Classic Works

Tacitus, Agricola (circa 98 AD)

The Agricola (On the Life and Character of Julius Agricola) is a riveting read. A classic work crafted by the Roman politician and historian Cornelius Tacitus at the very end of the first century AD, modern students of strategy and diplomacy continue to find the account of Roman general and politician Agricola’s exploits in Britain timely and relevant. Part eulogy, part history, part anthropological study, and part military analysis, among other things, the short work explores diverse topics while ostensibly being Tacitus’s way of honoring his father-in-law. Three topics stand out – Agricola as a study of leadership, politics, and counterinsurgency strategy.

Context and Authorship

Little is known of Tacitus’s early years, and even his first name, Gaius or Publius, is the subject of some debate (Syme 1958, 59). Details of his life, especially those expanding on his political activities, are lost to time, leaving Sir Ronald Syme, a leading authority on the ancient historian, to conclude “the facts about Tacitus are scanty” (Syme 1958, 73). We do know that Tacitus was born in 56 or 57 AD and died sometime after 115 AD, having served in a variety of increasingly senior Roman government and military posts, including consul, senator, and governor of Asia (Mattingly 1970, 9 – 10).[1] Given this diverse career, one scholar suggests that “we may think of Tacitus as something like an officer of a colonial army and a colonial administrator rolled into one… [holding] a passionate belief in the ‘career’ as the thing that chiefly matters in life” (Mattingly 1970, 10). Part of that career rested in chronicling portions of the Roman Empire’s history, a task that the man took as seriously as his official positions.

Tacitus is best remembered for documenting the defining political and military events of his age.  The historian came into the world during the reign of Nero who, after being denounced as a public enemy during his acrimonious rule, committed suicide. A succession of emperors followed, some of whom aspired to the republican ideal of Rome and earned Tacitus’s praise while others seemed despotic, incurring the chronicler’s wrath. Of the nine emperors under whom he lived, Tacitus may have been most critical of Domitian, who was known for cruelty and ultimately met death at the hands of his own government officials (Mattingly 1970, 40). It was Domitian who ultimately constituted the principal villain in the Agricola, which was published in 98 AD.  The brief work, completed alongside his Germania, was Tacitus’s first literary effort, though he is most famous for his later Histories and Annals (Mattingly 1970, 10). Both a biography of and a eulogy to the historian’s father-in-law, a man whom he loved and respected, the work draws on a range of literary traditions, from historical narrative and tribute, to political treatise and anthropological study.

The Agricola is a sweeping piece set for the most part in the farthest reaches of the empire – Britain (Mattingly 1970, 15). While Julius Caesar made two expeditions to the island, one in 55 BC and a second in 54 BC, these resulted in only the partial subjugation of the distant land, and almost one hundred years later Britain still represented the frontier to Romans (Mattingly 1970, 19). Only in 43 AD under the orders of Claudius was the island annexed to the empire, and according to Tacitus, it was not until his father-in-law campaigned there some thirty years onward that it was completely conquered (Mattingly 1970, 20). The Agricola describes the life of its namesake and his many campaigns in Britain. Along the way, the piece also takes care to examine the virtues and vices of the Roman Empire, contemporary politics, and the culture of native Britons. Harold Mattingly argues that “deep in the heart of the book lies an ideal that commands admiration – belief in Rome, in Roman destiny, and in the Roman ways and standards of life” (Mattingly 1970, 17). This is the overarching theme that keeps the many seeming disparate threads of the Agricola together.

As Leadership Analysis

One way to read the Agricola is as commentary on what makes a high-quality political -military leader. Syme suggests that it is more than just a eulogy, but rather “it stands in close relation to the training and career of the Imperator himself [Agricola], to his character and his virtues” (Syme 1958, 19). It seems such qualities began cultivation early in life. Tacitus opens his classic work with a description of Agricola’s childhood, suggesting that these formative years affected his later qualities and disposition. Born in 40 AD as the grandson of two procurators and as the son of a learned member of the Senate, Agricola seemed destined for high station in Roman society (Tacitus 1970, 53). Agricola’s father, known for his “firm principles,” ultimately reached a praetorship before being put to death by Caligula for running awry the emperor’s jealousy (Syme 1958, 20).

