Also known as Gnaeus Julius Agricola
Governor of Aquitania 74-77
Governor of Britannia 78-84
Born 40 AD died 93 AD
"Each of his grandfathers was an Imperial procurator, that is, of the highest equestrian rank. His father, Julius Graecinius, a member of the Senatorian order, and distinguished for his pursuit of eloquence and philosophy, earned for himself by these very merits the displeasure of Caius Caesar."1
Agricola born was on the 13th June of the year 40 AD at Forum Julii, on the Mediterranean coast of Gaul and educated at nearby town of Massillia. He was to live a life that in many ways exemplifies the sort of life that a Roman citizen was supposed to lead in the early Empire, demonstrating a duty to public service and all the correct character traits that a good Roman was supposed to possess.
We know a great deal more about the life of Agricola then most of his contemporaries for the simple reason that his son-in-law was the Roman historian Tacitus, who applied his considerable literary talents to writing a biography of his father-in-law, known sinply as The Agricola.
Under the Last of the Julians
His first appointemenr was as a Tribunus Laticlavius in the province of Britannia where he served under both Gaius Suetonius Paulinus (who governed from 58-61 AD) and Publius Petronius Turpilianus (governor between 61 and 62 AD).
In 62 AD he returned to Rome, married a lady by the name of Domitia Decidiana, and went "through the regular course of office"; being appointed quaestor for the province of Asia in 64 AD, Tribunus Plebis, the People's Tribune in 66 AD and in 68 AD served as Praetor at Rome. Tacitus however, gives us the impression that when in Rome he kept his head down, and sought to avoid the attention of the emperor Nero, which would very much have been the sensible thing to do in the circumstances.
The year 69, proved to be the year of the four emperors, Nero had been assassinated and civil war ensued, as first Galba, then Otho and then Vitellius took power, and during this period of unrest one of the legions supporting Otho plundered Liguria, where Agricola's mother lived. She was killed and the family estates devasted. Whether this had any effect on Agricola's political affiliations is not known, but when soon afterwards Vespasian made his move to claim the imperial throne, Agricola immediately threw his support behind Vespasian.
Under the first of the Flavians
Vespasian of course, succeeded in his bid to be emperor and Agricola's early and enthusiastic support was noted, his eventual reward was to given the command of the Legio XX 'Valeria Victrix' whose loyalty to the new emperor was suspect. (The legion had originally backed Vitellius and sent a vexellation to Italy in support of his bid for power.)
Agricola was duly despatched to Virconium in Britain to take command of Legio XX. The province of Britannia which was soon to receive a new governor in the form of one Quintus Petilius Cerialis, who was to prove to be a more vigorous and aggressive governor than his predecessor Vettius Bolanus, and his solution to the northern border problem of the Brigantes2, was a straightforward military invasion of the territory of the Brigantes.
Although few details of the campaign are now known to us, the Romans launched a two pronged invasion of the north, with Cerialis commanding the Ninth and Agricola the Twentieth Legion fighting a sequence of successful battles against the Brigantes and effectively bringing to an end the threat posed by the Brigantian king Venutius.
After a successful tour of duty in Britain, Agricola once more returned to Rome in 74 AD, when he formally admitted as a member of the patrician order and appointed as governor of the province of Aquitania, a relatively quiet and peaceful posting after the rigors of northern Britain. After three years in Aquitania he was back in Rome serving as consul whilst awaiting his next posting.
"Appointed to the government of Britain."
In the year 78 AD Agricola was appointed Legatus Augusti Pro-Praetore, that is governor, in this case of the province of Britannia. Given his previous experience in the province Agricola was an obvious choice.
Campaigns in the West
When he arrived in Britain in the summer of 78, he faced an immediate problem in that the tribe of the Ordovices, whose territories encompassed modern north-west Wales had, shortly before Agricola's arrival, risen against the Romans and had ambushed and all but wiped out a detachment of cavalry. Agricola promptly gathered together a small force of veterans and auxiliaries, invaded the territory of the Ordovices, forced them to do battle, defeated them and then proceeded on a campaign of severe retribution against the tribe; "The tribe was all but exterminated."
Not content with this, Agricola then decided to invade the island of Mona or Anglesey, which had long been a centre of resistance to Roman rule 3. Despite the lack of any ships with which to launch a conventional assault on the island, Agricola ordered a detachment of auxiliaries 4 to swim across the Menai Strait and deliver a surprise attack. The defenders soon capitulated - "And so, peace having been sued for and the island given up, Agricola became great and famous."
Campaigns in the North
Having successfully brought north the Ordovices under control Agricola then turned his attention to the north, where of course he had previously served under Quintus Petilius Cerialis in the campaign of the years 70 to 73 against the Brigantes.
