Jun 132015
 

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Today is the birthday (40 CE) of Gnaeus Julius Agricola,a Gallo-Roman general responsible for much of the Roman conquest of Britain. The De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae (Concerning the Life and Death of Agricola or, more usually, simply Agricola), written by his son-in-law the Roman historian Tacitus, is the primary source for most of what is known about him. (see http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/tacitus-agricola.asp )There is also detailed archaeological evidence from northern Britain.

Agricola began his military career in Britain, serving under governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. Subsequently he served in a variety of positions. He was appointed quaestor (financial officer) in Asia province in 64, then tribune of the plebs (largely a ceremonial position) in 66, and praetor (state legal and military official) in 68. He supported Vespasian during the Year of the Four Emperors, and was given a military command in Britain when the latter became emperor. When his command ended in 73, he was made patrician (noble) in Rome and appointed governor of Gallia Aquitania. He was made consul and governor of Britannia in 77. While there, he completed the conquest of what is now Wales and northern England, and led his army to the far north of Scotland, establishing forts across much of the Lowlands. He was recalled from Britain in 85 after an unusually lengthy service, and thereafter retired from military and public life.

Agricola was born in the colonia of Forum Julii, Gallia Narbonensis (now Fréjus in France). Agricola’s parents were from noted Gallo-Roman political families of senatorial rank, his ancestors were Romanized Gauls of local origin. Both of his grandfathers served as imperial governors. His father, Lucius Julius Graecinus, was a praetor and had become a member of the Roman Senate in the year of Agricola’s birth. Some time between August 40 and January 41, the Roman emperor Caligula ordered his death because he refused to prosecute the Emperor’s second cousin Marcus Junius Silanus.

His mother was Julia Procilla. Tacitus describes her as “a lady of singular virtue”. Tacitus states that Procilla had a fond affection for her son. Agricola was educated in Massilia (Marseille), and showed what was considered an unhealthy interest in philosophy: one of his father’s passions.

He began his career in Roman public life as a military tribune, serving in Britain under Gaius Suetonius Paulinus from 58 to 62. He was probably attached to the Legio II Augusta, but was chosen to serve on Suetonius’s staff and thus almost certainly participated in the suppression of Boudica’s (Boadicea) uprising in 61. Returning from Britain to Rome in 62, he married Domitia Decidiana, a woman of noble birth. Their first child was a son. Agricola was appointed as quaestor for 64, which he served in the province of Asia under the corrupt proconsul Lucius Salvius Otho Titianus. While he was there, his daughter, Julia Agricola, was born, but his son died shortly afterwards. He was tribune of the plebs in 66 and praetor on June 68, during which time he was ordered by the governor of Spain, Galba, to take an inventory of the temple treasures.

In June 68, the emperor Nero was deposed and committed suicide, and the period of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors began. Galba succeeded Nero, but was murdered in early 69 by Otho, who took the throne. Agricola’s mother was murdered on her estate in Liguria by Otho’s marauding fleet. Hearing of Vespasian’s bid for the empire, Agricola immediately gave him his support. Otho meanwhile committed suicide after being defeated by Vitellius.

After Vespasian had established himself as emperor, he appointed Agricola to the command of the Legio XX Valeria Victrix, stationed in Britain, in place of Marcus Roscius Coelius, who had stirred up a mutiny against the governor, Marcus Vettius Bolanus. Britain had suffered revolt during the year of civil war, and Bolanus was a mild governor. Agricola reimposed discipline on the legion and helped to consolidate Roman rule. In 71, Bolanus was replaced by a more aggressive governor, Quintus Petillius Cerialis, and Agricola was able to display his talents as a commander in campaigns against the Brigantes in northern England.

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When his command ended in 73, Agricola was enrolled as a patrician and appointed to govern Gallia Aquitania. There he stayed for almost three years. In 76 or 77, he was recalled to Rome and appointed suffect (replacement) consul, and betrothed his daughter to Tacitus. The following year, Tacitus and Julia married. Agricola was appointed to the College of Pontiffs, and returned to Britain for a third time, as its governor (Legatus Augusti pro praetore).

Arriving in midsummer of 77, Agricola found the Ordovices of north Wales had virtually destroyed the Roman cavalry stationed in their territory. He immediately moved against them and defeated them. He then moved north to the island of Mona (Anglesey), which Suetonius Paulinus had failed to subjugate in 60 because of the outbreak of the Boudican rebellion, and forced its inhabitants to sue for peace. He established a good reputation as an administrator, as well as a commander, by reforming the widely corrupt corn taxes. He introduced Romanizing measures, encouraging communities to build towns on the Roman model and educating the sons of the native nobility in the Roman manner.

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He also expanded Roman rule north into Caledonia (modern Scotland). In the summer of 79, he pushed his armies to the estuary of the river Taus, usually interpreted as the Firth of Tay, virtually unchallenged, and established some forts. Though their location is left unspecified, the close dating of the fort at Elginhaugh in Midlothian makes it a possible candidate.

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In 81, Agricola “crossed in the first ship” and defeated peoples unknown to the Romans until then. Tacitus, in Chapter 24 of Agricola, does not tell us what body of water he crossed, although most scholars believe it was the Clyde or Forth. The text of the Agricola has been emended here to record the Romans “crossing into trackless wastes”, referring to the wilds of the Galloway peninsula. Agricola fortified the coast facing Ireland, and Tacitus recalls that his father-in-law often claimed the island could be conquered with a single legion and auxiliaries. He had given refuge to an exiled Irish king whom he hoped he might use as the excuse for conquest. This conquest never happened, but some historians believe the crossing referred to was in fact a small-scale exploratory or punitive expedition to Ireland, though no Roman camps have been identified to confirm such a suggestion.

