Agricola (AD40–93) was the only Roman general who could claim to have subdued the whole of Britain. Simon Turney has written the first biography of this important figure for nearly two millennia. He looks at why Agricola’s victories make him one of the great military figures in Roman history.
A Roman general is marked by his victories – by his triumphs and honours. A number of names have come down to us, renowned enough to have secured a place in history: Scipio, Caesar, Corbulo, Flavius Aetius, a number of others. And Agricola.
All we know about Agricola, barring a few corroborative inscriptions, comes from the eulogy/biography written by his son-in-law, the Roman writer Tacitus, who likely accompanied him on campaign for perhaps three years of his career. While there are endless arguments over how much we are able to trust Tacitus, the simple truth is that when he wrote his work, there would have been ample witnesses to the events in it left alive. As such, we can only assume a certain veracity to his work.
Agricola, then, came to Britain more often, and for longer, than any other Roman. If we assume we can trust Tacitus, he was here from perhaps AD58–60 as a tribune, probably in Legio II Augusta, seconded to the governor’s staff for his Welsh campaigns.
He then returned to Rome and a civilian career until the civil war of 69, following which he was sent to Britain again, this time to command the rebellious Legio XX Valeria Victrix and take part in Cerialis’s campaigns in the north, from 70-73. Finally, he was sent back by Vespasian as governor, for an astounding extended period (77-84). This adds up to a total of at least 13 years fighting across the British landscape, more than any other Roman.
So what’s important about his victories? Well let’s look at the great military events he was involved in. Even if he was not the commanding officer, one must consider any great battle that he could have been part of.
“On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe.” (Tacitus, Annals 14.30)
We begin with his tribuneship. As part of the staff of Suetonius Paulinus, Tacitus tells us that he was involved in the suppression of the druids in AD60. The Anglesey campaign followed a brutal campaign across North Wales and ended with an unprecedented burning of all the druidic holy places. In 60, Rome stamped its authority on the ancient religion of the Celts in blood and iron. Anglesey is a remarkably under-appreciated turning-point battle in history.
“The troops gave no quarter even to the women: the baggage animals themselves had been speared and added to the pile of bodies. The glory won in the course of the day was remarkable, and equal to that of our older victories: for, by some accounts, little less than 80,000 Britons fell, at a cost of some 400 Romans killed.” (Tacitus, Annals 14.37)
That same year, Paulinus learned of the revolt of Boudica and the Iceni back in the east, burning the cities of Colchester, St Albans and London. The reckless but heroic officer Petilius Cerialis almost famously lost his ninth legion in the debacle, but eventually Paulinus arrived with his armies and cornered Boudica, and the revolt ended in a bloodbath.
It is even likely that in the aftermath of this fight, Agricola met the future emperor Titus, himself also a tribune at this time. So even as a mere tribune, Agricola has been one of the staff officers at two of the greatest early battles of Roman Britain.
He would be back again in 70. This time, he was sent to take command of the 20th Legion, who were in open revolt. He took back control swiftly, and moved to join the province’s governor, the very same Cerialis he might well have fought alongside against Boudica a decade earlier.
“They were at once panic-stricken by the attack of Petilius Cerialis on the state of the Brigantes, […] There were many battles, some by no means bloodless, and his conquests, or at least his wars, embraced a large part of the territory of the Brigantes.” (Tacitus, Agricola 17)
The largest tribe in England was swiftly brought under control, a tribe that had been causing Rome trouble for decades, over the Caratacus debacle, and then several civil wars. It appears that in this campaign Cerialis marched up the east from York, towards Corbridge, and gave Agricola a sizeable portion of the army to advance up the west from Chester to Carlisle.
Agricola than came back across the Stainmore Pass and the two officers managed to bring the Brigantes to battle, probably at the great stronghold of Stanwick Camp. When Agricola returned to Rome once more, he had already fought in campaigns across Wales and the north of England.
Endgame, then. In 77, Agricola was sent back once again, this time as governor, and with a remit to conquer the island. Before he arrived, the Welsh Ordovices had just massacred a cavalry garrison in their territory and, even as the campaigning season closed, Agricola marched into Wales and brought it back under control. There followed years of campaigns, each gradually extending Roman territory north. A number of battles likely followed, though for this article, we shall focus on three.
The first is the battle that doesn’t exist. In 79, Agricola reached the River Tay. No battle was recorded by Tacitus in this year (and therefore clearly by no one else either). And yet in this year there were a number of hints that there was in fact a battle about which history remains ignorant.
