Agricola's Conquest of Britain by Tacitus: A.D. 98

Agricola's Conquest of Britain by Tacitus: A.D. 98

Roman historian, Tacitus, authored five works: Agricola was the earliest. Incidentally, Agricola was Tacitus's father-in-law.

Of interest here is the way in which the Romans used both force and culture to enslave the Britons. This post is a bit lengthy, but worth the read as it will give one much to think about: Studying people and events from the past is, in essence, studying people and events today.


August Glen-James, editor

And this was called civilization among those who did not know better, although it was part of slavery.

In chapters 11 & 12, Tacitus writes about the geography and ethnography of Britain

11. Nevertheless, it seems feasible, to one considering the question as a whole [i.e., the origin of the Britons], that the Gauls occupied the neighboring island [i.e., Britain]. You would find in Britain their religious rites and their beliefs in superstitions; their language is not very different, there is the same boldness in demanding dangers and the same dread in fleeing them when they have come. Nonetheless, the Britons display more bravery, since they are a people whom extended peace has not yet weakened. For we have heard that the Gauls too were renowned in wars; soon slothfulness came in together with peace, after manliness and liberty alike were lost. This happened in time past to those of the Britons who had been conquered; the rest remain as the Gauls used to be.

12. Their strength is in infantry; certain tribes also fight from a chariot. The charioteer is the more honorable, his retainers fight in his defense. Formerly they obeyed kings, now they are torn by factions and partisan feelings because of chieftains. Nor is anything more advantageous for us in dealing with very strong peoples than the fact that they do not confer for the common good. Rarely do two or three states join together to ward off a common danger: thus they fight one by one and are without exception conquered.

In chapters 13—17: Tacitus writes about the stages in Rome’s conquest of Britain up to the decades of the 70s.

13. The Britons themselves readily endure the levy and tributes and the duties of subjects that are imposed if abuses are absent: these they hardly tolerate, since they have thus far been sufficiently tamed to obey but not yet to be slaves. [excerpt]

14. Gradually the nearest part of Britain was reduced to the status of a province, with a colony of veterans added in addition. Certain states were presented to King Togidumnus (he remained most faithful without a break up to our time) in accordance with an old and long-standing practice of the Roman people, to use even kings as tools of slavery. [excerpt]

15. Introductory explanation (editor): The Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus, went on campaign against the island of Mona. In his absence, “the Britons considered their injuries. . . .”

For, when fear was removed by the absence of the governor, the Britons discussed among themselves the evils of slavery, compared their injuries, and made them see worse by their interpretation of them: that nothing was gained by enduring them except that more grievous injunctions were put upon them in the belief that they were men who easily bore them. Once they had had single kings, now two were put over them; the governor was violent against their persons and the procurator against their property. The rivalry and agreement of those put over them were equally destructive to the subjects. The agents of one, centurions, and of the other, slaves, mingled violence and insults. Nothing was now safe from their greed, nothing from their lust. In battle it is the stronger who plunders: now, as things were, their homes were seized, their children dragged off, levies imposed upon them as if their country was the only thing for which they did not know how to die, by men who were for the most part cowardly and unwarlike. For how small was the number of soldiers who had come there if the Britons should take a muster of themselves! It was in this way that the Germanies had shaken off the yoke; and yet they were protected by a river, not by the ocean. They, the Britons, had country, wives, parents as reasons for war, the Romans had avarice and luxury. The Romans would withdraw, as the deified Julius had withdrawn, provided only that they copy the bravery of their ancestors. Nor should they be afraid because of the outcome of one or two battles: the successful had more drive, but greater resolution was the possession of the wretched. Now even the gods, who kept the Roman general away and the army far off on another island, were pitying the Britons; now they themselves were taking counsel together, which had been the most difficult thing. Besides, in undertakings of this kind, it was more dangerous to be caught than to dare.

16: Main Points (editor):

The Britons became “aroused” against the Romans and revolted under the leadership of Boudicca, “a woman of royal blood.” Tacitus writes that the Britons “make no distinction of sex in their positions of command.”

