Two thousands years ago, a mighty legion fought on behalf of the emperors of Rome. Then, they simply vanished from the history books for good. Over the years, many have speculated over what became of the missing warriors – but will we ever get to the bottom of one of history’s most enduring mysteries?
The story of the Roman Empire began way back in 509 B.C., with the founding of the Roman Republic. During that period, the rulers of Rome sought to expand their reach beyond the city walls. And although initially torn apart by civil war, leaders such as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony laid the foundations for Rome to become one of the greatest powers that the world has ever seen.
The renowned military leader Octavian became the first ever emperor of a brand new Roman Empire in 27 B.C. And although he wielded less military power than the leaders of the republic before him, his armies still conquered vast swathes of territory in his name. In fact, his reign saw the influence of Rome spread across Asia Minor, Africa and southwest Europe.
Over the years, the might of the Roman Empire continued to grow. And by 117 A.D., it stretched all the way from Britain in the east to the gulf of Persia in the west. In fact, it’s thought to have covered almost two million square miles at its peak, with some 70 million citizens under the emperor’s control.
Of course, all this would not have been possible without the Roman legions – large military units that were dispatched across the empire to conquer territory, quash rebellion and control the population. Over the years, it’s believed that as many as 50 different legions fought and died for the emperors of Rome.
According to experts, so advanced were the legions that they could easily take on and defeat armies many times their size. An elite force within the Roman military, only true citizens of the empire were able to join these units. And at their height, they comprised more than 5,000 highly trained fighting men.
Today, the legions hold a rightful place as one of the most efficient fighting forces in history. Indeed, they played a vital role in the rise of the Roman Empire. There is one unit in particular, however, that continues to fascinate thousands of years after it first emerged – the Legio IX Hispana, or the Ninth Legion.
Although the early history of the Legio IX Hispana is uncertain, most believe that it had its roots in the armies of the Roman Republic. Apparently, a Ninth Legion is thought to have taken part in the Social War of 91 to 88 B.C. And with its help, the republic emerged victorious, bringing all of Italy under the control of Rome.
Twenty-five years later, the Ninth Legion is thought to have been hired, or raised once again. This time, by Pompey the Great, the fifth leader of the Roman Republic. And in 58 B.C., it seems that Julius Caesar took control of the legion, along with three others, when he became governor of Italy’s Cisalpine Gaul region.
By this time, the Ninth Legion was likely based in Aquileia, an Italian city located near the Adriatic Sea. There, they most likely kept enemy tribes at bay. Meanwhile, tensions between the republic and the Gauls, who inhabited much of what is now Belgium and France, were on the rise.
Eventually, the Ninth Legion helped Caesar to defeat his enemies in the Gallic Wars. Then, in 49 B.C., the Roman Republic descended into civil war. Over the course of at least three battles, the soldiers fought for their leader in Africa, Albania and Greece, finally seeing him emerge victorious in 45 B.C.
With the civil war over, Caesar dismissed the men of Ninth Legion. He then offered its veterans a new life in the Italian region of Picenum. However, this peace did not last. And when the Roman leader was assassinated in 44 B.C., his protégé Ventidius Bassus sought to recall a number of legions, including the Ninth.
Although this assignment was short lived, the Ninth Legion was soon raised once more. Octavian needed them to fight in the last battles of the Roman Republic. And when he became emperor, he stationed the unit on the Iberian Peninsula, or Hispania, earning it the name Legio IX Hispana.
As the Roman Empire grew in power and influence, the Ninth Legion continued to fight, probably against the Rhine region’s Germanic tribes. However, it was the events of 43 A.D. that would really shape their legend for centuries to come. That year, Emperor Claudius began the conquest of Britain, a long and difficult campaign that would take four decades.
According to contemporary sources, the Ninth was among the legions that traveled to Britain on the emperor’s orders. And in 50 A.D., they battled successfully against the resistance fighters of Caratacus, a British chieftain. Later, they quelled another rebellion, this time by the Brigante king Venutius somewhere around 52 A.D. to 57 A.D.
But despite the Ninth’s early successes in expanding Claudius’ empire, they were far from indestructible. In fact, their numbers were seriously depleted in 61 A.D., when the British tribal queen Boudica led an uprising against the invaders. In the ensuing battles, many of the legion’s foot soldiers lost their lives.
A decade later, however, the Ninth Legion seemed to have recovered. Its soldiers then assisted governor Cerialis in reclaiming Britain’s rebellious north. And in 82 A.D., they joined the Roman general Agricola on his mission to conquer Caledonia – the wild and untamed land we know as Scotland today.
According to reports, the Ninth Legion was almost destroyed early in the invasion, when a group of Caledonian rebels attacked while they slept. However, they recovered, and went on to fight for Agricola in the Mons Graupius battle. And even though the Romans were vastly outnumbered, their superior military tactics won them a decisive victory.
