The Lost 9th Legion: Dr Andy Fear

The fate of the 9th Legion is a subject that has fascinated Roman enthusiasts ever since the 1950s publication of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s young person’s novel “The Eagle of the Ninth” – a book that is still widely read. Ms Sutcliffe proposed that the legion was annihilated by the Caledonians in the wilds of Scotland, drawing on the ideas of the German Roman historian Theodor Mommsen, and on the apparent fact of a major barbarian rebellion in the north between the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian. But a legion consists of 5,000 men, plus their associated auxiliaries. That’s a awful lot to lose in a single expedition.
The main evidence for the disappearance of the legion comes from an inscription known as the “Colonetta Maffei”, which dates from between 160 and 190AD. It lists all the Roman legions – but the 9th is missing from the list. Dr Fear outlines the history of the legion, which had been founded by Julius Caesar in Gaul in 58BC. Evidence for their later history comes a few literary references – but mainly from inscriptions, especially tombstones. They were part of the Claudian invasion of Britain in 43AD, and were severely mauled during the Boudican revolt. They eventually became based at York, and the last we hear of them is from a stamp on a tile in Cumbria. Significantly, they play no part in the building of Hadrian’s Wall (123AD), whereas the other legions left records of the lengths they had built. So had they been annihilated by the Scots just before this date?
No, says Dr Fear – they had been moved out of Britain to the Rhine frontier, to replace troops who had been moved up to Dacia around the year 105. The evidence is again a tile stamp, at Nijmegen (Netherlands). Clearly, from the Empire’s perspective, defending the Rhine-Danube frontier was more important than Britain. During the first half of the second century there are a few more sporadic tombstone inscriptions recording the careers of officers who had served with the 9th, from which it appears they may have served as far away as Arabia. But then the record ceases, and they had definitely disappeared by the date of the Colonetta Maffei. Dr Fear thinks the most likely explanation is that the legion was wiped out in Armenia in 161, when the Parthians, the famous and ruthless Iranian horsemen, under Vologases their king, are recorded as inflicting a heavy defeat on the Romans.
So Rosemary Sutcliffe was wrong – but it’s still a good story. Dr Fear’s talk was comprehensive and persuasive, moving at a great pace, carrying us all along with him, and leaving us all breathless at the end!
Postscript: our thanks too to Derek Forest of the Ermine Street Guard, who brought in his shield, helmet and gladius, which members greatly enjoyed seeing and trying out
Posted by Mavis Shannon
Photo of the Roman Eagle that inspired Rosemary Sutcliffe, from Reading Museum

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