Pick up a paper or read a web article which makes mention of the mysterious disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion – IX Hispana – from the historical record and chances are these days that it will say that the legion did not disappear in Scotland as once thought but was transferred elsewhere in the empire and subsequently lost there.
Some academics claim this has to be the case as there is no evidence of the Ninth Legion being lost in Scotland. How true is this?
Well, actually it is not at all. Most people are however swayed by what they hear and this has been magnified by certain key “authorities” who appear to have undertaken a crusade to relocate the location of the Ninth legion’s loss to anywhere other than Scotland. These claims have been repeatedly published since the 1970s, and on the strength of this, the theories have gained an entirely undeserved acceptance as a rock-solid proven case.
On closer examination, a rock-solid proven case it isn’t. Rather it amounts to a handful of disjointed, weak, and speculative suggestions that amount to a far from convincing case. Before we look at the evidence for loss in Scotland – and primary evidence at that – we will look at the reasons why these attempts to remove the scene of the legion’s loss in Scotland have been made.
The Ninth Legion’s relative fame in Britain is in most part down to the children’s novel called “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Rosemary Sutcliff. Published in 1954, Sutcliff used the public interest in the excavation of a bronze eagle artifact (though unfortunately not an eagle standard) at Silchester as a spur to write a novel threading this find into the then generally accepted academic belief of the legion’s loss in Scotland. Generations of children, therefore, were introduced to Roman Britain through the book, particularly where the book in many cases was required reading in the English curriculum. It’s a novel, a popular one but a novel nonetheless.
The novel’s popularity, however, seems to have pricked the bubble of academic superiority of certain academics since the 1970s. Following television adaptation of the novel by the BBC in September 1977 giving extensive access to this story, the academic gloves were taken off and war literally declared.
What has followed has been the expenditure of an incredible amount of concerted effort to prove the legion did not go down in red ruin in Scotland. This argument stands on a few artifacts which it has been claimed record the later existence of the legion, or careers of supposed members of the legion after the likely date of its loss in Scotland, or general assumptions that the legion could only have been lost elsewhere in the empire as the tribes in Scotland were not capable of inflicting defeat on the Romans.
We will examine this suggested “evidence” and the other hypothesis later but meantime what evidence is there for loss in Scotland and when? The last inscription of the Ninth agreed by all is one found at York – the legions fortress base of Eboracum – dateable to around 108 AD. There are no inscriptions of the legion later than this in Britannia or anywhere else in the Roman Empire or beyond.
A pair of columns set up in Rome early in the reign of Marcus Aurelias (c.162 AD) list Rome’s legions and their locations. Two legions are missing from the list:
- IX Hispana
- XXII Deiotariana
What does this prove? Well, it proves that soon after 108 AD or thereabouts the Roman Legion strategically located to support the northern frontier in Britain disappears from the archaeological record and that the next piece of agreed archaeological evidence, the Aurelian columns, corroborates in ledger book style the fact the legion no longer existed by that time.
What should be remembered is that all Roman Legions of this era were prodigious instigators of various forms of inscriptions. These include grave stelae, altars, inscriptions recording building work and legion stamps in manufactured construction material from lead water pipes to clay roof tiles.
The period between 108 and 162 AD it should be noted encompasses the building of two frontier walls and the heaviest concentration of legionary inscriptions known in the empire. Further references can be found in the growing body of written material being recovered from boggy deposits at Vindolanda which in the minutia of their content, from personal letters to inventories and orders for material make direct mention of military units.
The Ninth at this time disappears from the surviving written record so the unit’s loss must be fairly close to 108 AD, the absence of proven inscriptions anywhere else preclude it being much later. Some claim that the Romans would keep secret the loss of a legion. Not entirely so. While they did not exactly like to blazonly immortalise their defeats in stone the Romans did record in various written works, particularly in published “Histories” such military setbacks.
It is to such works that we have to make recourse. It is exactly on account of the inclusion in such histories that we know of the loss of Crassus Army at Carrhae in 53 BC and the Varus disaster of 9 AD in the Teutoburg forest for instance. Others claim that the peoples of what is now modern Scotland were simply incapable of inflicting defeat upon a disciplined well trained Roman legion.
This is also not true:
- The Ninth Legion itself was almost overwhelmed in its marching camp by the Caledonians during Agricolas penultimate year of campaigning in Scotland (82AD) as recorded by Tacitus.
- Cassius Dio recorded Commodus agitation and armed response in 179 AD after the northern tribes “Cut down a general with his troops”.
