Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to Ixhispana?
Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to Ixhispana?

By Simon Elliott, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1526765721, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1526765727

The unexplained disappearance of the legio IX Hispana (also known as the Ninth) from historical records around the second century AD has caught the public imagination for centuries, giving rise to a wealth of literature as historical novelists and academics alike have been entranced by this mysterious legend. According to the nineteenth-century German historian Theodor Mommsen, the Ninth Legion may have been wiped out by local forces while campaigning in northern Britain around AD 108. Mommsen’s authority provided the basis for Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 masterpiece entitled The Eagle of the Ninth and its subsequent tie-ins and film adaptations. In Sutcliff’s historical novel, the main character, former army veteran Marcus Flavius Aquila, travels beyond Hadrian’s wall to find out what happened to his father and the rest of his legion, the legendary Ninth. Much to his dismay, Aquila discovers that his father’s legion had been overrun during an uprising of the northern tribes. While Sutcliff’s novel has certainly contributed to the creation of the Ninth trope, several other authors, buddying sleuths and even world renowned academics have all attempted to solve this baffling mystery. Some historians have tried to debunk the old trope about the destruction of the Ninth in Britain, arguing that the legionnaires had in fact perished in Continental Europe, somewhere along the Rhine-Danube border. Some other historians have surmised that the legion may have met their demise in the Middle East at the hands of Parthian forces around AD 160. In equal fashion, Simon Elliott here conducts a thorough analysis of classical Roman sources, historiographical accounts, latest archaeological finds, and epigraphical evidence in his attempt to solve this two-thousand-year-old mystery. In the process, he comes up with four possible hypotheses of his own, which he carefully puts to the test.

The book is divided into six chapters and includes a conclusion where Elliott summarises his findings. The first two chapters are, respectively, about the Roman military system and Roman Britain and provide a wealth of crucial information, especially for readers with little knowledge about Roman history. A military historian at heart, Elliott does an excellent job in explaining how the Roman military system worked and evolved over the centuries. In a clear and coherent manner, he describes the structure of the Roman army and the reforms which gradually transformed it over the three main stages of Roman history. These include the Tullian reforms promoted by the sixth king of Rome Servius Tullius, the revolutionary Camillan system of Marcus Furius Camillus during the Roman Republic and subsequent minor changes introduced by the Polybian system, and finally the Marian system and the Augustan ones. There is also a fascinating section on the auxilia, the allied troops made up of non-Roman soldiers who fulfilled various tasks on the battlefield.

Elliott relies on classical historiography to describe what the daily life of legionnaires was like. Accordingly, he offers a thorough description of their typical diet, their armours and weapons (to a certain extent even their daily rota!) and the nickname given to a legion. Roman legions were named after the places where they had won the most battles and their names could also change. For instance, before being stationed in the Iberian Peninsula, the legio IX Hispana had previously been known as legio IX Macedonia. Having provided an extremely comprehensive description of Roman politics and military life, Elliott then examines all the classical sources at this disposal which record the history of the legendary legion, beginning with its possible creation under Augustus and including its transfers in Africa, Hispania, where it got its name, and finally in Britannia.

In the second chapter, Elliott outlines the main features of Roman Britain, from the first incursions under Caesar to Boudicca’s revolt and the establishment of a fortress at Eboracum by the Ninth Legion (in modern day York). In addition to the interesting narrative about the events following the Boudiccan revolt, this chapter provides a plethora of insights into legionary activity during the first century AD, telling us how they built fortresses that later became major cities, such as Exeter, Gloucester, Lincoln, Manchester (Mamucium for the Romans) and of course York. The focus of Elliott’s narrative in this chapter is the presence of the legion in the North, which provides the basis for the theory that he explores in far greater detail in the following chapter.

In the third chapter, Elliott finally considers the theory that the legion may have been obliterated by the Caledonians while campaigning in the far north and those who were still alive subsequently disbanded. Already set forth by Theodor Mommsen in the nineteenth century, this hypothesis is based on evidence by the Roman author Tacitus in the context of Agricola’s campaign to conquer the far north of Britain. Tacitus records a specific incident occurring in the governor’s sixth year in office when his legionary spearheads were driving through Fife up to the River Tay and beyond. According to Tacitus’ version, the soldiers of the Ninth were attacked by the Caledonians in their camp under the cover of night. Despite being caught unawares, the Romans still bested the Caledonians and responded by pushing further north. However, as the camp had almost been overrun and the number of Roman soldiers had dwindled, they would perish shortly thereafter at the hands of a much larger band of Caledonians. Another possible theory is that the legion may have been wiped out in AD 117, at the beginning of Hadrian’s rule. This idea relies on contemporary events regarding a military crisis in the North caused by an uprising of the Brigantes or farther north in Scotland. Such theory might not sound too far-fetched if one considers that the legio IX Hispana was at the time stationed in the recently conquered territory of the Brigantes who were still understandably seething, as Elliott delineates in Chapter 2. For Rosemary Sutcliff’s fans, the annihilation of one of Rome’s mightiest armies at the hands of an underdog will clearly be the most appealing theory. However, as Elliott warns, while the annihilation of the legion in the far north remains BOOK REVIEWS Open History 158 56 a leading candidate, we simply do not have enough evidence to support it. So far, only two elements seem to have sufficient evidence to back them up: one final inscription about the legion (dated AD 108), and the fact that the legion was unaccounted for in the AD 165 list of extant legions.