The Britons went after soldiers scattered in forts and garrisons first, then they attacked the “colony itself as the capital of slavery, and anger and triumph omitted no kind of savagery found among barbarians.” But the Romans under their governor, Paulinus, “restored it to its old submission by the favorable outcome of one battle.” Were it not for Paulinus, “Britain would have been lost.”

Roman rule then fell to Trebellius Maximus. Tacitus writes:

Trebellius, a more slothful man with no military experience, governed the province with a certain gentleness of administration. The barbarians now learned also to make allowance for attractive vices, and the intervention of civil wars [i.e., in Rome] furnished a legitimate excuse for inactivity; but trouble arose from mutiny, since the soldiers who were accustomed to campaigns grew wanton in peace.

17. Summary (editor): Vespasian became emperor and “recovered Britain along with the rest of the world.” The Romans attacked the Brigantes with success and “reduced by arms the powerful and warlike tribe of the Silures, having overcome the difficulties of terrain as well as the bravery of the enemy.”

In the summer of A.D. 77, Agricola arrived in Britain and, though it was nearing the end of the fighting season, he launched an unexpected and successful campaign in which he garnered great renown.

18. Not long before his [Agricola] arrival, the state of the Ordovices had almost completely wiped out a cavalry unit that was stationed in their territory, and the province was aroused by this first step. Those who wished war approved the precedent and awaited the reaction of the new governor. Although summer was far gone, his detachments were scattered throughout the province, an end of campaigning for that year was assumed among the soldiery, circumstances that delay and are disadvantageous for a person intending to begin war, and it seemed more proper to many that the endangered areas be protected, Agricola decided to meet the crisis head on. After he had gotten together detachments of the legions and a small band of the auxiliaries, since the Ordovices did not dare to descend to the level plain, he led his troops up the hill, himself at the head of the column, so that the rest might have equal courage to face similar danger. And, when he had destroyed almost the entire tribe, realizing full well that one must follow up his reputation and that there would be terror for the rest in accordance with the outcome of first enterprises, he decided to reduce to his power the island of Mona, from the occupation of which I related above Paulinus had been recalled by the revolt of all Britain. But, since his plans were extemporized, ships were lacking: the skill and resolution of the general got the troops across. Laying aside all the baggage, he launched picked auxiliaries—who knew how to find fords and who had native skill in swimming, by which they control themselves, their arms, and horses simultaneously—into the water so suddenly that the enemy, thunderstruck, who were expecting a fleet and ships and an invasion by sea, believed that nothing was too difficult or impossible for men who came to battle in this way. And so, when they had sought peace and surrendered the island, Agricola was considered famous and great, since hard work and danger had been his choice on his entry into hi9s province, a time that others pass in display and the quest for popularity. Nor did Agricola take advantage of the successful outcome of events for personal gratification, or call keeping conquered peoples under control an expedition or a victory; he did not even report his achievements in wreathed dispatches, but increased his renown by his concealment of renown, since people thought what great home for the future had been behind his silence about achievements so great.

19. But, judicious with regard to the province’s feelings, and at the same time taught by the experiences of others that too little was accomplished by arms if injustice followed, he decided to eliminate the causes of wars. Beginning with himself and his subordinates, he first kept his own household in check, a task no less difficult for many than to govern a province. No public business was performed by freedmen and slaves, nor did he promote to his staff a centurion or soldiers on the basis of personal prejudice or upon recommendation or entreaties, but he considered each best man the most reliable. He knew everything, he did not follow everything up. He pardoned small transgressions, he reserved his severity for large ones; he was sometimes content with punishment, more often with repentance; he preferred to put incorruptible men in charge of administration rather than to condemn them after they had done wrong. He made the exaction of grain and tributes more endurable by equalizing the burdens, having eliminated those tricks which, introduced for profit, were more intolerable than the tribute itself. For Britons were farcically compelled to take their stand by closed granaries and actually to buy the grain and satisfy their debt with money; torturous routes and far-off regions were assigned them, so that states would carry their grain into areas distant and lacking roads although winter camps were nearby, until what was easy for all became a source of profit for a few.

