Calgacus and Agricola Prepare for Battle

Two excerpts taken from opposing generals preparing to lead their men into battle against one another: Calgacus from Britain, Agricola from Rome. 

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The Agricola, Chapters 30-32, Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Calgacus’ Speech To His Men

“The first battles, during which it was certain that the Romans were against us by varied fortune, were holding hope and help in our men, because the most noble of all of Britain, situated in the inner most shrines, were seeing no banks of servitude, we also were having eyes unviolated by the touch of tyranny. Our isolation and bend of rumor defended our remote places of the world and of liberty on that day: now the border of Britain is open, and everything unknown is magnified; but now there is no further tribe, nothing except rivers and rocks, and hostile Romans, of which you escape pride in vain through obedience and submission. The plunderers of the world, after they lack everything from laying waste to the world, search the sea: if the enemy is rich, they exact taxes, if poor, they exact homage, whom neither the East nor West will have glutted: these men alone out of everyone yearn for power and poverty equally out of affection. They call robbery, massacre, and plunder power under a false name, and where they make solitudes, they call peace … unless if you think that the Gauls and Germans and, it shames me to say, the majority of the Brits are held by faith and affection, although they shed blood for a foreign tyranny, nevertheless are longer enemies than slaves. There is fear and terror, weak chains of affection; which when you remove them, those who will cease to fear will begin to hate.”

“Priōrēs pugnae, quibus adversus Rōmānōs variā fortūnā certātum est, spem ac subsidium in nostrīs manibus habēbant, quia nōbilissimī tōtīus Britanniae eōque in ipsīs penetrālibus sitī nec ūlla servientium lītora aspicientēs, oculōs quoque ā contāctū dominātiōnis inviolātōs habēbāmus. Nōs terrārum ac lībertātis extrēmōs recessus ipse ac sinus fāmae in hunc diem dēfendit: nunc terminus Britanniae patet, atque omne ignōtum prō magnificō est; sed nūlla iam ultrā gēns, nihil nisi flūctūs ac saxa, et īnfēstiōrēs Rōmānī, quōrum superbiam frūstrā per obsequium ac modestiam effugiās. Raptōrēs orbis, postquam cūncta vastantibus dēfuēre terrae, mare scrūtantur: sī locuplēs hostis est, avārī, sī pauper, ambitiōsī, quōs nōn Oriēns, nōn Occidēns satiāverit: sōlī omnium opēs atque inopiam parī adfectū concupīscunt. Auferre trucīdāre rapere falsīs nōminibus imperium, atque ubi sōlitūdinem faciunt, pācem appellant … nisi sī Gallōs et Germānōs et (pudet dictū) Britannōrum plērōsque, licet dominātiōnī aliēnae sanguinem commodent, diūtius tamen hostēs quam servōs, fide et adfectū tenērī putātis. Metus ac terror est, īnfirma vincla cāritātis; quae ubi remōverīs, quī timēre dēsierint, ōdisse incipient.”


Publius Cornelius Tacitus, The Agricola, Chapter 33,  Agricola’s Speech To His Men

“It is the seventh year, comrades, under the virtue and auspices of the Roman people, you all conquer Britain by our faith and duty. With so many expeditions, with so many battles, whether the enemies are adverse by fortitude or hardly adverse by patience and work, it is necessary to that nature of things, neither I regret the soldiers nor you regret your leader … For so that to have surpassed so much of the journey, to have escaped the forests, to have crossed the estuaries when the foe is ahead is beautiful and honorable, thus the most dangerous things for the fleeing men are most prosperous today: indeed a similar knowledge of the places or similar abundance of resources was for our men, but there are men and weapons and everything in these places. That which pertains to me, now it is my long standing conviction that flight is safe for neither the army nor the leader. Accordingly as a honorable death is more preferable than a shameful death, thus safety and glory are allowed in this place; it would not be indignified to have fallen at the limit of the land and of the world.”

