Tacitus /

edited by Cynthia Damon

Agricola and Domitian

From Pearce, J. W. E. 1901. The Agricola of Tacitus. London: George Bell and Sons. Pp. xiv-xv.

Tacitus has made it easier for us to be overkind to the memory of Agricola than just to that of Domitian. In Agricola he has given us a charming portrait of a most estimable character. But are we to agree with him that Agricola's military services were so conspicuous that Domitian was not justified in recalling him, even when his command had reached more than double the length of the usual British command? We are compelled to admit that in his seven campaigns little of permanent value was accomplished. Agricola's position was a difficult one, and demanded the qualities of an administrator even more than those of a general. The thorough Romanizing of previous conquests should have preceded a further advance into difficult country. Agricola did not altogether lose sight of this point of view; cf. ch. 18-21); up to the end of his second campaign the work of judicious organization proceeded by means of the accustomed Roman methods of planting garrisons, constructing roads, and undermining the virility of the national character by the seductive influence of a more luxurious civilization. But from A.D. 80 onwards the progress of the Roman arms was too rapid to allow of thoroughness. We cannot fail to see, even from Tacitus' partial narrative, that the spirit of adventure got the better of Agricola's sober judgement, and led him into expeditions on which the troops were sorely harassed, without gaining any advantages to compensate the expenditure of men and money. After the (xv) barren victory at the Mons Graupius in 84 Agricola was recalled. York remained the most northerly point secured in these campaigns.

Historians are pretty well agreed that Domitian's perception of the uselessness of these costly campaigns, and not envy, was the motive of Agricola's recall. There was, indeed, little for Domitian to envy. Agricola's seven years' command, with a powerful army and navy at his disposal, had resulted in the acquisition of no fresh military post secured by connexion with the sea. He left the Caledonians still unconquered and the Brigantes in revolt.[1]

Domitian had no amiable qualities; but this fact should not blind us to his undoubted ability as a ruler, or lead us to give too uncritical a belief to tales of motiveless cruelty, such as the assassination of a subject as loyal and as poor as Agricola was. Domitian was heartless, but cruel from policy rather than from caprice. He was intensely ambitious, and had early tasted the sweets of power in the first days of his father's rule. From those days till the death of Titus he had been studiously kept in the background, probably from fear of his ambitious temperament. When at last he reached the throne he was embittered by long neglect. He was resolved that his rule should be absolute. With him the repression of the Senate became a system. It seems fair to say that he showed himself energetic and capable in the conduct of affairs in war and peace, but that the growing opposition of the Senate forced him to look for support to the populace and the soldiers. The expense of games and largesses led to murder and confiscation. Increasing tyranny brought with it increased suspicion. He abandoned himself to the influence of wretches like the informers Metius, Messalinus, and Baebius, and his last years were a Reign of Terror. Hence the aristocratic hatred which manifested itself at the time in conspiracies, and has pursued Domitian's memory in the pages of Tacitus and Pliny with charges of crimes real and imagined, or at least unproven.

[1] Schiller, Geschichte der Römischen Kaiserzeit, vol. i. p. 527.

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