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Is Tacitus' unforgiving portrayal of the Emperor Domitian in The Agricola justified?
The Emperor Domitian is accused by the majority of his ancient biographers as being one of the cruellest and most ruthless emperors of the early Principate. The Agricola is probably the ancient source most consistent in attacking him, as Tacitus persistently pursues the idea that every decision he made was hated and ill-advised and that his brutal personality was demonstrated in the way he treated Tacitus' father-in-law Agricola.
However it is important to investigate whether Tacitus' comments about Domitian in The Agricola are historically accurate. Tacitus' viewpoint needs to be explored as a son-in-law to the man who had apparently been wronged, and a senator in his own right. There may have been other causes for the decisions Domitian made, instead of jealousy and fear as Tacitus leads us to believe, which might excuse Domitian from some of his supposed crimes. The aim of this piece is to uncover the truth about whether Domitian really was a ruthless tyrant, or whether ancient sources, particularly Tacitus, have glossed over the better elements of his reign for their own purposes.
Tacitus both opens and closes The Agricola with references to Domitian. The Emperor is not mentioned at any other point in the biography, which can be seen as Tacitus' way of framing Agricola's life within the Domitianic period in order to offer an explanation for some of the decisions made by Agricola during his life. At the beginning of the biography Tacitus does not mention Domitian directly but implies general dislike for him when he describes the terrible period they live in (Ag. 1) and when he talks about the fifteen years that Domitian has ruled as being a waste of time (Ag. 3). Tacitus' use of implication avoids a direct attack on the Emperor at the beginning of the biography which would have diverted the focus away from Agricola.
One of the charges levelled against Domitian in the Agricola is that he gave the impression of being pleased that Agricola had won the battle of Mons Graupius when in fact he was the opposite (Ag. 39). Some authors such as Clarke (2001: 111) do not question Tacitus' view on this. Some such as Von Fritz (1957: 92) believe that because Domitian inherited the Principate from his father and brother he was scared of anybody more skilled than himself. However, apart from the fact that it would have been almost impossible for Tacitus to know Domitian's true feelings on the subject, it does not appear that Domitian really was particularly envious of his generals when they had successful campaigns (Hanson 1987; 181). As Dorey (1960: 69) points out only three generals were executed by Domitian in his reign and two of these were killed for attempting revolution. On top of this Tacitus himself admits that Domitian gave Agricola all the honour and celebration due to him after the victory (Ag. 40). This indicates that publicly Domitian behaved in exactly the right way to Agricola.
Indeed evidence from Frontinus implies that Domitian was in fact a relatively good military leader. He records several instances where Domitian uses his military skill resulting in victories for the Romans, for example when he sprung a surprise attack on the Germans (Strat.1.1.8) or when he gained support by providing compensation for the crops where military building was taking place (Strat. 2.11.7). However if we are to use this as evidence it must be noted that Frontinus was an advisor of Domitian for this particular war (Birley 1975: 145) and so may be inclined to describe the war's successes rather than its failures. The success that Frontinus describes contrasts with Tacitus' description of the same war as being a ‘sham triumph' (Ag. 39, trans. Mattingly 1970: 91). With both of these views it is important to account for reliability. Dorey (1960: 67) however believes Frontinus' view that Domitian was a good military leader and that when planning military manoeuvres he aimed to avoid too much fighting, which is not understood by Roman historians who thought of success as being the number of enemy troops killed.
There are differing views as to why Agricola was recalled from Britain after the battle of Mons Graupius . Tacitus does not really cover the reason for his recall in The Agricola but Hanson (1987: 142) does not think it surprising that he was as he had already given seven years service to Britain. Furthermore Birley (1975: 145) thinks it may have been Cerialis and Frontinus, advisors of the Emperor who thought Agricola should be recalled.
Next Tacitus tells the story of one of Domitian's freedmen who was sent to offer the province of Syria to Agricola but returned without talking to him because he had already left Britain (Ag. 40). Tacitus himself admits that this story was probably invented (Ag. 40). Dorey (1960: 66) believes that this story was created by Tacitus for the purpose of making Domitian look more suspicious.
There is some debate over whether Domitian had Tacitus killed as Tacitus tries to imply (Ag. 43). Cassius Dio (66. 20) openly accuses Domitian of murder. However as Hanson (1987: 182) points out, by this time Agricola had spent nine years in retirement, if he had wanted him dead, surely Domitian would have taken action earlier. He also believes Domitian was genuinely concerned during Agricola's illness (Hanson 1987: 183) and argues that if the Emperor had hated Agricola that much that he needed to kill him, surely the rest of his family, Tacitus included would have suffered because of this (Hanson 1987: 184) Tacitus tells us that he made Domitian co-heir in his will and Domitian took this as a compliment (Ag. 43), but then goes on to say that this shows he was a bad emperor because any man with family would not share his assets with a good emperor (Ag. 43). Although Dorey (1960: 67) believes that all the evidence points to a friendly relationship between the Emperor and his general.
It is important to question why Tacitus was so eager to present Domitian as a tyrant and there are several possible theories. The key reason is probably given by Hanson (1987: 19), that both Tacitus and Agricola had considerably good careers under the Emperor and so Tacitus is trying to defend both his and Agricola's lack of action against the Emperor during his reign, in a time when many of his fellow senators hated Domitian. Hanson (1987: 18) also explains that Tacitus often gave certain people in his works consistently bad characteristics, so perhaps this is just Tacitus' style of writing. Von Fritz (1957: 81) puts forward the view that perhaps Domitian did not have a particularly good reign but that it might have been the fault of the political system that he came across as a tyrant.
One way of discovering what people really thought of Domitian is to look at the period following his death. Cassius Dio tells us that after his death he was hated so much that images of him were destroyed (68.1). This is supported by archaeological evidence such as an inscription found in Gemeu near ancient Antiochia (Dessau 1913: 301). Dessau (1913: 309) believes that there was once an image of Domitian on a wall there, accompanied by an inscription, which was covered by another stone after the death of the Emperor. He came to this conclusion because the other inscription displayed, was put there twelve years after Domitian's death. This evidence gives the impression that Domitian was universally disliked, however it must be considered that it was likely to be those of the senatorial class, who had suffered most under Domitian's rule, that were ordering the destruction of his memory. Evidence from Suetonius, a contemporary of Tacitus, explains that while the senators were happy about Domitian's death (Domitian, 23), it upset the army who, he says, were willing to take revenge for it (Domitian, 23). This shows that while most of our documentary evidence for the tyrannical rule of Domitian is written by the elites and senatorial class, the same opinion of Domitian may not have been held by other members of the population.
The opinion of modern historians is generally quite positive of Domitian. Garzetti (1974: 281) says that Domitian was successful in his defensive policy and that he was well liked by both troops and people throughout the Empire. Southern (1997: 21) thinks he was unlucky that most of his achievements were portrayed negatively. Tacitus seems set against him from the outset of The Agricola, probably more intent on supporting Agricola's best interests and his own, rather than giving his audience an entirely truthful view. Other writers such as Dio, writing later were probably influenced by Tacitus' one-sided portrayal. Suetonius gives some arguments in support of Domitian, despite his normal style of writing rumour and gossip about his subjects, for example his praise of Domitian's judicial system (Domitian, 8). The majority of the arguments against Domitian The Agricola could be perfectly innocent if argued by a different writer and it is unlucky for him that he became the target of a very well read and influential historian.