In the fourth chapter, the author looks for a solution in south-east Britannia, postulating that the legion may have been lost or disbanded during the Hadrianic War in London. This theory revolves around three main points of significance indicated by Dr Dominic Perring of UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. First, the archaeological remains of several skulls within the boundaries of London. Second, the much-speculated Hadrianic fire in London, an event on the same scale as the Boudiccan revolt. Third, the construction of the vexillation-sized (a vexillation indicates a detachment of Roman troops from a main legion) fort at Cripplegate in the north-western area of London. Elliott provides sufficient reason to believe Dr Perring’s compelling argument about a major event in Roman London in the AD 120s, which he dubs the Hadrianic War. The event in question was an insurrection that allegedly took place shortly after Hadrian’s accession to the throne. While the rebellion was put down quickly, Elliott speculates as to the role of the legio IX Hispana in the insurgence. Accordingly, the legion might have been restationed to London where it was ultimately vanquished, as the presence of the skulls would suggest. Another theory, equally consistent with the presence of these skulls, is that the legion might have participated or even led the rebellion, and then eventually disbanded and integrated with the locals. This is a theory that might well have inspired Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s work The Last Legion. As fascinating as this theory is, Elliot warns us that we do not have a shred of evidence to make any final claims about it.

The fifth chapter of the book is entirely dedicated to the theory that the legion may have been annihilated somewhere along the Danube-Rhine frontier, thus placing the fate of the legion in Continental Europe rather than Britain. This theory draws on Professor Sheppard Frere’s idea that the Ninth (or one of its units) may have been withdrawn from Britain at some point between AD 108 and AD 122 and perished at an even later date, possibly AD 135. Evidence for this claim comes in the form of a tile-stamp and a mortarium stamp (or bowl) of legio IX at Nijmegen, in modern-day Holland. However, while this indicates that the legion may have at least been stationed as a border force at some point, we do not have any evidence to tell us when this happened. Furthermore, the presence of a bowl belonging to the legion might equally indicate that only part of the legion (a unit or vexillation) may have travelled from its fortress in Britain to Continental Europe. Additionally, there seem to be evidence of an officer from the legion who set up an altar at the health spa at AachenBurtscheid in Germania Inferior and of a silver-plated bronze pendant found in the region in the 1990s, but, again, it is virtually impossible to contextualise either piece of evidence. By the same token, it is equally hard to understand what to make of the Nijmegen vexillation. As Elliott has suggested, the unit may have been sent to the Rhine-Danube border as the remnant of the Ninth that had already been destroyed somewhere in the far north of Britain. This theory validates, but also expounds upon, the hypothesis set out in chapter 3. If this theory holds true, then the vexillation that was transferred to Continental Europe may have been absorbed into other legions as battle replacement at a later time. As before, no conclusive evidence can support this theory, so any claim is doomed to break down into speculation. In addition to the theories about the end of the Ninth, Elliott provides two well-discussed and insightful sections on the Germans and the Marcomannic Wars.

In chapter 6 the author turns to his last theory about the fate of the legion, looking to the far east for a possible solution. Accordingly, Elliott employs a line of inquiry similar to the one he uses in the chapter about the Danube-Rhine border. He first examines the eastern provinces and borders of the Roman Empire and then considers the enemies of the Romans in those areas, the Parthians, and the Jews. In the process, Elliott brilliantly outlines all the clashes between the Roman and the Parthians, beginning with Crassus’ ill-conceived invasion in 53 BC. Having provided a comprehensive analysis of Rome’s eastern enemies, Elliot goes on to consider the campaigns where legio IX Hispana might have participated. These campaigns include Trajan’s Parthian war AD 114, the second Jewish revolt in Judea in AD 115, a contemporary uprising in the newly conquered provinces of Armenia, Assyria and Mesopotamia, and the third bloody ‘bar Kokhba’ Jewish revolt taking place between AD 132 and AD 135. According to Elliott, since six legions and their vexillations were sent to suppress that revolt, and one legion is known to have been lost there, it is possible that the Ninth may have been dispatched to Judea to reinforce the locally based legions but was heavily defeated by Jewish forces, and the remnants of the unit subsequently disbanded. However, an analysis of historical records also reveals that the legio XXII Deiotariana, typically based in Egypt, was documented in Judea at this time and its surviving datable records also cease at around AD 120. It is possible that both legions were destroyed by the Jews, but the disappearance of a second legion would probably have crept into historical records. Therefore, evidence points to the legio XXII Deiotariana being the one lost and destroyed in the Jewish insurgency. Another possibility is that the legion may have been lost during the Romano-Parthian wars of AD 161 to AD 166 where Roman historian Dio records that one legion was lost early on in Armenia under the Cappadocian governor Severianus, when the Romans were driven from Armenia. However, as before, we lack any hard evidence of this.

In his final chapter, Elliott recaps on his main findings, placing all we know so far about the missing legion on a timeline. In this respect, while he does hope that future archaeological research might help us shed some light on what really happened, he also seems to nod to Mommsen’s theory that the Ninth was really wiped out somewhere in northern Britain.

In conclusion, Simon Elliott’s work seamlessly weaves sleuth work and academic research. His narrative makes history accessible and extremely enjoyable even to the casual reader with a passing interest in Roman history. The only one thing that some readers may find off-putting is that Elliott does not really offer any final solution to this two-thousand-year-old mystery, although the title may suggest otherwise. While this might disappoint all those readers who are dying for a solution to the lost legion mystery, I urge them to appreciate Elliot’s work for what it really is: an honest, well-written and beautifully researched piece of historical work.

Antonio Battagliotti

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