Whither Legio IX Hispana?

As reviews of The Eagle seem to be tapering off (see the ‘Sword and Sandal’ section in our footer, e.g.) the Daily Mail comes out with a bit of hype for an upcoming television program on the ‘mysterious’ disappearance of the Roman legion portrayed in that movie (and, fwiw, also in Centurion). Tip o’ the pileus to Dorothy King for sending this one along:

For centuries, historians have puzzled over the disappearance of a legion of 5,000 battle-hardened Roman soldiers in northern Britain around 108 AD.

The ancient riddle, which has captivated storytellers, has just been dramatised by Hollywood in The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell.

Now, experts have revealed that the children’s book on which the film is based is more fact than fiction.

After helping to quell Queen Boadicea’s rebellion, and later crushing Caledonian tribes at the battle of Mons Graupius in Scotland in 83 AD, nothing more is recorded of the legendary Ninth Legion.

Historians were left baffled how thousands of heavy infantry soldiers could simply disappear. They suggested that the most likely explanations were that the legion disbanded and its members joined other units, or it was deployed to an eastern part of the empire.

Meanwhile, the myth-making continued. In 1954, children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff published The Eagle Of The Ninth, an adventure novel in which the heroic legion was massacred by Pict hordes in hostile mountainous terrain.

Now a group of experts say the elite infantry force was indeed defeated by a band of ‘barbarians’ in a military catastrophe that shamed the empire, prompting a conspiracy of silence.

The dramatic new evidence hinges on a single gravestone tribute and was brought to light by historian and film-maker Phil Hirst, whose documentary Rome’s Lost Legion will be screened next month.

‘The battle of Mons Graupius was thought to have marked the end of any serious threat to imperial might,’ he said. ‘But the discovery of a tombstone of a centurion stationed at the Northumbrian fort of Vindolanda shows the Romans were under attack from the north 20 years later.’

Historian Neil Faulkner, of Channel 4’s Time Team, said: ‘It is likely the insurgents formed a confederation of tribes. So what the Romans could have been facing was a rising of pretty well the whole of the north of Britain.’

Rome’s reaction after the Ninth’s disappearance lends weight to the theory. Reinforcements were drafted in to Britain to fight a major war at the beginning of Emperor Hadrian’s reign around 117 AD and the construction of Hadrian’s Wall was ordered.

Mr Hirst said: ‘The loss of the Ninth may have led Hadrian to realise that the total conquest of Britain was unachievable and a dividing wall needed to be built separating occupied territory from the barbarian hordes.’

Mr Faulkner added: ‘My guess is that the Ninth Legion was destroyed in a carefully executed ambush by northern tribes.’

Rome’s Lost Legion is on the History Channel on March 18. The Eagle opens in UK cinemas on March 25.

As often, there’s quite a bit of misinformation going on in this one, and it’s pretty clear that scholarship since Sutcliff’s novel came out (yes … a novel; I’ve never understood why historical fiction is often taken as the starting point for historical fact) back in the 1950s is being glossed over. Perhaps most importantly, the centurion’s tombstone thing isn’t a new discovery, if it’s the one I’m thinking of, namely the one which A.R. Birley published as “A New Tombstone from Vindolanda”, Britannia 29 (1998), pp. 299-306. The tombstone itself is broken and much has to be ‘filled in’:

I D[
2 T ? ANN[
3 CENTVR[
4 TVNGR[
5 DIORVM[
6T. INBELL[
7
8 FECTVS.[
9 FILH.E TARC[

Out of this, however, it is speculated (based on what would fit in the missing spaces and other features which you can track down Birley’s article for) that we might be dealing with a centurion named Titus Annius Rufus who was a member of the cohors Tungrorum — Birley speculates he may have been in command thereof, postulating the existence of an abbreviation of praepositus at the end of line three. Jumping to line six, it is clear our Annius died in battle (interfectus), and Birley speculates that what followed was an indication of who the enemy was (i.e. a barbaris or ab hostibus). On the basis that he died in a war against some Britanni at the time Hadrian came to the throne, the stone is assigned a date of 117 or thereabouts (the argument is much more detailed than that, but is still rather speculative).

That said, I really have no idea whether this is the stone which our ‘historian and film maker’ will be highlighting in his television program, but I can’t think of anything that was found recently that would fit (please correct me if I err in this regard). If it is, however, it should be clear from the above that it piles speculation upon speculation and really cannot be reliably used as evidence for the mysterious ‘disappearance’ of the Legio IX Hispana. We should also point out however, that there is evidence that the Legio didn’t actually ‘disappear’ when it is said to have.  Jona Lendering has an excellent overview of the Legio VIIII Hispana‘s history and it seems possible, if not likely, that it may have been in existence down to the early 160s A.D..

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One thought on “Whither Legio IX Hispana?

  1. It’s all speculation including yours and your “historians”! The Romans kept meticulous records. If they had disbanded the IX it would have been recorded as such. If they were destroyed sometime after 117 in Germany or the Near East then it would have probably have been recorded as well It seems just as plausible that they did meet their fate at the hands of the Picts and it was covered up politically as suggests in the film.

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