Agricola’s governorship

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Non-contemporary statue of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, leader of the first major Roman expedition in Hibernia.

In AD 74 Cerealis was recalled and replaced by Julius Frontinus, who is better known in Roman history for being appointed curator aquarum in Rome by Nerva in AD 96 and for writing a two-volume study of the Roman water supply and Strategemata, four books on military strategy. In Gaul he had gained experience of putting down a rebellion and thus was well able to move against the Silures who had roused themselves to attack Roman camps. Frere suggests that a new generation had grown up who were willing to challenge Roman power. Frontinus quickly put an end to their attacks, establishing new forts along the coast of Wales at Cardiff, Neath and Carmarthen.

A fort at Brecon allowed easy access into both south and north Wales and cut off the Silures from the Ordovici. A network of roads and forts was now beginning to cover the areas and control the Welsh tribes. Frontinus moved Legion II Augusta to a new fortress at Caerleon. These forts would allow troops to move quickly along the valleys into the interior. He may possibly have moved against the Ordovici to make sure that they were subject to Roman authority. To make sure they did not join up with the Brigantes he established a fort at Chester for Legion II Adiutrix.

He was recalled in AD 78 and replaced by Gnaeus Julius Agricola, one of the best-known Roman governors of Britain as he had the good fortune to have as his son-in-law Tacitus, who wrote his biography, which has survived for posterity. Tacitus, remarking that famous men from ‘time immemorial had their life stories told, and even our generation, with all its stupid indifference to the present, had not quite abandoned the practice’, obviously placed his father-in-law in the best possible light. Nevertheless Tacitus’s account provides vivid evidence for the state of Britain in the first century ad. Agricola was a provincial, born at Forum Julii (Fréjus) and an interesting example of how men born in Roman provinces could achieve a career in the cursus honorum, the career path leading to high honours. He had had previous experience of Britain through various commands in the legions – he has been called a British specialist – but this was all to the good. He had been a tribune serving under Suetonius Paullinus, experiencing at first hand Boudicca’s rebellion, and then passing through the stages of being a quaestor in Asia Minor, and then Tribune of the Plebs and praetor in Rome. He had secured imperial favour by pledging himself immediately to Vespasian in AD 69 and had partaken in more military service as legate of Legion XX in AD 71 under Petillius Cerealis. He had then served for two years as governor of Aquitania, a province already pacified, so he could concentrate on civil government before being elected one of the two Roman consuls in AD 77. It was during his consulship that Tacitus married his daughter.

Given this career no one could accuse Agricola of not having experience for the post of governor of Britain. Aged about thirty-eight he arrived in Britain (in AD 77 or 78) to be immediately faced by a rebellion of the Ordovici. They had wiped out a cavalry ala (unit of 500 or 1,000 men) and in doing so had inspired others to rebel. Agricola gathered together detachments of legionaries and auxiliaries to launch a surprise attack resulting in the almost total destruction of the Ordovici fighting forces. Having realized where the centre of resistance was, he moved quickly against Anglesey, thus destroying the centre of Celtic opposition, a task that had been left unfinished by Paullinus’s precipitous withdrawal to put down the Boudiccan rebellion.

He then spent time concentrating on reforming the civil administration, a task for which he had been prepared by his governorship in Aquitania. He therefore employed the correct officials for civil business, not freedmen or slaves. Every governor was allowed to bring his own officials and friends and presumably these are the ones referred to when Tacitus said that ‘he preferred to appoint to official positions and duties men whom he could trust not to transgress’. When Cicero was governor of Cilicia he had been accompanied by his son, his nephew and a relative of his friend Atticus. He wrote to his brother Quintus that a good governor should take particular care in choosing his friends, as he was responsible for everything they did. This Agricola was obviously anxious to do. He reduced the corn levy and prevented the abuse of making the Britons buy back corn that they had already supplied in order to fulfil their quota of supplying it. They had also been ordered to take the corn to bases a long distance from where it was grown and to avoid this they had to bribe tax officials.

In between other campaigns he turned his attention to carrying out a policy of Romanization. This included educating the children of leading Britons, teaching them Latin and introducing them to the civilizing ways of Rome. Tacitus said that so successful was he in this that they became fluent in Latin, the toga was frequently to be seen, attendance at Roman baths was popular and smart dinner parties, presumably following the custom of reclining, took place. Tacitus commented that the Britons believed this to be civilization when in reality it was slavery. Tacitus might sneer but different and reasonably decent housing, cleanliness, social activities in bathhouses and orderly administration might be preferable for a younger generation to living in Celtic huts, being subject to tribal warrior authority and not being certain of their status in society. The disadvantages of being subject to Roman rule would come when less scrupulous governors were in control.