- Herodian alleged that Septimus Severus lost an estimated (though inexplicably exaggerated) 50,000 soldiers to Caledonian and Maetae guerilla warfare between 208 and 211 AD.
- Ammianus recorded in detail the defeated Roman generals Fullofaudes and Nectaridus “with their legions” when the Picts and Scotti flooded across the frontier in 367 AD.
There is also a host of references to warfare and various actions in the North but the most telling relates to the period we are looking at:
- Prevailing trouble following Roman withdrawal from most of Scotland is recorded by Juvenal circa 105 AD. He mentions warfare in Britain at this general time led by a chieftain called Aviragus. Archaeology confirms that the fort at Newstead and several key installations along the Stanegate frontier are sacked around this time.
- Hadrian’s biographer, Spartianus refers to serious disturbances in Britain when Hadrian ascended to power in 117 AD; “the Britons could not be held under Roman control”.
- Cornelius Fronto (a contemporary of the events) tellingly records the probable demise of the ninth; “…. And again when your grandfather was Emperor, how many soldiers were killed by the Jews, how many by the Britons?”
This gem of a reliable primary source is generally ignored by those academics mentioned at the top of this article desperate to dismiss the loss of the Ninth in Scotland. So who were the Roman soldiers killed by the Jews? None other than our friends missing from the Aurelian column: the eastern-based Twenty-Second Legion Deiotariana in fighting in the middle-east at some point after (approximately) 119 AD when their last inscription was laid down.
So that is the case, the main points of which are summarised as:
- Two missing legions from an inscribed army list, the Aurelian column.
- Records of endemic warfare in the early 2nd C AD following the Roman withdrawal from most of Scotland.
- A contemporary record of equally heavy Roman troop losses at Hadrian’s succession to power (117 AD) to the Britons and at some point in his reign to the Jews; i.e. the Ninth and Twenty-Second legions.
- Both legions missing from the Aurelian column were stationed in the correct theatres of operation and at the correct time to be involved in the events noted in northern Britain (for the Ninth) and in several conflicts in the middle east (for the Twenty-second).
- Lack of evidence of inscriptions showing the Ninth Legions continued existence long after 108AD.
Before we suggest a possible scenario, we will look at the suggestions made by the academics mentioned at the top of this article. These are:
“The removal of Ninth from Britain by Trajan for service in Dacia”
It has been suggested that Trajan stripped Britannia of the Ninth legion to fuel his wars in Dacia 101-102 AD and 105 – 106 AD. This is a superficially attractive theory, given that unquestioned manpower overstretch in Britannia at the turn of the century was a major factor in Rome relinquishing its hold on Scotland.
Such forces required by Trajan, however, will have been made up of the usual vexillation detachment system (in other words parts of legions, not the entire legion) and these in many cases will likely have been transferred to the near continent allowing relocation of units domino-style nearer to the theatre of operation. The York inscription of 108 AD post dates these wars and show that the parent unit was still at York at that time which rules out this theory.
“Stamped tile from Nijmegen and stamped tile from Carlisle”
The mainstay of belief in relocation to the continent lies on several crumbling pieces of roof tile. Legions manufactured many construction items and these where possible were stamped to identify the legion which manufactured the piece. One example from the fort at Nijmegen in Holland at the junction of the Rhine and Waal is incomplete and caution must be exercised in the identification of this inscription. Common tile stamps from York, the proven base of the Ninth and elsewhere take the correct form of LEG IX Hisp.
The published Nijmegen example is incomplete and merely shows Roman numerals used in an incorrect manner: LEG VIIII. The final numeral is incomplete and it is equally possible that this refers to the legionary number 8 which would be the correct number for Legion VIII Augusta. The letter “A” in Augusta could also reasonably be read to explain the partial last numeral which is slightly angled from the main body of numerals on the inscription at the edge of the broken piece.
The Eighth Augusta were based in Germania Superior on the Rhine frontier at this time and while not in actual garrison at Nijmegen will reasonably have supplied drafts of troops and construction material to this relatively close post. If troops from the Ninth were at Nijmegan – possibly even brigaded with vexillation troops from the Eighth Augusta, which is a possibility as for example Trajan moved the garrison unit Legion X Gemina to the Dacian conflict then these would be vexillation troops, not the entire legion.
