ROMAN ENGLAND: Who was Gnaeus Julius Agricola



Agricola was a Roman statesman and soldier who, as governor of Britain, conquered large areas of northern England, Scotland and Wales. His life is well known to us today because his son-in-law, the historian Tacitus, wrote a detailed biography of him which still survives.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola was born on 13 July 40 AD in southern France - then part of the Roman Empire - into a high-ranking family. He began his career as a military tribune in Britain and may have participated in the crushing of Boudicca's uprising in 61 AD.

During the civil war of 69 AD, Agricola supported Vespasian in his successful attempt to become emperor. In recognition for his support, Agricola was appointed to command a Roman legion in Britain. He then served as governor of Aquitania (south-east France) for three years, and after a period in Rome, in 78 AD he was made governor of Britain.

Arriving in mid-summer of 77AD, Agricola found that the Ordovices of north Wales had virtually destroyed the Roman cavalry stationed in their territory. He immediately moved against them and defeated them.

He then moved north to the island of Mona (Anglesey), where he established a good reputation as an administrator as well as a commander by reforming the widely corrupt corn levy. He introduced Romanising measures, encouraging communities to build towns on the Roman model and educating the sons of the native nobility in the Roman manner.

He also expanded Roman rule north into Caledonia (modern Scotland). In the summer of 79AD Agricola raised a fleet and encircled the tribes beyond the Forth, and the Caledonians rose in great numbers against him. They attacked the camp of the Legio IX Hispana at night, but Agricola sent in his cavalry and they were put to flight. The Romans responded by pushing further north.

In the summer of 83 Agricola faced the massed armies of the Caledonians, led by Calgacus, at the Battle of Mons Graupius. Tacitus estimates their numbers at more than 30,000. Agricola put his auxiliaries in the front line, keeping the legions in reserve, and relied on close-quarters fighting to make the Caledonians' unpointed slashing swords useless.

Even though the Caledonians were put to rout and therefore lost this battle, two thirds of their army managed to escape and hide in the Scottish Highlands or the "trackless wilds" as Tacitus calls them. Battle casualties were estimated by Tacitus to be about 10,000 on the Caledonian side and 360 on the Roman side.

Agricola was recalled from Britain in 85, after an unusually long tenure as governor. Tacitus claims that Domitian ordered his recall because Agricola's successes outshone the Emperor's own modest victories in Germany. The relationship between Agricola and the Emperor is unclear: on the one hand, Agricola was awarded triumphal decorations and a statue (the highest military honours apart from an actual triumph); on the other, Agricola never again held a civil or military post, in spite of his experience and renown.

He was offered the governorship of the province of Africa, but declined it, whether due to ill health or as Tacitus claims. the machinations of Domitian.

On 23 August 93 Agricola died on his family estates in Gallia Narbonensis aged fifty-three. Rumors circulated attributing the death to a poison administered by the Emperor Domitian, but no positive evidence for this was ever produced.

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