Julius Agricola, or Gnaeus Julius Agricola, lived from 13 June AD40 to 23 August AD93. He was the Roman Governor of Britain responsible for securing the Roman grip on what is now England and Wales, and for conquering much of Scotland. He is among the best known of Romans, as a result of his biography, De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, written by his son-in-law, Tacitus, in AD98. The wider picture at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Agricola was born in Gallia Narbonensis, part of southern France, into a high-ranking Roman family. Both of his grandfathers had been Imperial Governors. His father, Julius Graecinus, became a member of the Roman Senate in the year Julius was born. Agricola himself was educated in Massilia (now Marseille).
In AD58 Agricola began his military career as a tribune with Legio II Augusta in Britain. As a member of the staff of the Roman General Paulinus, he very probably took part in the suppression of Boudica's uprising in AD61. Back in Rome, Agricola married Domitia Decidiana in AD62. He then took up a post responsible for army finance and served in Asia. Civil war broke out across the Empire in AD68, in what became known as the year of four emperors and Agricola's mother was killed during the fighting. Agricola backed the faction headed by Vespasian, who subsequently became undisputed emperor.
In AD69 a grateful Vespasian gave Agricola command of Legio XX Valeria Victrix in Britain: a legion whose previous commander had used the recent unrest as a pretext to rebel against the rather ineffectual governor, Marcus Vettius Bolanus. Agricola steadied the ship and consolidated Roman rule in the province. In AD71 a new governor, Quintus Petillius Cerialis, allowed Agricola to take a much more aggressive role against the Brigantes.
Agricola moved to south west France in AD75 to become governor of Gallia Aquitania. He returned to Rome in AD77, and was then appointed Governor of Britain in AD78, arriving back in the province in the middle of the year. Agricola immediately launched a campaign against the Ordovices of north Wales. In AD79 he re-established clear Roman authority in northern England, then in AD80 began the campaign he envisaged would complete the Roman conquest of Britain, by marching into Scotland.
By AD82 the Romans under Agricola controlled everything up to the line between the Rivers Forth and Clyde. AD83 saw the Romans press further north, now in the face of serious opposition from the native Caledonians. In one incident, Legio IX Hispana was attacked at night and only saved from disaster through the intervention of a large force of Roman cavalry.
In AD84 the Romans pressed still further into northern Scotland, trying to draw the main forces of the Caledonian leader Calgacus into open battle. The Caledonians, however, were intent on maintaining their hit-and-run tactics. But when Agricola's troops captured many of the storehouses holding the Caledonians' recently gathered harvest, Calgacus had to choose between fighting, or letting his people starve in the forthcoming winter. The final showdown occurred at the Battle of Mons Graupius, apparently in Autumn AD84.
The location of the battle is the subject of wide debate today, with candidates including Bennachie in Aberdeenshire and the Gask Ridge west of Perth; though locations as far afield as Moray, Fife and Sutherland have also been suggested. On the whole, however, Bennachie seems the clear favourite. While Tacitus was a little vague about geography, he is more definite about the conduct of the battle itself. According to him the Caledonians mustered some 30,000 men to face the 20,000 Roman legionnaires and auxiliaries under Agricola.
The battle started with an exchange of missiles before the 8,000 Romans auxiliaries in the Roman front line attacked uphill, closing with the Caledonians to neutralise the latter's longer swords. The 3,000 Roman cavalry then outflanked the Caledonians, causing them to break and flee. The main body of the Roman army at Mons Graupius, the 9,000 men of the legions, were held in reserve and took no active part in the battle. By Tacitus's account, the battle cost the lives of 10,000 Caledonians and just 360 Romans. The remaining 20,000 Caledonians, including Calgacus, simply melted away into the hills.
Whether Tacitus was writing a truthful account is a subject almost as hotly debated as the question of the location of the battle. Many feel he was more interested in spin than real history, in making the battle look much more significant than it actually was in order to glorify his father-in-law, Agricola. There are certainly inconsistencies between the idea that this was such a decisive "final" battle yet, by his account, as many as 20,000 of the Caledonians escaped, presumably to fight another day had that been necessary.
It is probably fair to say that the Battle of Mons Graupius very nearly completed the Roman conquest of Britain and Agricola certainly had the Roman fleet sail around the north and west coast of Scotland in an act of ownership after the battle. But he himself was recalled to Rome in AD85, before he could build on his victory at Mons Graupius and bring Scotland fully under Roman rule. Subsequent Roman Governors never had both the will and the troops to complete the job, instead preferring to hold defensive positions along the Gask Ridge, the Antonine Wall, or Hadrian's Wall, and leaving what was left to the "painted people" beyond.
Tacitus claims that the Emperor Domitian recalled Agricola because his successes in Britain eclipsed the Emperor's own more modest victories in Germany. On his return to Rome, Agricola was awarded triumphal decorations and a statue; but he never again held a civil or military post. He died in AD93 on his family estates in Gallia Narbonensis, aged fifty-three, after eight years of enforced retirement that cost the Romans dearly, but was probably pretty good news for the Caledonians.