20. By putting an end to these things at once in his first year, he gave great repute to peace, which used to be feared no less than war because of the unconcern or the arrogance of his predecessors. But when summer came, after the army had been brought together, he was everywhere on the march, he praised discipline, he rebuked the disorderly; he himself chose the site for the camp, he himself reconnoitered estuaries and forests; and in the meantime he gave the enemy no relaxation, but kept on plundering them with sudden attacks; and when he had terrified them sufficiently, he showed them in contrast the inducements of peace by sparing them. Because of these actions, many states which up to that day had acted from a position of equality gave hostages and put aside their opposition, and were ringed round with garrisons and forts, with such great planning and care that no new part of Britain before this had come over to us with as little loss.

21. The following winter was devoted to very profitable enterprises. For, in order that men who were scattered and uncivilized and for this reason easily moved to wars might become accustomed to peace and quiet through pleasures, he encouraged individuals and assisted communities to build temples, fora, and homes by praising those who were forward and rebuking those who were inactive. Thus competition for honor took the place of compulsion. Furthermore, he educated the sons of chieftains in the liberal arts and gave higher marks to the talents of the Britons than to the studied skill of the Gauls, with the result that those who recently rejected the Latin language desired eloquence. Then too our manner of dress became stylish and there was widespread use of the toga; and gradually they gave in to the attractions of vices, porticoes and baths and the elegance of banquets. And this was called civilization among those who did not know better, although it was part of slavery.

22. The third year of campaigns opened up new peoples, with tribes being laid waste as far as the Taus, which is the name of the estuary. The enemy, overawed by such dread, did not dare to attack the army although it was struck by savage storms; there was even time to establish forts. Experienced men noted that no other general had chosen advantageous sites with greater good sense; no fort established by Agricola was either stormed by the enemy or abandoned by negotiations or retreat; for they were stocked with supplies to last a year against periods of siege. . . . Nor did Agricola ever greedily claim for himself the deeds of others; whether centurion or prefect, a man had in him an honest witness of his achievement. He was reported by certain people to have been too harsh in his censures, and indeed, as he was kindly to the good, so was he unpleasant toward the bad. But no traces of his anger remained hidden away, so that one did not have to fear his silence: he considered it more honorable to give offense than to hate.

23. The fourth summer was devoted to consolidating what he had overrun; and, if the army’s bravery and the glory of the Roman name would permit, a boundary would have been found in Britain itself. . . .

24. In the fifth year of campaigns, having crossed over in the first ship, he defeated tribes unknown up to that time in many successful battles; and he garrisoned that part of Britain that faces Ireland, with hope for the future rather than because of fear, since Ireland, situated between Britain and Spain and convenient also to the Gallic sea, would make a flourishing part of the empire a complete whole, with great mutual advantages. Its area, if compared to Britain, is smaller, but it is larger than the islands of our sea. Its soil and climate and the characters and civilization of its inhabitants differ little from those of Britain; its points of entry and harbors are known through trade and traders. Agricola had given refuge to one of the princes of the people who had been driven out by internal revolt, and kept him with  him under guise of friendship to use if the opportunity appeared. I often heard from Agricola that Ireland could be conquered and help by one legion and a small number of auxiliaries; and that this would be advantageous even with regard to Britain, if Roman arms were everywhere and liberty were, so to speak, removed from sight.

[In the sixth year of his governorship, Agricola set his sights on the Caledonians—a people who inhabited the lands “further north” in what is today Scotland. The Caledonians boldly attacked the 9th Legion in their camp as they slept; however, Agricola, upon learning of the attack, dispatched cavalry and infantry to flank the Caledonians, which led to a Roman victory. We now return to Tacitus. editor]

27. The army, emboldened by their self-esteem and the renown of this success, kept shouting that nothing could resist their bravery and that they should go right through Caledonia and at last, with a continual series of battles, find the boundary of Britain. And those who had just been cautious and wise were eager and boastful after the event. This is the most unfair aspect of warfare: everybody claims success for himself, while misfortunes are charged to one person. But the Britons, having thought that they had been overcome not by bravery, but by the skill of the general in taking advantage of an opportunity, did not relax their arrogance at all, but kept arming their young men, moving their wives and children to safe places, and ratifying the conspiracy of states by meetings and sacrifices. And thus they imparted with inflamed spirits on both sides.

