Agricola turned out to be a great text for undergraduates. It is short enough to assign all of it, and since it follows the career of one man it has a clear unity. It focuses mainly on military affairs but it mentions other things, such as marriage and children. It gives us a rare glimpse of a Roman father's emotions:
At the beginning of the next summer Agricola suffered a grievous personal loss in the death of a son who had been born the year before. This cruel blow drew from him neither the ostentatious stoicism of the strong man nor the loud expressions of grief that belong to women.Tacitus describes Agricola over and over in terms similar to these, showing how he always finds the right balance between extremes. In his youth he studied philosophy, but not so much as to distract him from a military career. As a young officer his dispatches praised his officers more than himself, and he tried to seem modest in describing his own great accomplishments:
Thus by his gallantry in action and the modesty of his reports he evaded envy without missing renown.The balanced phrases emphasize the moderation of Agricola's noble character. He self-restraint was great, and he emphasized discipline in himself and in his household and staff. He sought glory for himself, but never tried to take credit for other men's accomplishments.
Tacitus was a deep and subtle thinker and in his historical works he was always up to something more than just describing events. In praising Agricola, Tacitus was not just honoring his father-in-law. Under the empire men of the Roman elite faced the difficult challenge of living up to their old ideal of public service under rulers who were as likely to execute them for their achievements as to reward them. How should a man who honored the old Roman ideals act under these circumstances? Some men chose resistance and struggled to undermine or overthrow wicked emperors, for which they were usually executed. Others chose suicide, as a quasi-public act that was intended to strike a blow against the emperor or at least against his reputation. In his Annals Tacitus recorded many men who died in these ways, and he makes no overt criticism of their choice. By offering Agricola as a model Roman, though, he suggests that doomed resistance was not the best path. By always tempering his ambition, by always deflecting credit to his superiors, by keeping his attention on the tasks the emperor assigned him and not engaging in politics back at Rome, Agricola managed to have the sort of public career the old Romans aspired to -- general, consul, governor -- without inviting assassination or too greatly compromising his principles. Who, Tacitus is asking, did more good for the Roman people and the Roman state, the flamboyant suicides or the careerists who kept their heads down and their noses to the grindstone? After all, this is what Tacitus himself did, rising through the power structure under emperors he later described as vicious madmen. Only later in his life, under the tolerant rule of the benevolent emperor Trajan, did he turn his efforts to the task of preserving the truth about Rome under the emperors, offering that history as a lesson for posterity about the dangers of giving too much power to any one man.