If the roof tiles were constructed locally and the inscription is indeed showing LEG VIIII then it is possible the tile was stamped in a manner to distinguish it from the main unit and its fabricators back at York. This on face value seems unlikely however the find of a broadly similarly stamped tile at the Roman fort of Carlisle may corroborate this and help date the pieces. The part stamped tile from Carlisle indicates an incomplete legionary stamp showing: LEG VIIII with what could be a partial “H” letter behind.
The fort at Carlisle was constructed under the governorship of Petillius Cerealis around 72 AD (which has been proven by dendrochronology dating of extant timber posts) and had a limited life as it was abandoned upon the building of the large fort at nearby Stanwix on the line of Hadrian’s wall circa 122 AD under Hadrian. So there is the possibility that this alternative curious stamp does relate to the workshops of a detachment of the Ninth as the main unit was busy constructing its base at York (Eboracum) at this time and stamping tiles in the expected manner.
Can this relate to the Nijmegan tile?
The Nijmegen fort was rebuilt following the suppression of the Batavian revolt around 69 AD, an event that would have been put down by forces likely to have been reinforced with troops from the British garrison.
These tiles corroborate a dating based on the style of stamping to construction work which took place between 69 and 73 AD at both Nijmegan and Carlisle which vexillation troops from the IX Hispana can be reasonably expected to have been involved in. The tiles, therefore, occur in the 1st century AD and do not, therefore, prove the unit’s existence in any way beyond the year 108 AD.
And unlike dedicatory inscriptions on altars, fabrication stamps on bulk construction materials such as roof tiles are not evidence of the highest calibre for the manufacturers noted in the stamp actually having been resident at the location where the material was eventually used anyway.
These are simply ancient manufacturing “barcodes” making a bureaucratic record of the manufacturer, not the proud boast of a dedicatory stone placed on a building saying “we built this building/wall/fort” for instance.
Little if any evidence has been unearthed showing that tile kilns were built in-situ during the construction of auxiliary forts. These forts most certainly made use of roof tiles just like legionary fortresses for use in the Principia and Praetorium at the very least where we know roof-tile fragments are common finds. This certainly suggests – in the absence of evidence to the contrary – that such prefabricated construction materials were transported – like today – from relatively remote manufacturies to the locations where they were ultimately required. Unlikely in relation to the Ninth given that the north sea divides Britain from Holland? No.
There are indications of such bulk shipping later in Scottish history that are not without relevance here. The vernacular architecture of the Scottish east coast is characterised by the use of red pantiles which originated out of the Low Countries. These tiles were originally used as ballast in the trading ships of the era as they sailed across to Scotland. The tiles, a fairly cheap commodity were simply offloaded at the Scottish port which explains their prevalence here.
Our friends the Eighth Legion Augusta provide interesting commentary again. Tiles from this continental based legion have been found in the later Claudian era vexillation fortress at Leicester (Ratae Coritanorum). No-one suggests that this legion was actually in garrison there, indeed the presence of the tiles has been long explained away by academics – rather unsatisfactorily – that an otherwise unrecorded vexillation came across to Britain for Claudius’s fortnight-long sojourn at Colchester in the far south of what is now England, during the invasion bringing their roof tiles with them. Where the roof tiles remained in these early years before Leicester was garrisoned is again conveniently ignored by academics.
What is much more likely is that stores were simply requested or requisitioned at times of active service from depots on the continent under Imperial directive and shipped over for use elsewhere.
There is absolutely no reason to see therefore the Nijmegen tiles as definitive proof in any way whatsoever of the Ninth Legion being resident there. The legions stores at York were probably merely requisitioned during reconstruction work at Nijmegen in or around 70 AD -following the suppression of the Batavian rebellion – and trans-shipped across from the Ninth Legions base at York near the east coast across to the Low Countries. This was probably the easiest method of moving such bulk materials in the period anyway.
And being manufactured goods that take time, effort and energy to produce, and as roof-tile patterns did not change noticeably over time then these tiles will have been stockpiled and reused at the fortress of Nijmegen on consecutive rebuilds for as long as they remained usable; a throw-away mentality is a modern habit.
Post 117 AD occupation of the fortress at Nijmegen by the Ninth Legion on the basis of roof tiles is not therefore proved and a dedicatory inscription of quality must be found before it can even start to be seriously considered to have done so.
“Loss of The Ninth to hostile Brigantian action”
Some anglo-centric historians, keen to see a location for the loss of the legion closer to home claim that the Ninth was overwhelmed in or near its base by Brigantian tribal insurrection. There is absolutely no proof or evidence for this. Archaeology has unearthed absolutely no evidence of the fortress at Eboracum (York) being sacked at this time.
