A cloud of mystery has only surrounded the disappearance in the II century AD of one of the most valorous legions of the Roman Empire known as the “Ninth Legion”, “Legio VIIII Hispana” or “Legio IX Hispana”. The interest towards this legion of Rome intensified in the last few years thanks to film productions of “Centurion” and “The Eagle”, the latter adaptation of the novel “The Eagle of the Ninth” written by Rosemary Sutcliff, directed by Kevin Macdonald.

Both productions forward the hypothesis, that many British historians agree with, for which the Ninth Legion was destroyed in an ambush set up by the fearsome Picti and Caledonians, populations occupying today’s Scottish land. But did the events really unfold as the films suggests or did something else happen?

Let’s try to retrace what happened, following the few elements we have access to.

The historical sources state that, during the Social War of the 91- 88 BC sent by Caesar to Durrës and Farsala, the Ninth legion stood out in the battle of Actium of the 31 BC while siding with Octavian and against Mark Antony.

Employed in the Cantabrian wars as well as in Germany, the legion was then moved to Sisak, in Pannonia in 19 AD under the emperor Tiberius.

In 43 AD, according to the orders of Aulus Plautius, the legion took part in the conquest of Britannia wanted by the emperor Claudius. During the stay on the island, it suppressed the rebellion of Venutius, king of the Brigantes, and in 60-61 AD, led by Quintus Petillius Cerialis it fought in the attempt to placate the insurrection of Queen Boudica, suffering a serious damage.

In the year 108 AD the legion was then utilised for the construction of a fort in Eboracum, today’s York, and a few years after it maybe partook in an expedition to calm down one more uprising blown up amongst the Caledonian tribes of Scotland.

the historical data ends here

In 120 AD the VIIII Hispana was replaced in Eboracum by the VI Victrix and no trace of it was left. Where did those 5,000 men, and as much auxiliaries, trained to war and toughened up to survive in hostile conditions disappear to?

Below: hypothetical historical reconstruction of the Legio VIIII Hispana. Picture by Carlos Cabanillas shared via Flickr – licence Creative Commons

Considering that the only two operative legions in the II century AD that we have knowledge of nowadays come from an epigraph on a Roman column and the words of the historian Cassius Dio in his “Roman History”, let’s discuss the theories about the inexplicable disappearance of this legion.

Theodor Mommsen, German historian from the 19th century whose study on Roman history is still crucial to the modern research, believed that the Ninth legion fell in Britannia, opinion which has been agreed upon by the academics Neil Faulkner and Paul Hirst as well as the archeologist Miles Russel.

The hypothesis became with time legend and filled up with nationalistic ideas, the tale became symbol of the resistance of Scotland against any type of invasion, both Roman or British.

is it a plausible hypothesis though?

Recent studies seem to suggest a different version of events.

In the 70’s, in the modern Njmegen, back in the day Noviomagus Batavorum, Netherlands, some inscriptions have been discovered where it is told about the presence of the ninth legion in their land before its relocation maybe to the Orient. Other historians suggest instead that the VIIII Hispana was sent to Judea during the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans ( 132-135 d.C.), in order to strengthen the local units but, once heavily defeated, it was decided to release it.

A doubt arises though: since another legion, the Legio XXII Deiotariana, usually stationed in Egypt, was documented to be in Judea in the same period,  this can mean that both legions were destroyed by the Jewish rebels. If this was the case, this would have been the worst defeat after the one of Teutoburg, where they lost three legions that is the XVII, XVIII and the XIX. Furthermore it is not likely that a defeat of such a kind would have not had big resonance in the chronicles of the time.

The last theory set the disappearance or the legion for the Parthian war of Marcus Aurelius against King Vologases IV who had attacked in 161 AD the Kingdom of Armenia, allied to Rome.

Cassius Dio believed that a Parthian Army surrounded and dismantled a non specified Roman legion in Elegeia, in Armenia, during an ambush. Apparently the operation led to the suicide of its commander, the governor of Cappadocia Marcus Sedatius Severianus.

Considering that the two permanent legions stationed in Cappadocia, the Legio XII Fulminata and the Legio XV Apollinaris, resulted as operative way beyond the 200 AD, it is possible to imagine that it was just the ninth one the unlucky legion which was swept away by the Parthian Army.

Below: hypothetical reconstruction of the symbol of the Legio IX

With no definitive proof the mystery of the loss of the Roman legion is supposed to be considered as unsolved until new evidence is found. It is licit wondering whether the theory about the Scottish victory is after all so unlikely though.

In the Historia Augusta of the 4th century AD, considered reliable as its content matches with the ones from the epigraphs, it is said that the Britons had become so uncontainable at the time of Hadrian to be an actual nuisance to the Empire. Such a thesis agrees also with the many transfers of men onto the island in order to calm down the uprisings as well as the archeological results which show the political instability of those guerrilla lands.

In 122 AD the Emperor Hadrian himself in charge of the Legio VI Victrix, inspected the violent provinces of the island while stationing in Eboracum so that the Roman defensive system would have become more effective.

The choice of Eboracum as temporary dwelling, last place where the ninth legion had been officially reported, can confirm the idea that Hadrian, willing to set the order, decided to build his defensive front which still holds his name, due to the tragic loss of the legion happened before. Maybe?

The Hadrian’s Wall, the Vallum Hadriani,  seemed to answer such a necessity

The Wall ran for 117 km (80 Roman miles), from the current Wallsend on the Tyne river to the river mouth of the Solway Firth, initially 3 m wide and 5 m high (9.8 x 16.5 ft), spaced out by 14 auxiliary forts and 80 forts next to the doors, one each Roman mile. A colossal construction placed between England and Scotland as well as a titanic effort to defend the borders in the Northern side of the Empire.

Obviously this is another possible hypothesis.

Below: last report of the ninth, an inscription on stone of York from the 108 AD, exposed in the Yorkshire Museum. Picture shared via Wikimedia Commons

Maybe it will never be possible to provide a definitive answer to the questions on the VIIII Legio Hispana matter. However the story about the Roman legion feeded a myth of the invincible invader stopped by a handful of untamed warriors armed only by their bravery and desperation who fought for the right cause: the freedom of their people.

Maybe just a myth but definitely a powerful one. At least in the United Kingdom.

Below: trailer of the film “The Eagle”

Below: trailer of the film “Centurion”

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