Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.09.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.09.27

A. J. Woodman, Tacitus: Agricola (with C. S. Kraus). Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pp. xi, 358.  ISBN 9780521700290.  $36.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Duncan B. Campbell, Glasgow (


A new Agricola for a new generation. For almost fifty years, the standard text and commentary has been the venerable ‘Ogilvie and Richmond’ (O-R), with its weighty and now inevitably outdated archaeological content.1 While research into Roman Britain has moved on apace, making much of O-R’s commentary redundant, Tacitean studies have not been left behind, and scholars (Woodman foremost amongst them) now have a better feel for Tacitus’ language and style than was possible in Ogilvie’s day. Woodman’s commentary is stuffed with literary parallels, teasing nuances of meaning out of the Latin, and the extent of Tacitus’ debt to Livy and Sallust, for example, is startlingly revealed in his analysis of the ‘night battle’ episode (26-8 and 221-5).2 So this volume, deceptively packaged in the green and yellow livery of Cambridge’s textbook series, is no ordinary Agricola.

Besides a commentary that stretches to 266 pages (O-R’s is ‘only’ 192 pages), Woodman provides introductory matter, divided into sections on ‘The author and his work’ (1-11), ‘Tacitus’ Britain’ (11-15), ‘Imperialism, freedom and servitude’ (15-25), ‘The Agricola as history’ (25-30), ‘Language and expression’ (30-35), and ‘The manuscripts’ (35-37). Two appendixes list ‘Roman legions in Britain during Agricola’s career’ (331) and ‘Chronological tables for Agricola and Tacitus’ (332).

In Woodman’s summary of the manuscripts, some readers will demur at his decision to follow Delz in designating the Aesinas manuscript as ‘H’, for there is no consensus that it is definitely the manuscript alleged to have been discovered in the monastery at Hersfeld in the 1420s. It would surely have been advisable to continue the well-established practice of employing the abbreviation ‘E’.3

The brief section on ‘The Agricola as history’ is admirably restrained, given Woodman’s association with the movement to divorce Roman historiography from Roman history. But when he warns his readers that ‘we cannot tell what is “literary” from what is “actual”’ (29), he creates a false dichotomy between the events that occurred and the way Tacitus chose to present them.4 If Tacitus’ Mons Graupius were simply a generic battle description – as Woodman seems to suggest when he claims that ‘it is not the case that T. (as it were) had in his mind some pre-existing battle scenario (“what really happened”) which he then “clothed” in the phraseology of his great predecessors’ (28) – we would have no trouble in reconstructing it from whatever source Tacitus had plagiarized or from whatever commonplaces he had cobbled together. However, it is not quite so simple.

Which brings us to the core of the book: the Agricola text itself. At the outset, Woodman announces that his text ‘is different from, and considerably more open to conjecture than, others currently available’ (vii). Given his background and reputation, his changes to Ogilvie’s Oxford text (by my reckoning, 47 in total) should certainly be taken seriously. Some of these are restorations of the manuscript reading, as at 10.5, where Ogilvie preferred perinde to proinde on the grounds that this is ‘the general usage of Tacitus’, a view that more recent research allows Woodman to refute; or 18.4, where the manuscript qui classem, qui navis had quietly become naves on Puteolanus’ dubious authority (and not only in Ogilvie’s text).

I counted 17 occasions where Woodman incorporates his own suggestions. Some are fair game: for example, at 25.1, he returns to the manuscript cum simul terra, simul mari bellum impellitur (where Ogilvie adopted Rhenanus’ impelleretur), emending the following ac saepe to ut saepe in order to place a subtly different complexion on the passage. Or again, at 28.1 (during the famous ‘Mutiny of the Usipi’), where the manuscript uno remigante (‘with one [of the steersmen] rowing’) has exercised many editors; here he proposes uno remig<i imper>ante (‘with one of them giving orders to the rowers’), which would certainly explain why the other two ships were apparently lost during the voyage. Other emendations may strike the reader as simply meddling for the sake of it (at 14.1, the marginal Togidumno now finds itself preferred over the manuscript Cogidumno). Nevertheless, when (for example) Woodman believes it necessary, at 33.2, to replace imperii Romani with populi Romani, and defends the change with plausible argument (258-9), we must sit up and take notice.

Of the other major cruxes, Woodman presents a new version of 10.3 (the shape of Britain), defending his proposed oblongo scutulo (Ogilvie vacillated between oblongae scapulae and oblongae scutulae) with the novel observation that a scutulum may have been a particular type of shield shaped like a figure-of-eight (133-4). At 38.2, Wolfson’s in fines boreos totum exercitum deducit is rightly adopted, correcting the manuscript borestorum. And at 24.1 (nave prima transgressus), Woodman explains nave prima as a corruption of nave primum. Since it is ‘naturally inferred’ from the preceding paragraph that the object of transgressus must be either the Forth or the Clyde, he plumps for the latter, which takes Agricola into the Mull of Kintyre (214). Certainly, others have found no objection to this being eam partem Britanniae quae Hiberniam aspicit, but if (with O-R) we would rather see Agricola end up in Galloway (more logically ‘facing Ireland’ from a Roman’s point of view), it is worth considering Maxwell’s elegant emendation, in avia primum transgressus.5

It is well known that entire passages of the Mons Graupius narrative have been badly garbled. However, 36.3 is probably not one of them, despite the opinions of various editors from Walch to Delz, who have seen fugere covinnarii as problematic. Woodman obelizes the words and concludes that ‘the truth seems irrecoverable’ (274). However, everything falls into place if we accept Roth’s punctuation of the manuscript reading – interim equitum turmae fugere; covinnarii peditum se proelio miscuere – for it is the covinnarii (the Caledonian charioteers), not the equitum turmae (the Caledonian cavalry), who recentem terrorem intulerant and inaequalibus locis haerebant.6