As a boy, Agricola embraced the study of philosophy under the careful supervision of his mother, Julia Procilla, a woman Tacitus describes as a “paragon of feminine virtue” who effectively cultivated in her son an appreciation for the liberal arts (Syme 1958, 20; Tacitus 1970, 54). After he joined military service, the young soldier began to exhibit laudable leadership qualities in each new post to which he was assigned. Tacitus takes care to describe this period in his father-in-law’s life. The Roman historian says of Agricola’s first posting in Britain commanding a Roman legion that he:

… got to know his province and made himself known to the troops. He learned from the experts and chose the best models to follow. He never sought a duty for self-advertisement, never shirked one through cowardice. He acted always with energy and a sense of responsibility (Tacitus 1970, 54 – 55).

Much is captured in this passage. First, Agricola made efforts to engender respect from his troops while coming to understand the place in which they were fighting, certainly praiseworthy characteristics in a military leader. Second, he was a humble, brave leader, which suggests not just something about how he viewed his role as a commander of men, but also how he viewed his position relative to his superiors. During this early period of public life and long after, Agricola was careful not to act in a boastful manner and made efforts to share any glory won on the field of battle with his superiors (Syme 1958, 22). Indeed, discretion marked Agricola’s time in public office (Syme 1958, 21). “Agricola did not pursue renown, either frankly or artfully” (Syme 1958, 22). Tacitus drives this idea home, writing that “Agricola was not greedy of fame and never tried to steal the credit for other men’s work” and that “every centurion and prefect found in him an honest witness to his merit” (Tacitus 1970, 74). Finally, as high-quality leaders do, he took responsibility for his actions. Tacitus remarks that it “is the crowning injustice of war: all claim credit for success, while defeat is laid to the account of one” (Tacitus 1970, 77). Agricola was willing to accept this reality knowing the potential personal ramifications.

Throughout his time holding a series of increasingly important positions, including serving as Aquitania’s administrator under Emperor Vespasian, Tacitus displayed additional commendable qualities, namely:

…natural good sense, even in dealing with civilians, to show himself both agreeable and just. He made a clear division between hours of business and hours of relaxation. When the judicial duties of the assizes demanded attention, he was dignified, serious, and austere – though merciful whenever he could be. When duty had been discharged, he completely dropped his official air (Tacitus 1970, 59).

Here Tacitus applauds a sense of justice, seriousness, mercy, and familiarity all of which he associates with the leadership of Agricola. The Roman historian returns to these characteristics several times. He writes:

According to some accounts he was harsh in reprimand, and certainly he could make himself as unpleasant to the wrong kind of man as he was agreeable to the right kind. But his anger left no hidden malice in his heart, and you had no need to fear his silence. He thought it more honourable to hurt than to hate (Tacitus 1970, 74).

Once again, a sense of justice is on display, but this time merged with the Roman ideal of honor. Tacitus suggests that these are timeless traits to any political or military leader who exhibits them. These features would be on display repeatedly throughout the older man’s public career and ultimately played a role in how Agricola prosecuted his campaigns to subdue the restless natives of Britain.

Agricola ultimately became governor of Britain in 78 AD, and it is here that the leadership traits most lauded by Tacitus are on clearest display (Mattingly 1970, 21). Over the course of seven years, the Romans engaged in a series of campaigns to subject the native inhabitants of Britain to foreign rule. Tacitus describes each fighting season and highlights the attributes assisting Agricola earn the title “Conqueror of Britain.” For example, when painting Agricola during his second summer campaign, Tacitus writes the general “was present everywhere on the march, praising good discipline and keeping stragglers up to the mark” (Tacitus 1970, 72). The man actively led his soldiers. Additionally, Agricola “chose sites for camps and reconnoitered estuaries and forests; and all the time he gave the enemy no rest, but constantly launched plundering raids” (Tacitus 1970, 72). Analysts of the time observed that “no general ever showed a better eye for ground than Agricola. No fort on a site of his choosing was ever taken by storm, ever capitulated or was ever abandoned” (Tacitus 1970, 73). From these passages we learn that Agricola continued to engage directly with his men rather than remaining aloof, and in doing so could demonstrate his bravery to friend and foe alike. Such bravery was especially clear in Tacitus’s description of Agricola’s first military action in Britain as its governor. Tacitus tells us that the Roman commander “led his men up into the hills, marching in front himself so as to impart his own courage to the rest by sharing their danger, and cut to pieces almost the whole fighting forces” (Tacitus 1970, 69). While some of this might be exaggeration from a loving son-in-law, if even a fraction of this description is true, we find that Agricola took an active role in the most important decisions and challenges facing an army in the field. Finally, Tacitus praises the resolute and consistent pressure Agricola placed on his enemies. Long has “initiative,” forcing an opponent to react to one’s own actions rather than waiting to react to an enemy, been highlighted as an important element to military victory; Agricola led with this in mind.

