What happened to Britain’s lost Roman legion?

As the new blockbuster film The Eagle brings one of the great mysteries of Roman Britain to UK cinema screens, Miles Russell asks, what really befell the Legion of the Ninth?

A second-century AD relief showing troops of the Praetorian Guard. Historians are agreed that the Ninth Legion was annihilated; what they can't agree on is where. (Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Hacking their way through the main body of frenzied attackers, the front line of the Roman Ninth Legion realised, only too late, that they were completely surrounded. From all sides swarmed the barbarian host: a seething mass of unending savagery. Seeing the danger, the officers attempted to hold the line, so that the bulk of the troops could fall back in some degree of order, but it was already too late. With all hope of escape denied to them, the last survivors were butchered where they stood and their eagle standard taken.

This is an undeniably dramatic, although also entirely fictional, account surrounding the slaughter of an entire Roman legion. It’s fictional because we don’t actually know what happened to the 5,000 men of the Ninth, but the popular modern view is that they were annihilated at the edge of the empire, somewhere in the remote Highlands of northern Britain, in the early years of the second century AD.

The Ninth was an elite military unit that had been operating in Britain following the Roman invasion of AD 43. The legion was instrumental in combating native resistance in northern England and had been in the front line during the revolt of Queen Boudica in AD 60, in which it had suffered heavy losses. In the early AD 70s, the legion pushed forward to a new base at York and, ten years later, was actively campaigning across the Highlands of Scotland. By AD 100 it was back in northern England, but by the early 120s it had vanished, its place at York being taken by another legion, the Sixth.

What ultimately happened to the Ninth is one of those great unknowns of history, its disappearance becoming one of the more potent myths surrounding Roman Britain. At the time you’re reading this, a new Hollywood blockbuster The Eagle is screening in UK cinemas. A key plot device of the film is the annihilation of the Ninth – audiences apparently never tire of seeing Roman soldiers being cut down by hairy barbarians in picturesque Highland settings. Elements of both the British and American press, however, have been somewhat sniffy, observing that the Ninth Legion did not die in a remote Scottish valley, but was probably transferred to Judea, only to perish there in a catastrophic war. It shouldn’t be British tribesmen killing Romans, they claim, but Persians or Jews. Why, then, is the popular culture view of the Ninth’s demise so out of step with the supposed historic reality?

Up until the 1950s, the ‘mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion’ was not a mystery at all. Winston Churchill, in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956), observed that the unit had certainly disappeared “in combating an obscure rising of the tribes in northern Britain”. Even if some academics disagreed, most conceded that the last confirmed sighting of the legion had been in northern Britain during the early years of the second century. By the AD 160s, when a list of all serving regiments was compiled, the Ninth had ceased to exist. Their ultimate fate, however, was not recorded.

What gave the ‘lost in Britain’ myth a huge boost was the novel The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) by Rosemary Sutcliff, a hauntingly evocative account of life and loss in Britannia. The hero of this tale is Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young man trying to discover what happened to his father, chief centurion in the Ninth, who went missing when Marcus was only a child. Journeying beyond Hadrian’s Wall, Marcus learns the truth about how the Ninth was destroyed, and in doing so stumbles upon the legion’s emblematic bronze eagle, now in enemy hands. His personal odyssey can end only with the rescue of the eagle and its safe return to Roman-held territory.

The inspiration for Sutcliff’s novel was a wingless bronze eagle, found in the Roman town of Calleva (Silchester in Hampshire) during the later years of the 19th century. “Different people,” Sutcliff noted in her preface “have different ideas as to how it came to be there, but no one knows, just as no one knows what happened to the Ninth Legion”.

The eagle was transformed by Sutcliff into the standard of the lost Ninth, its appearance at Silchester becoming the central mystery of the book. Once archaeologists realised that the metal bird had, in all certainty, originally accompanied a statue of the Roman god Jupiter, rather than representing the battered remnant of a lost legion, the mystery seemed resolved. There was no lost eagle and there was almost certainly no missing Ninth Legion.

A solid, historical truth

The ‘fact’ that the Ninth was transferred out of Britain only to be butchered somewhere in the east has now become a solid, historical truth that can be used to ridicule those who don’t know any better. Thus, today’s press can kick at the central premise of movies such as The Eagle and Centurion (an earlier film with the same key plot device) with some degree of credibility. The trouble is there is nothing remotely secure about the idea that the Ninth ever left Britain, let alone that it was annihilated elsewhere.

In fact, the final piece of solid evidence confirming the existence of the Ninth Legion comes from Britain, not the Middle East. This evidence was left for us at York, in the form of an immense stone inscription (pictured above) that recorded the completion of building work in the legionary fortress. The significance of the inscription lies in the fact that it lists a set of titles for the emperor Trajan that can be securely dated to the year AD 108.

In contrast, evidence for the theory of strategic transfer – the Ninth being taken out of Britain, rather than dying here – is rather flimsy. It comprises a series of fragmentary tiles, pottery sherds and a bronze pendant, all bearing the distinctive moniker of the Ninth, found at Nijmegen in the Netherlands. These artefacts, it has been suggested, represent the debris of a legion en route from Britannia early in the second century AD.

Given that the finds are limited, so the argument goes, the Ninth can’t have remained here for long, and probably soon departed for the eastern frontier, where they were destroyed, possibly during the Second Jewish Revolt of AD 132–35.

This is a nice, straightforward theory that stretches the evidence beyond all credibility, for none of the Nijmegen finds have been securely tied to a phase of occupation or fort-building. They certainly prove that the Ninth (or at least a part of it) was in the Netherlands but critically not when.

