Agricola (book)
The Agricola is a book by the Roman
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

 historian Tacitus
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors...

, written c 98, which recounts the life of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola
Gnaeus Julius Agricola
Gnaeus Julius Agricola was a Roman general responsible for much of the Roman conquest of Britain. His biography, the De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, was the first published work of his son-in-law, the historian Tacitus, and is the source for most of what is known about him.Born to a noted...

, an eminent Roman general. It also covers, briefly, the geography and ethnography of ancient Britain. As in the Germania
Germania (book)
The Germania , written by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus around 98, is an ethnographic work on the Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire.-Contents:...

, Tacitus favorably contrasts the liberty of the native Britons to the corruption and tyranny of the Empire; the book also contains eloquent and vicious polemics against the rapacity and greed of Rome.


After the assassination of Domitian
Domitian was Roman Emperor from 81 to 96. Domitian was the third and last emperor of the Flavian dynasty.Domitian's youth and early career were largely spent in the shadow of his brother Titus, who gained military renown during the First Jewish-Roman War...

 in 96AD, and amid the predictable turmoil of the regime change, Tacitus used his new-found freedom to publish this, his first historical work. During the reign of Domitian, Agricola, a faithful imperial general, had been the most important general involved in the conquest of a great part of Britain
Roman Britain
Roman Britain was the part of the island of Great Britain controlled by the Roman Empire from AD 43 until ca. AD 410.The Romans referred to the imperial province as Britannia, which eventually comprised all of the island of Great Britain south of the fluid frontier with Caledonia...

. The proud tone of the Agricola recalls the style of the laudationes funebres (funeral speeches). A quick résumé of the career of Agricola prior to his mission in Britain is followed by a narration of the conquest of the island. There is a geographical and ethnological digression, taken not only from notes and memories of Agricola but also from the De Bello Gallico of Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

. The content is so varied as to go beyond the limits of a simple biography, but the narration, whatever its form, serves to exalt the subject of the biography.

Tacitus exalts the character of his father-in-law, by showing how — as governor of Roman Britain
Roman Britain
Roman Britain was the part of the island of Great Britain controlled by the Roman Empire from AD 43 until ca. AD 410.The Romans referred to the imperial province as Britannia, which eventually comprised all of the island of Great Britain south of the fluid frontier with Caledonia...

 and commander of the army — he attends to matters of state with fidelity, honesty, and competence, even under the government of the hated Emperor Domitian. Critiques of Domitian and of his regime of spying and repression come to the fore at the work's conclusion. Agricola remained uncorrupted; in disgrace under Domitian, he died without seeking the glory of an ostentatious martyrdom. Tacitus condemns the suicide of the Stoic
STOIC was a variant of Forth.It started out at the MIT and Harvard Biomedical Engineering Centre in Boston, and was written in the mid 1970s by Jonathan Sachs...

s as of no benefit to the state. Tacitus makes no clear statement as to whether the death of Agricola was from natural causes or ordered by Domitian, although he does say that rumors were voiced in Rome that Agricola was poisoned on the Emperor's orders.


For Tacitus, Agricola served as an example of how, even under despotism, it was possible to behave correctly, avoiding the opposite extremes of servility and useless opposition. The work can be viewed as an apologia for a large part of the governing class: people who, not desiring martyrdom, had collaborated with the Flavian family and had made a valid contribution to lawmaking, to provincial government, to the enlargement of the limits of the empire and to the defence of its borders. On the other hand, the work may well have been a plea to the recently re-instated Stoics not to harass and oppose the new regime in a time of great instability.

The work has a strong anti-despotic tone. Tacitus sets the despotism of Domitian against the merits of Agricola: an incorruptible officer and a great commander, who fitted the model of the mos maiorum
Mos maiorum
The mos maiorum is the unwritten code from which the ancient Romans derived their social norms. It is the core concept of Roman traditionalism, distinguished from but in dynamic complement to written law. The mos maiorum The mos maiorum ("ancestral custom") is the unwritten code from which the...

("the custom of the forefathers", the presumed superior morality of an earlier time). The writer implicitly says that, as the Empire should be accepted as a necessary evil, one has to keep one's dignity without mixing up one's own responsibility with the responsibility of an arbitrary despot like Domitian. One can be an honest and scrupulous officer, doing his job with serenity and in collaboration with the regime, keeping his job and keeping the interest of the state, waiting for a better age, when a writer would be able to write in freedom.


The Agricola mixes various literary genres. It is an elegy evolved into a biography, a laudatio funebris mixed with historical and ethnographical material. For this reason, the book contains portions written in different styles. The exordium, the speeches, and the final peroration show strong influence from Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero , was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.He introduced the Romans to the chief...

, probably derived from Tacitus's own training in rhetoric. In the narrative and ethnographical portions, two models of the historical style can be seen: that of Sallust
Gaius Sallustius Crispus, generally known simply as Sallust , a Roman historian, belonged to a well-known plebeian family, and was born at Amiternum in the country of the Sabines...

 (with incongruities, archaism, parataxis
Parataxis is a literary technique, in writing or speaking, that favors short, simple sentences, with the use of coordinating rather than subordinating conjunctions...

 and sobriety) and that of Livy
Titus Livius — known as Livy in English — was a Roman historian who wrote a monumental history of Rome and the Roman people. Ab Urbe Condita Libri, "Chapters from the Foundation of the City," covering the period from the earliest legends of Rome well before the traditional foundation in 753 BC...

 (with oratorical style: wide, fluid, hypotactic and dramatic).

External links

  • Agricola, Latin text.
  • Agricola, English translation.
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