory, while the quality of the mind is immortal, which you could preserve and express not by another’s material and skill, but by your won character. Whatsoever in Agricola we loved and admired, that remains and is going to remain in the minds of men, in the never-ending span of time, by the glory of his achievements; for oblivion will overwhelm many men of old as if they were without glory and of no rank: Agricola will survive, his story told and transmitted to posterity. ch. 46.

Tacitus writes the Agricola primarily, as he says at the end, so that “Agricola will survive, his story told and transmitted to posterity.1” But as we read of Agricola and the circumstances of his career, we understand rather sensibly that the purpose for writing the biography stems from a more general need to outline and praise what it is that makes a good Roman, even under an oppressive regime. Agricola, it seems, is an example which we (if we were Romans) should follow if we wish to have an honorable and admirable career. How Tacitus accomplishes this is first by outlining and explaining the circumstances that lead to Agricola’s admirable character. Then he relates the early renown which Agricola won and how Vespasian rewarded him. Finally, Tacitus tells us of how Agricola won his triumph and how the embittered emperor Domitian constrained his career.

Tacitus tells us that Agricola’s education was “a well-balanced mixture of Greek sophistication and frugality.2” We are told that Agricola dedicated himself “enthusiastically to the study of philosophy, to an extent greater than was fitting for a Roman” but that his mother, with good Roman prudence “restrained his eager and excited spirit.3” Generally, the Romans were suspicious of philosophy, although they could admit, on occasion, of its importance—of which Tacitus being so eager to present the philosophic enthusiasm of a young Agricola is an example. Still, Tacitus subordinates the influence of philosophy to the more moderate Roman tendencies toward pragmatism and dutifulness: “he [Agricola] retained from his contact with philosophy a sense of proportion that is very difficult to acquire.4

Considering the positive qualities which Tacitus ascribes to Agricola, it is not surprising that he is so successful during the first of his military assignments. As we would expect of a man of his character, he “did not behave with the license of young men who turn their military service into dissipation, nor did he…take advantage of his rank of tribune and his inexperience to pursue his personal pleasure and obtain leaves of absence.5” Instead, “he spent his time getting to know the province, becoming known to the army, learning from experienced men, taking the best men as models, seeking nothing from personal advantage, refusing no assignment because of fear, and performing his duties.6” Tacitus is clear that the growth of Agricola’s experience, his adherence to duty, and the recognition of his renown was due to his character, which had molded him as a child. Even a corrupt governor and a corrupting province could not entice him: “neither the province nor the man [the governor Salvius Titianus] corrupted Agricola, although the province was wealthy and wide open to wrongdoers.7” Over all, Agricola’s early military career was typified by his being “practiced in obedience and trained to join the advantageous with the honorable,8” which brought him recognition and honor. “Thus, by his conscientious devotion to duty and his modesty in speech, he escaped envy but was not without glory.9

Because he understood his office, respected authority and acted dutifully Tacitus tells us that Agricola won renown. Vespasian, who had become emperor, recognized Agricola’s good character and raised him to the patrician class and then appointed him governor of Aquitania. Although Agricola had only had success as a military leader, Tacitus tells us that the same good qualities that made him successful in war made him successful in political life: “Agricola, with his innate good sense, acted with ease and justice although among civilians.10” These qualities were that “he was serious, attentive, stern, and yet more often compassionate: when he had done his duty, he put aside the appearance of power.”

Soon after Agricola was raised up by Vespasian he was given the governorship of Britain. As we would expect, he exercised the same good sense and character while leading Britain as he had previously in service. He set about his duty immediately and without delay, striving to reorganize what had become a disorganized Roman presence in Britain. Because of this, he soon become even more famous. We are told by Tacitus that he “was considered famous and great, since hard work and danger had been his choice on his entry into his province, a time that others pass in display and the quest for popularity.11” And just as before, “Agricola [did not] take advantage of the successful outcome of events for personal gratification…he did not even report his achievements in wreathed dispatches.12” While governing Britain, Agricola’s humility served him well. Since he was mindful of his duties and did not care to flatter or indulge himself, he won great renown. Tacitus tells us that he “increased his renown by his concealment of renown.13

