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Gnaeus Julius Agricola

(13 June 40 - 23 August 93 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Statue of Julius Agricola in Bath (England). Tacitus, as a son-in-law, speaks in a positive way about Agricola, whom he considers a great man. Tacitus was the husband of Agricola’s only daughter – Julia Agricola.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola was born on June 13, CE 40 in Gallia Narbonensis. He was a Roman commander of Gallic origin who led Roman legions to conquer Britain. We know about his life and achievements mainly thanks to his son-in-law Tacitus, who described his life in the work “Life of Julius Agricola”.


Agricola was born in the colonia Forum of Julia in Gaul of Narbonne (Gallia Narbonensis, present-day southern France). His parents were of Gallic-Roman origin and came from a respected senatorial family. Agricola’s distant relatives were Romanized Gauls. His father Lucius Julius Graecinus was a praetor to sit in the senate on Agricola’s year of birth (40 CE). Graecinus was known for his love of philosophy. Between August 40 and January 41 CE, emperor Caligula sentenced him to death because he refused to prosecute Marcus Junius Silanus, the second cousin of the emperor.

Agricola’s mother was Julia Procilla. This is how his upbringing describes Tacitus:

Brought up by her side with fond affection, he passed his boyhood and youth in the cultivation of every worthy attainment. He was guarded from the enticements of the profligate not only by his own good and straightforward character, but also by having, when quite a child, for the scene and guide of his studies, Massilia, a place where refinement and provincial frugality were blended and happily combined. I remember that he used to tell us how in his early youth he would have imbibed a keener love of philosophy than became a Roman and a senator, had not his mother’s good sense checked his excited and ardent spirit. It was the case of a lofty and aspiring soul craving with more eagerness than caution the beauty and splendour of great and glorious renown. But it was soon mellowed by reason and experience, and he retained from his learning that most difficult of lessons—moderation.

Tacitus, Life of Julius Agricola, 4

Military and political career

Agricola began his military career in Britain, where he served as a military tribune during the governorship of the talented Gaius Suetonius Paulinus (CE 58-62). This administrator expanded Rome’s rule to the shores of the Irish Sea. He also tried to conquer the island of Mona, where the centre of druidism was located, but in the further liquidation of the intellectual druid caste, he was prevented by an outbreak of rebellion led by the great Celtic queen Boudica. Probably at first Agricola was assigned to Legio II Augusta, and then to find himself in the personal dawn of Suetonius. Thanks to this, he actively participated in suppressing Boudica’s rebellion.

When Agricola returned to Rome in 62 CE, he decided to marry Domitia Dediciana, a woman of good birth. Two sons and a daughter were born from this relationship. Only daughter survived to adulthood.

Agricola held numerous political offices. Among other things, in 64 CE he was appointed Quaestor in Asia during the rule of corrupt proconsul Lucius Salwius Othon Titianus. Agricola’s daughter was born there – Julia Agricola. In 66 CE he became a plebeian tribune and praetor in June CE 68. At that time he was under the orders of the Spanish administrator Galba. At the order of Galba, Agricola conducted a list of the contents of temple treasures.

When in June 68 CE, Nero was forced to commit suicide, a so-called Year of the Four Emperors. Then Agricola (69 CE) supported the battle for the Roman throne Vespasian, as soon as he learned about the death of his mother on the family estate in Liguria ( she probably died at the hands of Navy Maruderers (Otho). As soon as Vespasian assumed the “supreme power”, he delegated Agricola to Britain, where he took command of Legio XX Valeria Victrix in place of Marcus Roscinus Coelius, who caused a revolt against the province administrator Marcus Vettius Bolanus. Agricola, after arriving at the place, restored discipline in the army and stabilized the situation. In 71 CE, too mild Bolanus was replaced by Quintus Petillius Cerialis.

Agricola, after taking command in 73 CE, was appointed patrician and governor of the province Gallia Aquitania. After two years, he returned to Rome, where he had another honour – became consul. During this time, his daughter Julia became the wife of the historian Tacitus. Agricola himself was admitted to the Pontifical College and returned to Britain for the third time – this time as her governor.

Governorship in Britain

In Britain, Agricola appeared in the middle of summer 77 CE He learned about the breakup of the Roman ride in North Wales by a local Celtic tribe. Agricola immediately undertook a counter-attack, defeated the enemy and regained control of the island of Mona (now Anglesey), which was captured several years earlier by Suetonius Paulinus.

Agricola met not only as a commander but also as an administrator. He made particular merits in the field of Romanization of Britain, insisting on the establishment of new Roman-style cities, as well as on the education of the sons of the native aristocracy in the Roman spirit. Agricola also contributed to the reduction of corruption; introduced Roman measures encouraged local communities to build Roman-style cities.

Probable route of Agricola’s expedition.
Author: Notuncurious | On Creative Commons License Attribution - Under the Same Terms 3.0.

Agricola also undertook ambitious actions aimed at increasing the Roman borders north towards Caledonia (present-day Scotland). In the summer of 79 CE, he led the legions to the mouth of the Taus River, which is usually identified with the Firth of Tay, where Roman forts and outposts were built.

Romans in Ireland?

Tacitus recalls that in 81 CE Agricola, at the head of the army, crossed a vague water reservoir and defeated the people living on the island, which until now was unknown to the Romans. It is believed that Agricola may have had contact with Ireland and even prepared for invasion and conquest. This claim can be supported by the fact that Agricola fortified the coast of Britain, looking over Ireland, and often argued that the island could be obtained by using one legion, assisted by auxiliary troops. He also sheltered the king, banished from the island – his presence was a great excuse for the invasion.

