Tacitus /

edited by Cynthia Damon

Purpose of the Agricola

[[NB. Footnote numbers (in square brackets) differ from those in the print edition, where a new series begins on each page. References to ancient texts are given here in modern form. Lower case Roman numerals (in round brackets) indicate the page number in the print edition.]]

Wholly distinct from the discussion of the structural character of the Agricola, though habitually confounded with it, is the controversy which has been raised regarding its real purpose. Tacitus, it is true, has here also expressly (xx) told us that it was a biography of his father-in-law, written as a warm tribute of affection, and inspired by the sincere conviction that his achievements well merited the plaudits of posterity.[46] But modern scholars will not have it so.[47]

Some have maintained that it was a political pamphlet in the guise of an historical monograph, embodying the political platform of a moderate party as opposed to the imperialists on the one hand and the radical republicans on the other. Unfortunately for this hypothesis, we happen to know that no such party organizations ever existed in Rome either in the days of Agricola or during any other period of the empire.

Still another theory,[48] advocated with singular ingenuity and dialectical skill, saw in the Agricola only a colorless abstraction, a frantic effort to exculpate a partisan of Domitian, in its hero a political time-server, a medium ingenium magis extra vitia quam cum virtutibus. Tacitus's work is pronounced to be at the same time a cringing apologia pro vita sua, primarily addressed to Trajan, with a view to ingratiating himself with the new régime by brazenly vilifying the old. But this captatio benevolentiae, we are told, failed of its purpose. The Agricola met with a chilling reception at the hands of the public, as may be inferred from the absolute silence of ancient authors regarding it, and their all but absolute silence concerning its hero; and thus, snubbed and disappointed at not receiving a proconsular office, Tacitus disappeared from the political arena. In order to justify this scathing impeachment, Hoffmann does not shrink from manufacturing damaging evidence against Tacitus out of the most innocent utterances, accusing him of intentional suppression of the truth where he is (xxi) brief; of exaggeration where he goes into detail. These inferences have long since been recognized as unwarranted, but it is only recently that Tacitus has been fully vindicated. The unexpected avenger appeared in the shape of the following, apparently insignificant inscription, discovered in 1890, in a remote corner of Asia Minor[49]: Ἴωνες Ἀσιανοὶ ἀνθυπάτῳ Κορνηλίῳ Τακίτῳ, to Cornelius Tacitus the proconsul. Thus Hoffmann's indictment only remains as a warning illustration of the aberrations to which an over-subtle ingenuity may lead.

That the Agricola does contain a political creed or confession of faith is clear from many passages; indeed, the very preface vibrates with indignation at the memory of the reign of terror. No doubt an unmeasured denunciation of Domitian's rule would have been received with favor. Instead, Tacitus determined to write the life of a man who had lived through this hated regime without either becoming an abettor of Domitian's crimes or his obedient tool, but, on the contrary, showed, in Tacitus's fine phrase, posse etiam sub malis principibus magnos viros esse, provided they practiced moderation and did not call down upon themselves by futile opposition the wrath of the emperor.[50] That Agricola's temporizing policy of opportunism and silent acquiescence in the existing order of things was made to subserve the hidden purpose of exonerating him (and by implication his biographer) in the eyes of those who were now raging against all who had belonged to Domitian's official family and associates, is clearly a gratuitous assumption. On the contrary, the political atmosphere, so to speak, which pervades the Agricola is the same which every reader of the Histories and Annals breathes, and to remark upon its presence in (xxii) the earlier work is, therefore, merely tantamount to saying that Tacitus was its author. There is, consequently, no valid reason for not accepting Tacitus's own unequivocal statement regarding the purpose of this biography.

 

FOOTNOTES

[46] Agr. 3.3. and 46.4.

[47] See Proceed. Amer. Philol. Assoc., l.c.

[48] E. Hoffmann, Zeitschr.f. oestr. Gymn. XXI. (1870), pp. 249-275.

[49] At Mylasa in Caria. See now E. Hula and E. Szanto (Sitzungsber. der Wiener Acad. 1894, p. 18).

[50] Agr. 42.4.

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