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Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Commentary

Gibbon was writing for a cultured and educated readership, many of whom would have been famliar at least in outline with the events he outlines here. He does not feel the need to tell us who Caractacus or Agricola were – he assumes his readers are already familiar with them.

The British leaders, Caractacus and Boadicea (the usual, though mistaken, rendering of the name of the queen of the Iceni tribe. Her name was actually Boudicca or Boudica), are presented positively: the former shows fortitude, the latter is driven to revolt by despair for which, he implies, she was not to blame.

However, the people of Britain, while still possessing valour, are too undisciplined, too inconstant and too divided to stand up to the “steady progress” of the disciplined Roman legions. This, however, is not necessarily as bad as it might appear. The Romans have well organised troops and good commanders, but dissolute emperors; the Britons have good leaders and can learn the discipline they lack from the Romans, especially from Agricola.

Gibbon does not say it overtly, but his readers would certainly infer from this passage that this particular conquest, presented in almost entirely positive terms, laid the foundations for British military and political power in their own day.

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