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Slavery, Geography, and Medicine in Tacitus' Agricola

Charlotte Hunt

Cornell University

This paper examines social ambiguity between freedom and enslavement in Tacitus’ Agricola through the lenses of geography and medicine. Previous scholars have independently noted the Agricola’s themes of slavery (Whitmarsh, Lavan), geography (Clarke), and medicine (Leeman, Lavan). However, I argue that these themes are best understood together as commentaries on social turmoil in Domitian’s Rome. Others have noted the Agricola’s paradoxical combination of Roman and non-Roman cultures (Clarke, Lavan). But social upheaval in the text defies more than just the Roman/non-Roman binary. I argue that Tacitus also disrupts the usually strict binary (Fitzgerald) between freedom and enslavement.

The portions of the text centred on the city of Rome (I-III, XXXIX-XLVI) serve as a framing device in which there is ambiguity in Roman citizen status under Domitian’s rule. For example, Tacitus explicitly describes Domitian’s rule as slavery (prioris servitutis, Agr. III.3). Tacitus also compares this prior enslavement to a disease by introducing medical language (redit animus, Agr. III.3; Leeman). Inside this Roman is the British narrative (IV-XLV), in which there is also ambiguity between freedom and enslavement. Agricola, himself a subject of Domitian’s Roman “enslavement”, imports slavery to Britain (apud imperitus humanitas vocabatur, cum pars servitutis esset, Agr. XXI.2). However, in the same section of the text, he also brings freedom to Britain through such aspects of Roman culture as liberal education (liberalibus artibus erudire, Agr. XXI.2). From the British point of view, the chieftain Calgacus serves as an initiator of libertas for Britain while also being one of those non-Romans thus far unacquainted with slavery (servitutis expertes, Agr. XXX.1). And just as Calgacus’ people are unacquainted with slavery, so too are they uninfected by Roman rule (oculos quoque a contact dominationis inviolatos habemus, Agr. XXX.2; Lavan, 2011). Through the medical metaphor of contactus dominationis, Agricola serves as a carrier of Domitianic imperialism and its resultant social ambiguities between freedom and enslavement, both for the people in the city of Rome and the people in Britain.

In this period, most doctors in Rome were enslaved (Finley). By associating slavery with disease, rather than treatment, Tacitus contradicts historical reality. However, Britain is the perfect place to explore such contradictions. In the Agricola, Tacitus presents a Britain that is marked by the physical, geographical confusion typical of distant islands. Clarke relates this phenomenon of distant insularity to the islands in Hanno’s Periplus. However, early imperial reception of the Periplus reveals that the Romans read not just geographical confusion in this text, but social ambiguity too (Bosak-Schroeder). I propose that Tacitus plays into this reading of Hanno by choosing insular Britain to explore ambiguities of enslavement. In doing so, Tacitus furthers the tradition of not just physical upheaval, but also disturbed social and cultural norms in peripheral locations. However, it is through medical metaphors that Tacitus links this upheaval back to the city of Rome, thereby implicating the more important question of Roman social standing through his exploration of frontier Britain.

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Roman Historiography

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