septimus annus est, commīlitōnēs, ex quō virtūte et auspiciīs populī Rōmānī, fide atque operā nostrā Britanniam vīcistis. Tot expedītiōnibus, tot proeliīs, seu fortitūdine adversus hostēs seu patientiā ac labōre paene adversus ipsam rērum nātūram opus fuit, neque mē mīlitum neque vōs ducis paenituit … Nam ut superāsse tantum itineris, ēvāsisse silvās, trānsīsse aestuāria pulchrum ac decōrum in frontem, ita fugientibus perīculōsissima quae hodiē prosperrima sunt; neque enim nōbīs aut locōrum eadem nōtitia aut commeātuum eadem abundantia, sed manūs et arma et in hīs omnia. [33.6] Quod ad mē attinet, iam prīdem mihi dēcrētum est neque exercitūs neque ducis terga tūta esse. Proinde ut honesta mors turpī vītā potior, ita incolumitās ac decus eōdem locō sita sunt; nec inglōrium fuerit in ipsō terrārum ac nātūrae fīne cecidisse.


Throughout Calgacus’ and Agricola’s speeches, Tacitus communicates to the reader both an outsider’s criticisms of the Roman empire and a Roman leader’s perspective on the empire’s conquest. In presenting these two perspectives, Tacitus is able to critique the Roman rule he lives under and accomplish his goal of paying tribute to Agricola, whom Tacitus portrays as the perfect Roman.

In his speech, Calgacus frequently refers to the Romans as an evil and dishonorable empire that has oppressed generations of tribes throughout Europe, and will do the same to the Brits if they don’t fight back against the Romans. In detailing Calgacus’ speech over the course of three chapters, Tacitus himself is able to critique the cruelty of the Roman empire. In chapter 30, Calgacus introduces the Romans to his listeners as the “plunderers of the world” (raptores orbis), immediately displaying the different perspective he and the Brits have on Rome and its conquests.

Calgacus also refers to the Roman “tyranny” (dominatio) twice in his speech; such a choice not only compares the Romans to tyrants, but also reminds the reader of the reign of Domitian. With Domitian’s violent years as emperor occurring just a few years before the Agricola was published, Tacitus uses this diction to give a more concrete example of when the Roman empire was just as cruel as Calgacus claims them to be. Calgacus then uses rhetorical devices to highlight the malignant deeds of the Roman empire. When he writes “si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi,” Calgacus employs an anaphora, whose repetition further emphasizes Rome’s need to always demand some form of retribution from their enemies: when Rome is rich, it demands tributes, when poor it demands homage.

Similarly, Calgacus uses asyndeton when he writes “auferre trucidare rapere.” By placing three infinitives one after another without any conjunctions, Calgacus calls attention to the multitude of Rome’s crimes and shows that the army is forever robbing, massacring, and plundering their enemies. Furthermore, throughout Calgacus’ speech, yet particularly in chapter 31, he refers to the Brits and those under Roman rule as slaves, even comparing the Brits to the newest, mocked slave in a family (ac sicut … petimur). This word choice provides a stark contrast to the Roman empire’s perception of those they conquered, as they believe peace results from their conquest while the conquered consider themselves no more than slaves. While these criticisms come from Calgacus, the multiple references to Domitian suggest that Tacitus may be injecting some of his own opinions about the empire and agree with some or many of the claims Calgacus puts forth. 

