Britain is an island awash with legends. From witches and bogarts to tales of giants and dragons, the mysteries of the ancients have enthralled for millennia. However, none of these legends is perhaps as significant as what happened to the Spanish Ninth Legion, one of the forces sent to occupy the land after the Roman Invasion. While historians have long debated the mysterious disappearance of the men, legends say that they were sent north to fight the Scots, marching into the mists and never being seen again…
It was in 43 AD that the Roman emperor Claudius instigated the empire’s invasion of Britain and it seems likely that the Ninth Legion were one of the units involved. In the year 50, the company is one of those who defeat the British chieftain Caratacus and the same year they begin the construction of a fort at modern-day Lincoln. They wouldn’t have it all their own way in Britain, however, suffering losses so severe at the Battle of Camulodunum that the event became known as the Massacre of the Ninth Legion. The battle was a significant victory during the revolt of Boudica around the year 60.
Reinforced with legionaries from Germany, the Ninth Legion was soon back to its previous strength and on the move, constructing a new fortress at Eboracum, modern-day York. Central to Roman military plans in the north, the Ninth were part of the war against the Caledonians of Scotland. The unit escaped a second near destruction around the year 82 when a surprise attack by the Scots found the Romans asleep their beds. Fierce fighting ensued and defeat was only averted by the timely intervention of the cavalry.
In 108, the Ninth Legion was involved in the reconstruction of their fort at Eboracum. This event was recorded on a tablet discovered in 1864, however, after that, history becomes clouded. Artefacts found at Noviomagus Batavorum in modern Nijmegen, Netherlands, suggest that at least a detachment of the unit was deployed to the region sometime between 104 and 120, with a silver pendant inscribed “LEG HISP IX” (Ninth Legion — Spanish) being found. It is not clear whether the entire legion was present or merely a detachment and others believe the fate of the unit was much more deadly, with the brigade vanishing into history before 197.
However, the presence of the Ninth in the Netherlands is disputed. The historian Miles Russell contends that “there is no evidence that the Ninth were ever taken out of Britain,” and points out that the artefacts discovered at Nijmegen cannot be conclusively dated to a period after the last reported movements of the men in Britain. Russell states that these artefacts are actually dated to around 80 AD when the legion was known to be fighting the Germanic tribes around the Rhine. So, what then, truly happened to the Ninth Legion?
Some historians believe the fate of the unit is a simple redeployment, with the legions being sent to act against the Second Jewish Revolt in Palestine around 132. The Roman legions were suffering heavy casualties during the uprising and the time would coincide with the upper end of dates from Nijmegen, if they had indeed been there. However, the Egyptian based XXII Deiotariana is confirmed to have been lost during the fighting, and the loss of two legions would mean the revolt was one of the worst military losses in Roman history up until that point. Such a defeat would be superseded only by the so-called Varian Disaster during the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. There three legions were lost to the Germanic tribes during a loss of around 20,000 men. This seems unlikely.
Others suggest that the legion was destroyed in Armenia during Marcus Aurelius’ Parthian War. The Greek historian Lucius Cassius Dio stated that a Parthian army surrounded and annihilated an entire Roman unit during the conflict, failing to name it. Only two legions were stationed in the region at the time, both are known to exist well after the year 200. However, no evidence exists that verifies this account, nor none to suggest the Ninth Legion were involved in the conflict. Some contend that the unit destroyed was, in fact, the XXII Deiotariana, having not been destroyed during the Second Jewish Revolt at all.
The traditional theory suggests that the Ninth marched into the Scottish mists and was never heard from again. The likelihood remains that the Ninth was destroyed in Britain and this was the theory of the eminent Theodor Mommsen, a German classical scholar, historian, and archaeologist. Mommsen suggested that a revolt by Brigantes in England’s north and Scotland’s south around 108 was likely the point that the Ninth was destroyed.
“Under Hadrian, there was a terrible catastrophe here, apparently an attack on the fortress of Eboracum [York] and the annihilation of the legion stationed there, the very same Ninth that had fought so unluckily in the Boudica revolt.”
One legend tells of how 4,000 men marched through the region which is the now the Scottish town of Dunblane before vanishing. The legends say that no dispatches were ever sent by the men and those who investigated found no trace of them, with the locals saying they were never seen again after they left the town. It is said that the ghosts of the Ninth can still be heard marching through Dunblane, travelling north for all eternity.
Perhaps one of the most famous legends associated with the Ninth Legion was the alleged experience of an apprentice plumber, Harry Martindale. In 1953, the 18-year-old Martindale was repairing pipes in a York cellar when he became aware of a noise that sounded like trumpets. The sound got louder and louder until Martindale saw a figure. He would report this figure wore a plumed helmet, green tunic, sandals and carried both a shield and sword. Emerging from the wall, nine or ten pairs of legionaries followed alongside a cart and horse. The plumber was terrified and fell from a ladder, hiding in a corner as the men marched in formation through the workspace. At the time, the description of the attire worn by the Roman ghosts was said to be unusual, however, later excavations found it matched recovered artefacts. The story has been linked to the Ninth Legion who once resided in York.
However, despite these legends, there was seemingly no claim of victory by the Scots. Nor was there any record left by Rome to suggest the loss of a legion. However, some believe that emperor Hadrian’s trip to Britain around 122 and the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, the wall that divide’s England and Scotland, may have been a result of a military disaster in the north, possibly the destruction of the Ninth Legion. Construction on Hadrian’s Wall began that year, yet had probably already been planned before the trip. While military defence is the most likely explanation, others suggest that the construction of the wall was a vanity project, designed to project Roman power. With debate still raging over the actual threat posed by the British north, it may even be possible that the rebellious tribes may not have possessed the ability or resources to take on an entire well trained Roman legion.
The region around Hadrian’s Wall and ancient Scotland are rich in folklore and mysticism, and the fate of the Ninth Legion has only added to the reputation of the area. The wall was a symbol of protection, with the Scots that lay beyond depicted as monstrous, savage and perhaps not even human. Tales of the dangers beyond the wall undoubtedly enthralled many a British-Roman child and even today some of the wilder reports say that the spirits of long-dead Roman guards still patrol the remains of the fortifications.
These stories still exist in the present. The tale of the Ninth Legion is one that has been treated as one of courage and rebellion, of the underdog British taking on the might of Rome and winning. Others, give it a horror treatment, themes of civilisation coming face to face with barbarism. Perhaps the most famous work on the subject was Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 book The Eagle of the Ninth, where a young man travels behind the wall to discover the truth of what happened to his father, lost with the Ninth Legion. The fate of the unit has also been the subject of TV shows, documentaries and film, with 2007’s The Last Legion and 2010’s Centurion standing out. The mystery even featured in a 2017 episode of Doctor Who, starring Peter Capaldi. In the episode, The Eaters of Light, the disappearance is attributed to an inter-dimensional entity!
The story of the Ninth Legion is one without an ending and one that is full of evocative imagery. To some, the myth of the well-armed warriors marching into the mist to never be seen again symbolises the ancient mysteries of Scotland, steeped in folklore. To others, it is a tale of British bravado, the might of Rome no match for the ferocity of the north. Others take more prosaic views, suggesting their destruction in Palestine or Armenia. Whatever the truth may be, the story of the Ninth Legion is sure to enthral for many centuries to come.
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