[12.1] In pedite rōbur; quaedam nātiōnēs et currū proeliantur. Honestior aurīga, clientēs prōpugnant. Ōlim rēgibus pārēbant, nunc per prīncipēs factiōnibus et studiīs dīstrahuntur. [12.2] Nec aliud adversus validissimās gentēs prō nōbīs ūtilius quam quod in commūne nōn cōnsulunt. Rārus duābus tribusve cīvitātibus ad prōpulsandum commūne perīculum conventus: ita singulī pugnant, ūniversī vincuntur. [12.3] Caelum crēbrīs imbribus ac nebulīs foedum; asperitās frīgōrum abest. Diērum spatia ultrā nostrī orbis mēnsūram; nox clāra et extrēmā Britanniae parte brevis, ut fīnem atque initium lūcis exiguō discrīmine internōscās. [12.4] Quod sī nūbēs nōn officiant, aspicī per noctem sōlis fulgōrem, nec occidere et exsurgere, sed trānsīre adfirmant. Scīlicet extrēma et plāna terrārum humilī umbrā nōn ērigunt tenebrās, īnfrāque caelum et sīdera nox cadit. [12.5] Solum praeter oleam vītemque et cētera calidiōribus terrīs orīrī suēta patiēns frūgum, <segetum> fēcundum: tardē mītēscunt, cito prōveniunt; eademque utriusque reī causa, multus ūmor terrārum caelīque. [12.6] Fert Britannia aurum et argentum et alia metalla, pretium victōriae. Gignit et Ōceanus margarīta, sed subfusca ac līventia. Quīdam artem abesse legentibus arbitrantur; nam in rubrō marī vīva ac spīrantia saxīs āvellī, in Britanniā, prout expulsa sint, colligī: ego facilius crēdiderim nātūram margarītīs dēesse quam nōbīs avāritiam.

Overview: The British mode of warfare; political conditions; climate and productions; minerals. (Stuart) Forms of esse are regularly omitted in this chapter, for a catalog-like style. (Damon)


rōbur: "mainstay." (Stuart); i.e. their chief strength, for they also made considerable use of chariots. (Gudeman)

quaedam nātiōnēs: certainly the Caledonians. See chapters 35 and 36. We should infer from Caesar’s account that the use of the chariot was more general than Tacitus represents. (Stuart); "tribes." (Gudeman)

currū: see note on 35.3 covinnarius eques. (Gudeman)

honestior aurīga: contrast with the Homeric custom according to which the chief fought and a henchmen did the driving. (Stuart); some understand Tacitus to mean that the charioteer is held in more esteem than the warrior, unlike the conditions of the Homeric times. More likely the contrast is between the covinnarius and the foot-soldier. (Pearce)

clientēs prōpugnant: observe the laconic effect of the short, disconnected sentences; propugno is used regularly of defenders fighting from a point of vantage. The meaning is here that the vassals stand on the chariot and ward off assailants. (Stuart)  prōpugnant: i.e. "fight in defense of their chief." (Gudeman)

rēgibus: Caesar, BG 5.22.1, speaks of four kings who ruled in Cantium and acted in obedience to Cassivelaunus in opposing Roman aggression. See chapter 13.3. (Stuart)

per prīncipēs = principibus per quos. (Gudeman); "from one chieftain to another," see note on per manus, "from hand to hand." The chieftains change with the success or failure of their factions. (Pearce) 

factiōnibus et studiīs: "parties and (attendant) rivalries." The ablatives are modal. In Tacitus the simple case without a modifying adjective is frequently so used. (Stuart) [A&G 412]; "factional quarrels." Hendiadys. (Gudeman)

distrahuntur: the regular term for political disturbances. (Gudeman); the manuscript reads trahuntur, which some editors accept (see note below). The emendation assumes that the syllable dis- fell out after -diis at the end of the preceeding word. (Damon)  trahuntur: "they are subject to the beck and call of chieftains," in contrast to the rule once exercised by kings. (Stuart)