29. In the beginning of the following summer, Agricola, struck buy a personal blow, lost the son who had been born the year before. He bore this misfortune neither with the affectation as many brave men do nor again like a woman with lamentations and grief; and war was one of the remedies in his mourning. As so, sending his fleet ahead, which produced great and vague dread by plundering in many places, and with the army, to which he added those Britons who were the bravest and had been tested by long peace, stripped of heavy baggage, he came to Mount Graupius, where the enemy had already taken up position. For the Britons, by no means disheartened by the outcome of the earlier battle and anticipating either revenge or slavery, and at last taught that a common danger must be beaten back in common, had summoned the strength of all states by embassies and alliances. And now more than thirty thousand armed men were in view, and there were still pouring in all the men of military age and the old men whose age was fresh and green, famous in war and each wearing decorations, when a man named Calgacus, who among many leaders was preeminent in bravery and ancestry, is said to have addressed the gathered multitude, as they demanded battle, in words to this effect: [Tacitus’ chapters 30-32 give this speech.]

30. “As often as I consider the causes of war and our dire straits, I have great confidence that this day and your union will be the beginning of freedom for all Britain; for you have all joined together, you who have not experience slavery, for whom there are no lands further on and not even the sea is safe, with the Roman fleet threatening us. Thus battle and weapons, which are honorable for the brave, are likewise the greatest source of safety even for cowards. Earlier struggles, in which we fought against the Romans with varying success, had a hope of assistance at our hands, since we, the noblest people of all Britain and for that reason living in its innermost sanctuary and not gazing upon any shores of those in slavery, kept our eyes also free from the contagion of conquest. Since we are the most distant people of the earth and of liberty, our very isolation and the obscurity of our renown have protected us up to this day; now the farthest boundary of Britain lies open, and everything unknown is considered marvelous, but now there are no people further on, nothing except waves and rocks, and the Romans more hostile than these, whose arrogance you would in vain try to avoid by obedience and submission. Plunderers of the world, after they, laying everything waste, ran out of land, they search out the sea: if the enemy is wealthy, they are greedy; if he is poor they seek prestige; men whom neither the East nor the West has sated, they alone of all men desire wealth and poverty with equal enthusiasm. Robbery, butchery, rapine they call empire by euphemisms, and when they produce a wasteland, they call it peace.

31. “Nature has willed that a person’s children and relatives be most precious to each one: these are carried off by levies to be slaves somewhere else; even if our wives and sisters have escaped the lust of enemies, they are defiled by men posing as friends and guests. Our property and fortunes are wasted for tribute, our land and its annual produce to provide grain, our very bodies and hands in laying roads through woods and swamps while suffering blows and insults. Slaves born to slavery are sold once and for all, and, in the bargain, are supported by their masters: Britain buys its slavery every day, she feeds it every day. And just as in a household the newest slave is a butt of jokes for his fellow slaves, so, in this long-standing servitude of the world, we, new and unimportant, are sought for destruction; for we do not have fields or mines or harbors for the working of which we may be preserved. Further, bravery and independent spirit on the part of subjects are displeasing to conquerors; and as distance and isolation itself produce greater safety, so are they subject to greater suspicion. Thus, at last, put aside hope of pardon and take courage, whether safety or glory is most precious to you. The Brigantes, under the leadership of a woman [i.e., Boudicca], were able to burn a colony to the ground and storm a camp, and could have thrown off the yoke if good fortune had not turned them to inactivity. We, who are at full strength and unconquered and on the verge of advancing to liberty and not repentance, let us right off, at the first clash, show the kind of men Caledonia has reserved for herself.

