The unsolved mystery of Rome’s ‘Lost Legion’

Ancient Rome's crack troops, the Ninth Legion, fought all over Europe until they disappeared mysteriously in Britain. Their story intrigues us, but is it true?

Roman Britain, 117AD. A Roman legion, the Ninth 'Hispana', marches north into the Scottish mist. They were 5000 armed men, veterans of the Empire, the finest troops in the world. They never returned.

That, at least, is how the legend goes. It's a historical mystery that has fascinated people for centuries, and now, a new film is offering its own take on the famous tale.

But what's the real story? The last certain piece of evidence relating to the existence of the legion in Britain comes from York, where an inscription from 108AD credits the Ninth with rebuilding the fortress in stone.

After that, nobody knows. By the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius half a century later, this legion, famed for its fighting prowess, was no more.

The Ninth Legion had arrived in Britain in 43AD. By the early 2nd century, it was one of the oldest and most feared units in the Roman army.

Created by the celebrated Roman general Pompey in 65 BC, it had fought victorious campaigns across the Empire, from Gaul to Africa, Sicily to Spain and Germania to Britain.

The legionaries suffered a severe defeat during the revolt here, led by the legendary Ancient Briton Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni tribe, in 60 AD. They endured 50-80 per cent casualties, and the Roman historian Tacitus calls this battle 'The Massacre of the Ninth.'

But, restored to strength, the legion was then sent to guard the northern fringes of the Roman Empire in York. There it helped build the imperial fortress in its last recorded action.

And then? This is where paths of opinion divide. Some say they died in the wild hills of the Scottish highlands, caught in an ambush as they marched north to put down a rebellion.

Others believe the unit was either disbanded, or continued to serve elsewhere, before finally being destroyed at another battle in the East of the Roman Empire some years later.

Rebellious Britons
The early years of the 2nd Century were deeply traumatic for the Roman province of Britannia. We know large numbers of Roman soldiers were killed here during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (117 - 138AD).

'The Britons could not be kept under Roman control,' says the Augustan History, compiled in the 3rd Century. The emperor himself visited the island in 122AD, in order to 'correct many faults', bringing with him a new legion, the Sixth.

It was the Ninth, however, the most exposed and northerly of all legions in Britain that bore the brunt of the unrest. But where and why did they cease to exist? After York, the archaeological trail of this elite force of soldiers grows strangely cold.

You Decide

  1. The Ninth legion disappeared nearly 2000 years ago. Why are people still interested in what happened to it? Are you?
  2. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote the novel on which the film 'The Eagle' is based. 'Since I am a writer, not an historian,' she said, 'I will choose a good story over absolute historical accuracy.' Is that an okay thing to do?

Activities

  1. Describe, in a short piece, your imagined theory as to how the 'Lost Legion' met its end.
  2. 'The Roman occupation, was it good for Britain?' Do some research (you could tryhere) and then write a newspaper column answering that question.

Some People Say...

“The Roman invaders got what they deserved.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So the archaeological evidence points to the Ninth staying in Britain?
It does yes. But others say human evidence is against it. Several high-ranking officers from the legion, for instance, are known to have fought in later campaigns around the Empire. That's why it's a mystery.
Is Hadrian's wall named after the emperor?
It is yes, and it was a defensive bulwark, designed to keep troublesome invaders out of Roman territory. But it did much more than that: from then on, two different cultures developed either side of the wall.
The Scottish and the English?
Indeed. Perhaps the ultimate legacy of the troubled times that saw the disappearance of the Ninth was the creation of a permanent border and two distinct nations