In AD 79 Agricola turned his attention to the north, advancing on both the western and eastern sides of Britain, laying out a series of roads and forts aimed at suppressing any resistance. He then offered reasonable peace terms to win over hostile tribesmen. Succeeding campaigns took him as far north as the Tay estuary by AD 81 and a series of forts were laid out along the Forth–Clyde isthmus. In doing this Agricola was intent on subduing the more northerly tribes, the Votadini, Selgovae and Novantae. His tactics were again to lay out a network of roads and forts. He tried to win over the tribes but his efforts had little success and he was forced to rely on military control.

About this time Agricola contemplated an expedition to Ireland, urged on by the arrival of an exiled Irish prince. Tacitus said that Agricola remarked that Ireland could be reduced and held by a single legion or a few auxiliaries. Given the warlike nature of the Irish tribes this would have been improbable and Agricola’s reputation was saved by the fact that such an invasion was never undertaken. Roman troops were never based in Ireland although a 16-hectare (40-acre) fortified promontory at Drumanagh near Dublin has been claimed to be a Roman fort. It could equally well have been a trading settlement. Other Roman finds in Ireland also indicate that there was some trade between the two areas.

Agricola had enough to do taking the army further north into Scotland. He sent the fleet ahead to raid and plunder along the coast, thus spreading uncertainty about Roman intentions and also spying out the land. He also began to establish forts to block the entrance to each glen to contain the tribes and prevent them communicating with each other. A large fort was built at Inchtuthil on the Tay, probably for Legion XX to guard a passage through the Tay gorge at Dunkeld. This would allow him to move troops swiftly through the highlands. This action alarmed the most northerly of the British tribes, the Caledonii, who made common cause with other forces and elected Calgacus as leader. He gathered together an army of 50,000 tribesmen. These halted Agricola’s advance so that Agricola was determined to bring them to battle. In AD 83 Calgacus awaited the Roman forces on high ground, placing his charioteers in the front. It is not clear where the Battle of Mons Graupius took place. A claim can be made for the hill of Bennachie as Agricola put his infantry in front of him with a camp in the rear and the fort of Durno (Aberdeenshire) is four miles away.

Agricola had about 8,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry, including ‘the bravest of the Britons and those whose loyalty had been proved during a long period of peace’. As was usual in Roman battle tactics he sent in the auxiliary cohorts of the Batavians and the Tungrians first. They took the brunt of the attack. Later Agricola deployed the cavalry to attack the flanks of the enemy while the legions remained stationary. The result was inevitable. Tacitus said that 10,000 Britons were killed for the loss of 360 Romans, presumably from the auxiliaries.

Agricola quickly moved to subdue the Boresti, whose territory was probably in the Moray area, and sent the fleet to sail around the northern coast of Britain. It performed the remarkable feat of sailing round the north of Scotland, receiving the formal submission of tribes in the Orkneys and sailing a short way down the west coast before returning to a base on the River Tay. The oarsmen reported the water to be sluggish and heavy, indicating that they had difficulty with the strong currents in those seas.

As far as Agricola was concerned the whole of Britain was now conquered and all that was needed was to consolidate his position in the following year. This was not to be. Agricola had been governor since AD 78, a longer term than any previous governor and this length of service in one province could be dangerous as it allowed a military general to secure the loyalty of his troops, replacing that of loyalty to the emperor. Domitian had become emperor in AD 81 and he was unwilling to commit more forces to the conquest of Britain. He, too, may have thought Britain was subdued. Agricola was recalled to Rome in AD 83 to 84. Tacitus implies that Domitian passed over Agricola for the position of proconsul for both Africa and Asia and hints that his death was hastened by poison.

The comment about the position of proconsul may be a little unfair. Agricola’s career had been almost entirely in Britain and, though he had thought the province was conquered, this was not the case. However, his achievements in Britain were remarkable. On the military side he had doubled the area under Roman control, established a network of forts and roads into Scotland designed to subdue the northern tribes, used sea power to circumnavigate the north of Britain, recruited Britons into the auxiliary and revised Roman battle tactics, making the auxiliaries expendable troops by placing them in front of the legions. On the civil side, he had advanced the policy of Romanization. Agricola had encouraged the building of forums, temples and other public buildings and amenities of urban life. As Tacitus writes, he had reformed the administration and encouraged the sons of Britons to ‘embrace the liberal arts. The result was that in place of distaste for the Latin language came a passion to command it. In the same way our national dress came into favour and the toga was everywhere to be seen.’

