Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

A Great Captain



It is not improbable that the family of Cnæus Julius Agricola was one of the many which, in both Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, assumed the name of the Great Dictator. Cnæus, whom I shall henceforth speak of by his surname of Agricola, was born A.D. 37 at Forum Julii, now Fréjus in Provence. The occupation followed by his family was what, for want of a precise Roman equivalent, I shall call la haute finance. The capitalists of the Empire were mostly found among the order of Knights. Their most important, and probably most profitable, function was the farming of the public revenues; and it was a special distinction among them to have the charge of that part of the taxes, customs, etc., which came into the Emperor's private treasury. This distinction was enjoyed by both Agricola's grandfathers. His father, a man of the highest character and, it would seem, of some culture, raised the family rank, becoming a member of the Senate. The promotion was unfortunate, for it brought him under the notice of the Emperor Caligula. The tyrant ordered him to conduct the prosecution of Marcus Silanus. He refused, and was put to death. We do not know the precise year; probably it was about 40 A.D.

The young Agricola, thus left fatherless almost in infancy, was brought up by his mother at Marseilles, a place where, says his biographer, Greek elegance and the frugal habits of provincial life were happily combined—something, one may venture to say, like St. Andrews here, only with the commercial element more prominent. He was an ardent student; so ardent, indeed, that he had thoughts of renouncing the public career which was open to him in favour of the life of a philosopher. Such appears, indeed, to be the meaning of his own confession, made in after years to his son-in-law and biographer, that in his early youth, but for the moderating influence of his mother, he should have pursued philosophical studies with more energy than befitted a Senator and a Roman—an expression curiously characteristic of the practical Roman temper.

He began life, as it was the almost universal practice to begin it, as a soldier, serving in A.D. 60 as aide-de-camp  to Suetonius Paulinus, who was then in command in Britain. Never was there a better time for a young man to learn his duties and show his mettle. The Roman dominion in the land was passing through the worst crisis that it ever endured. While Paulinus was attacking the stronghold of Mona (Anglesey), the head-quarters of the Druid superstition, the British tribes of the east coast were in rebellion. The colony of Camalodunum (Colchester) was destroyed. Paulinus hurried back, but was not in time to save London, even then a populous and flourishing town. The revolt was suppressed, but not before the young Agricola had had some exciting and instructive experiences. These seem finally to have determined him in favour of a military career. Before he could enter on this, a routine of civil office was necessary. His first promotion was a Quæstorship. The Quæstors were financial secretaries, who assisted the provincial governors, to whom they were assigned by the process of balloting. Agricola happened to be attached to Salvius Otho, Proconsul of Asia. His superior was profligate and rapacious, and the province dangerously full of temptations. The young Quæstor was untouched by these sinister influences. The office of Tribune followed in due time, and was succeeded by that of Praetor. Agricola continued to bear himself with a judicious discretion. He was living in peculiar days when inaction was wisdom.

Meanwhile he had married. His wife is described as being of illustrious family. As her name was Domitia, it is possible that she was connected with Nero himself. The terrible year which witnessed the fall of three pretenders to the throne brought a grievous trouble to Agricola, in the death of his mother, who was murdered by a party belonging to Otho's fleet at her country-house at Albintemelium (Vintimiglia), not far from Genoa. A second service in Britain followed the next year (A.D. 70), this time under Cerialis, a brilliant but somewhat reckless officer, who had had a great share in suppressing the revolt of Civilis and North-eastern Gaul.

The next promotion was one of great importance. It was nothing less than the Government of Aquitania, a province reaching from the Pyrenees to the Loire. This office he held for somewhat less than three years (74-77). Tacitus is emphatic in praise of his administrative powers, dwelling on his acuteness as a judge, his courtesy, modesty, and disinterestedness, his happy combination of dignity and courtesy. No one, he says, presumed on his kindness, and no one resented his severity. "As to his integrity and blameless life," he goes on, "it would be an insult to such a man even to speak of them." He returned to Rome in A.D. 77, and for the second half of this year was Consul. In the following year he gave his daughter to Tacitus, the historian, a happy choice, which seems to have turned out well for all concerned in it, and for the world, which probably owes to it one of the most admirable of biographies. His period of office completed, Agricola received the command in Britain, and held it for eight years.