Interestingly, the Roman commander is not the only person whose leadership Tacitus seems to praise. Near the end of the Agricola, readers are transported to Mount Graupius, the location of the last major battle fought in the conquest of Britain. Here the Caledonians, fresh off of a defeat they blamed on bad luck, finally banded together to combat Agricola as a united front (Tacitus 1970, 77). Tacitus describes the Britons as “undaunted by the loss of the previous battle” and “ready for either revenge or enslavement” having “realized at last that common danger must be warded off by united action” (Tacitus 1970, 79). At this moment, Calgacus, one of the chiefs at the head of the Britons, delivers a powerful speech meant to rouse his troops to the fight. So poetic is its description that a reader gets the sense Tacitus is lauding the bravery of the chief and his men in a tragic circumstance. Calgacus calls on his people to fight for the “dawn of liberty” and praises his men as the best Britain has to offer as they will not give in to the “robbery, butchery, and rapine” to which the Romans “give the lying name of ‘government’” (Tacitus 1970, 80 – 81). He goes on to claim that the Roman military is not strong, but rather its opponents in the past have been weak – Britons need not suffer defeat if they remain united and resolute (Tacitus 1970, 82- 83). The British chieftain concludes by arguing he and his men “shall be fighting to preserve [their] freedom, and not, like [the Romans], merely to avenge past injuries” (Tacitus 1970, 82). The speech is a tour de force expertly delivered by, at least in the estimation of Tacitus, a brave leader in the face of overwhelming odds.

Not to be outdone, Agricola also delivers a stirring speech. He first aims to rouse the pride of his men by reminding them that the campaign has brought them deeper into Britain than any before and that there is “credit and honour” in this achievement provided they fight on; however, if they flee, the great distances traveled to this point will serve only to endanger their lives since the enemy who knows the land will harass a retreat the entire way (Tacitus 1970, 85). Agricola thus implores his men that “our best chance of safety does in fact lie in doing our duty” and fighting at Mount Graupius; moreover, he offers meaning to death by suggesting glory resides in such a fate (Tacitus 1970, 85). He concludes by arguing his troops now face “the greatest runaways of all the Britons” as these are the men still alive after years of campaigning (Tacitus 1970, 85). The Roman general’s speech as recounted by Tacitus thus aims to inspire, threaten, and give confidence to his men. The historian suggests that the power to instill these emotions is a hallmark of a great commander.

Not all scholars conclude, however, that there was universal acclaim for Agricola or that Tacitus praises him without restraint. Harold Mattingly suggests that Agricola was indeed admired by his contemporaries for his tactical abilities but criticized when his strategy for pacifying Britain “did not produce very decisive or permanent results” after seven years of fighting at the farthest reaches of the territory (Mattingly 1970, 14). After all, once Agricola was recalled from Britain, the Roman outpost faced a series of insurrections, so much so that the famous Hadrian’s Wall was built to defend Roman interests in the south from rambunctious natives in the north. S. A. Bastomsky, meanwhile, argues that Tacitus himself tacitly criticizes Agricola as flowing with the troubled times, prioritizing political motivations at the expense of family obligations, engaging in self-serving pursuits, and most importantly “administering what is clearly a most unethical policy” in the outer reaches of the Roman Empire (Bastomsky 1985, 389 – 392). Ultimately, for all the “praise” Tacitus lays at the feet of Agricola, Bastomsky concludes that the Roman historian is also pointing out the hypocrisy of his father-in-law, a man too good to be true in a world complicated by political intrigue and pursuits. The hypocrisy of Agricola involved “co-operation with a despised regime,” and while Tacitus tries to explain this away in chapter forty-two, it is hardly a convincing exercise in Bastomsky’s estimation (Bastomsky 1985, 393). Syme also argues that “Agricola’s demeanour was far from heroic,” pointing to the many instances he submitted to Domitian’s rule rather than offer a principled challenge to it (Syme 1958, 24).

