Who was Agricola?

Simon Turney has painted a vivid picture of a man who learnt his trade fighting Boudicca, but who left his mark.
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Who was Agricola?

The son of a minor nobleman of Gallic birth with a fascination over viticulture, Gnaeus Julius Agricola climbed the ladder of Roman political offices like others of his era, so why is he so important to Roman Britain? Quite simply from the day Julius Caesar landed an exploratory fleet in Kent in 55 BC to the day the empire told Britain to “look to its own defence” in AD 410, no Roman was more involved in shaping the island’s history than Agricola.

At various points in the course of a political career, a Roman of the equestrian or patrician classes would serve in certain roles or posts. The first was that of a military tribune, the equivalent of an untrained commissioned officer serving over the centurions but under the legion’s commander where they might be used for logistical purposes or to relay commands etc. Later in a man’s career, he would command a legion as its legatus. He would also serve as a governor of a province, at least once if not twice.

Where Agricola is unusual is that he served many of his major postings in the same province. As well as a questorship in Asia and a minor gubernatorial role in Aquitania, he spent the three aforementioned roles all in Britain, and perhaps made more out of those positions than most did.

As I already intimated, the junior tribune was usually a political appointee, a young and inexperienced noble just enduring a two-year posting in order to secure a better political post, a sort of upper-class National Service in ancient Rome. Agricola received his posting in Britain. There may be a number of reasons for this. There is good reason to presume a connection between his family and those of the Flavii and the Plautii, both of whom had been involved in the initial conquest of Britain less than two decades earlier. Familial connections were a common method of securing position, and Agricola would be no stranger to this. We do not know to what legion Agricola was sent, but there is good reason to believe it was the 2nd Augusta in Exeter. Tacitus tells us that Agricola was taken into the command staff of the governor on his arrival, and so from AD 58 to AD 60, Agricola stomped around the hills and valleys of Wales with the army of Suetonius Paulinus. As such he would have been involved in the first attacks on Anglesey. But more importantly he would have been involved in the war that dragged the governor back from Wales. A certain redhead over in East Anglia by the name of Boudicca rose with her tribe and burned three cities. Agricola would have been with the army that raced south and east and brought the wronged queen of the Iceni to battle on Watling Street. In that campaign and its aftermath, he would have also made new and important imperial contacts, including Titus, son of the future emperor Vespasian, and Petilius Cerialis, son in law of the same emperor.

After a brief sojourn in Asia, Agricola proved himself a close friend of the Flavian family during their meteoric rise to power during the year of the four emperors, along with Ceralis who he’d met in Britannia. He was given a minor role in raising troops, and then, once Vespasian was settled, given a new task. Cerialis was to be assigned as governor of Britain, but one of the legions on the island was rebelling, and had been since the time of the previous governor. Agricola was therefore made commander of the Twentieth Valeria Victrix in Chester, and sent back to Britain for a second stint. Arriving on the island, he seems to have essentially settled the legion with a mix of stern admonishment and accepting reason. A sort of ‘we all know what you did, but pull yourselves together and we’ll never speak of this again.’ It worked, perhaps because he was already a wartime veteran of the island, and probably already knew important men in the army. Once the Civilis revolt in Germany was settled, Cerialis arrived and he and Agricola set about the conquest of the North. Wales being now largely settled, the two men formed a two-pronged attack on the Brigantes, the largest tribe in England. In a few short years the two soldiers had the Brigantes surrounded, suppressed, and beginning the process of Romanisation. In 73, Agricola is recalled, sent to govern Aquitania, and the conquest of Britain takes a breather. In fairness, the governors that followed did, in fact, apparently advance the cause somewhat, but our focus is on Agricola, so we should note that he has now fulfilled both military roles on the ladder in the same province, overcoming some of the most powerful tribes on the island and exploring the frontier regions both times.

After a time in France, then, Agricola is made consul, granting him access to the more powerful and important provinces. It should be little surprise that Vespasian, emperor of Rome, family friend of Agricola and veteran of the British invasion, sends Agricola in AD 77/78 to take on the governorship of the island. Likely Agricola is given the remit “finish the conquest.” Agricola is governor of Britain under the aegis of all three of the Flavian emperors, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, between then and 83. Agricola has been a tribune and a legate in Britain, a governor in Aquitania, and a questor in Asia, and puts into play everything he learned in all those years. The conquest of Britain would be completed by probably the only man who had ever spent most of his career, a quarter of his life, on the island.

The Roman border was now along the line of the Tyne/Solway isthmus. Arriving in AD 77, Agricola puts down a rebellion in North Wales and invades Anglesey yet again. With Wales finally under control, in 78 he takes control of the northern corridor, the Cheviots, the territory of the Selgovae, and likely takes the peaceful annexation of Northumberland. In 79 he advances across the Tay and consolidates on the Gask Ridge, taking the Roman border ever northward. In 80, the consolidation of currently held territory continues, and in 81 the area of Dumfries and Galloway is taken under control, with Agricola even contemplating an invasion of Ireland, an exiled Irish prince in his retinue. Then in 82 there are disasters, northern campaigns, and a general push towards the Highlands. With the arrival of 83, he finally manages to force the remaining tribes of the Highlands, the confederation of the Caledonii, to meet him in battle at a place Tacitus calls Mons Graupius, probably the hill of Bennachie. There, a great, climactic battle sees Agricola as master of Britain from south coast to north, east coast to west, with only Ireland outside his control. Indeed, he even sends a fleet to circumnavigate the island, an event that seems to be borne out by archaeology in the form of bronze plaques found in York that references one of the sailors.

Yes, I know. Scotland was not Roman. But it was conquered by Rome. At the end of AD 83, Agricola could safely claim that Britannia was Roman. The process of Romanisation even seems to have begun. What happened next was, in reality, nobody’s fault. Agricola, having served longer than anyone could ever expect on the island, a man now very much one with Britannia, was withdrawn to Rome, having served an extraordinarily lengthy governorship. He there simply retires, suffers increasing ill health, and finally dies with honour and dignity. And while the world continues to damn the emperor Domitian, we cannot lay the blame for the lack of Britain’s conquest at his feet. With Britain home to more Roman military than any other province, Domitian was faced with disastrous border incursions in the Balkans. He simply could not afford to maintain the newly won north of Britain, for if he did, he would probably lose the lucrative east. And so, Domitian has the army pull back to Hadrian’s Wall and abandon all Agricola’s conquests. This must have aggrieved the emperor every bit as much as it would the conqueror himself, but a man in control of an empire has hard decisions to make.

And so the north was won, and then given up before the blood had even cooled. But in all this we must recognise Agricola for what he was and what he achieved. He was the longest serving Roman noble ever to grace the island, he learned its idiosyncrasies, and he used them to complete conquest of Britain. In 7 years he handed the emperor an island entire, and even sent his navy round it and looked at Ireland for an encore.

Why should we know Agricola? Simply because no Roman, in four centuries, had more effect on the course of the province. Dis Manicus, Gnaeus. You are remembered.

Simon Turney is a historian, novelist and the author of Agricola: Architect of Roman Britain.