Academic journal article Helios

Tacitus in Tartan: Textual Colonization and Expansionist Discourse in the Agricola

Academic journal article Helios

Tacitus in Tartan: Textual Colonization and Expansionist Discourse in the Agricola

Article excerpt

Tacitus' Agricola is frequently cited in discussions about Roman imperialism, but has yet to be read as a text that serves the actual process of expanding Roman power. (1) In this paper I shall demonstrate that Tacitus' work turns the alien and distant land of Britain into a Roman space, with a Roman identity, whose peoples share and embrace Roman values and ideology with varying results, and that the ultimate aim of Tacitus' text is to perpetuate the further expansion and spread of the Romanitas Agricola imposes on Britain. (2) The two major rhetorical methods Tacitus employs to achieve this aim are what I will refer to with the term textual colonization, inasmuch as those methods, working in unison, are intended to advance imperial expansion; the text, in short, acts as an abettor in the colonial process. To illustrate how the process of textual colonization functions in the Agricola, I shall examine here the two main rhetorical strategies Tacitus uses to generate such discourse, their relationship to one a nother, and how they serve to reaffirm Roman authority in Britain, as well as to perpetuate the perceived need for Roman conquest and colonization there. The major rhetorical strategies that are particularly at work in the text and that will make up the central focus of this study may be divided, for convenience, into two major categories. Through the first, negation, Tacitus emphasizes Britain's shapelessness, the presence of nothingness in and around Britain, and depicts Britain as a place that is paradoxically full of "absence," to the point where "absence" becomes one of Britain's essential realities. Within this strategy of negation Tacitus deploys a series of substrategies: surveillance (in which Britain is simultaneously mapped and conquered), naturalization (which reduces the Britons to a natural resource for exploitation), and affirmation (in which Tacitus asserts the desirability of Roman as opposed to barbarian control of the island). (3) Tacitus presents Britain as verging on a negative space, ful l of nothing, whose form is incomplete, whose people lack an individual identity, lack coherent and collective political unity, and have only a marginal history at best; as such, Britain and its people are something to be surveyed, subdued, and exploited. Such a rhetorical strategy opens the way for the imposition of a Roman identity on the island, as well as for its conquest. Tacitus also employs this rhetorical strategy with a view to reaffirming and asserting the need for Roman order and authority over Britain's peoples. The second rhetorical strategy is appropriation. Defined succinctly, appropriation is the method Tacitus uses to establish cultural solidarity between Romans and Britons, while at the same time maintaining the need for the Romans' presence in the province and asserting Rome's cultural superiority. (4) This results in various internal contradictions and instability within the text, entailing simultaneously both the denigration and idealization of the Britons based on Roman cultural values. Such discourse, taken as a whole, creates numerous perceived contradictions and tensions within Tacitus' work; however, as the conclusion of this study will suggest, Tacitus' presentation is essentially consistent with his larger rhetorical program. In the conclusion I shall argue that these strategies are, in part, the result of the aesthetics of the medium in which Tacitus works, in which the literary form of the Agricola emerges as a rhetorical strategy in its own right; it is used not only to reaffirm, but to expand Roman power.5

I

Tacitus conceives of Britain, prior to Agricola's conquest, in negative terms; it is a place which verges on nothingness, whose shape is incomplete, which has only a marginal, nebulous history and is full of nothing. (6)

That Britain verges on nothingness Tacitus initially implies when he describes its geographic position on the edge of the world, where the great wastes of the northern sea commence: septentrionalia eius, nullis contra ferns, vasto atque aperto man pulsantur ("Its northern boundaries are pounded by the desolate and open sea, with no lands opposite," 10. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.