The following sentence, on the other hand, is most certainly corrupt. Successive editors have wrestled bravely with minimeq∙ equestres ea enim pugnae facies erat cum aegrādiu aut stante simul aequorum corporibus impellerentur. Ogilvie tried to convince us that, with the deletion of enim, minimeque equestris ea pugnae facies erat ‘makes good sense’, but as Anderson (following Wex) observed, ‘there cannot be a “cavalry battle” if one side has no cavalry’ (or rather, as we have seen, if one side’s cavalry has fled). Furthermore, it seems odd to claim that ‘the appearance of the battle was scarcely equestrian’, either cum aegre clivo stantes (Triller’s suggestion, adopted by Woodman) or cum aegre in gradu stantes (Lipsius’ suggestion, adopted by Ogilvie), so radical surgery is clearly required.

Wex’s ingenious solution (not noted by Woodman) was, I think, unfairly dismissed by Ogilvie as ‘unnecessary’, as it makes better sense of the narrative to read minimeque aequa nostris iam pugnae facies erat. This would then require something like Brotier’s cum aegre diu stantes as explanation, for the battle would certainly have been ‘most unfavourable to our men’, if they had been standing for a long time, equorum corporibus impellerentur (‘being buffeted by the [Caledonian chariot] horses’, not, be it noted, ‘being pushed forwards by the weight of the horses in their rear’, as Ogilvie suggested).7

Finally on the subject of Mons Graupius, Woodman is uncharacteristically reticent at 35.3, where ceteri per adclive iugum convexi velut insurgerent is clearly corrupt. Early editors, mistakenly affording Puteolanus greater authority than the manuscripts, preferred his connexi, despite the problems that it raises (not to mention the fact that it is quite likely to have been a printer’s error). Woodman follows suit, noting only that conexi (his preferred spelling) is ‘presumably a reference to rows or ranks’ (269), but his resulting text (rendered as ‘the others soared (as it were) up the sloping ridge across which they were linked’) is rather stilted and we are left wondering in what manner they were ‘linked’. Although Furneaux (following Wex) suspected that velut must be misplaced, he balked at altering the word order and followed Andresen in interpreting insurgerent figuratively (as does Woodman). There is no reason to do so. On the other hand, there would be every reason to interpret Puteolanus’ connexi figuratively (if we were of a mind to accept that reading), as Anderson realized, offering ‘as it were, linked together, man to man’ (but wouldn’t this require inter se connexi?). In fact, given that connexi is itself problematic, it is surely wiser, in the context of Caledonian warriors moving into position on a hillside, to reconsider the manuscript convexi (‘curving around’).

Woodman rounds off the volume with an up-to-date bibliography. He also lists 20 previous editions of the Agricola that he has consulted, amongst which the absence of Wex’s ground-breaking edition of 1852 is surprising. Soverini’s recent edition is recommended for ‘a good bibliography of work on the Agricola’ (333), but those who find this volume difficult to obtain need not despair, as most of the works on Soverini’s list that were published after 1954 will be found in Benario’s Classical World surveys, with the added bonus of an appended comment on each one.8

Woodman has certainly given us food for thought; indeed, a feast of new possibilities for Tacitean scholars to digest. Even if a definitive edition is still some way off, this one is certainly a worthy successor to Ogilvie and Richmond’s Agricola.


1.   R.M. Ogilvie and Sir Ian Richmond, Cornelii Taciti, De Vita Agricolae (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967). Ogilvie’s text was reprinted in M. Winterbottom and R.M. Ogilvie, Cornelii Taciti Opera Minora (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), with minor changes at 10.3 and 28.2. Ogilvie’s further thoughts were posthumously published as ‘An Interim Report on Tacitus’ “Agricola”,’ Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II.33.3 (1991), 1714-1740.
2.   Of course, the fact that Tacitus weaves echoes of Livy and Sallust into his narrative does not undermine its factual basis and need not mean that particular episodes have been invented, as some would like to suppose.
3.   O-R, 80-90, gives a better overview of the manuscript tradition. On the debate over the identity of the Aesinas, see most recently R.H. Martin, ‘From manuscript to print,’ in: A.J. Woodman (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 241-52, at 246-8.
4.   For a balanced view of the Agricola’s historicity, see most recently A.R. Birley, ‘The Agricola,’ in: A.J. Woodman (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 47-58.
5.   Tucked away in G.S. Maxwell, The Romans in Scotland (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1989), 54; cf. Ann. 1.63 for in avia … secutus.
6.   This is the text that I have translated in Mons Graupius AD 83 (Oxford: Osprey, 2010), 77. Furneaux’s objection, that ‘no British horse appear to be present’, is thus shown to be groundless. Woodman’s claim that ‘equitum turmae … is almost always used of the Romans’ (275) is curious, as he also observes (275 n. 21) that ‘T. regularly uses the term of foreigners, including Britons’.
7.   I am indebted to Stan Wolfson for drawing the problem (and the likely solution) to my attention. It is also worth noting Schütz’s se sustentantes for the manuscript aut stante (noted by successive Teubner editions prior to Delz’s).
8.   P. Soverini, Cornelio Tacito. Agricola (Alessandria: Edizioni dell’Orso, 2004). H.W. Benario, ‘Recent work on Tacitus’, Classical World 58.3 (1964), 69-83; 63.8 (1970), 253-67; 71.1 (1977), 1-32; 80.2 (1986), 73-147; 89.2 (1995), 89-162; 98.3 (2005), 251-336.

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