Purpose and Literary Form of the Agricola

From Stuart, Duane Reed. 1909. Tacitus: The Agricola. New York: Macmillan. Pp. xv-xix.

Agricola died in the year 93 A.D. Five years passed before Tacitus gave to the world the account of his father-in-law's life and character which we know under the title De Vita Iulii Agricolae Liber. The publication of the book was doubtless retarded by that attitude of self-effacement which, as we have seen, Tacitus felt bound to adopt during the last years of Domitian's reign. At all events, when the heart for literary work returned to him, he soon applied himself to the composition of his tribute to the memory of Agricola. One might naturally infer that this labor of love would be the first task undertaken by Tacitus after the lethargic effects of the enforced mental inactivity which had resulted from Domitian's measures of repression had begun to abate. However, because of the prevailing uncertainty as to the date of the Dialogus we cannot insist absolutely upon this conclusion, plausible and flattering to Tacitus though it may be. We simply know that if the Agricola was not the first of the works published after the death of Domitian, it was certainly the second.

(xvi) The first three chapters of the book are introductory. In them Tacitus tells his readers plainly what kind of a book he purposes to write and what point of view he will assume in writing it. The work is to be a biography — a literary form which had been well represented in Roman literature prior to Tacitus. Herewith was not implied a critical biography as we now understand it, to which we look to learn the exact facts of the subject's career, — the shadows as well as the lights of his personality. Realistic portraiture was not attempted in the style of biographical writing to which the Agricola belongs. The object sought was the glorification of some man who had passed away. The author treated his material in a laudatory vein, and the familiar admonition de mortuis nil nisi bonum was in the main strictly observed. In such a spirit Tacitus wrote the Agricola. The book is frankly conceived as a eulogy; its composition is viewed as an act of pious devotion. It is essential to the appreciation of the treatise that the reader keep these facts in mind.

However, the student will inevitably be impressed with the fact that some chapters read more like history than like biography. Agricola was a man of action. His greatest achievements lay in the field of arms and of military administration. It was unavoidable that in describing the career of Agricola in Britain Tacitus should tell us about events and incidents that would fall properly in a history of the Roman conquest of the island. Yet in nearly every chapter he contrives to keep uppermost in the mind of the reader the consciousness that Agricola is the central figure of the narrative. By many an adroit allusion Agricola is made to appear as the hero and the directing genius of the Roman advance. His energy and (xvii) promptitude, his resourcefulness in the field, the sagacity which he displayed in securing his conquests, his tactful treatment of subjugated peoples, are brought out in bold relief. Contemporary history is introduced, not for its own sake, but to furnish a setting for the exploits of Agricola.

Withal it must be confessed that while Tacitus does not allow us to forget Agricola for long, he did not feel bound to mention his hero's name in every chapter or to exclude rigorously all matter which did not make directly for characterization or for praise. The reason is not far to seek. At the time at which Tacitus was busy with the Agricola, he had already conceived the project of writing a history of the reign of Domitian and thereby of bringing home to the minds of men by way of contrast the blessings they were enjoying under Trajan. In a word, the interests that were to put the stamp upon his subsequent literary productivity were then claiming his attention. It is not strange, therefore, that he occasionally overstepped the bounds prescribed by rhetorical usage for the biography and introduced certain material for the sake of its intrinsic interest or its dramatic effectiveness rather than because it could lay claim logically to a niche for itself. The mutiny and the desertion of the Usipi, chapter 28, is the clearest case. The anecdote is a lively bit of narrative, inserted because it seemed a memorable incident of the season's campaign. A more vital connection may be discerned for chapters 13-17, in which the history of Anglo-Roman relations is sketched from the first invasion by Julius Caesar down to the beginning of the administration of Agricola. We learn of the progress that had been made in the subjugation of Britain before the coming of Agricola. (xviii) We are apprised of the difficulties of the undertaking with which previous governors had coped more or less successfully. This preliminary information prepares the reader to be impressed at the manner in which Agricola succeeded where others had failed. This is precisely the aim that Tacitus had in view. Nevertheless the content of these chapters is historical and the historical manner of Tacitus is visible in method of presentation. This is notably the case in chapter 15, where the grievances of the Britons and the motives that incited them to revolt are cast in the form of a speech. What a common device of the ancient historian it was to put into the mouths of characters harangues appropriate to an occasion but wholly or partly fictitious, the student who has read a book of Livy will remember.

A description of the country and peoples of Britain might have been utilized mainly to familiarize the reader with the scenes of Agricola's campaigns and to render intelligible the movements of army and fleet. However, chapters 10-12 are related in no such manner to the context. They are ethnographical, purely and simply. Tacitus himself tells us that his aim was to correct the erroneous notions disseminated by previous writers, since the complete subjugation of the island had made exact knowledge possible concerning geography and ethnology. The scientific spirit has here the upper hand, even though in chapter 10 he does weave in a reference to Agricola's demonstration of the insular character of Britain. Chapters 11 and 12, with their description of peoples, climate, and productions, owe their presence to the same interest in foreign climes and races that inspired the Germania.

(xix) It may be that if Tacitus had published his eulogy in the first stress of sorrow soon after the death of Agricola, a singleness of purpose would have been discernible in every chapter. As to this possibility we can only speculate. At all events the admixture of historical elements is not so pervasive as to force us to deny to the Agricola claim of rhetorical unity. In the actual labor of composition Tacitus could not or did not stifle his literary predilections. The historical studies which were demanding his attention affected his choice of content and colored his method of presentation. Nevertheless in by far the larger portion of the book Tacitus is true to the aim expressed at the outset and repeated in the concluding sentence of the last chapter. He has given to posterity a eulogy of his father-in-law, couched in the form of a biography.