Gnaeus Julius Agricola

Dimitris Stamatios | July 18, 2023


Gnaeus Iulius Agricola († August 23, 93) was a Gallo-Roman senator and general. He was suffect consul in 77 and subsequently governor of Britain for an unusually long time (until 84). Agricola had begun his military career in Britannia between 58 and 62 AD as a military tribune on the staff of the governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. After returning to Rome, Agricola served as tribune of the people in 66, then as praetor two years later. In 71 he became legatus to the governor of Britain, Quintus Petillius Cerialis and commander of Legio XX Valeria Victrix. When Cerialis left the province, Agricola was appointed governor of the province of Gallia Aquitania.

During the time of his stay in Britannia, he was able to temporarily extend the Roman domain to beyond the Forth-Clyde line (the isthmus between the modern cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh). After his recall by Emperor Domitian, he retired to private life. The historian Tacitus, Agricola’s son-in-law, described his life in the preserved, encomiastic biography De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae. Through this work, the main source for Agricola’s deeds, his career and campaigns in Britain were also handed down.

Descended from important Gallo-Roman families, Gnaeus Iulius Agricola was born on June 13, 40 in Forum Iulii in the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis, the son of the senator Lucius Iulius Graecinus and his wife Iulia Procilla. Both his grandfathers were of knightly rank and imperial procurators. From Agricola’s gentile name Iulius, it may be inferred that one of his ancestors, who had either served as an officer under Gaius Iulius Caesar or Augustus, or had emerged as a wealthy and respected native citizen of Forum Iulii, had been granted Roman citizenship. Graecinus wrote a work on viticulture and, probably because of his inclination for agriculture, gave his son the cognomen Agricola. He was executed at the end of 39 or in the year 40 by order of the Emperor Caligula. Agricola, who thus became a half-orphan, grew up from early childhood in Massilia (today’s Marseille). There his mother gave him a careful and appropriate education. As was customary for a distinguished youth, he eagerly studied philosophy, among other things, but his mother imposed restrictions on him in this regard.

Agricola began his soldierly career in Britain from 58 to 62 as a military tribune on the staff of the governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, and in this position most likely helped suppress the Boudicca rebellion of 60

From the information of Tacitus in the 6th chapter of the biography of his father-in-law, it can be concluded that Agricola initially, as the Lex Papia Poppaea granted him, held the office of a quaestor in 64 already as a 24-year-old (and not only at the actually intended age of 25). In this function he served in Asia under the proconsul Lucius Salvius Otho Titianus, the brother of the later emperor Otho. According to Tacitus, unlike his superior, he performed his duties with great rectitude. Domitia Decidiana had traveled with her husband to Asia and bore him a daughter during his quaestorship, the future wife of Tacitus. Thus, although his eldest son died in infancy, Agricola was allowed to hold state office two years before the legal deadline. In 65 and the following year 66, when he held office as tribune of the people, he did not set any major public accents so as not to put himself in danger under Nero’s government. In 68 he became praetor and, since he was not given any judicial powers, he still did not need to make a special appearance. Among other things, he organized games that were not too elaborate. After Nero’s death (June 68), he was commissioned by the new emperor Galba to make an inventory of the temple treasures and to recover stolen sacred property, which he did faithfully; however, he could not recover the temple treasures that had been stolen and melted down on Nero’s orders.

Early in the year of the Four Emperors (69), Agricola’s mother was slain by marauding soldiers of Otho on her estate in Intimilium on the coast of Liguria. Her country estate and a considerable part of Agricola’s paternal estate were looted. Agricola, who was badly hit, arranged for his mother’s burial and immediately joined Vespasian in the struggle for the imperial throne. On the instructions of Gaius Licinius Mucianus, who had been temporarily in charge of the administration in Rome since the end of December 69, he raised troops in the following year. Still in 70, Mucianus promoted him to legate of Legio XX Valeria Victrix in Britannia, where he initially served under the governor Marcus Vettius Bolanus. In this legate function he succeeded Marcus Roscius Coelius, who had come into conflict with Bolanus’ predecessor Marcus Trebellius Maximus and had been supported by many soldiers in 69, until Trebellius had finally had to flee and had been replaced by Vettius Bolanus. Agricola was able to quickly restore the troops’ sense of authority, which had been lost as a result, and he proceeded very moderately. But it was only under Bolanus’ successor, the more offensive governor Quintus Petillius Cerialis, who had been administering Britain since 71, that Agricola found the opportunity to accomplish greater deeds. He was allowed to command relatively large army units independently and probably distinguished himself in battles against the brigands in northern England a

After his return from Britain in 73, Agricola was accepted by Vespasian among the patricians and in 74 was appointed praetorian imperial governor of the province of Aquitaine, which promised the prospect of the consulship. After not quite three years in office, which he had laid out very carefully, Agricola left the province again and probably became suffect consul for a few months in 77. While holding this position, he betrothed his daughter, who was about 13 years old, to Tacitus, to whom he married her after the end of his consulate. Soon after the end of his consulate he was appointed pontifex as well as successor of Sextus Iulius Frontinus as new governor of Britain, which latter office he probably assumed in the second half of the year 77 (at the latest in the year 78) and held for a total of seven years.

