Book Corner: Roman Britain’s Missing Legion by Simon Elliott

Legio IX Hispana had a long and active history, later founding York from where it guarded the northern frontiers in Britain. But the last evidence for its existence in Britain comes from AD 108\. The mystery of their disappearance has inspired debate and imagination for decades. The most popular theory, immortalized in Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel _The Eagle of the Ninth_, is that the legion was sent to fight the Caledonians in Scotland and wiped out there. But more recent archaeology (including evidence that London was burnt to the ground and dozens of decapitated heads) suggests a crisis, not on the border but in the heart of the province, previously thought to have been peaceful at this time. What if IX Hispana took part in a rebellion, leading to their punishment, disbandment and _damnatio memoriae_ (official erasure from the records)? This proposed ‘Hadrianic War’ would then be the real context for Hadrian’s ‘visit’ in 122 with a whole legion, VI Victrix, which replaced the ‘vanished’ IX as the garrison at York. Other theories are that it was lost on the Rhine or Danube, or in the East. Simon Elliott considers the evidence for these four theories, and other possibilities.

Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispania by Simon Elliott is a fascinating investigation into the fate of the 9th Legion. Immortalised in Rosemary Sutcliff’s iconic novel, The Eagle of the Ninth.

In Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispania, historian Simon Elliott examines all the possible fates of the famous IX legion, examining every scenario in which the legion may have met its end, from revolt in Britannia to the wars in Germany to ignominious defeat in one of the Jewish revolts. Each conflict is explained in detail, with the possible involvement of the IX legion examined and explained, the level of plausibility carefully measured and detailed.

Simon Elliott ruminates on why this one legion disappears so completely from history, with no contemporary records – Roman or otherwise – giving reason or explanation as to its ultimate fate. This is a fascinating book, not only for its enquiries into the fate of the Legio IX Hisapana, but also for its detailed explanations into the make-up of the Roman army in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

Using contemporary records, historical investigations and archaeological discoveries, as well as his extensive knowledge of the Roman Empire and the Roman military, Simon Elliott finds traces of the IXth legion in Britain, Rome and elsewhere, but to discover their eventual fate must be a mammoth task.

This book is a historical detective story concerning the mysterious disappearance of the 5,500 men of legio IX Hispana, one of Rome’s most famous military units. Uniquely among the Roman legions, of which there were over time more than sixty (and at any one time in the Empire a maximum of thirty-three), we have no idea what happened to it. It simply disappears from history.

The historical conundrum has grabbed the attention of academics, scholars and the wider public for hundreds of years. One of the first to write on the subject was British antiquarian John Horsley who published his Britannia Romana or the Roman Antiquities of Britain in 1732. In his work he detailed when each Roman legion arrived and left Britain. However, he noted that there was no leaving date for legio IX Hispana, a fact he found difficult to explain. Then, in the 1850s, the renowned German scholar Theodor Mommsen published his multi-volume The History of Rome. In this he speculated that the IXth legion had been the subject of an uprising by the Brigantes tribe of northern Britain around AD 117/118, it being wiped out in its legionary fortress at York (Roman Eboracum). Mommsen speculated it was this event that prompted the new Emperor Hadrian to later visit Britain in AD 122 and initiate the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.

Such was Mommsen’s reputation that his theory became the received wisdom regarding the legion’s fate well into the twentieth century AD, when it was then popularized by a number of historical fiction works. One above all others cemented the fate of the legio IX Hispana in the popular imagination. This was The Eagle of the Ninth, the seminal work published by children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff in 1954. Her second book, this told the story of her hero Marcus Flavius Aquila who travelled north of Hadrian’s Wall to track down the fate of his father’s legion, legio IX Hispana. Her conceit was that the IXth legion had been annihilated in the far north of Britain, beyond the northern border rather than York, during yet another uprising. This novel proved as popular with adults as with children, and is still a bestseller to this day.

You don’t have to be an expert on Roman military history in order to read and enjoy this thorough investigation into the fate of the legio IX Hispana, Simon Elliott dedicates the first chapter to explaining the foundations of the Roman military machine, and how units are divided into legions, centuries, vexillations and the rest. This comprehensive introduction means the general reader can enjoy the book without getting lost in the various description of diverse Roman units. The author also explains the extent of Roman influence throughout Europe and beyond, from Roman incursions into Scotland, to its actions in Egypt, Syria and beyond.

He then goes on to examine the breadcrumbs left behind by the IXth legion, including tablets, small altars and inscriptions in York. Carlisle and elsewhere in the empire. These examples of the legion’s existence also serve to remind the reader that we are investigating the fate of men, around 1,000 men, who just disappear from history.

Incredibly well researched, Simon Elliott uses his extensive knowledge of this Roman military machine to offer all possible scenarios for the fate of the IXth legion and, with confidence, explain how likely or unlikely each scenario could ultimately be. I won’t tell you his conclusions, that would spoil it! However, the investigation process is just as entertaining as the conclusions that the author draws; perhaps more so, in that the reader learns so much about the various theatres of war in which the IXth legion may – or may not – have been drawn into.

Whether or not you agree with Simon Elliott’s arguments and conclusions, Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispania is well worth a read. It takes you on a fascinating detective journey through all the corners of the Roman Empire. And what is certain is that something extraordinary must have happened to the IXth legion to make them disappear so completely from contemporary records. Their fate remaining open to speculation for 2 millennia – so far.

This review has been written as part of Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispania week-long blog tour. You can follow the rest of the tour:

To buy the book:

Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispania by Simon Elliott is available from Amazon and Pen & Sword Books.

About the author:

Dr Simon Elliott is an historian, archaeologist and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Kent where he studied for his PhD in Archaeology on the subject of the Roman military in Britain. He also has an MA in War Studies from KCL and an MA in Archaeology from UCL. For a day job he runs his own PR company, and is a former defence and aerospace journalist at titles including Jane’s Defence Weekly and Flight International. He frequently gives talks on Roman themes and is co-Director at a Roman villa excavation. He is also a Trustee of the Council for British Archaeology. His website can be viewed at: simonelliott.net.

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Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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3 thoughts on “Book Corner: Roman Britain’s Missing Legion by Simon Elliott

  1. a gray 08/04/2021 / 05:56

    Isn’t the movie “The Eagle” based upon Rosemary Sutcliff’s book?

    Like

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