The disappearance of Roman Ninth Legion has long baffled historians, but could a brutal ambush have been the event that forged the England-Scotland border, asks archaeologist Dr Miles Russell, of Bournemouth University. One of the most enduring legends of Roman Britain concerns the disappearance of the Ninth Legion.
Recently the story has seeped further into the national consciousness of both England and Scotland. For the English, the massacre of the Ninth is an inspiring tale of home-grown “Davids” successfully taking on a relentless European “Goliath”. For the Scots, given the debate on devolved government and national identity, the tale has gained extra currency – freedom-loving highlanders resisting monolithic, London-based imperialists.
The legend of the Ninth gained form thanks to acclaimed novelist Rosemary Sutcliff, whose masterpiece, The Eagle of the Ninth, became an instant bestseller when published in 1954. It was adapted few times, most notably as the 2011 film The Eagle. Since then, generations of children and adults have been entranced by the story of a young Roman officer, Marcus Aquila, travelling north of Hadrian’s Wall in order to uncover the truth about his father, lost with the Ninth, and the whereabouts of the Legion’s battle standard, the bronze eagle.
The historians have dissented, theorizing that the Ninth did not disappear in Britain at all, arguing both book and film are wrong. Their theory has been far more mundane – the legion was, in fact, a victim of strategic transfer, swapping the cold expanse of northern England, for arid wastes in the Middle East. Here, sometime before AD 160, they were wiped out in a war against the Persians.
But, contrary to this view, there is not one shred of evidence that the Ninth were ever taken out of Britain. Three stamped tiles bearing the unit number of the Ninth found at Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, have been used to support the idea of transfer from Britain.
But these all seem to date to the 80s AD, when detachments of the Ninth were indeed on the Rhine fighting Germanic tribes. They do not prove that the Ninth left Britain for good. In fact, the last certain piece of evidence relating to the existence of the Legion from anywhere in the Roman Empire comes from York where an inscription, dating to AD 108, credits the Ninth with rebuilding the fortress in stone. Some time between then and the mid-2nd Century, when a record of all Legions was compiled, the unit had ceased to exist.
What happened to the Ninth?
Theories on the Ninth
- Ambushed in Caledonia while fighting revolt
- Destroyed in the Bar Kokhba Jewish revolt
- Wiped out in battle against the Parthians
- Disappeared in China
The early years of the 2nd Century were deeply traumatic for Britannia. The Roman writer Fronto observed that, in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117 – 138), large numbers of Roman soldiers were killed by the British.
The British problem was of deep concern to Roman central government. Thanks to a tombstone recovered from Ferentinum in Italy, we know that emergency reinforcements of over 3,000 men were rushed to the island on “the British Expedition”, early in Hadrian’s reign. The emperor himself visited the island in AD 122, in order to “correct many faults”, bringing with him a new legion, the Sixth.
The fact that they took up residence in the legionary fortress of York suggests that the “great losses” of personnel, alluded to by Fronto, had occurred within the ranks of the Ninth.
It would seem that Sutcliff was right after all.
It was the Ninth, the most exposed and northerly of all legions in Britain, that had borne the brunt of the uprising, ending their days fighting insurgents in the turmoil of early 2nd Century Britain. The loss of such an elite military unit had an unexpected twist which reverberates to the present day. When the emperor Hadrian visited Britain at the head of a major troop surge, he realized that there was only one way to ensure stability in the island – he needed to build a wall.
Hadrian’s Wall was designed to keep invaders out of Roman territory as well as ensuring that potential insurgents within the province had no hope of receiving support from their allies to the north. The ultimate legacy of the Ninth was the creation of a permanent border, forever dividing Britain.
Disappeared In China?
During the war with Parthian, lots of Roman had been killed and captured. There have been stories and legends about them. The accepted wisdom at the time was that the Parthians took the prisoners and moved them to their eastern front, where they were put into battle against the Huns. That was certainly the thesis extended by Roman historian Plinius.
Rumors have it that some of those Romans became mercenaries, fighting for the highest bidder. The Chinese took a Hun city almost 20 years later, and were very impressed with some warriors they saw in action there. Chinese histories tell of warriors who used a ‘fish scale formation,’ which sounds like it could very well be the overlapping shield testudo formation that the Romans perfected and that made them such a fierce fighting force.
The Chinese took these warriors and moved them even farther east, settling them in a town that was named Li-Jien (which sounds, in Chinese, like the word legion), where they repulsed Tibetan attacks. Recent excavations in an area near where archeologists think Li-Jien was (it’s now lost) unearthed a kind of hoist that Romans used in building fortifications which was unknown to the Chinese. That trunk is now on display at the Lanzhou museum.
Which brings us to the modern day. The archeologists who found that artifact were surprised by the looks of the locals. According to China Daily:
They were even more astonished to find Western-looking people with green, deep-set eyes, long hooked noses and blond hair.Though the villagers said they had never traveled outside the county, they worshipped bulls and their favorite game was similar to the ancient Romans’ bull-fighting dance.
DNA testing has shown that some villagers have as much as 56% Caucasian ancestry. That said, it’s unlikely that Romans ever officially got anywhere near the Gobi Desert. The Han Empire was aware of the Romans, and there was some minor contact but it was all done through third party intermediaries (the Parthians, in fact!). No official Roman boot trod that far into Chinese territory.