Tacitus’s Historical Document of Agricola

The given analysis will primarily focus on Tacitus’s biographical and historical document titled Agricola. The narrative is centered around the author’s father-in-law, whom Tacitus admires, respects, and praises through the work. It is important to note that Publius Cornelius Tacitus was one of the key Roman historians who witnessed and studied the rule of several different emperors, such as “the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors” (“Tacitus” n.d.). Therefore, the document is both a literary work and a historical document, which contains an invaluable insight into the intricacies of the Roman Empire. Thus, the document is more than a mere biography since it can be considered a demonstration of morality, ethicality, honor, wit, modesty, and courage.

Although there is limited information about Tacitus, some pieces of information allow the creation a full picture of the author’s own life. It should be noted that Tacitus’s works were famous for centuries due to their dramatic narrative and moral content. The author can be described not only as a historian but also as a political theorist who demonstrated the “dangers of a tyrannical leader and a weak hypocritical Senate” (“Tacitus” n.d.). In the case of his personal life, there is a major scarcity of information since his works are primarily focused on external subjects, such as Roman society and governance. It is possible that his father was Cornelius Tacitus, and he was born and raised in the same region as Gnaeus Julius Agricola, which is Gallia Narbonensis (“Tacitus” n.d.). It is also speculated that Tacitus was of Celtic origin and ancestry, which is the reason for his outstanding oratory skills. Tacitus became son-in-law to Agricola after he married Julia Agricola in 77-78 (“Tacitus” n.d.). Through his intelligence and oratory skills, Tacitus “became suffect consul in 97, during the reign of Nerva, being the Novus homo (first of his family) to do so” (“Tacitus” n.d.). His five most prominent and major works include Annals, Histories, Dialogue on Oratory, The Germania, and the Life of Julius Agricola (“Tacitus” n.d.). There is no clear information about the death of the historian.

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One should be aware that there was a clear and explicit motivation behind why Tacitus wrote a biography of his father-in-law, which evidences the fact that it is more than mere biographical work. Tacitus begins by describing the fact that recording one’s biography was always a normal practice. He writes, “famous men have from time immemorial had their life stories told, and even our generation, with all its indifference to the present, has not quite abandoned the practice” (Tacitus 2010, 53). In other words, it is not uncommon to write a biography of someone worthwhile. It is stated that “but today when I set out to recount the life of one no longer with us, I had to beg an indulgence that I would not have sought for an invective: so savage and hostile to virtue are our times” (Tacitus 2010, 53). Therefore, it is communicated that the biographical work was written after Agricola’s death. In addition, it is implied that there was some form of resistance from the rulers or even the emperor himself against the work. The entire document is written not only to solidify the memory of Agricola but also as a reminder for generations to come that the honor and courage exhibited by men like Agricola are the only solutions to the societal downfall. It is a teaching about how one individual can achieve greatness under a regime, which means defying such efforts and punishing those who dare to show their superiority. Thus, the document is more than a mere biography since it can be considered a demonstration of morality, ethicality, honor, wit, modesty, and courage.

Tacitus begins his book by stating that biographical works are common practice, after which he proceeds to highlight the key societal and governmental problems of the Roman Empire. He describes how society undergoes its own downfall from its state of greatness. At the end of the book, Tacitus praises Agricola by stating his role in remembrance of his father-in-role. He writes, “your daughter and wife I would urge to revere the memory of their father and husband by pondering his words and deeds and by cherishing the form and features of his mind above those of his body” (Tacitus 2010, 82). In other words, he leaves the remembrance of Agricola’s personal life to Tacitus’s mother-in-law and wife. He further writes, “but the image of the human face, like that face itself, is feeble and perishable, whereas the essence of the soul is eternal, to be caught and expressed not through the substance and skill of another, but only by individuals in their own lives” (Tacitus 2010, 82). In other words, Tacitus tasks himself with the remembrance of Agricola’s deeds and actions as well as accomplishments as indicators of the father-in-law’s essence and character. Therefore, the beginning is focused on explaining why the book is being written, whereas the end praises Agricola. This tells that the book is not intended to be a mere biographical work but rather a document that uses Agricola as a prime example of what a leader should strive to become during his career.

Throughout the narrative, Tacitus reveals the key underlying problems of 1st-century CE Roman society, culture, and politics. He primarily highlights indulgence, inventiveness, subservience, idleness, tyranny, and cowardice. In the case of inventiveness, he writes, “the freedom of the Senate and the moral consciousness of the human race were wiped out; even teachers of philosophy and all honorable studies were banished so that nothing decent might be encountered anywhere” (Tacitus 2010, 53). In other words, in all spheres of life of the Roman Empire, the focus is put not on what is honorable but on what is invective and disrespectful. In regards to subservience and idleness, Tacitus states that “as our bodies, which grow so slowly, perish in a flash, so to the mind and its interests can be more easily crushed than brought again to life. Idleness gradually becomes sweet, and we end by loving the sloth that at first we loathed” (Tacitus 2010, 54). The author uses sloth as a metaphor for idleness, which refers to the idleness of mind and thought. The presence of these vices leads to inaction and passive subservience, which creates a society of hostility and tyranny.