There are other criticisms not just of Agricola, but of the author who chronicled his exploits in Britain. A. G. Woodhead summarizes these critiques:

The narrative of Agricola’s governorship, which ought to be the core of the whole biography, is hazy and inaccurate, the geography inexact, the history sketchy… the conclusion seems inevitable that it cannot be a true history of Agricola in the real sense of the word, and that whatever view one may take of its purpose, it should at any rate be treated with considerable caution (Woodhead 1948, 46).

Woodhead goes on to explain particular ways in which Tacitus’s history is called into question. For example, some argue that Agricola may not have been the first Roman leader to breach deep into Scotland and that his accomplishments were ultimately fleeting, far less important than those of his predecessors (Woodhead 1948, 46 – 47). Woodhead ultimately does not put much stock in these criticisms, however. He argues that calling Agricola the “Conqueror of Britain” is accurate, the narrative crafted by Tacitus precise and detailed enough to convey important history, and that the disjointed literary style of the work, which many suggest is a weakness, actually serves to highlight the various types of events and ideas discussed in the work (Woodhead 1948, 47 – 49).

As Political Critique

The historian’s praise of his father-in-law combines with his political analysis of Rome. Indeed, Tacitus’s defense of Agricola must be taken in the light of Roman emperor Domitian’s assassination. (Syme 1958, 25). During the reign of Domitian, Tacitus tells us that eulogies were “treated as capital offences, and the savage rage of their enemies was vented upon the books as well as upon their authors,” so it was not until after the emperor’s assassination that the historian took up his pen to write the Agricola (Tacitus 1970, 52). In doing so he hoped not just to laud his father-in-law, but also to attack the failings of Rome and Domitian as he saw them. Indeed, some scholars have “suggested that it is as much a political pamphlet as a biography” (Woodhead 1948, 45). Ronald Syme expands on this idea and claims Tacitus actually has two groups of Roman political elite in his sights. The British classicist argues:

Agricola purports to be a composition in praise of Tacitus’ father-in-law. Being that, it cannot fail to be an attack on Domitian. Violent language shows that it is also an attack on other persons, on political extremists (Syme 1958, 29).

It seems that both Domitian, the violent and megalomaniacal emperor of Rome, along with the radicals who spoke out against him, are equally condemned by the Roman historian. This joint critique may seem out of place, but when put into the context of the political ideals held up by Tacitus, they are in fact mutually supportive.

The first target, Domitian, is the easiest to appreciate. Following the successful conclusion of the battle at Mount Garupius, Agricola made a report to his emperor on the progress of the campaign. As Tacitus recounts it:

Agricola’s dispatch reported this series of events in language of careful moderation. But Domitian reacted as he often did: he pretended to be pleased when in fact he was deeply disturbed. He was conscious of the ridicule that his sham triumph over Germany had excited… He knew there was nothing so dangerous for him as to have the name of a subject exalted above that of the emperor (Tacitus 1970, 90 – 91).

Yet, Domitian did the basics to honor Agricola, and powerful forces near the emperor even suggested the province of Syria might be Agricola’s to govern next (Tacitus 1970, 91 – 92). It was in this environment of false applause that Agricola’s humility and wisdom were so important. Upon returning to Italy, he entered Rome by night to avoid jubilant crowds, was met curtly by the Rome’s ruler, and proceeded to enter into “quiet retirement” (Tacitus 1970, 92). In describing these events, Tacitus explains that Agricola knew well he was in danger at the hands of Domitian for having achieved victories in Britain. Even after opportunities for new military and political appointments arose, including the proconsulship of Africa or Asia, Agricola simply asked his emperor for permission to permanently retire (Tacitus 1970, 93 – 94). This permission was granted, and Agricola remained with his family in relative obscurity until his death.

