August 26, 2009

Agricola before Britain

Tacitus briefly narrates his father in law's career before he came to Britain in order to set the stage for the main events of the biography which occur when Agricola returned to the island. What is interesting about this part of Tacitus's life is that he clearly writes to provide lessons, arguments for how to survive in Rome and prosper. It is worth pausing over these- because they demonstrate the ways in which Tacitus beleives that an imperial career works. Firstly there is the sense that Tacitus had that prospering was a matter of delighting one's superiors. In a society dominated by envy, those superiors might easily be moved to be envious of superior talent in a junior official, hence, under the gentle and inferior Vettius Bolanus, Agricola 'schooled himself to subordinate ambition to propriety' and under the superior Petilius Cerealis, when Agricola had real acheivements to his name, 'he never sought to glorify himself by bragging.... It was his chief he said who planned all the operations' (Agricola trans. Mattingley 1970 para 8).

Such skills would be familiar to anyone working today- which should provoke some kind of reflection on what work is today- but they are not exceptional either to the time or to the system of imperial Rome. What follows though is special both to Rome and to the imperial service in which Agricola found himself. A Roman governor was expected both to be a commander and a judge. Tacitus reflected on the problems that this might bring: 'it is a common belief that soldiers lack the power of fine discrimination', they live in a world of court martials which gives 'no scope to forensic skill'. (Agricola trans. Mattingley 1970 para 9) Agricola, Tacitus argues, was able to fulfil both parts of the duty of a governor and was able to administer justice. One should bear in mind this is a hagiography- the fact of the accusation made against some governors may be a more interesting guide to Roman administration, than the fact that Agricola, according to Tacitus was innocent.

The same goes for a second accusation that Tacitus fends off from his father in law- but must have applied to some governors for him to mention it. That is the accusation that they brought their private lives into their public. In Aquitaine (Agricola's province before he moved northwest to Britain) Agricola separated his private and public life, refused to be sullen in disappointment or argue with colleagues and equals. Again in a society governed by ruthless (literally) ambition, Tacitus reveals Agricola to be untouched but also reveals that some must have been tempted. Agricola was called, Tacitus argues, because of his unimpeachable virtue by the public and Vespasian to future high office in Britain.

No matter what we think of Tacitus's characterisation of his father in law- which was unlikely to be negative- the things that he mentions here are important. They reveal something about the ways that Roman governors who were bad acted- they must have taken the habit of a soldier into the court room, have infested their relations with others with private hatreds and loves and been envious and reproachful of other's success, eager for each other's failure. It is a pretty unpleasant portrait of the imperial civil service under the Flavians- and substantiates his earlier point that the governing principle of tyranny was not honour but envy.


James Higham said...

That is the accusation that they brought their private lives into their public.

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