Calgacus also highlights the division among and weakness of the Roman army in his speech. Across our readings throughout the year, the Roman army has always been portrayed as a formidable force that can conquer anything in its path; however, similar to the different perspective Calgacus offered on the Roman empire’s cruelty, he also offers a new angle on its weaknesses. He begins by explaining that Rome’s perceived strength in numbers is a fallacy, as the army is composed of many foreign tribes who are not truly loyal to Rome. When Calgacus notes that the Gauls, Germans, and Brits “spill blood for a foreign tyranny” (dominationi … commodent), he emphasizes the lack of loyalty that the tribes feel towards Rome, which is merely a foreign tyranny, rather than an illustrious empire. He builds on this claim when he later argues that the tribes are held by fear and terror (metus ac terror) rather than affection of the Roman empire. As a result, Calgacus states that those same tribes “will cease to fear and begin to hate” (timere … incipient) the Romans; in this clause, Calgacus uses parallel structure to highlight the contrast between the fear that the tribes used to endure, and the hatred they will experience. Throughout Calgacus’ extended speech, Tacitus presents to the reader the outsider’s perspective of the Roman empire: that the empire savagely makes slaves out of its subjects, controls them with fear, and, despite its appearance of strength, at its core lacks loyalty and unity. However, Tacitus then provides Agricola’s speech as rebuttal to the negative, foreign perceptions of the empire. 

As a contrast to Calgacus’ speech and the criticisms he voiced against the Roman empire, Tacitus presents Agricola’s speech to give an example of the benevolent, honorable leaders that make Rome far greater than what Calgacus depicted them as. Tacitus first shows Agricola’s honorable nature when Agricola refers to all the Roman soldiers as “commilitones,” or fellow soldiers. This word choice suggests that Agricola inspires great faith and unity in his men, as calling them “fellow soldiers” implies that Agricola, too, is a dutiful member and active participant in the army, rather than someone who merely gives orders. Such an implication also responds to Calgacus’ claim that the Roman army lacks loyalty and unity: while the entire Roman empire may not showcase similar valor, Agricola certainly does. In addition, Agricola employs rhetorical devices to emphasize his arguments, with the first of which building his claim that loyalty is robust in the Roman army.

When Agricola states that “neque me militum neque vos ducis paenituit,” he uses an anaphora to liken himself to his men. The goal of this phrase, literally, is to remark that he trusts his army, and his army trusts him, and the identical word positioning in the phrase further reveals the similarities and trust between Agricola and the army. Agricola also uses another anaphora when he states “tot expeditionibus, tot proeliis” in order to highlight the previous experience and success the Roman army had in battles like the one they are about to enter. The repetition of “tot” calls the reader’s attention to this phrase and heightens Agricola’s point about Rome’s history of many victorious battles. Finally, towards the end of chapter 33, Agricola yet again reinforces the necessity of loyalty and valor to his men and all readers: he claims that “an honorable death is preferable to a life of shame” (honesta … potior). Such a remark reiterates Agricola’s steadfast devotion to valor and adds to Tacitus’ narrative that Agricola is one of the most honorable men Rome has ever seen.

Throughout Calgacus and Agricola’s speeches, Tacitus compares the barbarian perception of the Roman empire’s cruelty and disloyalty to the Roman perception of the empire’s honor and strength. By detailing Calgacus’ speech for three chapters, Tacitus explains with incredible detail all the empire’s flaws. While these flaws are highlighted through the voice of Calgacus, Tacitus seems to share many of Calgacus’ beliefs, in particular those about the empire’s cruel history. Agricola rarely addresses the Roman empire’s barbaric nature in his speech, and Tacitus even includes subtle references to Domitian, the most apt example of such cruelty. However, in presenting Agricola’s speech, Tacitus dispels many of Calgacus’ claims that the Roman army lacks loyalty and unity, largely because Agricola himself shows such great valor that inspires loyalty. This intentional structure reveals to the reader that Tacitus admits to some of Calgacus’ criticisms of the empire being true, yet still believes in Agricola’s spectacular nature as a leader who unifies his men. As a result, Tacitus is able to use these speeches to both acknowledge the shortcoming of the Roman empire, with its history of violence, and praise Agricola as one of the few truly good influences on the empire.


Matthew Abati is a rising high school senior at Milton Academy just outside of Boston. He has been a Classics lover since middle school.

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