From Tacitus’s perspective, such behavior was the only option available to an honorable man dedicated to Rome and his family but living under the rule of Domitian. Agricola showed no resentment toward the emperor. He displayed no flashy or pompous attitude upon returning from Britain, preferring instead to choose “prudence and escaped harm” (Syme 1958, 24). Honorable though these actions may have been, Tacitus certainly felt his father-in-law was “cheated” from higher office (Syme 1958, 24). In early pages of the Agricola, the historian laments the effects of Domitian’s rule on the empire. He contrasts Nerva and Trajan, the next two emperors, with their predecessor by acclaiming Nerva “harmonized the old discord between autocracy and freedom” and Trajan enriched “the happiness of our times” (Tacitus 1970, 52). Tacitus opines that for fifteen years under Domitian energetic men fell “victims to the cruelty of the emperor” and outright admits his disdain for the former ruler (Tacitus 1970, 52). While this contempt is clear, Woodhead reminds us too that Agricola’s criticisms of Domitian must be “taken with a pinch of salt” given the well-known animosity between the two men (Woodhead 1948, 45). Of course the emperor, especially after his death, would garner scathing remarks from Tacitus if the historian saw the man as not just hindering the career of his beloved Agricola, but also his own.

Domitian made an easy target for loathing, but Tacitus’s second target – radicals explicitly opposing his rule – is more difficult for a modern audience to appreciate. Tacitus does not hide his disdain for these men. He argues that they aimed to gain fame “without benefiting their country” through “ostentatious self-martyrdom” (Tacitus 1970, 95). They should have followed a different course. The historian argues that there “even under bad emperors men can be great,” and that his father-in-law personified this possibility (Tacitus 1970, 95). Mattingly reminds us that Tacitus and his friends “suffered in silence, acquiescing against their consciences in the condemnation of their friends” for “they believed in the importance of their careers and felt no call to fruitless martyrdom” and ultimately sought “to make the best of both worlds – to survive under a bad emperor and to resume full rank as patriots under a good one” (Mattingly 1970, 17). This is at the heart of Tacitus’s criticism of radicals taking their condemnation of Domitian to the public during the emperor’s reign. These men were not taking their careers seriously, careers that could over the long-term be used to benefit Rome; instead, they flashed brightly and gained notoriety before their deaths without changing anything. Only death could remove Domitian from power. In the face of such supremacy, it was better to make efforts to serve the state as a patriot even if the state’s ruler for a time was problematic.

In the end, Agricola and his son-in-law were realists, taking the world for what it was rather than what they would will it to be (Mattingly 1970, 14). Mattingly suggests that while “there is some truth” in the idea that the Agricola was a call for moderation in politics, a subtle attack on the excesses of Domitian and other tyrannical Roman emperors, this interpretation should not be taken too far since “Agricola had certainly never opposed the tyrannical Domitian… [and] he knew he must submit” (Mattingly 1970, 16 – 17). Agricola may have been “a good man himself” and “pained by Domitian’s bad government;” but, he “would not sacrifice his life in a useless defiance of authority” (Mattingly 1970, 14). In the view of Tacitus, there was no room for wayward idealism. There were good reasons to serve the state even under the rule of a bad emperor and it was vain to oppose such a rule. Ronald Syme makes an important point about the wider implications of this view:

Attacking those who admired the martyrs unduly, Tacitus defends his father-in-law – and shields his own conduct under the tyranny of Domitian… Tacitus speaks not only for Agricola or for himself. The Agricola expands the moral and political ideas of the new aristocracy, not systematically formulated but emerging gradually… (Syme 1958, 25 – 26).

Tacitus is suggesting the service ideals held by men from the provinces, men like his father-in-law and himself who made up the new aristocracy, rather than the intrigues of Roman men, were essential to the empire’s continued success (Syme 1958, 29). A good man could serve his country even while it was poorly ruled.

As Counterinsurgency Manual

Beyond leadership and politics, the Agricola also offers a manual for counterinsurgency, according to Johns Hopkins University professor Jakub Grygiel. Grygiel argues that Agricola’s counterinsurgency strategy was rooted in four principles “easy to understand but difficult to implement, and with few guarantees of success…” (Grygiel 2013). These four principles, though rooted in the ancient story of Agricola, sound familiar to modern students of counterinsurgency strategy, especially following American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The first principle centers on how Agricola worked to install “predictability to Roman administration by bringing discipline and order to his own men.” (Grygiel 2013) Tacitus writes that Agricola “resolved to root out the causes of rebellion” and that “beginning with himself and his staff, he enforced discipline” (Tacitus 1970, 70). After all, in the estimation of Tacitus, “the Britons readily submit to military service, payment of tribute, and other obligations imposed by government, provided that there is no abuse” (Tacitus 1970, 63). To limit such abuse, Agricola took several concrete steps. He promoted those within his ranks based on their skill and not through nepotism, did not tolerate major crimes, showed mercy when possible, made tribute easier, and perhaps most importantly of all, stopped profiteers (Tacitus 1970, 70). Thanks to these measures, the Britons were made to “appreciate the advantages of peace, which, through the negligence or arbitrariness of previous governors, had been as much feared as war” (Tacitus 1970, 70). These same measures are often in the minds of modern counterinsurgents.