Given that we know, from contemporary accounts, that detachments of the Ninth were taken out of Britain by the emperor Domitian to fight the Chatti (a troublesome Germanic tribe) in AD 83, the pieces plausibly derive from this particular military campaign. Nothing found at Nijmegen points to the legion being there in the second century and there is certainly nothing that post-dates evidence recorded from Britain.

What then of the suggestion that the Ninth was destroyed somewhere at the eastern margins of the Roman empire? The trouble with this theory is that there is no record that the Ninth Legion was ever active in the east, there being no contemporary account, tombstones, pottery or even stamped brick or tile to support such an hypothesis. Yes, considerable numbers of Roman soldiers did indeed die on the eastern frontier at about the time the Ninth disappeared, but we can’t say that any were from the Ninth itself.

We know about such troop losses because the historian Fronto, writing in the AD 160s, reminded the then emperor Marcus Aurelius of past tragedies: “Indeed, when your grandfather Hadrian held imperial power,” he said, “what great numbers of soldiers were killed by the Jews”, adding “and what great numbers by the British”.

The Jewish wars are now well accounted for, but the number and extent of Roman losses in Britain are unknown. Fronto’s reference must presumably relate to a significant event involving a catastrophic loss of legionary lives, otherwise he would surely not have mentioned it. Things were obviously bad in Britain during the early years of Hadrian’s reign, but just how bad?

The ideal posting

Britain was never a secure part of the Roman empire. It was dangerous, volatile and thoroughly unpredictable; an ancient equivalent perhaps of modern Afghanistan. It was also one of the most heavily militarised parts of the Roman world. For young Roman men, desperate to prove themselves in the arena of war, it proved to be the ideal posting.

For those seeking peace and security, however, Britain was a troublesome cultural backwater. At the time of Hadrian’s accession, in AD 117, we know that things weren’t going at all well in the province. The anonymous author of the Scriptores Historiae Augustae tells us that: “The Britons could not be kept under Roman control.” Given the phrasing, it is likely that this lack of control involved a major uprising. The frontier zone of northern England is perhaps most likely to have formed the epicentre of discontent, although it is sobering to note that Roman London burnt down at this time.

The ‘British problem’ was evidently acute. Thanks to a military tombstone dedicated to Titus Pontius Sabinus from Ferentinum in Italy, we know that elements of the Seventh, Eighth and Twenty Second legions, numbering over 3,000 men, were sent on the “British Expedition” early in Hadrian’s reign. This was a massive redeployment of military personnel and suggests that the provincial government required a significant reinforcement, presumably in order to suppress a major insurgency. Hadrian himself visited the island in AD 122, in order, so the Scriptores tells us, to “correct many faults” and to build a wall “80 miles long, to separate the Romans and the barbarians”. What the ‘faults’ were, we are not told, but the building of the wall suggests that, having quelled the insurrection, Hadrian wanted to secure the northernmost limit of his empire in the most dramatic of ways.

The emperor also brought with him a new legion, the Sixth, who took up residence in York, the former fortress of the Ninth. Such a redeployment would suggest that the great losses of military personnel alluded to by Fronto had occurred within the unlucky Ninth Legion.

In conclusion, by far the most plausible answer to the question “what happened to the Ninth?”, is that they fought and died in Britain, disappearing in the late 110s or early 120s, when the province was in disarray. Only the direct intervention of the emperor Hadrian, together with a massive surge in troop numbers, could restore the province to order. By then, however, the Ninth had gone.

Savaged or annihilated, it seems that too few soldiers survived the troubles to allow the unit to be reformed. At least three survivors – serving in the legion no later than the early 120s – are known to us from their tombstones, yet no mass graves or commemorative tombs have been found. However, there may well still be in northern Britain a small corner of a foreign field, as yet untouched by archaeology, that is forever Rome. The Ninth had disappeared from history, but their place in myth and popular culture was assured.


Timeline: Legion of the damned

AD 43: Invasion

The Roman army annexes southern Britain for the emperor Claudius. Eleven British kings are recorded as surrendering. Although not securely attested, the Ninth Legion may have taken part in these operations.

AD 60/1: Rebel queen

The Ninth Legion, led by Petillius Cerialis, is ambushed by the forces of the rebel Queen Boudica while hurrying to rescue the besieged Roman town of Colchester. The infantry are wiped out. Only the officers, including Cerialis himself, manage to escape with the cavalry.

AD 69: Civil War

Part of the Ninth Legion fights in the civil war convulsing the Roman empire, supporting General Vespasian at the battle of Cremona in Italy as he pursues his campaign to be emperor.

AD 70–74: Advance north

Petillius Cerialis (previously general of the Ninth) returns to Britain as governor and leads a campaign against the Brigantes tribe of northern England. The Ninth Legion probably plays a major part in this and it is likely that they are moved forward to a new base at York.

AD 83: Night attack

During the campaigns against the tribes of Caledonia (modern Scotland), the Ninth are targeted by Britons in a night attack on their fortress. The legion is only saved by the direct intervention of the governor, Agricola, and substantial reinforcements.

AD 83–84: German adventure

Part of the Ninth is moved from Britain to Germany to take part in the campaign against the troublesome Chatti tribe of Germany. Evidence of their placement on the Rhine probably dates to this time.

AD 107–8: Last sighting

The last record of the Ninth comes from a monumental inscription at York commemorating the rebuilding in stone of the fortress. By AD 122, their place at York has been taken by the Sixth Victrix Legion.

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Miles Russell is senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University. His latest book, UnRoman Britain, co-authored with Stuart Laycock, is published by the History Press.