Gnaeus Julius Agricola
Agricola is the name of just one of Britain’s many governors and military commanders, but perhaps the most celebrated. In part he has his son-in-law, Tacitus, to thank as his biography is an enduring hit. But there would be no story without the amazing Agricola himself.
He served his military apprenticeship here in Britain years ago, as a tribune greatly respected by Gaius Suetonius Paullus. This Suetonius was the remarkable general who would crush Boudicca, later end up as Consul, and be a prime backer of Otho during the civil wars. His immense military reputation went unheeded: he recommended delay when fighting fellow claimant Vitellius. Otho disagreed, fought, and lost.
Standards had dropped in Britain after the Boudiccan revolt, partly to reduce tensions but also in part because discipline in these distant legions wasn’t what it used to be. With Vespasian on the throne and the civil wars over, order was restored and local forces pushed into the troublesome northern tribal lands. Agricola himself now reappears, and astounds the locals with a surprise attack on the troublesome island of Mona by sending some auxiliaries swimming across the shallows.
Like Vespasian, Agricola is a modest man, downplaying his successes. His appearance is described as graceful rather than commanding, but his style gets results . He sorts out the grain market and ends exploitation of farmers, traders and buyers. He supports the establishment of temples and courts. He educates the sons of the nobility, introducing a love of the toga, the Latin language, the bath house, and dining. As Suetonius says, what they call civilisation in fact is just another part of their servitude.
Agricola’s campaigns take him to the distant north, beyond the rivers Clota and Bodotria that almost cut the far north into two. The Caledonians are terrified by the presence of a fleet off their very shores. They gather an army of said to number 30,000 men under Galpagus. The deciding battle takes place at Mons Graupius. Although outnumbered, the Romans push back their opponents, and a dangerous attempt to swamp their flanks is beaten off by the cavalry reserves. The slaughter that follows is terrible, though an ambush by rallying locals in the woods is narrowly avoided.
If in social company with Agricola, don’t discuss his family. In the latter stages of the war in the far north, he is busying himself to distract from the fact that his son has just died. His virtuous mother was killed in the civil war by Otho’s marauding fleet. You could discuss the large role his German auxiliaries played in the front line at Graupius, however, which could get you some brownie points.
You won’t have much chance to discuss his victories, as with the army returning to winter quarters, the governor is now recalled. The news of this success has travelled back to Rome, where Agricola is honoured. But the emperor Domitian is a worried man. In Agricola he sees a possible rival. It doesn’t help that other wars across the empire are going badly wrong. Agricola retires to a private life, where he will pass away.
from The Discerning Barbarian's Guidebook to Roman Britain: People to Meet and Places to Plunder [Paperback] by Lee Rotherham