Grygiel’s next principle centers on the use of violence. He argues that Agricola saw violence as necessary, but also believed it “should be brief, quick, and devastating” and that “a reputation for military success was preferable to the actual use of power” (Grygiel 2013). This strategy was in part possible because the tribes of Britain failed to fight as a unified entity until the very end of the war; thus, they could be divided and conquered by the superior Roman forces at will (Tacitus 1970, 62). The boldness of Agricola’s military moves, however, also supported this principle. For example, when he first took over as governor in Britain, conventional wisdom suggested the fighting season was over since summer was largely spent and local auxiliary forces scattered; however, “Agricola decided to go and meet the peril… [and] concentrated his legionaries serving on detachment duties and a small force of auxiliaries” (Tacitus 1970, 69). After meeting success with his first offensive, “he realized that he must continue to live up to his reputation, and that the outcome of his first enterprises would determine how much fear his subsequent operations would inspire” and he proceeded to cunningly attack and reduce an island position using local forces accustomed to working in and around water (Tacitus 1970, 69).

Agricola worked to ensure his hard won advances were not lost, that the violence he had unleashed was not in vain and had maximal effect on his enemies. To this end, be built forts that secured in the winter gains made in the summer and in doing so demoralized the British enemies who could no longer make up for summer losses with winter attacks (Tacitus 1970, 73). He also he creatively used his fleet to engage in joint actions during his later campaigns while pushing deep into the northern portions of Britain (Tacitus 1970, 75). In a similarly resourceful manner, Agricola skillfully used his auxiliary forces and cavalry to defeat the native Britons on Mount Graupius. where he personally led his men to a victory that only ended when Roman “soldiers were tired of killing” (Tacitus 1970, 86 – 89). The victory was complete and devastating. To secure the peace, Agricola took hostages from his defeated enemies and then “marched slowly in order to overawe the recently conquered tribes by the very deliberateness of his movements” (Tacitus 1970, 90). The Roman commander was unafraid to use massive violence, but in doing so he hoped for more than just killing enemies, he hoped to overpower and intimidate them into a more durable peace.

The third principle centers on the way in which Agricola sought to secure the peace. “Violence is necessary but has limits in what it can achieve,” writes Grygiel, who notes that “in the constant quest to diminish the need for violence, [Agricola] engaged in what we now call state-building” (Grygiel 2013). After his initial military successes, the Roman governor of Britain attempted to limit violence while maximizing his political successes. In his second summer, “when he had done enough to inspire fear, he tried the effect of clemency and showed them the attractions of peace,” and, as a result, according to Tacitus, “many states which till then had maintained their independence gave hostages and abandoned their resentful attitude” (Tacitus 1970, 72). This political outreach was combined with brick-and-mortar state-building projects. Activities in the second winter focused on “schemes of social betterment,” including building “temples, public squares, and good houses” (Tacitus 1970, 72).

The fourth and final counterinsurgency principle Grygiel identifies in the Agricola focuses on the “slow process of assimilation” initiated by the Romans, featuring education of the local leadership in Roman language, culture, and society (Grygiel 2013). “The idea behind this strategy was that the impulse to oppose Roman power would weaken as the locals became increasingly more similar to their conquerors” (Grygiel 2013). Tacitus describes how the education of children from leading families of Britons “living in isolation and ignorance” would naturally make them less likely to fight (Tacitus 1970, 72). The historian chronicles how some local Britons ultimately sought to emulate their rulers in manners and speech, even as such “civilization” was actually “a feature of their enslavement” (Tacitus 1970, 73). Tacitus seems somewhat torn while recounting this change among Britons. Indeed, between this discussion and his recounting of Calgacus’s stirring speech before the slaughter on Mount Graupius, one gets the sense that Tacitus respects and perhaps even morns the loss of such proud peoples. Regardless, by assimilating Britons into the empire, Agricola was undermining the popular steam that would power future rebellion.