The book’s tone is assertive, reverent, and inspirational, where the author uses direct and explicit language to convey a message containing praises and condemnations. Such a “black and white” style of writing can be illustrated through phrases such as “he was always energetic; careless, never” (Tacitus 2010, 55). In other words, Tacitus depicts Agricola as a man of ultimate goodness with no real flaws, which is why the tone is assertive and reverent in favor of the father-in-law. However, when it comes to addressing the problematic aspects of the Roman Empire and its society as well as governance, he does not hold back on his statements. For example, he writes, “just as Rome of old explored the limits of freedom, so have we plumbed the depths of slavery, robbed by informers even of the interchange of speech” (Tacitus 2010, 53). In other words, the oratory skills of Tacitus can be easily observed throughout the reading’s narrative, where he uses bold and explicit statements about what is negative and positive. There is no middle ground in his tone and approach to the narrative. Therefore, the tone only changes from praising and reverent when he stops discussing Agricola.

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The key points made by Tacitus are reflected in his judgments of Agricola’s characters, personality, and work ethic. He assertively praises Agricola as someone with sole positive traits and features, such as honor, courage, and strength. Throughout the narrative of Agricola’s achievements, he provides a piece of invaluable information about a person who everyone should strive to become since the book is not written as a mere biographical work. However, a surprising lesson from Tacitus is revealed when he concludes that such people should be remembered because such individuals are outliers in a society of vices, where being like Agricola takes courage since he gained enemies in the government as he was fighting enemies of the Roman Empire. Tacitus writes, “there was nothing Domitian feared so much as to have the name of a subject raised above that of the prince” (Tacitus 2010, 77). In other words, tyranny views perfection as a threat, which is why such a society does not breed individuals like Agricola.

The major assumption made by Tacitus is that one person cannot change a degrading society, even if he or she is a perfect one. These are reasonable statements since it is true even today. It requires a collective effort to change the status quo of a social structure. However, Tacitus claims that remembering such individuals as examples of ideal people is a solution to such an issue since they can have an impact on the following generations. For example, the author writes, “all that we loved in Agricola, all that we esteemed, abides and shall abide in the hearts of men, through endless ages, in the chronicles of fame” (Tacitus 2010, 83). Another example is the final statement: “for many men of old will be lost in oblivion, their name and fame forgotten. Agricola’s story has been told to posterity and, so handed down, he will live” (Tacitus 2010, 83). In other words, the biggest assumption is that people like Agricola can live and have an impact throughout the ages by being remembered and inspiring others.

The values that animate the book are honor, courage, bravery, modesty, humility, wit, strength, and resilience. Tacitus’s sympathies lie with Agricola and individuals who hold similar traits and values as him. It is evidenced by how the author praises his father-in-law throughout the narrative. Since his childhood, Agricola was able to avoid the negative influence of his degrading society and emerge as a leader despite adversities presented by his enemies, both outside and within the Roman Empire.

I think that Agricola’s historical significance is timeless and relevant even today. The book is full of invaluable information and insights into how the Roman Empire operated and what kind of individuals uplifted the empire. It is evident that it was people like Agricola who made the Roman Empire a great and global superpower at its time, and not necessarily its governors and emperors. The early Roman Empire and its elites were a major reason why society was degrading and working against its heroes. The main reason is manifested in the fact that these groups upheld qualities such as envy, hatred, tyranny, idleness, and cowardice. However, the main limitation of the historical source is that it is written from the subjective and singular perspective of a close family relative. It also does not use precise dates and places to recall the key events, which makes it a poor historical document, but, as was stated by the author himself, the purpose of the writing is not to be a mere biographical work.

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In conclusion, the given work is more than a mere biography since it can be considered a demonstration of morality, ethicality, honor, wit, modesty, and courage. Tacitus was a key historian and political theorist whose works provided an invaluable insight into the intricacies of the early Roman Empire and its society as well as governance. Despite its flaws of subjectivity and the lack of precision, one can still learn a number of important details of how the tyrannical rule of the empire affected its social structure. It also provides a perspective of how the Roman Empire expanded its influence over the globe.


“Tacitus.” 2016. New World Encyclopedia. Web.

Tacitus. 2010. Agricola and Germania. Translated and edited by James Rives and Harold Mattingly. London: Penguin Classics.

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