But what made Agricola especially great was that although he was respectful and dutiful he also was prudent and just. While governing Britain Agricola raised those around him to a higher level of excellence. We are told that he did not raise up or promote staff for any other reason than merit. While most Governors would surround themselves with sycophants, Agricola “considered each best man the most reliable.14” While a governor he would “[praise] discipline, and [rebuke] the disorderly.15” He also promoted the general growth and establishment of civilization in the towns through “[encouraging] individuals and [assisting] communities to build temples, fora, and homes.16” For this, we are told by Tacitus, Agricola won the respect and obedience not just of his Roman soldiers, but of the Britons as well; “thus competition for honor took the place of compulsion.17

For his efforts in Britain Agricola won the admiration of the Roman people and the resentment of the emperor Domitian. Agricola had earned through his labors a true Roman triumph. He would receive the title and regalia but be denied the pomp and celebration. After his triumph, Agricola would relinquish his governorship to Britain and retire. His retirement, we are told, was because “[Domitian] realized that his recent fake triumph over Germany had held him up to ridicule…and now a real and great victory was being celebrated with tremendous renown.18” But despite what would ultimately become a derailed career, Agricola nobly maintained his dutiful mindset and his respect for authority.

By recounting the circumstances that surrounded Agricola’s retirement from public life, Tacitus contrasts the nobility of his father-in-law to the baseness of the emperor. Domitian resented Agricola because he was a better ‘Roman’ than him. He could not stand that the “name of a subject was raised above the emperor’s.19” Domitian, Tacitus tells us, had methodically eliminated any of exceptional talent. Agricola’s success, to the emperor, undermined this. If Agricola was seen as a better general, or, to put it frankly, a Roman more worthy of glory, than Domitian, then “in vain had public eloquence and the prestige of political careers been crushed and silenced.20

With Agricola’s renowned success in Britain, and with the successive failures in Germany, he was “demanded as general by the voice of the common people.21” He was never given the opportunity. Because of this popularity, Agricola was in danger of being ostracized. The danger, we are told, “was not [from] any charge or complaint of injury to anyone, but [because of] an emperor hostile to excellence;22” excellence which Agricola had. What saved Agricola from what seemed a certain death and the appropriation of his property was, as expected of a good Roman, Agricola’s sense of propriety and his deferment of honor to Domitian. Domitian, we are told, “was appeased by Agricola’s sense of proportion and insight, since he did not pursue renown and an untimely end by willful stubbornness and a useless display of liberty.23

What Agricola represents to us is that virtu wins one glory whatever the circumstance. Because of Agricola, we can know that a “great man can exist even under bad emperors; and allegiance and moderation, if hard work and vigorous action are added.24” Tacitus ends his biography by encouraging us to look at the mind of Agricola as that which made him great; a mind, we must note, that was not intellectually large, but prudentially large. We are to look to Agricola as someone we should emulate because he understood his place and he did his duty. We are to see his achievements as examples of honor and glory which can be won and recognized even within an oppressive environment. It does not matter that Domitian stifled his career; Agricola as a great Roman continued to be admired, even in his day; “whatsoever in Agricola we loved and admired, that remains and is going to remain in the minds of men…by the glory of his achievements.25

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B. R. Mullikin is the founder of NetCrit. He also is an Editor for The Lost Country, and has many other literary and academic projects.

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  1. ch. 46. 

  2. ch. 4. 

  3. ibid 

  4. ibid 

  5. ch. 5. 

  6. ibid 

  7. ch. 6. 

  8. ch. 8. 

  9. ibid 

  10. ch. 9. 

  11. ch. 18. 

  12. ibid 

  13. ibid 

  14. ch. 19. 

  15. ch. 20. 

  16. ch. 21. 

  17. ibid 

  18. ch. 39. 

  19. ibid 

  20. ibid 

  21. ch. 41. 

  22. ibid 

  23. ch. 42. 

  24. ibid 

  25. ch. 46.