First successful campaigns

British historian Malcolm Todd held that Tacitus, in his biography of his father-in-law, had not essentially exaggerated or added to his account of Agricola’s achievements in Britain, and that his account of Agricola’s campaigns in northern Britain as well as his urban development program on the island was supported by archaeological evidence. Todd thus viewed Tacitus’ account of Agricola’s Britannic governorship as relatively credible.

Already the 71-74 acting governor Quintus Petillius Cerialis had obviously finally subjugated the Brigantes settling in the northeast of England, so that the territory controlled by the Romans included the whole lowland north to about the Solway Firth – Tyne line. Sextus Iulius Frontinus had then been able to defeat the Silurians in the south of Wales. Shortly before Agricola’s landing, however, the Ordovice had almost completely annihilated an Ala advanced into their tribal territory, present-day North Wales. Although Agricola did not arrive in Britain until late summer of 77, he immediately succeeded in decisively defeating the Ordovians and then, with selected mounted auxiliary troops, conquered the island of Mona (now Anglesey), the religious and national center of resistance of the Celts, which had already been fought over in Nero’s time. He achieved the capture of the island by having the auxiliary troops take off their heavy equipment and swim to the island, which, according to Tacitus, is said to have impressed the Celts there so much that they surrendered without a fight.

In winter 77

Agricola subsequently pushed further north than any Roman before him. In 79, he reached as far as the Tanaus (unknown location, perhaps the Firth of Tay), again building several strong forts that were strategically located. These forts could withstand long sieges, even in winter, since they stored supplies for a whole year. Agricola proceeded in the following summer of the year 80 to secure his conquests and laid out a series of forts as defensive works (Gask Ridge) at an isthmus where the sea arms called Clota (Firth of Clyde) and Bodotria (Firth of Forth) by Tacitus cut deeply into the island.

The further advance northward took place in 81, when Agricola apparently advanced victoriously along the west coast of Britain across the Firth of Clyde against previously unknown tribes. At that time he even thought of conquering Hibernia (Ireland) and for this purpose he gathered troops on the coast just opposite to this island. The achievement of his goal seemed relatively easy to him, taking advantage of the internal discord of the nobles of Ireland. Therefore, he had also kindly received a chieftain who had had to flee from Ireland, in order to be able to make use of him on occasion. He might not have crossed over to Ireland because of the lack of necessary troops, which some historians nevertheless assume and think of a trial or punishment expedition carried out on a small scale. Tacitus, however, mentions nothing of it and the island remained in any case also further outside of the Roman sphere of influence.

Fight against the Caledonians

In 82, Agricola moved his troops along the east coast of what is now Scotland to the regions north of the Firth of Forth, accompanied by his fleet. The Scottish tribe of the Caledonians took up arms and threatened with numerically superior armies to invade the flank and rear of the advancing Roman army as well as to attack its bases. As a counter-strategy, Agricola now divided his soldiers into three columns in order to march further north in this way. Thereupon, the Caledonians attacked with their entire military force at night the marching camp of Legio VIIII Hispana, characterized by Tacitus as the weakest Britannic legion, which had had to surrender a vexillation for the fight against the Chatti. The hard-pressed Roman soldiers suffered heavy casualties, but were rescued just in time by Agricola, who rushed in with additional forces, and put the enemy to flight. The Caledonians took their women and children to safe places and armed even more men, mostly youths, for the upcoming confrontation with the Romans.

Among other sites, the legionary camp of Inchtuthil, 15 km north of Perth, was found to be the location of a permanent legionary camp established by Agricola during his campaign against the Caledonians. A second son born to Agricola in that year (82) died the following year, much to his father’s grief.

In the summer of 82, a cohort of Usipeters, who had been raised in Germania and transferred to Britain, mutinied, seized several barges and tried to escape to their homeland on them. The fugitives sailed around Britain, but were shipwrecked and fell into the hands of Suebi and Frisians, who sold some of them as slaves.

During the renewed advance to the north, which Agricola undertook again in 83 with fleet support, he found the main forces of the Caledonians under their commander Calgacus assembled at Mons Graupius. The exact position of this mountain, probably located in northeastern Scotland, is unknown. According to Tacitus’ account, the Romans won the following battle without the participation of the legions only by using their 8,000 auxiliary troops as well as 3,000 horsemen and four alae reserves against the allegedly 30,000 strong Caledonian army, of which 10,000 men are said to have fallen, while the rest managed to escape. Tacitus gives the Roman losses as only 360 killed.

