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Book review: Agricola–Architect of Roman Britain

By Joseph D. Thompson

With Agricola: Architect of Roman Britain we are asked one question: What to make of this man whose greatness history nearly forgot?

Is he a Roman military hero and Governor or just a typical provincial Romano-Britain bureaucrat?

Gnaeus Julius Agricola is famous for his work in Britannia as a soldier and a politician. He also is famous for making himself scarce when dangerous imperial plots were afoot, and when the Empire’s rulers waved their hands and created dead bodies. Was that by design or good fortune? Unfortunately, the historical record, as quoted in this book, can’t tell us.

Unlike his previous works Caligula and Commodus, author Simon Turney is left studying a figure of some myth, but little fact.

With his name inscribed above the main bath at Bath nestled among names like Julius Caesar, Claudius, Vespasian, Hadrian, and Constantine, the man Turney describes clearly is more than a typical provincial war leader. He has actual bona fides in the Roman legions, which makes him more than a typical politician, who were appointed to their posts and quite often not military men, per se. He’s somewhat of a hybrid…just war-like enough to be a successful Legate and just patrician enough to be a good Governor.

Agricola was active during the revolt, and subsequent eradication of Boudicca and the indigenous Iceni (see Webster’s Boudica—the British Revolt Against Rome AD 60), and he also commanded a legion against the Brigantes.

In AD 77 he was given the governorship of the island province after a brief stint in the same post in Aquitaine.

Turney uses contemporary accounts, including the de facto standard as written by Tacitus. He also uses the archaeological record to a degree as he works to uncover the truth about the man who helped mold Roman Britain.

During sometimes fierce fighting Agricola led the legions north, which can be followed in the archaeological record, finally Romanizing these wild lands that had remained unclaimed for three decades (although his predecessors made inroads before him). He also broke the Scottish tribes at Mons Graupius, which finally led to a settled Britannia.

It’s no surprise to learn that Agricola’s contemporary biography was complimentary. After all, Tacitus was his son-in-law. In the modern era, philosopher/historian David Hume included Agricola in the list of the era’s greats. In his opus, History of England, he states that it was Agricola who “finally established the dominion of the Romans in the island.”

Tacitus’s other works, Annals and Histories, are damn-near scripture of early Roman histories. Even with his flaws, he remains the only direct source of any amount other than fragmentary inscription evidence (albeit in such important Roman settlements as St. Albans, Chester, and Carlisle).

This book tries not to judge Tacitus. It’s not the author’s goal to prove or disprove Tacitus’s text, but to try to build out Agricola’s life in some manner, especially where the historical record and the archaeology fit together. But also as importantly, where they do not. This takes some supposition.

Turney’s goal here is not a direct examination or rebuttal of Tacitus himself or his Agricolan eulogy/biography/propaganda, which was the style of the time. Rather it’s to infer through the archaeological and historical record a better understanding of the man’s acts, work, and personality.

This work quickly turns into not just a biography of one Roman man, but also of the greatness he is surrounded by. His cursus honorum stands up against the best of them, Scapula and Paulinus included.

This is a history book for historians. It describes an incorruptible, decent, and able man. But is he noteworthy? We will likely never know the whole story. Sic vita est. Such is life.

The book is available in February 2022 from Amberley Publishing.

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