The Brigantians had been under direct Roman control since crushed at Stanwick in 71 AD and there is no evidence for any ongoing Brigantian resistance at all following the first year or two of Agricola’s governorship in 77/78AD.
To put these claims into some perspective, these theorists also suggest that the Brigantians invaded Scotland (across Hadrian’s wall the wrong way) and overcame the Roman forts at Birrens and Castledykes in 154 AD as well! Such claims are best quietly ignored, and we shall move on.
“Inscriptions in Lower Germany”
Two inscriptions receive much coverage. These relate to a Tribune and a Prefect of the Ninth and are trumpeted to suggest a continued and high-level formal existence of the legion or elements of it on the continent during the reign of Hadrian. However, what generally does not get mentioned is the fact that these are dateable to no later than 43 AD when the IX Hispana was still stationed on the continent and pre-date the York inscription by 65 years!
The unproven subsequent careers of certain Romans who had allegedly served in the Ninth are sometimes raised to prove the units continuing existence beyond 108 AD. The best and most noteworthy is one marine called Aelius Asclepiades, whose evidence-based on an inscription, is invariably quoted as being decisive.
In summary, the inscription indicates that this marine transferred to the Ninth Legion and his name, being similar to Hadrians is cited as conclusive dating evidence to Hadrian’s reign. What unfortunately does not get mentioned is that this inscription is held by serious academics to be a fake. All proof if nothing else that historical mysteries attract the attention of fakers and forgers as well as academics.
Any surviving members of the Ninth will most likely be those posted out from the main unit or left in garrison duty in York and who missed the action which saw the demise of the legion. They will have been of insufficient numbers to maintain the legion identity and will have been drafted in due course into other units.
“The Ninth was disbanded in disgrace after cowardice”
Roman legions were too rare and experienced to disband in disgrace, either for cowardice or mutiny. Punishments could be meted out, in extreme cases that of decimation or more commonly by downgrading the quality of diet for a punishment period.
Where a unit had acted in a less than exemplary manner such as the recalcitrant Second Augusta during the Boudican revolt then the officer commanding would – as did the Prefect, in that case, Poenius Postumus- be expected to do the Roman thing and “fall on his sword”.
The most common cause of disbandment would be for legions raised during a civil war and unfortunate enough to be on the losing side. Well established legions, however, would soldier on (with new officers loyal to the regime) as indeed happened to the British legions on many occasions after actively supporting usurper emperors on the continent. The years between the York inscription and the Aurelian columns were generally stable ones without civil wars, so there is no historical background against which a legion would be disbanded.
“Sextus Julius Severus in Judea”
Sextus Julius Severus, renowned general and governor of Britain was recalled to take control of the campaign against the Jews in the Bar Kochba revolt. It has been suggested that on the way he took the highly unusual step of taking the Ninth Legion with him effectively stripping manpower from his current province’s garrison.
Such governor changes in times of crisis were not unusual however it was not normal practice in the 2nd century AD for the emperor to sanction such closely tied private armies to travel the globe rooting out trouble wherever they find it! Severus would have undertaken the fighting between 133 and 135 AD with eastern-based legions and composite brigades made up of legionary vexillations; with probably the furthest travelled being those from the Danubian legions.
That Severus is thought of having taken a legion from the extreme north-west frontier of the empire to the far eastern frontier is frankly ridiculous and there remains the fact that the historical record is silent on such a transfer, there are no remains or inscriptions of the Ninth to reflect any such move or involvement in the campaign, nor any inscriptions in Britain or elsewhere to explain the legions location in the 27 years since 108 AD.
“The Parthian and the Marcommani campaigns of Marcus Aurelias”
The troubled reign of Marcus Aurelius – the Philosopher Emperor – was marked by near-constant warfare on both the eastern frontier with the powerful Parthian Empire and to the north in Germania with among others the Marcomanni. Under pressure the Emperor is recorded as having taken the rare step of offering freedom to slaves who joined the army to fight in these wars, so pushed for manpower were the Romans at this time.
It is moot to recognize these locations as the main theatres of Roman operations at this time, and that indeed these events will have required troop drafts moved from Britain (though any such vexillations are likely to have been sent only to the near continent allowing units already there to be moved further east). This has led to suggestions that it is in these events that the Ninth was lost, particularly in the Roman defeat at Elegeia in the east against the Parthians in 161 AD.