Firstly, a fort in the region south of the Tay, which seems to have been built around this time, was called ‘Victoria’, something of a giveaway. We are told by Tacitus that Agricola created a line of forts against the Caledonian territory and stocked them for a siege. Why he would think to do such a thing if he has not done something to incur their wrath is an interesting question.
But the most telling sign is that the emperor Titus received his 15th acclamation as imperator in this year, suggesting that there was some noteworthy victory the emperor could take credit for. Certainly Titus was in Rome, and there was no other campaign recorded in this year. What we are left with, then, is a victory, perhaps over the Damnonii of the Glasgow-Edinburgh corridor in that year, beaten by Agricola, who passed the glory to an old friend: Titus.
“Their whole force attacked by night the Ninth Legion, as being the weakest, and cutting down the sentries, who were asleep or panic-stricken, they broke into the camp” (Tacitus, Agricola 26)
Yes, that poor, battered, unlucky Ninth Legion who had been beaten by Boudica under Cerialis, were currently understrength and moving into the highlands up the Earn valley as part of a three- legion force. They were fallen upon by the Caledonii in a night attack that almost destroyed them. Indeed, they fought throughout the night, even within their camp.
So why was this a victory for Agricola? Because, as the sun began to lighten the valleys, Agricola arrived with a relief force, probably his familiar Legio XX, who were likely only 10 miles away in a parallel valley. They fell upon the rear of the Caledonii, broke the attack, and saved the Ninth. Yes, yet again, their eagle didn’t fall. This may have occurred at the camp of Dalginross.
The campaign continued, up the east coast of Scotland. Rome’s northernmost legionary fortress was constructed at Inchtuthil, the northernmost fort at Stracathro, and the northernmost camp at Muiryfold. By denying the Caledonii access to the good arable lowland, and by harassing their settlements by both land and sea, he forced them to come out and meet him on better terrain.
This is the battle history calls Mons Graupius. The location of the battle has never been confirmed, though my choice falls on the Roman camp of Logie Durno and the native position on the hill of Bennachie.
“Had not Agricola, who was present everywhere, ordered a force of strong and lightly-equipped cohorts, with some dismounted troopers for the denser parts of the forest, and a detachment of cavalry where it was not so thick, to scour the woods like a party of huntsmen, serious loss would have been sustained through the excessive confidence of our troops” (Tacitus, Agricola 37)
The importance of the Battle of Mons Graupius, a truly overwhelming victory for Agricola and Rome, carried out largely by his auxiliary German cavalry without ever even committing a legionary to the fight, is sadly unrecognized. The victory brought Scotland under Roman control and completed the conquest of Britain.
Sadly, at that same time, the Dacians were causing empire-threatening trouble on the Danube, and the emperor Domitian was forced to draw all military power that could be spared to the Danube. As such, all the hard-won land of Scotland was let go, and would never again be recovered.
But the simple fact was that in AD 83 Agricola could claim to control the entirety of Britain. His achievement is given added weight when one asks how often Scotland has been conquered since 83 AD. So Agricola took part, or commanded, at most of the critical battles of Roman Britain between 58 and 84 AD.
I will leave you with the words of his opponent at Mons Graupius, the tribesman Calgacus, telling us of the Roman objective: “They make a desert and call it peace.”
Simon Turney is a historian and novelist who has written over 30 books. Since his childhood in Yorkshire he has been fascinated by the ancient world, particularly Roman history, and this is reflected in his writing. He’s well known (as SJA Turney) for his Marius’ Mules and Praetorian series and more recently has collaborated with Gordon Doherty on the Rise of Emperors trilogy. He also writes novels about the Templars. The Bear of Byzantium is the second in a new series of Viking adventures and was published on 10 February, 2022.
His biographies include Commodus and Caligula (the Damned Emperors series). And if that’s not enough, he’s a generous contributor to Historia:
Nero: the man behind the myth (review)
A game of gods: religion in a changing Roman world
Vikings in Georgia: history or myth?
The Templars and the reconquest of Spain
The Women of the Knights Templar
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The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus by Carle Vernet, 1789: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York via Wikimedia (CC0 1.0)
The beginning of Tacitus’s De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae: Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Officers and men of the 20th Legion: © Simon Turney
Statue of Boudica, Westminster, by Thomas Thornycroft, cast 1902: Paul Walter via Wikimedia
Tombstone of Flavinus, Roman standard bearer (detail) found at Coria, now at Hexham Abbey: Mike Quinn via Geograph (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Map of Agricola’s campaigns in Scotland: Notuncurious via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Statue of a standard bearer of the Ninth Legion, Yorkshire Museum, York: © Simon Turney
Logie Durno and Bennachie: © Simon Turney