prō nōbīs ūtilius: a stronger expression than nobis utilius. (Stuart)  prō nōbīs = nobis. Pro is used pleonastically to mark a more pointed contrast with adversus. (Gudeman)

in commūne nōn cōnsulunt: this trait is often alluded to, e.g. 15.5, 29.3, 38.1. (Gudeman)


ultrā … mēnsūram: i.e. ultra mensuram dierum nostri orbis; an instance of the common comparatio compendiaria or "comparison by short cut." While the days at Rome never exceed fifteen hours, in the Orkneys they are over eighteen hours long. Of course in winter the days are correspondingly short. (Pearce)  mēnsūram: supply in thought dierum. The repetition of a noun or of a demonstrative representing it—in English "those of" would be required here—which is regularly avoided by ellipsis in Latin. (Stuart)

orbis: we should say "latitude." (Stuart)

exiguō discrīmine: "by only a short interval." (Pearce)

ut ... internōscās: potential subjunctive in a consecutive clause. (Stuart) [A&G 538 and 447.2]


quod si: here and at 44.2 functionally equivalent to et si, with the connective belonging to the main clause (here: et ... adfirmant) and the conditional conjunction to the subordinate clause, i.e. the indirect statement (see below). (Damon)

officiant: the subjunctive mood shows that this conditional clause is part of the indirect statement dependent on adfirmant. The conditional type is "simple present." (Damon) [A&G 589]

sōlis fulgōrem … trānsīre: of course the midnight sun itself is only seen in higher latitudes, but if we take solis fulgorem as the subject of transire (instead of supplying solem) the remark of Tacitus is not far wrong. Transire, viz. along the horizon. (Pearce)

occidere et exsurgere: supply solem. It is noteworthy that Tacitus says nothing of the long nights of winter although this phenomenon was known to his contemporaries and also to his predecessors. The midnight sun here described is not observed in Scottish latitudes. (Stuart)  occidere et exsurgere ... trānsīre: sc. solem. On an analogous substitution of only part of an antecedent (solis fulgorem), see note on 13.2. (Gudeman)  trānsīre: "to pass across," i.e. along the horizon or edge of the disk-shaped earth.—The phenomenon of the midnight sun is here given expressly on the authority of others (adfirmant) and, as a matter of fact, it is not observed in even the most northerly regions of Caledonia. In Germ. 45.1 it is more accurately ascribed to Norway. (Gudeman)

scīlicet, etc.: this fanciful and somewhat obscure explanation was adopted by Tacitus from some earlier and unknown pseudo-scientist. It implies the belief, generally rejected even in antiquity, that the earth was a circular shield or concave disk, the sun’s shadow being supposed to cause night. On the presumably western, unobstructed edge (extrema et plana terrarum) the shadow cast would be low, falling far beneath the heaven with its stars; at the center the more extended curvature of the surface would project it to a somewhat greater height, thus bringing on deeper darkness, while at the opposite extremity there would be no shadow at all, or perpetual daylight. (Gudeman)

extrēma et plāna terrārum = extremae et planae terrae. This construction of a neuter adjective (not containing an idea of quantity) with a genitive is very rare in Cicero and Caesar, but common in the poets and later prose writers. See 6.4. (Pearce); the manipulation of a lighted candle beneath a large plate will furnish the best illustration of the passage. Tacitus here presents an hypothesis, discarded by the scientific men long before his time, to the effect that the earth was shaped like a curved shield flat at the edges. Night was the shadow cast by the earth when the sun was beneath it. Above the center of the shield darkness would be most intense, since there the shadow would rise perpendicularly to the heavens. The flat outer edge, where Britain was supposed to lie, would project a shadow at a low angle so that the sky would not be darkened. (Stuart) [A&G 346a3]  extrēma et plāna: except in Sallust such substantival adjectives are found in pre-Tacitean prose only if they convey a partitive meaning. (Gudeman)

