The Eagle of the Ninth: What Do We Know about Rome’s Lost Legion? | History Hit

The Eagle of the Ninth: What Do We Know about Rome’s Lost Legion?

Image Credit: C20H60 Quintus Sertorius (c. 123-72 BC). Roman statesman and general. Quintus Sertorius besieges the Lusones in Contrebia Belaisca.

The question of what happened to the Ninth Legion is one of the great mysteries of history. Its sudden disappearance from all records at the start of the Second Century AD has brought about various theories about its fate, including one that Rosemary Sutcliffe used for her famous novel, ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’. Yet although best remembered for its puzzling disappearance, the history of the Ninth prior to its vanishing is equally fascinating.

Ancient ammo at Asculum

In 89 BC, during a war between the Romans and many of their allied-Italian states, a Roman army besieged the Italian stronghold of Asculum in southern Italy. According to our sources, the siege was long and the fighting fierce. And archaeological surveys have made fascinating discoveries.

Numerous pieces of lead slingshot left from the siege have been discovered around the ancient city. Some are inscribed with various ‘black humour’ messages; but others depict Roman numerals, believed to represent legions in the Roman besieging force. Among those discovered are some mentioning a Legio IX, a ninth legion. This is the first attested evidence for the existence of a ninth legion in the Roman army.

Caesar’s companions

From then on the Ninth Legion would play a leading role in some of the great wars of antiquity. In 59 BC it was one of the four original legions that Julius Caesar was granted from the senate – the manpower he needed to begin his famous Gallic conquest. From his early battle with the Helvetii at Bibracte to the epic siege of Alesia, the Ninth played a critical role in the success of Caesar’s Gallic campaign and his rise to prominence.

Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar, 52 BC.

Following the end of Caesar’s Gallic Wars and 9 years of fighting, the Ninth Legion was formidable: its soldiers battle-hardened, its loyalty to Caesar paramount. Caesar knew this full well and would often rely upon it.

During the ensuing civil war between Caesar and Pompey the Great, the Ninth continued to serve Caesar with distinction. Although it was severely mauled by Pompey’s forces at the Battle of Dyrrachium it remained an integral part of Caesar’s army, going on to partake in his remarkable victories, first at Pharsalus and then at Thapsus.

Only in 46-45 BC, following his victory at Thapsus, did Caesar finally disband his veterans of the Ninth, many of whom he settled in Picenum. Yet the Legion would soon rise again.

The Ninth rises

Within ten years, the Ninth Legion was re-established and went on to serve with Octavian down to his final victory against Marc Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. With this success, Octavian now ruled the whole of the Roman Empire. Yet this did not signal the end for the Ninth. In fact, it was only the beginning.

In 29 BC, Octavian led the Ninth and up to six other legions into northern Spain to campaign against the last non-subjugated tribes in the region. For ten years the war waged, during which it appears the Ninth Legion performed exceptionally. It was for the role they played during these campaigns that the Ninth acquired its permanent title, Legio IX Hispania.

From then on, it appears the Ninth Legion was sent to the Roman frontier in Pannonia, where it remained for much of the primary half of the first century AD. Yet there was one time when the Legion was sent far away from Pannonia.

Tristan Hughes looks into the story of Rome's Ninth Legion and its mysterious disappearance.
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In 21 AD, the emperor Tiberius relocated the legion to North Africa to crush the revolt led by a Berber called Tacfarinas. For the past four years Tacfarinas had charismatically led a vicious guerrilla war against the encroaching Romans in North Africa and had already stretched the local legion to its limit. So Tiberius called in the Ninth Legion to finally end this uprising.

Aided by the Ninth, a victory soon followed for the Romans. Tiberius believed the war was over, the commander of the Ninth Legion, Publius Scipio, was honoured in Lepcis Magna, and the Legion was recalled to Pannonia.

Bound for Britannia

Upon returning to Pannonia, the Legion remained stationed there until 43 AD, when it once again found itself posted overseas. That year, the Ninth set sail for Britain as part of the Emperor Claudius’ invasion force. It partook in the ensuing Roman occupation and for the next 15 or so years, fought numerous battles against various hostile Celtic tribes.

Britannia duly became the Legion’s new home and in c.55 AD, it established its base at the legionary fort of Lindum Colonia, modern day Lincoln. Yet disaster soon followed for the Ninth.

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The warrior queen

In 61 AD, a bloody revolt engulfed Roman Britain. Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni and a woman hell-bent on revenge for Roman brutality and humiliation of her family and her people, amassed a huge British force to drive out the Romans from the island. Success soon followed for Boudicca as she and her huge warband decimated the Roman colony at Camulodonum.

Upon hearing of the attack, the Ninth marched south to come to the aid. It was not to be. As the Ninth was en-route, Boudicca and her large army overwhelmed and destroyed much of the Legion. According to Tacitus every single infantryman was killed, with only the Roman commander and his cavalry managing to escape. 61 AD was not a good year for the Ninth.

Boudicca’s Revolt and the Battle of Camulodonum, also known as the ‘Massacre of the Ninth Legion’, AD 61.

Despite being devastated at the hands of Boudicca, the Romans subsequently quashed the revolt and brought the Ninth Legion back up to strength with reinforcements from the continent. The Legion was also then moved from Lindum to Eboracum, modern day York, to check the powerful Brigantes tribe and defend Roman Britain from the unconquered north.

Yet Boudicca would not be the last enemy to cripple Legio IX.

The IX Hispania moved to Eboracum (Eburacum), modern day York.

Dicing with death (again)

Not long after its establishment at York, the Ninth once again saw action. Under the command of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Ninth marched into modern-day Scotland and helped consolidate Roman rule as far as the river Forth.

Although Agricola’s campaign in Scotland achieved success, the Ninth Legion’s experience was far from pleasant. In 82 AD, as part of Agricola’s plan to defeat the Caledonians and secure the Forth-Clyde frontier, Agricola divided his force into three separate divisions. The Caledonians got word that Agricola had divided his army into weaker units however and they seized the opportunity, targeting one of these smaller forces: none other than the Ninth Legion.

Northern Britain in 82 AD, amid Agricola’s campaign. Some believe Agricola had stationed the Ninth at Inchtuthil or at the nearby fort of Pinnata Castra when it diced with death.

Stationed in a turf and timber fort, the Ninth Legion were surprised by the Caledonians in a night assault. Initially the Caledonian plan was perfectly executed; caught completely off-guard, the Legion suffered severely. Desperately with whatever arms and armour they could get their hands on, the Ninth finally managed to form some sort of effective defence. Still it could not withhold forever. Defeat looked inevitable.

Yet just as the Ninth looked doomed to fall, Agricola received word and marched with all haste to relieve the camp. Just in time Agricola and his army arrived at the scene, trapping the Caledonians and slaughtering them. The Ninth Legion had diced with death. Yet it had held on for just long enough!

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This is our last literary mention of Legio IX Hispania. Following its serving with Agricola, all mention of it in our literary sources vanishes without a trace. Theories as to what may have happened to the Legion are plenty. Yet one thing is for sure, its history would make for a fascinating novel in itself.

Tags: Augustus Boudicca Julius Caesar

Tristan Hughes