While this is – at the very best – only marginally before the likely date of the Aurelian columns, the agreed date at which the Ninth and Twenty-second legions had already been well and truly removed from the official “roll call” or order of battle there is however absolutely no historical mention of the relocation of the Ninth at this time nor any archaeological evidence of their existence in the intervening 53 years since 108 AD nor of any journey across the empire to the east.
The victors at Elegeia – the Parthians – were noteworthy for parading and extracting maximum political advantage out of captured Roman eagle standards after such victories. The complete absence of any mention of captured legionary eagle standards in the Elegeia context is again extremely telling and makes any suggested destruction of either the Ninth or Twenty-second legions here quite improbable. The fighting was likely undertaken by a Roman army comprised of vexillations supplied by the 2 resident Cappadocian legions – the Twelfth and Fifteenth – and auxiliary units stiffened with levies from allied eastern states.
“The Ninth were stationed in Carlisle after the 6th legion were deployed to York“
This suggestion attempts to reconcile the absence of the Ninth from their fortress at York by the time Hadrian arrived circa 121/2 AD along with the (replacement) 6th Legion. Using the tiles stamped with the Ninth Legions mark at Carlisle (discussed already above and explained as best attributed to the early 70’s AD) this theory has the Ninth relocating from York to the fort at Carlisle to make way for the incoming 6th Legion. The theory further expands to then include the other theory already discussed above, i.e. that the Ninth subsequently moved to Nijmegan on the continent, again based on the stamped tile fragments there. As also discussed previously these are also best attributable to around 69/70 AD.
To attempt to corroborate the Carlisle portion of the theory, the suggestion extends to attributing the construction of the western turf – built section of Hadrian’s Wall (the bulk of which was originally constructed in stone) to the Ninth, solely on the basis that no legionary work inscriptions have ever been identified on this stretch. We need to break this theory down into parts.
First as already discussed stamped building products manufactured by legionary craftsmen are best dateable at the Carlisle and Nijmegan forts construction around about 70 AD.
Secondly, legionary fortresses were huge in area compared to auxiliary forts, the former usually around 50 acres in comparison to the latter which generally varied between 3 and 6 acres in size. Carlisle was just such a small-sized auxiliary fort and will have accommodated at most 1,000 men, or perhaps even as few as 500 in line with the majority of such forts. The theory, therefore, fails quite spectacularly to recognise the unsuitability of the fort at Carlisle to accommodate legion of 5,200 to 5,500 men.
Lastly, while an intriguing conundrum, a suitable explanation for the unusual decision to undertake the western portion of Hadrian’s Wall in turf is still awaited. It seems a bit too contrived to substantiate occupation by the Ninth at Carlisle on the basis of unidentified work on this section of Hadrian’s Wall. In fairness this certainly is thinking “out of the box” however at the end of the day it relies entirely on Carlisles’ poor credentials and a lack of any epigraphic or artefactual remains on the relevant section of Hadrian’s Wall so must be considered extremely unlikely.
“The Ninth could not have been annihilated by 121 AD as later serving officers – such as Lucius Aemilius Carus, governor of Arabia in 142/143 AD were members of the Ninth“
Whether Carus had been a member of the Ninth still remains to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, however for the purposes of discussion here we will accept this attribution. Governorships were rare and sought after posts, indeed for many aspiring Roman male aristocrats, this would prove to be the pinnacle of their careers. During their life these men held down a wide range of posts, varying from magistrates such as Praetors and bureaucrats with defined roles such as Quaestors as well as a host of other such positions. These men will have served at some point in their lives within the aristocratic officer role within the army when young men as “Tribunes”.
The Roman Cursus Honororum was designed to imbue the individual with as wide a range of experience as possible, indeed military service was a relatively short interlude in a predominantly bureaucratic or political existence and for most was restricted to their youthful stint as a Tribune. The relatively few legionary legate posts (held for around 3 years) was restricted to a more distilled group of older, experienced men, who in most cases were chosen for their loyalty to the Emperor.
The Governor would not be a “serving officer” of any particular military unit, but an older man chosen again by the Emperor for his experience and ability in handling the bureaucratic, financial and diplomatic affairs of Rome within one of her colonies.
Carus, therefore, may have undertaken no more military service than his Tribuneship as a young man, and, given the timeline postulated service in the Ninth prior to 117 AD gels well with the role of the older more experienced man as a Governor a mere 25 years later. To put this into context, if Carus served as a Tribune -for the sake of discussion – between 113 and 116 AD, leaving at 20, he will have been within the correct age group in his mid to late 40s to serve as a Governor. There is no evidence of the Ninth Legion, or elements of it being in Arabia at this late date, only Carus with his suggested link at some point in his career with the Ninth.
