Was the Ninth Legion Destroyed in Britain?

Tristan Hughes

5 mins

12 Oct 2018

The legions of Rome were the nucleus of Rome’s military might for centuries. From campaigning in northern Scotland to the Persian Gulf, these devastating battalions extended and cemented Roman power.

Yet of these legions there was one whose end is shrouded in mystery: the Ninth Legion. So what might have happened to this legion? Here are a few of the theories that have been touted.

The disappearance

Our last literary mention of the Legion dates to 82 AD, amid Agricola’s campaign in Scotland, when it is severely mauled by a Caledonian force. Presumably it remained with Agricola for the rest of his campaign; yet following its end in 84 AD, all mention of the Legion in surviving literature vanishes.

Fortunately, we are not left completely clueless about what happened to the Ninth after Agricola departed Britain’s shores. Inscriptions from York reveal that the Ninth returned and remained stationed at the Roman Fort (then known as Eboracum / Eburacum) at least until 108. Yet after that, all evidence about the Ninth in Britain disappears.

We know that by 122 AD, the Legion had been replaced at Eboracum by the Sixth Victrix. And by 165 AD, when a list of existing legions is drawn up in Rome, the Ninth Hispania is nowhere to be found. So what happened to it?

The last known evidence for the Ninth Legion’s presence in Britain is this inscription from its base at York dating to 108. Credit: York Museums Trust.

Crushed by the Celts?

Our knowledge of the history of Britain at the start of the First Century is shrouded in mystery. Yet from the limited evidence we do have, many of the original theories about the fate of the Ninth Hispania arose.

During the early reign of Hadrian, contemporary historians highlight that there was serious unrest in Roman-occupied Britain – unrest that broke out into full-scale revolt in c. 118 AD.

It is this evidence that had originally led many scholars to believe that the Ninth was destroyed in an ignominious defeat during this British War. Some have suggested it was annihilated during a British attack on the Ninth’s base at Eboracum, spearheaded by the neighbouring Brigantes tribe – who we know were causing Rome much trouble at this time. Others meanwhile have suggested the Legion was crushed further north after it was dispatched to deal with a northern British uprising in c. 118.

Indeed, it was these theories that helped form the story-line of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s famous novel: the Eagle of the Ninth, where the Legion was annihilated in northern Britain and consequently inspired Hadrian to construct Hadrian’s Wall.

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Yet these are all theories – all of which are based on very insecure evidence and scholarly assumption. Despite this, the belief that the Ninth was destroyed in Britain in c. 120 AD remained the dominant theory for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. No-one could effectively challenge it!

Yet in the past 50 years, new evidence has emerged that seems to reveal another fascinating chapter in the Legion’s existence.

Relocated to the Rhine?

Noviomagus was located on the Rhine frontier. Credit: Battles of the Ancients.

In 1959, a discovery was made at the Hunerburg fortress near Noviomagus (modern day Nijmegen) in Lower-Germany. Originally, this fortress had been occupied by the Tenth Legion. Yet in 103 AD, after serving with Trajan during the Dacian Wars, the Tenth was relocated to Vindobona (modern day Vienna). Who does it appear replaced the Tenth at the Hunerburg? None other than the Ninth Hispania!

In 1959, a roof-tile dating to c. 125 AD was discovered at Nijmegen bearing the ownership mark of the Ninth Hispania. Later, further finds discovered nearby also bearing the Ninth’s stamp confirmed the presence of the Legion in lower-Germany around that time.

Some believe that these inscriptions belonged to a detachment of the Ninth – a vexillation – that was transferred to Lower Germany and that the rest of the Legion had indeed either been destroyed or disbanded in Britain in c. 120 AD. Indeed one theory believes the Ninth suffered mass desertions in Britain at this time, given the notorious ill-discipline of the British legions, and that what remained was transferred to the Hunerburg.

Yet many others now believe that in fact the whole legion was transferred to Nijmegen, casting fresh doubt on the traditional theory that the Ninth suffered a humiliating defeat at British hands at that time.

Bronze object from Ewijk in the Netherlands. It mentions the Ninth Legion and dates roughly to 125. Credit: Jona Lendering / Commons.

A Brigantes bond?

It is understandable why the Ninth may have been relocated from Eboracum at this time without suffering a great defeat. As mentioned, during the early reign of Hadrian it appears the Brigantes tribe were becoming increasingly hostile to Roman rule and that they spearheaded unrest in Britain.

As the Brigantes inhabited the area surrounding Eboracum, it is very probable there was interchange between the soldiers and the tribe; after all, by c.115 AD the Ninth Legion had been stationed there long term and many legionaries had likely taken Brigantes wives and had children – this intermingling with the local population was inevitable and had occurred already on many other Roman frontiers.

Perhaps therefore it was the Ninth’s close bond with the Brigantes by c. 115 AD that influenced a Roman decision to relocate the Legion to the continent? Perhaps their loyalty in an upcoming war with the increasingly unruly Brigantes was becoming suspect?

So, if the Legion was no longer active by 165 and was not destroyed in Britain, where, when and how did the Ninth meet its end?

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Eradicated in the east?

It is now that our story takes another bizarre twist; as the answer may in fact lie in events occurring at this time in the Near-East.

Although many remember Hadrian’s reign as one of peace, stability and prosperity, there was one great war that was fought during his time as emperor: the Third Jewish War of 132 – 135 AD, most famously known as the Bar – Kokhba Revolt.

Following the discovery of various inscriptions that suggest the legion survived until at least 140 AD, certain scholars now believe the Ninth was transferred from Noviomagus to the East near the end of Hadrian’s reign to help deal with the Jewish Revolt. There the legion may have remained with one school of thought arguing that it was during this Revolt that the Legion finally met its end.

Yet there is another possibility – one that extends the Ninth Hispania’s story yet further.

In 161 AD, the commander Marcus Severianus led an unnamed legion into Armenia during a war with the Parthians. The result proved devastating. Severianus and his legion were annihilated by a Parthian army of horse archers near a town called Elegeia. None survived.

Could this unnamed legion have been the Ninth? Did, perhaps, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius not wish to add such a tragic defeat and demise of this legion to their histories?

Until further evidence arises, the fate of the Ninth Legion remains shrouded in mystery. Yet as archaeology continues to make discoveries, perhaps one day we will have a clearer answer.