The disappearance of Rome’s 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.
The theory that 5,000 of Rome’s finest soldiers were lost in the swirling mists of Caledonia, as they marched north to put down a rebellion, forms the basis of a new film, The Eagle, but how much of it is true?
It is easy to understand the appeal of stories surrounding the loss of the Roman Ninth Legion – a disadvantaged band of British warriors inflicting a humiliating defeat upon a well-trained, heavily-armoured professional army.
It’s the ultimate triumph of the underdog – an unlikely tale of victory against the odds. Recently, however, 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, not to say the cultural impact of Braveheart, 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.
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, theorising 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. It’s just a guess which, over time, has taken on a sheen of cast iron certainty. 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.