So this does not prove the existence of the Ninth Legion as an ongoing entity in any way after the years 117 to 121 AD, merely the existence of the man. Further, given that we have suggested that perhaps only the bulk of the legion was lost on its last fateful deployment then the surviving members of these Cohorts (and any officers left with them) will have survived to be recirculated elsewhere within the army -for rank and file – and within administrative and bureaucratic roles across the Empire – for officers such as Tribunes. Simply put, Lucius Aemilius Carus and those like him proves little other than their own individual survival of the events surrounding 117 AD.
So what can we suggest did happen?
Clearly, there is currently no smoking gun or General Custer style sign saying “Here fell the Ninth” but the evidence noted above and the lack of any current coherent evidence for the legion’s loss anywhere else suggests the following scenario:
The Roman occupation of Scotland following Flavian conquests is given up in stages following 87 AD with troop withdrawals due to manpower pressures elsewhere in the empire. By 105 AD only powerful outlier forts at Newstead and possibly Dalswinton remain in Scotland, archaeology shows Newstead is given up and probably sacked in a war which at this time is recorded by Juvenal as led for the northern tribes by a warlord called Aviragus. The devastation is carried further south along the general line of the modern A68 with the various Roman installations attacked and burnt confirmed by archaeology.
Roman forces, probably under strength due to troop relocations to Trajan’s Dacian wars which have probably not yet returned are in no position to undertake large scale retaliatory campaigning. The tribes may even have been bought off with cash subsidies, a practice which can form dangerous precedence and encourages further attacks in hope of similar payments.
With the lack of a firm response, tribal federations will take advantage of such weakness increasing raiding and ultimately escalating to military activity. That this escalated is indeed recorded and that the Ninth can reasonably be expected to have formed the spearhead for a force raised by the governor to take any punitive action against the northern tribes is also confirmed by a later record that the York garrison had the role of guarding the northern frontier against infractions.
Nothing in the historic or archaeological records even hints at this stage of the unfolding events of 117 AD which suggests the involvement of the other British legions, the VI and XX legion. These appear to have weathered the storm in their legionary fortresses of Deva and Caerleon. The forthcoming hammer blow would fall singularly on the IX Hispana alone
In 117 AD, therefore, following some noteworthy flashpoint incident in the north, the legion will have marched to quickly put down some escalating trouble. The force probably marched by Dere Street where much of the recent trouble has been recorded to or perhaps reaching Newstead before being overwhelmed in an action. This was possibly an ambush or again a night attack on an overnight marching encampment.
The size of the Roman task force may not have been excessive; perhaps a couple of the legions cohorts were on vexillation duty on the continent and perhaps another cohort was left at York on garrison duty. The under-strength legion may have been accompanied by several auxiliary units, but again perhaps not as the general state of raiding on the northern frontier may have made it appear best to leave these in their forts where they can act against smaller scale raiding. The Roman force, therefore, may well then have been short of full legionary strength and short of accompanying auxiliary units but in military parlance may have intended to go in hard, burn and devastate then retire south with Rome’s point having been firmly made.
The northern tribes will not have forgotten the lessons of Mons Graupius and the inadvisability of standing toe to toe and slugging it out with the Romans on the conventional field of battle. The size of the Roman battlegroup, however, may just have been small enough to tempt the hostile tribes, probably those below the Forth / Clyde isthmus, to coalesce, again perhaps under Aviragus or his successor (and possibly with Caledonian assistance) and take on the Romans but in a style of warfare more suited to their likely success.
Without a relief column (Tacitus tells us it was Agricola’s relief column that saved the Ninth legion in almost identical circumstances in 82 AD) the beleaguered and outnumbered legion may have been overrun in its camp or annihilated in a manner reminiscent of Varus at Teutoburg forest as they tried to cut their way out of such an attack or ambush, most likely in heavy and extremely difficult terrain.
The fabled eagle standard – emblem of the Legion – would not have been able to be saved by the Romans in such an action. Whether it was intentionally destroyed or hidden by the Romans to prevent its capture or taken by the tribes is beyond the scope of this work. However its loss for the Romans would be the telling point at which the unit was deemed to be wiped out, and the loss of the eagle – touched by the hand of the emperor himself – sufficiently final and disgraceful to warrant removing the legion from the role-call of active service legions.