It is unnecessary to describe in detail his civil and military administration. He at once justified his appointment by striking a successful blow at a rebellious tribe (the Ordovices) in North Wales. His next exploit was to renew his acquaintance with Mona from which, eighteen years before, Suetonius had been recalled ere he could complete his conquest. The island was surrendered to Agricola without his having to strike a blow. The next five years were occupied in extending the Roman dominions on the north of the island. One cannot read without regret the story of the unsuccessful struggles which the gallant tribes of Caledonia made in resisting the invader; nor can we wholly acquit Agricola himself of ambition and the lust of conquest; indeed, his biographer expressly states, and without a hint of blame, that he found in war a remedy for the private sorrow of losing his only son. Still we know from our own national experience that frontier wars are the inevitable result of a widely extended empire, and that Agricola did not do much more than meet the necessities of his position. The principal achievement of these campaigns was the establishment of a line of forts between the estuaries of the Forth and the Clyde, and the final victory of the Romans over the forces of Calgacus at the foot of the Grampian hills.

I cannot agree with the patriotic historians who have attempted to read into Tacitus's account of this battle a confession of defeat. It is impossible to doubt that the valour of the tribes was overpowered by the superior discipline and more effective arms of the legions, guided as they were by the consummate genius of one of the greatest of Roman captains.

If we wanted a proof of the reality of the victory, we should find it in the undisguised jealousy of the Emperor. Domitian had tried his own skill as a general with but little success, and he viewed with alarm, not wholly unfounded, seeing that the Imperial power rested ultimately on the army, the great victories of his lieutenant in Britain. Agricola was recalled. So fearful was the Emperor that he might refuse to surrender his power, that he sent a special agent with instructions to offer him, should he have remained in Britain after his recall, the province of Syria, and with it the command of the legions of the East. The agent in crossing the channel met Agricola on his homeward way, and returned without having an interview with him.

Agricola reported himself to the Emperor immediately on his return, visiting the palace (so careful was he to avoid offence) at night. Domitian received him with an "official kiss," but without a word of welcome or thanks.

For nine years Agricola lived in Rome. It was a time of restlessness at home and disaster abroad. Army after army had been defeated or destroyed; there was no longer any question of extending the limits of the empire; it was doubtful whether Rome could hold her own, whether the frontier legions would not have to abandon their quarters. All eyes were turned on Agricola. He was the one man who could restore supremacy to the Roman arms. The jealousy of Domitian grew more and more frantic as time went on. He offered the great soldier the Government of Asia, and, though it was not one where he could display his military genius, used all his influence to make him decline the appointment.

In 93 A.D. the end came. Tacitus expresses himself in guarded language, which I shall translate as closely as I can. "There was a persistent rumour that he was poisoned. Of this I have no certain knowledge, and so will make no assertion.

"Still, during the whole course of his illness, the Emperor's principal freedmen and most confidential physicians came with a frequency quite unusual with the Emperor, who commonly made such enquiries by ordinary messengers. This may have been affection, or it may have been curiosity. It is known that on the last day of Agricola's life, the particulars of his dying hours were carried to the Emperor by a regular service of messengers; and no one believed that the news which he made such haste to learn was unwelcome. Still, he made a display of grief in spirit and look. His hatred troubled him no more; and it was easier to conceal joy than fear."

The sketch which Tacitus gives of the great soldier's outward appearance is brief and unsatisfying. "He was well made, but not tall; a gracious look was his predominant expression. It was easy to believe him a good man; pleasant to believe him great."

Agricola was barely fifty-four when he died; happy, says his biographer, in being taken away from the evil to come, the dark days of Domitian's reign of terror, a period from the guilt and shame of which Tacitus does not feel himself to be wholly free. He had been an eye-witness of these fearful deeds even a passive participator in them. The last chapter of the "Agricola," in which he confesses his own weakness and pays his last tribute to the dead, is a piece of noble eloquence.

One passage I must quote: "If," he says, "there is a dwelling-place for the souls of the just; if, as the wise believe, great spirits do not perish with the body, rest thou in peace, and recall us thy kindred from weak regrets and womanish laments to the contemplation of thy virtues, virtues for which we may not wail or beat the breast. Let us honour thee with admiration, ay, and if our strength suffice, with imitation, rather than with transitory praises. This will be true respect; this the dutiful affection of thy dearest and nearest. This injunction I would lay on wife, on daughter, to honour the memory of husband, of father, by dwelling on all his great deeds and words, and by cherishing the glorious greatness of his soul rather than of his body. It is not that I object to the likenesses that are wrought in marble or bronze; but as the features of men are frail and mortal, so are the things that picture them: the fashion of the soul is enduring. This we can realize and represent, not by foreign substances, however skilfully wrought, but by the moulding of our own characters. Whatever we loved in Agricola, whatever we admired, abides and will abide in the souls of men, in the endless march of the ages, in the fame that waits on noble deeds."