humilī umbrā: ablative of cause. The earth is supposed by Tacitus to be a disc, under which at its northern edge the sun passes between its setting and rising. As the edge of this disc is low, the shadow cast by the sun would rise slantingly higher and higher from the north towards the south. In the north, then, according to Tacitus, the belt of darkness would be so shallow that the illuminated heavens are seen through it. Tacitus stands strangely below the best scientific knowledge of his time, which recognized the spherical form of the earth. (Pearce) [A&G 404]


praeter: "except" (Pearce); "excepting," a comparatively rare usage. (Gudeman)

oleam vītemque et cētera ... suēta: a very frequent collection in Tacitus, -que, joining a group, followed by an independent element with et. In this treatise again, ch. 25.1. (Gudeman)

calidiōribus terrīs: Tacitus often uses the ablative of place without a preposition, following the use of poets. (Pearce); the ablative of place where ... . See e.g. ch. 25.1, 33.6, 45.4. (Gudeman) [A&G 429.4]

orīrī suēta: classical prose writers would use solita instead of sueta with the infinitive. (Pearce)

<segetum> fēcundum: this emendation (i.e., adding segetum and accepting fecundum from the margin), supplies what editors who accept other emendations struggle to find in the text (see notes below). The manuscript, which is a 15th century copy here, reads pecudumque and suggests fecundum in the margin. Other emendations are possible. (Damon)  frūgum: includes fruits of the trees and products of the soil. (Stuart)  fēcundum: heightens patiens—not only "bears" but is prolific. (Stuart)  patiēns frūgum, fēcundum: the asyndeton is a little harsh, and the olive and vine are not naturally brought under the head of fruges. Arborum patiens, frugum fecundum has been plausibly suggested. (Pearce)  frūgum patiēns fēcundum: "yields, or rather abounds in fruits," excepting such as grow only in warmer climates, like that of Italy. Fecundum is added asyndetically to qualify patiens, which is at best a vague term and therefore liable to convey a false impression. (Gudeman)

cito prōveniunt: the asyndeton lends an adversative force, "but they sprout rapidly." (Stuart)  tardē mītēscunt, cito prōveniunt: an adversative, not an enumerative asyndeton which would involve an uncalled for hysteron proteron. So exactly ch. 3.1.—proveniunt cannot here signify "growing up, thriving" (its usual meaning, with fruges and the like), for this would be incompatible with tarde mitescunt; but it is used in the very rare sense of "coming forth, sprouting." (Gudeman)


fert ... argentum: confirmed by Strabo 4.5.2. Both gold and silver are found, though in no considerable quantity, in many parts of the British Islands. (Gudeman)

metalla: as Tacitus says, both of the precious metals are found to some extent in the British Isles. Gold is very generally associated with tin. The tin mines of Cornwall were famous in early antiquity and their product was carried by the Phoenicians to the countries of the Mediterranean. Lead was mined extensively in Roman times and according to Caesar iron was found along the seacoast. (Stuart)  alia metalla: of these tin was the most abundant, and it was brought south by the Phoenicians, who probably secured most of it from Cornwall and the Tin Islands, usually identified with the Scilly Islands. The supply seems to have been exhausted at the beginning of our era, which may be the reason why Tacitus does not expressly speak of this ancient and famous trade here. After the Roman invasion, lead (plumbum nigrum et album, stannum) occupies commercially the first place. Iron is mentioned by Caesar and Strabo l.c. Bronze was even in Caesar’s time imported, but very few bronze objects have been discovered. (Gudeman)

pretium = praemium, "reward." So ch. 1.2, and often in Tacitus. (Gudeman)

et Ōceanus: concise; "the ocean too" as well as the land, bears valuable prizes, viz. pearls. See 25.2. (Pearce)  gignit et Ōceanus margarīta: a very concise expression for Oceanus quoque victoriae dat, nam margarita gignit. (Gudeman)  margarīta: from neuter margaritum, instead of the classical form margarita (fem.). (Pearce)