In the summer of the year 79 AD Vespasian died, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Titus, but this made no difference to Agricola, who in the campaigning seasons of 79 and 80 he pushed further northwards and first penetrated as far as the Forth-Clyde line 5 and in the year 81 as far as the banks of the Tay. The following summer was "employed in securing what he had overrun" and in particular he built a series of forts across the Forth-Clyde line.
"The tribes inhabiting Caledonia flew to arms, and with great preparations, made greater by the rumours which always exaggerate the unknown, themselves advanced to attack our fortresses, and thus challenging a conflict, inspired us with alarm."
In this his sixth year of the campaign Agricola moved into the "states beyond Bodotria" or essentially north east Scotland, Agricola was aware that the Caledonian tribes were gathering under the leadership of Calagus, a shadowy figure who was now at the forefront of British resistance to Roman domination. Construction began on a series of forts, roads and signal stations, known as the Gask Ridge system designed to monitor and hamper the movement of the Caledonian Tribes.
The first major engagement however, was a surprise assault by the Caledoni on a legionary base of the Legio IX, as Tacitus wrote "they cut down the sentries, who were asleep or panic-stricken, and broke into the camp." Only the timely arrival of reinforcements prevented disaster and only the timely and hasty withdrawal of the Caledoni prevented them from suffering a similar fate at the hands of Agricola.
Agricola responded by moving his forces deeper into the highlands in search of the enemy and towards the end of the summer of 83 located the Caledonian forces somewhere in the Grampian hills. When the two armies met at the battle of Mons Grapius Agricola inflicted a crushing defeat on the Caledoni.
After their defeat, the surviving Caledonian warriors melted back into the mountains, so Agricola contented himself with taking the usual hostages, ordered his fleet to sail around Britain and as the summer was now over, led his troops back to their winter quarters.
"Accordingly the Emperor ordered that the usual triumphal decorations, the honour of a laurelled statue, and all that is commonly given in place of the triumphal procession, with the addition of many laudatory expressions, should be decreed in the senate"
There had been a further change of management in the empire as Titian had died in the September of 81 AD, to be replaced by his brother Domitian. Early in the year 84, Domitian recalled Agricola back to Rome to celebrate his great victory over the Caledoni and announced his replacement as governor of Britain.
Tacitus suggests that Domitian was somehow jealous or fearful of Agricola's success and deliberately prevented Agricola from completing the conquest of Britain - "Predomita Britannia et statim missa"; 'Britain was completely conquered and immediately let go'. It is very likely that Tacitus is echoing the private complaints of his father in law, understandably miffed at being dragged away from Britain just when he'd achieved the upper hand over the Caledoni.
In truth Agricola had already served an unusually long term as governor (the norm was three or four years) and his replacement was therefore nothing out of the ordinary; and if the year of the four emperors had taught anybody anything it was that a successful general with a legion or two at his command could be a candidate for the purple.
He played no further part in public life, and having declined the post of proconsul of Asia spent the rest of his life in retirement, dying at the comparatively youthful age of fifty three in the year 93 AD, possibly, as Tacitus implies, as a result of poison administered at the orders of Domitian.
He was a vigorous and capable military commander responsible for finally pacifying the turbulent Ordovices and for extending the boundaries of the province northwards until they reached beyond the boundaries of the Forth and Clyde and touched the very hem of the highlands. Given another campaigning season or two, he might well have brought the whole island of Britain under his control.
It should be remembered however that Cerialis and the much maligned (by Tacitus) Valerius Bolanus where also active in the north and may very well have already penetrated as far as the Forth-Clyde line; Agicola's conquests where therefore built on the foundations laid by others.
Agricola is also given credit for much of the development of the civilian infrastructure of Roman Britain and for the spread of Roman culture within the relatively youthful province of Britannia. Tacitus specifically lauds his encouragement of the construction and development of local civic amenities by the native Celtic nobility - Agricola urged them privately and helped them officially to build temples, public squares with buildings, and private houses. How much of this process of Romanization was actually down to Agricola and how much of his predecessors or successors is impossible to say. As with his military achievements, Tacitus was eager to promote Agricola's successes and downplay those of others; it is unlikely that the entire process of the Romanisation of Britain within the six years of Agricola's tenure.
1 He was ordered to bring to trial one Marcus Silanus, refused and was put to death by Caligula for his refusal.
2 The Brigantes had expelled their queen Cartimandua on account of her pro-Roman views and replaced her with the decidedly antagonistic Venutius.
3 His predecessor as governor, Paulinus had been on the brink of taking Anglesey in 69 AD, before he was distracted by the little matter of the Boudiccan Revolt.
4 Quite probably the very same Batavi whose amphibious attacks had been victory at the Battle of the Medway a generation previously.
5 As is clear from the description by Tacitus, "Clota and Bodotria, estuaries which the tides of two opposite seas carry far back into the country, are separated by but a narrow strip of land."
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