After the victorious battle, Agricola ended his campaign due to the approach of autumn and went with his army to the territory of the Boresti people, otherwise not mentioned in ancient sources, who delivered hostages to him. While he then deliberately slowly made his way to winter quarters with his land troops, he first had his fleet sail around the north of Britain, so that it was now finally proven that it really was an island.


Emperor Domitian had a statue of honor and the ornamenta triumphalia decreed by the Senate for the successful governor, but ordered him back to Rome soon after, probably at the beginning of the year 84. Tacitus claims that the great success of his father-in-law had secretly frightened Domitian. The emperor had wanted to make Agricola’s recall palatable by the prospect of the transfer of the important province of Syria.

More probable reasons for the dismissal of the governor than the one given by Tacitus might be, among others, that Agricola had already held his office for an unusually long time (seven years), that the expenses for the military activities and the losses suffered in these wars were probably out of proportion to the profit, and that especially part of the troops stationed in Britain were more urgently needed in these theaters due to the increasing Germanic and Dacian attacks on the Rhine and Danube. As a result, Agricola’s northernmost conquests could not be maintained and were evacuated, such as the legionary camp of Inchtuthil. The fact that Domitian had ordered the victorious commander to return not for personal but for factual reasons can also be seen from the fact that Trajan, who was militarily very expansive, did not revise Domitian’s decision to abandon the northernmost Roman fortresses in Britain.

Agricola led a rather secluded life after the end of his Britannic governorship. Tacitus offers the following version of his twilight years: Although he had been honored by Domitian with the insignia of triumph, Agricola allegedly lost the trust of the emperor, who was characterized as tyrannical, due to his popularity, successes and integrity, without the emperor letting on. While the Romans were fighting unhappily in 86-88 against the Dacians led by Decebalus and against the Quades and Marcomanni, Agricola had been seen by the people – much to Domitian’s chagrin – as a suitable commander to turn this unpleasant situation around. When he was supposed to draw lots for the proconsulship of the provinces of Africa or Asia, he renounced such a candidacy under secret pressure from the emperor. Through this wise restraint Domitian’s envy and distrust towards him would have subsided.

When Agricola died on 23 August 93 at the age of 53, rumors about his alleged poisoning, which Tacitus himself probably did not believe, made the rounds. Due to an absence of several years, Tacitus and his wife had not been granted to be personally present at the deathbed of their father-in-law and father, respectively, who probably died a natural death. The deceased was very mourned by the people and also the emperor, who was appointed by his will as co-heir next to Agricola’s wife and daughter, feigned sorrow, but was in fact pleased about the passing of the deserving former governor and commander.

In contrast to Tacitus’ version of the relationship between Agricola and Domitian, recent research has pointed out that even the Roman historian cannot completely conceal the fact that Agricola always served Domitian assiduously and was therefore in the highest favor with the emperor. The assertion that Domitian had honored and rewarded him outwardly, but secretly feared and hated him, obviously serves as an apologia, in order to be able to make a good impression in the critical situation of the years 97

Tacitus characterizes his father-in-law in Agricola as a loud, respectful man of ancient Roman virtue. As a philosophically educated man, he had usually acted wisely and moderately, had kept a politically prudent distance when necessary, had pronounced just judgments as a judge, and had maintained his authority as an official through seriousness, service, and, if necessary, also through a certain severity. 1185


  1. Gnaeus Iulius Agricola
  2. Gnaeus Julius Agricola
  3. Tacitus, Agricola 4 und 44.
  4. Tacitus, Agricola 4; Seneca, de beneficiis 2, 21, 5.
  5. Tacitus, Agricola 4.
  6. Tacitus, Agricola 5f.
  7. Tacite, Vie d’Agricola, 44 : « excessit quarto et quinquagesimo anno » dans la version originale, traduit dans les versions françaises et anglaises disponibles sur Wikisource en : « dans sa cinquante-sixième année » et « being in the fifty-sixth year of his age ».
  8. Birley, Anthony R, Iulius Agricola, Cn. Simon Hornblower, Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996
  9. Duncan B. Campbell, Mons Graupius AD 83 (Osprey Publishing, 2010)
  10. Vittorio di Martino (2003), Roman Ireland, The Collins Press.
  11. ^ Hanson, W.S. (1991), Agricola and the conquest of the north (2nd edn), London: Batsford.
  12. ^ Birley, Anthony R. (1996), “Iulius Agricola, Cn.”, in Hornblower, Simon (ed.), Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford University Press
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