Whither the Ninth? Redux

A while back we posted about the ‘mysterious’ (non)disappearance of the Ninth, in the context of a documentary (which I never saw mention of again); now an academic (Miles Russell) has written on the subject for the BBC, inter alia:

Since then, generations of children and adults have been entranced by the story of a young Roman officer, Marcus Aquila, travelling north of Hadrian’s Wall in order to uncover the truth about his father, lost with the Ninth, and the whereabouts of the Legion’s battle standard, the bronze eagle.

The historians have dissented, theorising that the Ninth did not disappear in Britain at all, arguing both book and film are both wrong. Their theory has been far more mundane – the legion was, in fact, a victim of strategic transfer, swapping the cold expanse of northern England, for arid wastes in the Middle East. Here, sometime before AD 160, they were wiped in out in a war against the Persians.

But, contrary to this view, there is not one shred of evidence that the Ninth were ever taken out of Britain. It’s just a guess which, over time, has taken on a sheen of cast iron certainty. Three stamped tiles bearing the unit number of the Ninth found at Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, have been used to support the idea of transfer from Britain.

But these all seem to date to the 80s AD, when detachments of the Ninth were indeed on the Rhine fighting Germanic tribes. They do not prove that the Ninth left Britain for good.

In fact, the last certain piece of evidence relating to the existence of the Legion from anywhere in the Roman Empire comes from York where an inscription, dating to AD 108, credits the Ninth with rebuilding the fortress in stone. Some time between then and the mid-2nd Century, when a record of all Legions was compiled, the unit had ceased to exist.

The early years of the 2nd Century were deeply traumatic for Britannia. The Roman writer Fronto observed that, in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117 – 138), large numbers of Roman soldiers were killed by the British.

The number and full extent of these losses remain unknown, but they were evidently significant. The anonymously authored Augustan History, compiled in the 3rd Century, provides further detail, noting that when Hadrian became emperor, “the Britons could not be kept under Roman control”.

The British problem was of deep concern to Roman central government. Thanks to a tombstone recovered from Ferentinum in Italy, we know that emergency reinforcements of over 3,000 men were rushed to the island on “the British Expedition”, early in Hadrian’s reign. The emperor himself visited the island in AD 122, in order to “correct many faults”, bringing with him a new legion, the Sixth.

The fact that they took up residence in the legionary fortress of York suggests that the “great losses” of personnel, alluded to by Fronto, had occurred within the ranks of the Ninth.

It would seem that Sutcliff was right after all.

It was the Ninth, the most exposed and northerly of all legions in Britain, that had borne the brunt of the uprising, ending their days fighting insurgents in the turmoil of early 2nd Century Britain.

The loss of such an elite military unit had an unexpected twist which reverberates to the present day. When the emperor Hadrian visited Britain at the head of a major troop surge, he realised that there was only one way to ensure stability in the island – he needed to build a wall.

Hadrian’s Wall was designed to keep invaders out of Roman territory as well as ensuring that potential insurgents within the province had no hope of receiving support from their allies to the north. From this point, cultures on either side of the great divide developed at different rates and in very different ways.

The ultimate legacy of the Ninth was the creation of a permanent border, forever dividing Britain. The origins of what were to become the independent kingdoms of England and Scotland may be traced to the loss of this unluckiest of Roman legions.

I’m not a fan of ‘quibbling’ and when it is suggested there is no evidence that they were “taken out of Britain”, that’s using weasel words and asking people to prove a negative. I’m also not a big fan of passing over evidence which throws the ‘romantic theory’ out the window. What the above ignores is that we have a number of diplomas and other cursus evidence which suggests the Legio IX Hispana was alive long past its purported ‘destruction date’. One of the better articles collecting the evidence is Menachem Mor, Two Legions: The Same Fate? (The Disappearance of the Legions IX Hispana and XXII Deiotariana) Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 62, (1986), pp. 267-278. The article talks about the evidence from Nijmegen, but since that seems to be what is contested above, we should consider some other evidence, which at the time, was new and argued against suggestions that the Legio disappeared in the Bar Kochba times. An important excerpt:No, this isn’t evidence that the Ninth was “taken out of Britain”; but it is evidence that it existed long past its puported romantic end date. Indeed, if one takes the evidence for the supposed destruction of the Ninth (all of which is inferred from non-specific textual evidence and an omission from a list a generation or so later) and places against all this other inscriptional evidence (possibly similarly inferential, but specific to the Ninth), I’m really not sure how an academic can seriously argue for the romantic view.

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