Cornelius Tacitus, Agricola excerpts: Domitia Decidiana, Julia Agricola

fresco:young & mature woman
Portrait of aristocratic girl and woman
Roman fresco, 1-75 CE

Domitia Decidiana (?-post 93 CE), a woman of noble birth, was the mother of Julia Agricola (64-post 93 CE). Like many Roman women of the upper class, their names are preserved only because of their relationship to the distinguished men of their family. In 62 CE Domitia married Gnaeus Julius Agricola (40-93 CE), a native of Gaul; distinguished statesman, general, and a governor of Britain (78-84), he was eulogized in the biography Agricola published in 98 CE by his son-in-law, senator and historian Cornelius Tacitus (c. 54-120 CE). Before Julia's birth in 64 CE, the couple had a son, who shortly after died in infancy, as did another son born much later; all three of their children were born in the provinces while their father was on campaign. Julia married Tacitus in 78 CE at the age of 14, while he was in his late 20's, an arrangement typical among the upper classes in the early Empire. Because Tacitus includes references to the two women at significant moments in Agricola's domestic life, it is possible to gain some insight into the lives of elite women living abroad at the end of the Julio-Claudian era and into the Flavian era. Although Tacitus records a fierce debate in the Senate questioning the practice of wives accompanying their husbands on provincial magistracies (Annales 3.33-4), both Domitia and Julia, no doubt at the wish of their husbands, were with them on their tours of duty; it is the reason that Julia is absent from her father's sickbed and death in 93 CE. Wives of provincial governors and praetors would have supported their husbands' career by managing their residences (e.g., the contemporary villa at Fishbourne), overseeing the household staff and its domestic and ritual activities, entertaining guests, attending official events, modeling the proper behavior of the elite Roman woman, and, as in Rome, educating their children (see Agricola's mother Julia Procilla). Domitia and Julia appear almost always together in Agricola. Tacitus portrays them as generic materfamilias and filiafamilias, their roles as wife, mother, and daughter stereotypical, their individual personality subsumed to that of their male kin. Nevertheless Tacitus portrays the women as models of female virtues demonstrating pietas towards Agricola throughout his life and in the rituals surrounding his death, a symbol of the affection felt by the family members for each other. In order to safeguard the future of his wife and daughter, in his will Agricola makes them co-heirs with the emperor Domitian, who is implicated in Agricola’s mysterious illness and death. For other examples of the effect on their wives of the deaths of prominent Romans in conflict with the Caesars, see Cornelia Pompeii and Pompeia Paulina; for Roman women in Britain, see Allason-Jones in the Bibliography; on Tacitean style, see Agricola.

Reading Questions:

1. What does Tacitus’ description of Domitia Decidiana in Chapter 45 as amantissima, along with the statement in Chapter 6 about the good wife, tell us about the expectations of a Roman matron of rank? Funerary inscriptions are a rich source of cultural expectations of respectable Roman matronae (cf. the mother-daughter epitaphs of Julia Secunda and Cornelia Tyche; Monument options; Harvey, Roman Lives," in Bibliography). For male assessments of the disreputable matrona, see "Transgressive Women".
2. Why might Tacitus say so little about Domitia Decidiana and Julia Agricola? Cf. Seneca's aunt, an aristocrat of his family of the Annaei, who is referred to in his Consolatio ad Helviam but without name.
3. Tacitus opens Chapter 46 by asking Agricola to call his household away from weak desire (infirmo desiderio) and womanly lamentation (muliebribus lamentis) and to contemplate the deceased's excellence. What does it mean for women to emulate masculine virtues? Was this even possible for a Roman woman?

Tacitus describes Agricola’s return to Rome and marriage to Domitia Decidiana after serving in the army of Suetonius Paulinus, governor of the imperial province of Britain (58-62 CE). Tacitus praises Agricola's marriage as ideal, characterized by concordia and reciprocal caritas.

VI.1Hinc ad capessendōs magistrātūs in urbem dēgressus Domitiam Decidiānam, link splendidīs nātālibus ortam, sibi iūnxit; idque mātrimōnium ad maiōra nītentī link decus ac rōbur fuit. vīxēruntque mīrā concordiā, per mūtuam cāritātem et in vicemantepōnendō, nisi quod in bonā uxōre tantō maior laus, quantō in mālā plūs culpae est.

In 64 CE, Agricola was dispatched as quaestor to the senatorial province of Asia Minor to assist the proconsul, L. Salvius Otho Titianus. Decidiana accompanied him there, where she bore their daughter Julia and lost her firstborn son. While the purpose of Roman marriage was to produce citizens, for the senatorial class there was an added incentive under the Lex Iulia et Papia Poppaea of 9 CE, as those with three children or more were given, among other benefits, precedence for office.

VI.2 Auctus est ibi fīliā, in subsidium simul ac sōlācium; nam fīlium ante sublātum brevī āmīsit.

In 73 CE Agricola was rewarded for his services to Vespasian (Emperor 69-79 CE) by enrollment in the patrician class and appointment as governor to the imperial province of Gallia Aquitania. After three years he was recalled to Rome, where he was elected consul suffectus. Tacitus lists the two events of 76 CE as notable for Agricola:

linkIX.6Cōnsul ēgregiae tum speī fīliam iuvenī mihi dēspondit ac post cōnsulātum collocāvit… .

Although they accompanied him, the two women are largely absent from the narrative of Agricola's provincial governorship in Britain and successful military campaigns in the north (77-83 CE). They reemerge in Tacitus’ discussion of Agricola’s death, a matter of public concern exacerbated by rumors that he was poisoned. While Tacitus refuses to say anything with certainty, he asserts that the behavior of Domitian (Emperor 81-96 CE) at the time of Agricola’s death was suspicious.

linkXLIII.4Satis cōnstābat lectō testāmentō Agricolae, quō cohērēdem optimae uxōrī et piissimae fīliae Domitiānum scrīpsit, laetātum eum velut honōre iūdiciōque. Tam caeca et corrupta mēns adsiduīs adūlātiōnibus erat, ut nescīret ā bonō patre nōn linkscrībī hērēdem nisi malum prīncipem.

The summary of Agricola’s age and character provides the context for his death on 23 August 93 CE, for which Tacitus and his wife were not present. Tacitus concludes the biography by urging Agricola’s wife and daughter to pay tribute to his memory by imitating his virtues.

XLIV.4Fīliā atque uxōre superstitibus potest vidērī etiam beātus incolumī dignitāte, flōrente fāmā, salvīs adfīnitātibus et amīcitiīs futūra effūgisse.

XLV.4Sed mihi fīliaeque eius praeter acerbitātem parentis ēreptī auget maestitiam, quod adsīdere valētūdinī, fovēre dēficientem, satiārī vultū complexūque nōn contigit.

XLV.5Omnia sine dubiō, optime parentum, adsīdente amantissimā uxōre superfuēre honōrī tuō: pauciōribus tamen lacrimīs complōrātus es, et novissimā in lūce dēsīderāvēre aliquid oculī tuī.

XLVI.2Admīrātiōnepotius et laudibus et, sī nātūra suppeditet, similitūdine colāmus: linkis vērus honōs, ea coniūnctissimī cuiusque pietās.

XLVI.3Id fīliae quoque uxōrīque praecēperim, sīc patris, sīc marītī memoriam venerārī, ut omnia facta dictaque eius sēcum revolvant, fōrmamque ac figūram animī magis quam corporis complectantur… .

Click on the underlined words for translation aids and commentary, which will appear in a small window. Click on the icon linkto the right of the line for related images and information.