Grygiel concludes that the counterinsurgency model employed by Agricola was “conceptually simple: build a reputation for strength but also for self-restraint and order, defeat the enemy but make peace attractive, keep military supremacy but also assimilate the conquered population” (Grygiel 2013). Still, as readers of Clausewitz know, even the simplest things in war are difficult. This strategy required a skilled leader who held both supreme political and military authority and who was equally at ease dealing with both types of pursuits (Grygiel 2013). Such leaders are difficult to find. Additionally:

…counterinsurgency was not a momentary approach to solve once and for all a problem, but a constant posture aimed at managing a perennial condition. Its weakest point, therefore, was the willingness or the resolve of the Romans, the counterinsurgents, to engage in a prolonged, generational and perhaps even longer, contest of wills (Grygiel 2013).

This “contest of wills” was ever present in Agricola’s fighting in Britain and remains a central feature not just of counterinsurgency, but of warfare in general. That a work of history so old can continue to remind us of this basic fact of war speaks to its timelessness.


Leadership analysis, political critique, and counterinsurgency manual – these are just three themes found in the pages of the Agricola. Tacitus’s wide-ranging first work leaves his readers with much to contemplate. While disputes over some aspect of its translation or another may offer fodder for classical scholars, for students of strategy and diplomacy, the broad themes captured in the history remain relevant regardless of translation. Like all good works of military history, the Agricola reminds its readers of the rich context in which the events it describes took place. It offers insight into the mind of a pivotal political and military figure. It examines combatants on each side of the fight in question. And ultimately it offers insights that stand the test of time.


[1] When referring to the Harold Mattingly introduction in the 1970 publication of the Agricola, only Mattingly’s name will be used for the in-text citation. When referring to the translation of the Agricola as written by Tacitus, only the Tacitus’s name will be used for the in-text citation. I show in the bibliography that Mattingly and Handford are responsible for the translation of Tacitus’s book; however, I want to make clear to readers of this essay exactly when Mattingly’s words are being quoted and when Tacitus in translation is being quoted, thus the abbreviated textual citation.



Bastomsky, S. J. “The Not-so-perfect Man: Some Ambiguities in Tacitus’ Picture of Agricola.” Latomus 44, no. Fasc. 2 (1985): 388-393.

Classics scholar Saul Bastomsky offers an alternative assessment of Tacitus’s view of his father-in-law in this brief article. He carefully considers several chapters in the Agricola to suggest that the conventional view, namely that Tacitus used his eulogy largely to praise Agricola, may be at least in part mistaken. Bastomsky roots some analysis in reconsidering the translation of the original text.

Grygiel, Jakub. “Tacitus’ Agricola and the Lessons for Today.” Foreign Policy Research Institute E-Note, December 2013, accessed 2/14/2016,

Jakub Grygiel offers a valuable analysis of how the Agricola might be read as a counterinsurgency manual. By examining the details of Agricola’s time serving in Great Britain, Grygiel isolates several practices from this ancient period that mirror the best wisdom of modern counterinsurgency strategists. This reading of the Agricola makes it an exceedingly relevant work of strategy for a 21st century audience.

Mattingly, Harold and S. A. Handford. Tacitus: The Agricola and the Germania. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1970.

This is one of the most common translations of the Agricola available. Easy to read and featuring a useful introduction by Harold Mattingly on the historical and societal context, it is an easy way to break into Tacitus’s treatment of his father-in-law. Indeed, in reading this translation of Tacitus’s work one quickly discovers just how many different themes are captured in his history, themes on leadership, politics, and warfare that remain relevant to the student of strategy and diplomacy today.

Syme, Ronald. Tacitus, Vol I & Vol II. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Ronald Syme wrote a widely read biography and analysis of Tacitus, the Roman politician and historian. This two volume work covers the breadth of Tacitus’s life while also providing general overviews of his major works and an analysis of their central arguments. While this book takes at least some passing familiarity with Roman history to digest comfortably, it is one of the best sources on the life of Tacitus.

Woodhead, A. G. “Tacitus and Agricola.” Phoenix 2, no. 2 (1948): 45-55

Woodhead offers a brief summary of the criticisms levied against the Agricola as a history and as a biography before defending and confirming the Roman historian’s central arguments. A student looking for a brief overview of ways Tacitus has been criticized and defended will find this article most useful. Easy to read, this is also a good place to begin breaking into the classical studies literature on Tacitus more generally.