subfusca ac līventia: according to Plin. NH 9.116, they were parvi ... discolores, but Beda (I.4) says that, while but small and few in number, they were variegated in color. (Gudeman)

rubrō marī: here the Persian Gulf, still noted as a fishing-ground for pearls. (Stuart)

saxīs āvellī: saxis is probably ablative. (Gudeman)  āvellī ... conligī: depending on a verb like constat, to be supplied by zeugma from the indirect discourse introduced by arbitrantur, hence also the subjunctive in expulsa sint. (Gudeman)

expulsa: "thrown up" by the sea. The thought in the end of the chapter is that, in the prevailing spirit of avarice at Rome, want of skill would not long be allowed to check the exploitation of the pearl fisheries if they were worth exploring. (Pearce)

ego: here expressed to contrast with quidam, the adversative particle being, as so often in Tacitus, omitted. (Gudeman)

nātūram: "quality." (Stuart); pregnant. "Valuable properties." (Pearce); "good quality." (Gudeman)

avāritiam: sc. abesse, to be supplied by an easy zeugma from deesse. (Gudeman); here again Tacitus speaks as the satirist of his luxury-loving age. (Stuart) 

pedes peditis m.: infantry

rōbur rōboris n.: strength

nātiō nātiōnis f.: tribe

proelior proeliārī proeliātus sum: to engage in battle

aurīga –ae m.: charioteer

cliēns clientis m.: dependant, vassal

prōpugnō –pugnāre: to fight in front, or in defence of

factiō –ōnis f.: party, party spirit, partisanship

distrahō –trahere –traxī –tractum: to divide, distract

prōpulsō prōpulsāre: to ward off

conventus conventūs m.: union, meeting

singulī –ae –a: one at a time

ūniversus –a –um: (pl.) all together

crebēr crēbra crēbrum: frequent

imber imbris m.: rainshower

nebula –ae f.: mist, fog

asperitās asperitātis f.: harshness

frīgus frigoris n.: cold

orbis orbis m.: the world (with and without terrarum)

mēnsūra –ae f.: measure

Britannia –ae f.: Britain

exiguus –a –um: scanty, small

discrīmen discriminis n.: difference, interval

internōscō –noscere –nōvi –nōtum: to distinguish

quodsī: but if

nūbēs nūbis f.: cloud

officiō officere offēci offectum: to block the way, obstruct, hide

fulgor –ōris m. or fulgur –ūris n.: flash, brightness, light

occidō occidere occidī occāsus: to set

ex(s)urgō –ere –surrēxī: to rise up

affīrmō affirmāre affirmāvī affirmātus: to assert, declare, state

plānus –a –um: flat

humilis humile: low

ērigō ērigere ērēxī ērēctus: to raise, set up

īnfrā: below (+ acc.)

sōlum –ī n.: soil

olea, ae f.: olive, olive tree

vītis –is f.: vine, grapevine

calidus –a –um: warm, hot

suēscō –ere suēvī suētus: to become accustomed

frūx frūgis f.: fruit

seges –etis f.: field of grain; standing corn

fēcundus –a –um: fruitful

mītēscō –ere: to ripen

prōveniō –venīre –vēnī –ventūrum: to come forth, start

ūmor –oris m.: moisture

Britannia –ae f.: Britain

metallum –ī n.: metal

ōceanus –ī m.: Ocean (esp. the German Ocean)

margarītum –ī n.: pearl

subfuscus –a –um: darkish

līveō –ēre: to be blackish, lead-colored

ruber rubra rubrum: red

vīvus –a –um: alive

spīrō spīrāre spīrāvī spīrātus: to breathe

āvellō –ere –vellī or vulsī –vulsus: to tear away

prout: according as, just as

expellō expellere expulī expulsus: to expel, throw up (on shore)

avāritia avāritiae f.: greed

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Suggested Citation

Cynthia Damon, Tacitus: Agricola. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-947822-09-2. http://dcc.dickinson.edu/tacitus-agricola/12