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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Journal of Roman Studies
Vol. 12 (1922), pp57‑59

The text is in the public domain:
J. B. Bury died in 1927.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p57  Tacitus, Agricola, C. 24
By J. B. Bury.

The account of the military operations of Agricola in his fifth year as governor of Britain, A.D. 81 (or possibly A.D. 82), has caused much perplexity and discussion. The account is extraordinarily brief and vague; it is contained in the first three lines of c. 24, the rest of which is occupied with Agricola's motives for his action, a short notice of Hibernia, Agricola's opinion as to the ease with which it could be conquered, and the information that he had received and detained a fugitive prince from that island (not, it is to be observed, necessarily in that particular year). The three lines run:—

Quinto expeditionum anno naue prima transgressus ignotas ad id tempus gentis crebris simul ac prosperis praeliis domuit; eamque partem Britannia quae Hiberniam aspicit copiis instruxit.

Where precisely Agricola carried out the operations described must be a matter of conjecture, as the only geographical fact which emerges clearly from these sentences is that he was operating on the western coast of Britain. The passage was discussed in a controversy between the late Mr. Haverfield and Mr. Gudeman nearly twenty-five years ago, in the Classical Review, and no more probable suggestions have been made than Mr. Haverfield's: that (1) the sea voyage of Agricola was across the estuary of the Solway, and the unknown tribes whom he subdued were in Dumfries, and (2) that the 'part of Britain which faces Ireland' is either the Cumberland coast or a part of North Wales. Mr. Anderson, in a lucid review of the question in his admirable edition of the Agricola, considers Mr. Haverfield's conjectures as the most acceptable. They imply that Agricola was operating from somewhere south of the Solway. I disagree with Mr. Anderson only in his observation (p. lvii, cf. p110) that 'a strict and literal interpretation of Tacitus' words would suggest that the starting point was the last locality named, viz. the Forth-Clyde isthmus' — an interpretation which others have pressed. To interpret Tacitus in this way is to ignore the method of his narrative, which is not continuous. Each of the seven campaigns is described without any reference to the preceding, and it seems quite clear that every year at the end of the campaigning season Agricola and his field forces withdrew to winter quarters (at Eburacum and Deva). Tacitus does not mention this; he could expect his readers  p58 to take it for granted, and it was of no interest for his biographical purpose. The only case in which he tells us what Agricola did during the winter is after the second campaign, when he gives (c. 21) an account of his Romanising policy in the regions which had been fully conquered. Nothing is said of Agricola's starting points for his other campaigns, and there is no reason to suppose that the fifth is an exception, or that having built his forts along the Scottish isthmus he failed to return southward to his bases.

Mr. Gudeman in maintaining his perverse thesis that Tacitus meant to say that Agricola invaded Ireland, and Mr. Haverfield in refuting it, discussed the textual difficulty naue prima, but they both left it exactly where it was. There is no reason for the unusual order of the words (instead of prima naue), and, waiving this objection, none of the explanations proposed are satisfactory. Nobody is likely to accept Mr. Haverfield's suggestion that prima is accusative plural and means that the first part of the route was by sea; as Mr. Anderson remarks, it is difficult to believe 'that Tacitus would have expressed this meaning by prima transgressus.' Of the proposals which have been made to amend the passage Mr. Anderson says frustra, and of the attempts which had been made to explain the reading of the MSS. we may say frustra with equal justice. It is indeed certain that prima is corrupt, and the corruption is older than the tenth century, since it is found in the codex of Iesi, the ancestor of the two fifteenth-century Vatican MSS., on which till 1903 the text of the Agricola depended.1

The corruption may be simply enough corrected. It was caused by a very common palaeographical error. Tacitus wrote naue una transgressus. It is so notorious that such collections of letters as un, nu, im, ui, in, are constantly confused that it is hardly necessary to give illustrations. In texts that I happen to have been reading lately, I have noticed e.g.Lauinio for Lanuuio (Livy, VI.2.8), uirem for in rem (Manilius, IV.88, ed. Housman), metas for uictas (ib. 51), uictam for metam (ib. 162), ima for una (ib. 336). In the present passage, too, una was corrupted to ima, and as this gave no sort of sense it was naturally taken by some intelligent copyist (perhaps the scribe of the Iesi MS.) to be the compendious form of the first ordinal number, and was transcribed in full, prima.

Naue una means 'with one ship and no more,' just as, further on in this same chapter, legione una means 'with only one legion.' Messrs. Gerber and Greef quote eleven instances of unus following  p59 its substantive in Tacitus; they ought to have added that in every one of these cases it means emphatically 'only one.'​2 A general objection to all interpretations of naue prima that have been proposed is that they make Tacitus insist on a detail which is not interesting or which a writer with any sense of proportion would not think worth mentioning in such an extremely brief statement. On the other hand, naue una emphasises the one interesting feature of the expedition (which otherwise was evidently not of great importance) namely that Agricola subdued some hitherto unknown tribes with a couple of hundred soldiers, only as many as he was able to transport in one ship. The only reason for recording the episode at all was that it illustrated his military skill. Mr. Anderson has pertinently said (p. xxviii) 'Everything or nearly everything serves in one way or another to set in relief the hero's character and achievements,' and the opening of c. 24 is a good example of the way in which Tacitus uses objective narrative for the purpose of biography. Naue una was equivalent to a page of praise.

The Author's Notes:

1 It is obvious from the numerous cases of identical errors in the Vatican MSS. A and B, which are not in E (the Iesi MS.), that there was one intermediary at least between them and E (cf. Anderson, p. xvii). But there may have been more; and two are perhaps suggested by the passage in c. 36.1, where E furnishes one of its few valuable contributions to the text: quattuor Vatauorum cohortis. A and B omit quattuor. The assumption of two intermediaries, X and Y, would help to explain how quattuor came to be omitted. If X reproduced quattuor by iv, Y might have omitted the numeral before the first letter of Vatauorum.

[decorative delimiter]

2 E.g.Ann. I.42, seditionem verbo uno compescuit, 'by a single word'; XIII.44, noctem unam, 'just one night'; XIV.16, nec ore uno fluens, where the position of uno makes more pointed the suggestion that the poems published under Nero's name were really the work of a syndicate.

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