Irish legend provides a striking parallel. Tuathal Teachtmhar, a legendary High King, is said to have been exiled from Ireland as a boy, and to have returned from Britain at the head of an army to claim the throne. The traditional date of his return is 76–80, and archaeology has found Roman or Romano-British artifacts in several sites associated with Tuathal.

The following year, Agricola raised a fleet and encircled the tribes beyond the Forth, and the Caledonians rose in great numbers against him. They attacked the camp of the Legio IX Hispana at night, but Agricola sent in his cavalry and they were put to flight. The Romans responded by pushing further north. Another son was born to Agricola this year, but he died before his first birthday.

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In the summer of 83, Agricola faced the massed armies of the Caledonians, led by Calgacus, at the Battle of Mons Graupius. Tacitus estimates their numbers at more than 30,000. Agricola put his auxiliaries in the front line, keeping the legions in reserve, and relied on close-quarters fighting to make the Caledonians’ unpointed slashing swords useless as they were unable to swing them properly or use thrusting attacks. Even though the Caledonians were put to rout and therefore lost this battle, two thirds of their army managed to escape and hide in the Highlands, or the “trackless wilds,” where they engaged in continuous guerrilla war. Battle casualties were estimated by Tacitus to be about 10,000 on the Caledonian side and 360 on the Roman side.

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A number of historians have reckoned the battle to have occurred in the Grampian Mounth within sight of the North Sea. The site of the battle may have been Kempstone Hill, Megray Hill or other knolls near the Raedykes Roman camp; these points of high ground are near the Elsick Mounth, an ancient trackway used by Romans and Caledonians for military maneuvers. However, following the discovery of the Roman camp at Durno in 1975, most scholars now believe that the battle took place on the ground around Bennachie in Aberdeenshire.

Satisfied with his victory, Agricola took hostages from the Caledonian tribes. He may have marched his army to the northern coast of Britain, as evidenced by the discovery of a Roman fort at Cawdor (near Inverness). He also instructed the prefect of the fleet to sail around the north coast, confirming (allegedly for the first time) that Britain was in fact an island.

Agricola was recalled from Britain in 85, after an unusually long tenure as governor. Tacitus claims Domitian ordered his recall because Agricola’s successes outshone the Emperor’s own modest victories in Germany. He re-entered Rome unobtrusively, reporting as ordered to the palace at night. The relationship between Agricola and the Emperor is unclear; on the one hand, Agricola was awarded triumphal decorations and a statue (the highest military honors apart from an actual triumph). On the other hand, Agricola never again held a civil or military post, in spite of his experience and renown. He was offered the governorship of the province of Africa, but declined it, whether due to ill health or (as Tacitus claims) the machinations of Domitian. In 93, Agricola died on his family estates in Gallia Narbonensis aged fifty-three. Rumors circulated attributing the death to a poison administered by the Emperor Domitian, but no positive evidence for this claim was ever produced.

Tacitus wrote as a eulogy (underscoring the notion that Agricola was an honest man in a corrupt world):

Under Domitian, it was the principal part of our miseries to behold and to be beheld: when our sighs were registered; and that stern countenance, with its settled redness, his defense against shame, was employed in noting the pallid horror of so many spectators. Happy, O Agricola! not only in the splendor of your life, but in the seasonableness of your death. With resignation and cheerfulness, from the testimony of those who were present in your last moments, did you meet your fate, as if striving to the utmost of your power to make the emperor appear guiltless. But to myself and your daughter, besides the anguish of losing a parent, the aggravating affliction remains, that it was not our lot to watch over your sick-bed, to support you when languishing, and to satiate ourselves with beholding and embracing you. With what attention should we have received your last instructions, and engrave them on our hearts! This is our sorrow; this is our wound: to us you were lost four years before by a tedious absence. Everything, doubtless, O best of parents! was administered for your comfort and honor, while a most affectionate wife sat beside you; yet fewer tears were shed upon your bier, and in the last light which your eyes beheld, something was still wanting.

If there be any habitation for the shades of the virtuous; if, as philosophers suppose, exalted souls do not perish with the body; may you repose in peace, and call us, your household, from vain regret and feminine lamentations, to the contemplation of your virtues, which allow no place for mourning or complaining! Let us rather adorn your memory by our admiration, by our short-lived praises, and, as far as our natures will permit, by an imitation of your example.

The Romans introduced a great many foods to Britain including garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, cabbages, peas, celery, turnips, radishes, and asparagus. They also domesticated wild fruits such as apples, and imported cherries, mulberries, and grapes. Amongst the many herbs that they introduced to Britain were rosemary, thyme, bay, basil and savory, and the spices pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. Famously, they cultivated oysters at Colchester.

Oysters were in very high demand in Rome and, because of this, supplies became limited. The Roman chef Apicius reports that oysters were shipped to Rome from all over the empire although his description for preserving them for travel would not have worked. He gives several recipes for oysters including a sauce that appears to be a kind of mayonnaise. Ingredients are pepper, lovage, egg yolks, vinegar, broth, olive oil and wine, with honey optional. He also gives one that is a kind of vinaigrette using pepper, lovage, parsley, dried mint, cumin, honey, vinegar and broth. His recipe for oyster croquettes could easily be replicated:

Cook the firm parts of oysters, remove the hard and objectionable parts, mince the meat very fine, mix this with cooked spelt [or flour] and eggs. Season with pepper, shape into croquettes and fry. Underlay a rich fish sauce.

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The mayonnaise from Apicius would make a good dipping sauce. For me, I’ll stick with a dozen Colchester oysters on the half shell with a squeeze of lemon.

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