Two inscriptions relate to Agricola’s governorship. One, dated AD 79, is on a lead pipe supplying water to the fort of Chester. The other is more significant. This is part of an inscription from the forum at Verulamium, also dating to AD 79, commemorating the erection of a basilica and indicating that Verulamium was a municipium. The erection of a forum and a basilica were definite signs of the progress towards the adoption of a Roman form of civil government. Allowing for the enthusiasm of a son-in law it would seem that Agricola had advanced the policy of Romanizing the Britons, relying on the younger element to overcome the prejudices of the older generation clinging to a Celtic lifestyle.

After Agricola there was a retreat from Scotland, which was probably due to the fact that the Romans were concentrating on the Danube where they had to put down a rebellion in AD 86. Legion II Adiutrix was withdrawn from Britain where it had been stationed at Chester. Its place was filled by Legion XX, which was pulled back from Inchtuthil. That fort was completely dismantled. Wroxeter was also abandoned as a fort and became the capital of the Cornovii. In spite of Tacitus’s comments in his History that Britain was immediately conquered and let go (perdomita Britannia et statim omissa), the permanent occupation of Scotland would have required a large number of auxiliary and legionary troops. Some of these were needed elsewhere and the Roman high command possibly felt that the tribes in northern Britain had been temporarily subdued. It may also have felt that there was nothing to be gained from advancing further into Scotland. The land was poor, there were no minerals to be mined and occupation would be more of a burden than an advantage.

Little is known historically for the remainder of the century. One governor of Britain, Sallustius Lucullus (AD? 84–96), roused Domitian’s wrath and was put to death as he called a new kind of spear ‘Lucullan’ after himself. He may, however, have been suspected of trying to gain the loyalty of the military forces in Britain for himself. Nevertheless two forts, Ardoch and Newstead, remained as outposts in the Scottish lowlands to keep the Selgovae in order and other forts were strengthened to keep lowland Scotland under control until about AD 101–105, when Newstead was demolished and other forts were burnt or abandoned. This retreat from lowland Scotland was possibly because Emperor Trajan recalled troops from Britain to fight in the Dacian wars. The Tyne–Solway line along the road called the Stanegate, created by Agricola, seems to have then become a line of demarcation and a policing boundary.

The Romans concentrated on rebuilding and extending the main forts and fortresses – Caerleon (AD 99–100), Chester (AD 102) and York (AD 107–108). Forts were also renovated in Wales and a new fort was built at Hardknott in the Lake District to keep watch on the Brigantes. At some time Legion IX was withdrawn from Britain, accompanied by three auxiliary units, probably to serve on the Rhine frontier. Lincoln became a colonia about AD 90 and Gloucester also became a colonia in Nerva’s reign (AD 96–8). These were not only to provide retired veterans with urban property and agricultural land but also to act as models for the benefits of a civilized way of life. They also kept a watchful eye on neighbouring tribes – Lincoln on the Brigantes and the Parisii and Gloucester on the Silures.

At this time, however, the main Roman interest was centred on the Danube frontier where in AD 89 Domitian led a punitive expedition against Decebalus, who had attacked Roman territory and broken a treaty. Decebalus was confirmed as king of Dacia but the growing threat of his army resulted in Trajan invading his territory in AD 101. Decebalus committed suicide, his decapitated head was displayed on the steps of the Capitol and Dacia was made a province. Later, Trajan made Arabia into a province on the death of the Arabian king who had ruled a friendly client state. The empire expanded further in AD 114 when Trajan led an expedition against the Parthians using Armenia as a base. He then moved southwards into Mesopotamia but was checked by trouble in Cyrenaica, Egypt and Palestine. He moved legions to crush these revolts while he proceeded to annex Mesopotamia and Armenia into the empire. But in AD 117, while on campaign, Trajan fell ill and died. He had not named a successor but Hadrian, then governor of Syria, was acclaimed emperor by his legions on a rumour that on his deathbed Trajan had named him as his successor. Once his authority was assured Hadrian turned his attention to strengthening the empire and his decisions included the province of Britain.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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