32. “Or do you believe that the Romans have the same valor in war as wantonness in peace? Famous because of our disputes and disagreements, they turn the shortcomings of the enemy to the glory of their own army. As prosperity maintains this army, which is made up of the most diverse peoples, so will adversity destroy it, unless you suppose the Gauls and Germans and (I am ashamed to say it) many Britons—although they put their blood at the disposal of another’s tyranny, yet they were enemies for a longer time than they have been slaves—are held by faith and affection. Fear and terror are weak bonds of devotion; as soon as you have removed these, those who have ceased to fear will begin to hate. All the inducements of victory are on our side: no wives encourage the Romans, no parents are going to reproach flight; many of them have no country, or a different one. Few in number, frightened because of what they do not know, anxiously gazing at the sky itself and the sea and the forests, which are all unknown, the gods have handed them over to you as if imprisoned and hypnotized. Do not be frightened by their delusive appearance nor the flash of gold and silver, which neither protects nor wounds. We shall find our allies in the enemies’ very battle line: the Britons will recognize that our cause is theirs, the Gauls will recall their former freedom, the rest of the Germans will desert them just as much as recently the Usipi left them. Nor is there any source of dread behind them: there are deserted forts, colonies of old men, towns weak and suffering from disputes between unreliable subjects and unjust masters. Here is a general, here an army; there are tributes and mines and other punishments of slaves; the decision to endure these forever or to avenge them at once rests upon this field. Therefore, think of your ancestors and your descendants as you go into battle.”

33. They received his speech with enthusiasm, signifying it, as is the custom for barbarians, with a roar and chant and discordant shouts. And now there were moving columns and flashes of weapons as all the most daring men dashed forth; at the same time the line of battle was being drawn up, when Agricola, thinking that his soldiers, although confident and scarcely restrained by the fortifications, should still be harangued, spoke as follows:

“This is the seventh year, fellow soldiers, from the time you began to conquer Britain by your bravery, the auspices of the Roman Empire, and my loyal assistance. In so many campaigns, in so many battles, whether there was need of bravery against the enemy or endurance and hard work almost against nature herself, I have not had any regrets about my troops nor you about your general. Therefore we have gone beyond the limits, I of the governors of old, you of former armies, and we occupy the farthest part of Britain, not by rumor or report, but with a camp and arms: Britain has been discovered and subdued. Often, indeed, on the march, when swamps or mountains and rivers were wearing you out, I heard the words of every very brave individual: ‘When will the enemy be given to us, when the battle:’ They are coming, flushed out of their lairs, and your prayers and prowess have a free field, and everything is easy if you win but difficult if you lose. For, just as the accomplishment of so great a march, the conquest of forests, the crossing of estuaries are splendid and glorious as one goes forward, so are those circumstances that are today most lucky the source of very great danger for men in flight; for we do not have the same knowledge of the terrain or the same abundance of supplies, but armed forces and on these rests everything. As far as I am concerned, I decided long ago that the backs neither of an army not of a general were safe. Therefore not only is an honorable death preferable to a life of disgrace, but safety and renown are inseparable; nor would it be without glory to have fallen at the very limit of land and of the world.

34. “If new tribes and an unknown army had taken up position, I should encourage you by the precedents of other armies: as it is, review your own glories, question your own eyes. These are the men whom you overwhelmed with a shout last year when they had attacked one legion under cover of night; these men are the most given to flight when compared with the rest of the Britons, and for this reason they have survived so long. Just as all the bravest animals rushed against you as you passed through woods and groves and the cowardly and slothful were driven off by the very sound of the column, so the fiercest of the Britons have long since fallen, what is left is a mass of unwarlike cowards. As to the fact that you have at last found them, they have not made a stand, but they have been caught; dire extremity and shock from great fear have fixed their line of battle on this ground, where you are to produce a beautiful and splendid victory. Be done with campaigns, cap fifty years with one great day, prove to the commonwealth that delays of war or causes of revolt could never have been charged to the army.”

Agricola went on to defeat the Caledonians thus completing the conquest of Northern England.  Eventually, he was recalled to Rome and died in A.D. 93.