You are here

Family, Land, and Freedom in Tacitus’ Agricola

Caitlin Gillespie

Columbia University

In his exhortation to his men, Tacitus’ Calgacus locates his Caledonians as living at the “furthest limits of the earth and of freedom” (terrarum ac libertatis extremos, Agr. 30.3); this has been their natural defense, but nothing satisfies Roman avarice. Calgacus’ connection between land and libertas reflects upon the Roman impact outlined earlier in Tacitus’ text, when Agricola encourages urbanization, but the revised landscape leads to immorality and decadence. Tacitus concludes that this civilizing of the native population was called “humanitas” among the ignorant, when it was actually a marker of servitude (Tac. Agr. 21.2). This paper argues the connection between servitude and humanitas is a manifestation of the interconnectedness of space, family life, and libertas celebrated by Tacitus’ Britons throughout the Agricola. An urban lifestyle challenges domestic values, which suffer under the weight of Roman imperial control.

Tacitus’ interpretation of humanitas as a form of servitude has invited much scholarly discussion (eg. Veyne, Woolf 55-60). Past scholarship has argued that Tacitus uses Britain to explore themes and crises of his own society, libertas above all (cf. Wirszubski, Jens, Liebeschuetz, Oakley, Brunt, Strunk). Freedom is countered by slavishness, and this opposition provides a central structuring device (Lavan). Calgacus has been read as a champion of Republican libertas (eg. Clarke 106). Unlike other scholars, this paper examines the connection between freedom, space, and family in the Agricola, and concludes with a reassessment of Tacitus’ analysis.

Tacitus’ characterization of the women in Agricola’s family provides a baseline for his identification of domestic values. Agricola’s mother is a woman of singular virtue and good sense (rarae castitatis, Agr. 4.2; prudentia matris, Agr. 4.3), whose attention to Agricola’s education kept him from pursuing philosophy too deeply; Agricola’s wife is a woman of illustrious birth with whom he enjoyed a harmonious marriage (Agr. 6.1). This excellent, most loving wife (optimae, Agr. 43.4; amantissima uxore, Agr. 45.5) and his most dutiful daughter (piissimae filiae, Agr. 43.4) survived Agricola and are encouraged to emulate his example (Agr. 46.2-3).

Tacitus’ concise depiction locates Roman women within a domestic sphere; however, family also provides motivation for Agricola’s public actions on at least two occasions. First, the murder of Agricola’s mother and the appropriation of her property prompted Agricola to align himself with Vespasian (Agr. 7.1-2). Second, Agricola finds solace in war after the death of his second son (Agr. 29.1).

The motivation provided by Agricola’s family is echoed in the actions of the Britons, who repeatedly align the loss of family and the loss of space. As the Britons gather together to discuss their grievances, they bemoan the appropriation of their property and the enslavement of their children, and fear for their wives and parents (Agr. 15.2-4). Family and property thus provide the primary motivators for the following rebellion. Under the governorship of Agricola, the Caledonians remove their wives and children to places of safety (Agr. 27.2). Family, land, and freedom are central to the arguments made in Calgacus’ speech before the battle at Mons Graupius (Agr. 31.1). Unlike the Caledonians, the Romans have no wives to enflame their courage or parents to taunt them with flight, and either no patria or one far away (Agr. 32.2). Calgacus’ defeat results in the destruction of families and homes: houses are abandoned or set on fire, wives and children murdered out of pity (Agr. 38.1). Silence and desolation replace families and freedom.

The destruction of families returns us to Agricola 21.1, where temples, markets, and houses rise in concert. While the first two structures are Roman public buildings, the homes for the elite suggest the impact of Rome on family life. Here, as in Calgacus’ speech, Tacitus contextualizes domestic space as central to the Britons’ value system. Tacitus observes how the Romans alter the lifestyle of the Britons, for whom honor is derived from family and the land; disrespect towards either plunges society into moral decline.

Session/Panel Title

Livy and Tacitus

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy