Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Tacitus on Roman Britain

Much of what we know about Roman Britain, and especially about the 1st Century AD, is based on archaeological evidence. There are, however, at least some references to the British Isles in historical sources. Care needs to be taken in the way in which we read these references, since no classical "historian" was a historian in the way that we understand the word today, and some of the ancient sources are not really "primary" sources in any case. We draw clear boundaries between "academic history," "popular history," "journalism" and "historical fiction," but classical writers did not, and regularly hopped back and forth across them.

It is in the works of Tacitus (56-c125 AD) that we come closest to a real primary source for Britain in the 1st Century AD, although he never came to Britain, and believed it to be much closer to Spain than it actually is, with Ireland lying between. He was a historian in the tradition of Thucydides, which is to say that he comes closer to the "journalistic" than to the "historical fiction" end of the spectrum, writing mainly about events that happened during his lifetime, or during the previous generation (his Annals cover the period 14-68 AD, one of the few Roman sources to mention the execution of Christ; his Histories cover the period 68-96 AD) and informing himself, in all likelihood, through interviews with those directly involved. Elevated by Vespasian to senatorial rank, he almost certainly had access to the Acta Senatus, the Roman equivalent of Hansard, no part of which survives today.

The work most relevant to Roman Britain, however, is his biography of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who served as Governor of Britannia from 78 to 84 AD. He describes, in some detail, Agricola's military campaigns in northern Britain (he was the first Roman governor seriously to attempt a conquest of Scotland), as well as his building programmes in the major cities of the province:

"He...gave private encouragement and official assistance to the building of temples, public squares and good houses...and so the population was gradually led into the demoralising temptations of arcades, baths and sumptuous banquets. The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as 'civilisation,' when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement."

The note of cynicism (there are other examples) is typical not only of Tacitus, but of Roman attitudes to conquered peoples more generally (one of the earliest depictions of Britannia shows her not ruling the waves, but being violently assaulted by the Emperor Claudius). The substance of what Tacitus says, however, is borne out by the archaeology. An inscription in the Verulamium Museum makes it clear that it was under Agricola that the forum of St Alban's was rebuilt, a full twenty years after it was burned by Boudicca. He may, similarly, have been the first successfully to rebuild London, although his predecessors clearly attempted it.

Relief of Claudius subduing Britannia, from Aphrodisias (modern Turkey). Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Like most classical historians, however, Tacitus probably crosses into fiction when reporting speeches (even Pericles's famous funeral speech, as rendered by Thucydides, is probably not a verbatim transcript, though it is an eye-witness account). He puts the following words in the mouth of the Scottish chieftain, Calgacus, on the eve of his defeat by Agricola at the Battle of Mons Graupius:

"We, the most distant dwellers upon Earth, the last of the free, have been shielded till today by our very remoteness...Now the farthest bounds of Britain lay open to our enemies...Pillagers of the World, they have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea...To robbery, butchery and rapine they give the lying name of 'government,' they create desolation and call it peace."

It is very unlikely that any Roman heard the speech that Calgacus really gave, and less likely still that any such spy was taking notes. Rather it must be seen as an early example of a literary tradition of fictionalised speeches that reaches its high point in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Henry V.

Agricola's Scottish campaign, as reconstructed from Tacitus's account. There is some archaeological evidence to support this, although the scale of Agricola's "victories" may have been exaggerated.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and


  1. When I was researching for my recently completed novels, a lot of what is on that map was initially very puzzling though gradually began to make a lot more sense when I absorbed information about the 'Gask Forts'. There's still a lot being uncovered/to be discovered in north-east Scotland regarding the Agricolan campaigns which may continue to clarify his movements. I think the campaign may have been exaggerated by Tacitus in respect of 'victories', but it was a pleasure wtiting about the Battle of Mons Graupius in my story- even if it is my fictionalised version!

  2. Thanks, Nancy. It's difficult to distinguish what Tacitus may have invented from what Agricola may have invented to secure his "Triumphal Ornaments." Frere's attempt to put it on the map is doubly complicated by the fact that Tacitus clearly doesn't understand the geography, although Agricola probably did. That probably leaves us reliant on the archaeology again.

  3. There's an interesting documentary at in which Bettany Hughes explores the Roman invasion of Britain, drawing heavily on Tacitus. She reminded me of the passage in the "Annals" in which the captured Caratacos addressed the Senate: it's one of the few speeches that might be "genuine" - Tacitus may have been present, and may have taken notes.