I have often heard him say that a single legion with a few auxiliaries could conquer and occupy Ireland, and that it would have a salutary effect on Britain for the Roman arms to be seen everywhere, and for freedom, so to speak, to be banished from its sight.

Tacitus, Life of Julius Agricola, 24

There was no real attack during Agricola’s stay in Britain, while some historians believe that Tacitus records refer to some part-time expedition directed against Ireland. Interestingly, Irish legends about the greatest king Tuathalu Teachtmhar, somewhat confirm Tacitus’s words. According to stories, the king was banished from Ireland as a boy and returned from Britain at the head of the army to regain his throne. Traditionally it is assumed that this occurred in the years 76-80 CE, so at the time when Agricola was in Britain. Archaeological research in places traditionally connected with Tuathal provided further evidence in the form of artefacts of Roman or Roman-British origin. It is quite possible that if Agricola did not have to return from Britain in 85 CE, could also add Ireland to his list of conquests.

Invasion on Caledonia

In 82 CE Agricola gathered a fleet that aimed to encircle the Caledonians and strike at the rear of the enemy. In the meantime, at night, the IX Hispan legion camp was attacked by overwhelming Caledonian troops. Eventually, the Roman cavalry charge pushed the barbarians away. At that time Agrykoli was born a second son, who unfortunately died before reaching the age of one.

Invasion of Agricola on Caledonia.
Creative Commons recognition license by - On the same terms 3.0.

Despite the fact that the Romans significantly outnumbered Scottish tribes, it was not easy for them to force their opponent into an open battle. The Caledonians were the last untamed tribe that for years avoided fighting with the Romans. Eventually, the Romans managed to lure an opponent by attacking Caledonian grain granaries. They had no choice but to avoid hunger in winter they decided to stand up in front of the Romans.

Calgacus in the figure. Tacitus describes him as the leader of the Caledons, a man full of self-esteem and an excellent speaker.

In the summer of 83 or 84 CE Agricola faced a huge army of Caledonians, commanded by Calgacus at Mons Graupius. Caledonian hordes were not an equal opponent of disciplined Roman legions. It is estimated that 30,000 warriors and women and children accompanying them against 22,000 Romans. 8,000 warriors of the Batavian allied with the Romans stood at the centre of the formation. Roman cavalry was located in the hills. Legionaries, as a reserve, hid behind the ramparts of their own camp. The Caledonian army under Calgacus stood on a nearby hill, while the Caledonian front guards descended to the plain. The array of other troops resembled a horseshoe.

Mutual spear fire and arrow attacks began the battle. Agricola then ordered allied infantry to attack the enemy. Caledonians pushed towards the hill tried to counterattack from the top of the hill, but they got themselves into the pincers of the Roman ride from both wings. Defeated Caledonians began to flee to a nearby forest, chased by well-organized riders. Legionaries did not participate in the battle, occupying positions in the camp during the battle. The Roman victory was mainly due to the Batavian infantry. About 10,000 Caledonians and 367 warriors on the Roman side fell in the battle. Data on Roman losses by Roman historians is certainly underestimated; they must have been bigger.

Place of the battle of Mons Graupius.
On Creative Commons License Attribution - On the same terms 3.0.

With this victory Agricola broke the strength of the Caledonian tribes for a whole generation. After the battle of Agricola, he ordered the fleet prefectus to sail north along the coast, which made it clear that Britain was an island. It is possible that Agricola, being confident after the battle, marched to the northern coast of Britain. This can be proved by the Cawdor fort (not far from Inverness).

End of life

Shortly afterwards, in 85 CE, after an amazingly long office, he was dismissed to Rome. Tacitus claims that Agricola was forced to return because emperor Domitian did not like the scale of Agricola’s victories, which could overshadow his own achievements in Germany. In fact, the relationship of the ruler and victorious leader is unclear; on the one hand, Agricola received the right to triumph and his own statue; on the other hand, he never took office again. Tacitus mentions that he received an offer to take over the governorship in Africa, but rejected the offer, or because of illness; or under the pressure of Domitian.

Agricola died on August 23, 93 CE in the family estate of Gaul Narbonne at the age of 53 years. There were speculations that the emperor was behind his death and told him to give him poison. However, there is no evidence of this course of events.

The end of his life, a deplorable calamity to us and a grief to his friends, was regarded with concern even by strangers and those who knew him not. The common people and this busy population continually inquired at his house, and talked of him in public places and in private gatherings. No man when he heard of Agricola’s death could either be glad or at once forget it. Men’s sympathy was increased by a prevalent rumour that he was destroyed by poison. For myself, I have nothing which I should venture to state for fact.

Tacitus, Life of Julius Agricola, 43

It is certain, however, that Agricola was one of the greatest general of the first century CE and contributed to the firm consolidation of the authority of the Romans in Britain. The memory of him survived, which is due to Tacitus, which he himself mentions:

Whatever we loved, whatever we admired in Agricola, survives, and will survive in the hearts of men, in the succession of the ages, in the fame that waits on noble deeds. Over many indeed, of those who have gone before, as over the inglorious and ignoble, the waves of oblivion will roll; Agricola, made known to posterity by history and tradition, will live for ever.

Tacitus, Life of Julius Agricola, 46

  • Iwaszkiewicz Piotr, Łoś Wiesław, Stępień Marek, Władcy i wodzowie starożytności. Słownik, Warszawa 1998
  • Tacitus, Julius Agricola

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