What was Rome’s response to this disaster?
117 AD is the year Hadrian ascends to the throne, and while Cornelius Fronto records the loss, the language used notably downplays the enormity of the losses in Scotland and (at some point) in Judea. Just as many historians claim military action at the start of an Emperor’s reign may be based on an attempt to seek military glory, the loss of two legions – at least one of which was at the start of his reign – will not have been something Hadrian, therefore, will have wanted widely advertised.
It must be remembered that Hadrian at the start of his reign was and remained widely disliked and mistrusted by the senatorial classes, many of whom suspected he had colleagues of theirs put to death in order to safeguard his ascendancy. To give these people ammunition to criticize his reign will have been astutely avoided in the politically sensitive climate of Rome and the two disasters, while reported may have been deliberately played down or severely censored to “many troops” from what should have read “two legions”.
More practically, a year later in 118, Quintus Pompeius Falco lands in Britain (Newcastle) with massive legionary vexillations from those legions stationed in modern Spain and Germany – clearly to make up for the losses of the previous year (the Ninth). The possible two or three remaining cohorts from the Ninth can be expected to be among this force and it may have campaigned in southern Scotland. However, the record is equivocal and we are merely told the matter was brought to a conclusion but we are not told the manner in which it was concluded. This suggests a lack of successful action in the field against the tribes of southern Scotland. Aviragus or his successor may have simply and sensibly melted into the hills in the face of an overwhelming Roman force.
The following year 119 AD sees a Roman coin issue recording the conclusion of the war in Britannia, though Hadrian takes credit on the coin’s inscription, an indication of the political value of the conclusion of the war after its poor start for the Romans. The whole affair, however, has a very flat tone underlying it- an unsatisfactory state of affairs comes across from the historical record on the whole matter.
What does history tell us of the events that follow and how the above scenario may inform what follows?
In 122 AD, after visiting and addressing problems in other provinces Hadrian crosses to Britain. Certain key events related to this confirm the plausibility of the scenario outlined above. First, he brings with him the VI Victrix Legion, clearly a replacement for the lost IX Hispana Legion. It can be inferred that at this stage the vexillations from the continental legions brought by Falco will have returned overseas to their parent units.
Any remains of the Ninth will most likely have been folded as replacement drafts into these units now and will have left Britain by this time with the parent unit no longer in existence. That Hadrian will not have wanted to be reminded of the parent units failure and the implications this had on his first tenuous and violent year as Emperor is backed up by the ostentatious showman Emperors love of military displays and success. The remnants of the Ninth would have been an unwelcome reminder of bad times. The newly arrived Sixth Legion is logically deployed to the vacant fortress at York, former base of the Ninth legion. The other legions in Britain remain at Chester and Carleon.
At a time of potential reorganization the locations are telling, York and Chester hold the majority of the legionary garrison of Britannia clearly showing that the north is the area of strategic interest or, of concern to Rome.
The Stanegate line, with the damage wrought from 105 AD onwards still probably visible serves as a timely warning to the emperor and the decision taken to upgrade (with a slight relocation) to form a mural barrier running between the Tyne and Solway. Subsequently known as Hadrian’s wall this was the grandest frontier ever built by Rome, and notwithstanding Hadrian’s love of ostentatious showy buildings and policy the message is clear: Here – in unequivocal language – is Rome; outwith is beyond, not belonging.
The creation of the wall with the many alterations during its building caused by constructional detail or operational requirements lasted until the Emperor’s death some 16 years later, and it is probable that elements remained incomplete at that time.
Hadrian inherited a militaristic senatorial class reared on Trajanic expansionism. While it is fair to say that these people oversaw the staged withdrawal from Scotland (it may have been viewed as a temporary expedient) it is only at the end of Trajan’s reign when manpower was low and imperial interest directed elsewhere that trouble appears to have brewed up on the northern frontier, probably with a recovered and resurgent Caledonian federation and with southern Scottish tribes now left to their own devices.
In the historical record, it is in Hadrian’s reign that the Romans appear to have taken a very bloody nose, and also failed to secure noteworthy revenge. Many will have possibly taken umbrage at the Emperor’s response, as elsewhere in the empire to address the problem by indulging in a reaction based on a grandiose architectural statement.
That this may have been undertaken to keep the army busy is clear, as the legions ability to idly indulge in intrigue is legend while Hadrian was making it clear that he (if few other preceding emperors had) was taking Augustus final advice and keeping the empire within the bounds he inherited.
