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The Classical Quarterly / Volume 61 / Issue 01 / May 2011, pp 294 - 305

DOI: 10.1017/S0009838810000479, Published online: 04 May 2011

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MYLES LAVAN (2011). SLAVISHNESS IN BRITAIN AND ROME IN TACITUS' AGRICOLA. The Classical Quarterly, 61, pp 294-305 doi:10.1017/S0009838810000479

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Downloaded from, IP address: on 22 Dec 2014 294Classical Quarterly 61.1 294–305 (2011) Printed in Great Britain doi:10.1017/S0009838810000479 SLAVISHNESS IN BRITAIN AND ROME IN TACITUS’ AGRICOLAMYLES LAVAN




It is now more than 40 years since J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz insisted on the thematic unity of the Agricola in an article in this journal.1 Yet it is still all too common for the Agricola’s Roman and British narratives to be discussed separately, with little or no consideration for the connections between them.2 Moreover, not even

Liebeschuetz’s article does justice to the elaborate system of parallels that connects provincial subjection to Rome and senatorial subjection to Domitian in Tacitus’ account.3 One aim of this paper is to demonstrate that the two accounts are inextricably linked – that they demand to be read together and not in isolation.

Its second and complementary goal is to highlight the thematic importance of 1 J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz, ‘The theme of liberty in the Agricola of Tacitus’, CQ 16 (1966), 126–39, reprinted with revisions in R. Ash (ed.), Oxford Readings in Tacitus (Oxford, forthcoming). 2 The tendency to focus on one section to the exclusion of the other is particularly noticeable in readings of the British narrative. K. Clarke, ‘An island nation: re-reading Tacitus’ Agricola’,

JRS 91 (2001), 94–112 at 112 explicitly excludes the Roman frame from her focus. R. Evans, ‘Containment and corruption: the discourse of Flavian empire’, in A.J. Boyle and W.J. Dominik (edd.), Flavian Rome: Culture, Image, Text (Leiden, 2003), 255–76 at 276 acknowledges some parallels between senate and Britons, but the rest of the article treats the British narrative as an unproblematic document of Flavian imperial ideology. S. Rutledge, ‘Tacitus in tartan: textual colonization and expansionist discourse in the Agricola’, Helios 27 (2000), 75–95 largely ignores the Roman narrative in order to explore the Agricola as an imperialist text. To read this inward-looking text for insights into Roman imperialism is, I will argue, to miss the point. D.

Braund, Ruling Roman Britain: Kings, Queens, Governors and Emperors from Julius Caesar to

Agricola (London, 1996), 162–3 and 172, recognizes the importance of approaching the Agricola as an organic whole, but his analysis of the British narrative is undermined by a surprisingly uncritical reading of the Roman narrative, which sees Agricola as an unambiguously positive paradigm of behaviour under domination. Many readings of the Roman narrative suffer from the opposite fault. Thus H. Haynes, ‘Survival and memory in the Agricola’, Arethusa 39 (2006), 149–70 focusses almost exclusively on Rome (apart from a brief mention of Britain at 165–6).

T. Whitmarsh, ‘“This in-between book”: language, politics and genre in the Agricola’, in B.

McGing and J. Mossman (edd.), The Limits of Ancient Biography (Swansea, 2006), 305–33 stands out for its even-handed treatment of the two spheres of domination. 3 Note his surprisingly cautious conclusion: ‘The Agricola as a whole does not leave the impression that it was designed to bring out a parallel between the rule of the Caesars over the Romans and that of the Romans over their subjects’ (138 n. 1). Liebeschuetz’s article only scratches the surface of the parallels between the two narratives. While his insights have been acknowledged by others, they have not been developed much further. See Whitmarsh (n. 2), 306,

D. Sailor, Writing and Empire in Tacitus (Cambridge, 2008), 98 and B. McGing, ‘Syncrisis in

Tacitus’ Agricola’, Hermathena 133 (1982), 15–25 at 22. Many of the correspondences discussed here have never been acknowledged, let alone adequately interpreted. This paper aims to show their importance for any attempt to understand the Agricola as a whole.

SLAVISHNESS IN TACITUS’ AGRICOLA 295 slavery and slavishness for the Agricola as a whole.4 In Liebeschuetz’s formulation, what unites the different parts of the Agricola is a concern for ‘the consequences of subjection’ (136). His avoidance of the word ‘enslavement’ is curious given how often the Agricola uses the language of slavery (seruus, seruitus, seruire).5

The distinction is significant because enslavement in the Agricola is more than a synonym for subjection; it is also a moral condition – a state of mind and spirit.

This paper begins by illustrating the prominence of slavery metaphors in both the

Roman and the British narratives (II). It goes on to show that slavery is repeatedly associated with a set of (slavish) traits including compliance, passivity and silence (III). It argues that Tacitus develops a psychology of slavery to explain the dynamics of domination both at home and abroad. He represents slavishness both as a consequence of enslavement (the experience of slavery engenders slavishness) and as serving to perpetuate it (the slave is complicit in his own subjection) (IV–V).

The final part of the paper returns to the broader question of how the British and

Roman narratives speak to one another, by exploring two particularly suggestive parallels – between Calgacus and those senators who defy the emperor and between