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on 21 December 2004
Perhaps one of the most entertaining military histories ever told, Tacitus's "Agricola" is almost certainly a work of fiction. Agricola was of course Tacitus's late father-in-law, and the work is an attempt to vindicate the former British governor after he had fallen from grace. Suffice to say that if Agricola had been half the military genius he appeared to be in his son-in-law's book, he would never had been summarily recalled to Rome.
Recent archaeological evidence from the Gask Ridge has shown that the Roman frontier was well established in Scotland long before the arrival of Agricola in 78AD. The dendrochronological evidence leaves no room for error on dates. So Tacitus's story about Agricola pioneering into Scotland is simply a lie. Of course, his intended readership would have no knowledge of events in the remotest region of the empire, and would not have questioned the story.
If Tacitus cannot be trusted on this aspect of the tale, why should any of his writings be accorded anything other than scorn? He is the only source for events such as the battle of Mons Graupius. Did the battle ever happen? It seems unlikely; no other evidence exists to substantiate Tacitus's claims. It is also established that Tacitus is not beyond writing creative history. In his anxiety to underline the success of Agricola's campaign, Tacitus may well have exaggerated the significance of some skirmish or other in the attritional war the norhtern tribes would undoubtedly have waged against any Roman expedition into the north. For the Britons to have met the Romans in a pitched battle such as that described in The Agricola, their leaders would have had to have taken collective leave of their senses.
It is surely more likely that Agricola was recalled to Rome, not through the jealousy of the Emperor as Tacitus suggests, but rather to explain his unsatisfactory performance as governor.