Many Romans it must be remembered will have served out their military service in southern Scotland, and while the ebb and flow of Roman forces actually holding an area under military control was fairly common in fluid circumstances across the empire where a major river did not create a defined line of demarcation, the abject abandonment of recently held provinces behind a grandiose barrier of monumental design will have been resented by many. It will have been viewed as an unnecessary statement of fixed frontier, and by default abandoned lands beyond, an area which only recently saw the dramatic demise of a third of Britain’s elite garrison by those on whom in many Romans minds insufficient revenge had been exacted.
No surprise then that on Hadrian’s death on 138 AD and the ascendancy of Antoninus Pius, that the new Emperor and the de facto Augustus elect Marcus Aurelius are soon recorded meeting with Quintus Pompeius Falco, the general who last campaigned in Scotland back in the troubled days of 118 in response to the loss of the Ninth.
The lesson learned seems to have been that while Hadrian’s frontier successfully prevented the small scale raiding and cattle reiving that could, if unchecked escalate to worse, Hadrian’s wall was excluding area now seen as traditionally within the empire, containing mineral wealth and good agricultural lands, as well as recruits for the army.
If a defining boundary had to be laid down it may have been argued that it would be shorter and better employed across the narrower Forth/ Clyde isthmus while outlying forts could control the agriculturally productive area of Fife by re-use of Sallustius Lucullus Gask Ridge line. The rest above this could be brutally reasoned as abandonable. However, tellingly Pausianus relates that in 138 to 143 AD:
“he (Antoninus Pius) conquered the (north) Britons through his Legate Lollius Urbicus, setting up another wall, this time of turf, when the barbarians had been driven back”.
This is the crux of the matter and the revenge for 117AD and the Ninth. Had Caledonian tribes overrun southern Scotland in the wake of Roman retrenchment, or had dynastic marriage placed them in a strong position to dictate the will of the southern tribes?
Or on the reverse were Aviragus and his successors those most dangerous of men, the former Roman ally and auxiliary like Arminius, men who best knew the Romans and how to beat them? Combining this with a political skill to weld the southern tribes (and possibly gain a measure of help from further north) into a coalesced entity in the face of large and aggressive political and military neighbours?
The stone distance slabs on the Antonine wall are unique in the empire for the range of fine displays. Most are thematic and the iconography would be easily understood by even the illiterate but they are unusual for the scope and clarity of the message given.
This message is very clear, military crushing victory by the Roman state with the support of the Gods. Military revenge was claimed and recorded in stone, southern Scotland was returned to the fold, the dynastic leaderships driven off, the cultural line along the narrow waist of Scotland closed off to prevent any future tribal co-operation and, in turf construction, it was achieved in a prudent and cost-effective manner in stark contrast to the expensive monumentality of the more southern Hadrians wall.
“Pius” may have been a title won by Antoninus due to the efforts he took to defend Hadrian against a vindictive senate yet in Scotland Antoninus seems to have gained any glory he did by righting what must have been a commonly held view by Romans at the time on the wrong done by Hadrian in his policy of the monumental wall (viewed perhaps as a monument to Roman retrenchment and failure?) and of not having secured grim revenge on those who destroyed the Ninth.
This is underscored by Pausianus definitive statement on the state of affairs in Roman Scotland as Antoninus Pius became emperor when he recorded that Scotland was the only place in the Empire at that time where: “military action had to be taken”.
All the above is historical fact into which we have woven a possible scenario for the demise of the Ninth in Scotland and illustrated how this would then fit in with the known following history. We feel this is an extremely persuasive if unproven case. Perhaps someday some litter of skeletal remains and broken equipment with some epigraphic detail may come to light that seals the case. Sadly we suspect the unearthing of the eagle of the Ninth would be just too good to hope for!
However, given the lack of any supporting evidence of any quality for the relocation of the Ninth Legion to elsewhere in the empire for a date with destiny the scenario above, tied with the historical record and facts that we currently have means the loss of the Ninth Legion and its sacred eagle standard in action in southern Scotland is by far the most probable and realistic scenario.
Article first published October 2007 (romanscotland.org.uk).
David J. Breeze, Edge of Empire, Rome’s Scottish Frontier: The Antonine Wall, (Birlinn Ltd, 2020)
James E. Fraser, Roman Conquest of Scotland: The Battle of Mons Graupius AD 84, (Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2008)
Andrew Tibbs, Beyond the Empire: A Guide to the Roman Remains in Scotland, (Robert Hale Ltd, 2019)