The Mystery of the Ninth Legion

The mystery of what happened to the Ninth Legion continues to fascinate people. Popular novels such as "The Eagle of the Ninth" by Rosemary Sutcliff, fired the imagination of those who read it and I understand that the book is being made into a film by director Kevin Macdonald and will be released in 2010. There are also many good non-fiction books on the subject.

What most people don't realise - and I myself didn't realise until I began to research the topic - is that the story is far more complicated than the simple "the legion marched north and disappeared" of Sutcliffe's retelling. In fact, the Ninth Legion had a long and very unlucky history.

Formed in 65 BC by Pompey during his wars in Spain, it came under the command of Julius Caesar four years later when he became governor of Further Spain. Caesar took the Ninth to Gaul, where it was involved in the whole of the long and bloody campaign to conquer France. The legion must have been impressed with Julius Caesar, because when he crossed the Rubicon the Ninth sided with him and contributed to the victories at Dyrrhachium and Pharsalus. As a reward Caesar disbanded the troops and settled the veterans in western Italy, in the area where Pompey, his great rival, had been born. Probably the "reward" had the added benefit of making sure that Pompey's adherents were surrounded by battle-hardened loyalists!

The first bit of bad luck for the Ninth came when Caesar was assassinated, for Octavian, desperate for troops, recalled them to the standards to fight in Sicily against a rebellion started by Pompey's son. After that they were sent to Macedonia and took part in the Battle of Actium. These efforts did not earn them any favours, however, for the legion was sent back to Spain, then onto the border with Germany and finally, after the disaster in the Teutoberg Forest when Varus and his legions were wiped out, into Panonia, modern-day Hungary.

In AD 43 the legion was summoned to take part in the invasion of Britain ordered by the emperor Claudius and this began the legion's fateful connection with Britain. Seventeen years later the Iceni, under their queen Boudicea, rose in revolt. Their first target was Camulodunum or Colchester, the Roman capital in Britain. The citizens of Camulodunum appealed to the procurator, Catus Decianus, for help. He sent 200 auxiliaries - which may have been all the troops he could find at short notice - far too few to stem the attack by tens of thousands of enraged tribesmen.

Although Decianus himself fled to Gaul, he may have been responsible for ordering the Ninth Legion, under its commander Quintus Petillius Cerialis, to hurry to the aid of Comulodunum, where the survivors of the initial assualt were holed up in the massive temple of Claudius. Unfortunately the Ninth, like the other forces in Britain, was widely distributed in isolated forts and encampments and Cerialis could only get hold of a single cohort plus parts of two other cohorts in time. He led these troops, about 2,500 in all, towards Camulodunum, only to find that the temple had been destroyed after a two-day siege and his men were vastly outnumbered. In the ensuing debacle, only the cavalry managed to escape.

In AD 83 Agricola led the Roman army north into Scotland and, in response to a report that the Caledonians had divided their army into three, split his own army between three forts, the largest of which was Pinnata Castra on the banks of the Tay. Some modern scholars believe that the Ninth was stationed in this fort, which would make it the scene of yet more bad luck for the ill-starred legion, for during the night the entire Caledonian army - not divided as the rumour had claimed - managed to get into the camp.

Tacitus, who wrote his father-in-law's biography, claimed that the sentries were asleep - which is so unlikely as to be downright unbelievable. More likely he was either reporting what the survivors told him or trying to excuse the fact that for once the Romans were outsmarted. However it happened, it appears that the sentries were eliminated without alarming the rest of the camp and that the first Caledonians over the wall opened the main gate, allowing their compatriots to swarm in. The result was a massacre in which two-thirds of the legion was wiped out. The remainder were only saved by the fact that a messenger got through to Agricola who led his cavalry to the rescue.

The camp was excavated in 1952 and the archaeologists were astounded to discover a pit twelve feet deep in which were 875,000 hand-made iron nails, 2"-16" in length, weighing a total of seven tons! It would seem that the Romans abandoned the camp in something of a hurry and were unable to take this hoard of iron with them. They may have hoped to return and reclaim it, but in any case were unwilling to leave such valuable metal to the Caledonians, who would assuredly turn it into weapons for use against the Romans.

A tile bearing the stamp of the Ninth Legion.
A tile found in a pottery near Carlisle bears the stamp of the Ninth Legion - LEG VIIII H (for Hispana).

In AD 117 the reformed Ninth Legion was based in Eboracum or York and the legend claims that it was sent north into Caledonian territory - and nothing further was heard of it! Supposedly the entire legion was surrounded by hordes of ravening Scots and annihilated. This theory was supported by two facts: shortly thereafter Hadrian brought the Sixth Legion to York (allegedly as replacements for the vanished Ninth) and in a much later army list, the Ninth legion is not mentioned.

Unfortunately for the dramatic tale, excavations at Nijmegen in Holland have turned up tiles bearing the distinctive stamp of the Ninth Legion dated to AD 121. In addition, several officers of the Ninth are known to have been active well after AD 117: for example, Lucius Aemilius Karus was governor of the Roman province of Arabia in AD 142.

It is possible that the legion was, in fact, wiped out in Scotland and that the tiles and the officers are merely those who were left behind when the legion marched out. This is not impossible, as records from the Vindolanda Roman camp show that there were frequent transfers or secondments from one part of the army to another, either for training or to supply experts to a location where their skills were needed. Others have suggested that the legion was sent to the east and destroyed, either during the Bar Kokhba revolt in Judea or in one of the many battles against the Parthians.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any evidence for this last claim, which seems to me to be simply an attempt to explain the undeniable fact of the absence of the NInth Legion from the army list in the time of Marcus Aurelius. On the other hand, the loss of other legions caused a good deal of lamenting in Rome - Varus is the notable example - so it is odd if an entire legion were to disappear without any comment.

A new survey of Scotland has found evidence that the story of the Romans north of Hadrian's Wall is far more complicated than historians have hitherto thought. Ground surveys have previously found 225 Roman military camps from the Borders to Aberdeenshire. (This compares with 150 in England and Wales.) Now a new study using remote sensing technology is set to increase that number, while the Deers Den excavations at Kintore in Aberdeenshire show the extent of the Roman commitment to conquering Scotland: 44 bread ovens have been uncovered! As historians such as Tacitus give us only a summary of Roman activities north of the border, there is plenty of room for an unreported battle or two.

Good reasons can be found for rejecting the tale of a Scottish defeat, but no good reasons can be found for accepting any alternative proposal, so I suppose the best conclusion is the one that earlier historians proposed: the disappearance of the Ninth Legion is a mystery.


"The Eagle of the Ninth" In the novel the legion marches out of its base in York and disappears, complete with its eagle. A young man, son of the commanding officer of the legion, attempts to restore his father's honour by sneaking into Scotland disguised as a doctor in order to find the lost eagle. Through a combination of luck and tenacity he is successful in locating it and then takes it under cover of night and heads back for the Roman border. After various adventures he succeeds and it all ends happily. Return

© Kendall K. Down 2009