After Agricola’s victory, many of the Caledonian natives accepted their new position in the Roman Empire. However, some stubborn tribes continued to fight against the invaders. With that in mind, the Ninth Legion built a fortress in the city of York. There, they are thought to have been one of the northernmost Roman forces in Britain, tasked with defending a volatile frontier.
According to experts, the last record of the Ninth Legion on British soil came from York, in the form of a stone tablet dated to 108 A.D. But from that point onwards, the fate of this band of Roman soldiers remains unknown. And after a brief mention in 120 A.D., they appear to have vanished have without a trace.
At around the time that the Ninth Legion disappeared from the history books, the Roman Empire reached its peak. And as the years progressed, its military went from strength to strength. Of course, the empire eventually fell, but it’s believed that some of its legions survived as late as the seventh century.
But what happened to the Legio IX Hispana, commonly known as the lost Ninth Legion? Over the years, many theories have appeared to explain its strange disappearance. However, so far, none have been definitively proven and the mystery of these loyal soldiers continues to haunt history to this day.
Today, one of the most popular theories is that the Ninth Legion marched north into Caledonia. Once there, though, they met defeat at the hands of a band of rebels. And around the time that the unit disappeared from recorded history, in fact, the Emperor Hadrian was struggling to keep the British under control. And over the course of his reign, many Roman soldiers lost their lives.
In 122 A.D., the British rebellion had become so bad that Hadrian himself paid a visit to the eastern border of his empire. And there, he discovered a situation so dire he decided to construct a wall to keep the rebels at bay. But could the Ninth Legion have fallen victim to this volatile period of history?
There are no records of exactly how many Roman troops fell during this time. Indeed, many believe that the soldiers of the Ninth Legion could have been among those killed by British tribes. In fact, Theodor Mommsen, a German historian writing in the 19th century, theorized that the men might have met their deaths soon after their last recorded presence in York.
“Under Hadrian there was a terrible catastrophe, 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 Boudican revolt,” Mommsen is reported to have written. Moreover, he implied that an uprising by the Celtic Brigantes around 108 A.D. could have been to blame.
However, not everyone subscribes to this explanation of the Ninth Legion’s ultimate fate. In fact, after Mommsen published his theories, evidence emerged placing the soldiers in the Netherlands’ Nijmegen region in 120 A.D. There, various artifacts were discovered that seem to suggest the missing legion survived the slaughter in Britain and traveled westward once more.
On the back of these finds, a number of new theories dealing with the Ninth Legion’s fate have emerged. According to one, the unit survived to fight in the Second Jewish Revolt of 132 A.D. Apparently, this bloody conflict with the Romans in Judea saw the empire dealt a hefty blow.
Was the Ninth Legion among the Roman soldiers killed in Judea? Apparently it’s a possibility. Another unit, XXII Deiotariana, however, was recorded as being present in the region during that time. And while it is possible that two legions could have fallen in the same conflict, it would rank among one of the biggest losses in the empire’s military history..
But if the Ninth Legion didn’t die in Britain or Judea, what else could have happened to the soldiers? According to another theory they may have survived into the reign of Marcus Aurelius, who became emperor in 161 A.D. Around this time, an unknown legion was reportedly completely annihilated by the enemy in Armenia during the Parthian War.
Apparently, records suggest that two different legions were stationed in the region at that time, as well. However, since both are known to have survived into the third century, neither could have been the lost unit. But while some have suggested that it could have been the Ninth that fell victim to this massacre, others have pointed out the lack of evidence linking them to Armenia and the Parthian War.
This lack of evidence linking the Ninth to the empire’s activities in later years has had one big effect. Indeed, many have returned to the idea that the soldiers did, in fact, perish in Britain after all. And in order to support this theory, some claim that the evidence from Nijmegen only indicates that some – not necessarily all – of the unit were ever there.
Moreover, some scholars have suggested the lack of later records can only mean one thing. It’s unlikely that the Ninth survived to fight in either the Jewish Revolt or the Parthian War. “No inscriptions recording the building activities of the legion or the lives and careers of its members have come from the East,” Keppie wrote in his paper The Fate of the Ninth Legion: a problem for the Eastern Provinces?
According to Russell, though, the solution to the mystery is simple. “By far the most plausible answer to the question, ‘What happened to the Ninth?’ is that they fought and died in Britain, disappearing in the late 110s [A.D.] or early 120s [A.D] when the province was in disarray,” he wrote in a 2011 article for BBC History Magazine. However, Keppie has proposed a different scenario.
Apparently, Keppie believes that the Ninth may well have left Britain around 117 A.D. Why? To fight in an earlier Parthian war. In fact, he has suggested that the soldiers’ absence from the northern frontier could have caused the British rebels to revolt. All of which led to the construction of Hadrian’s infamous wall.
With so many competing theories, the truth about what happened to the Ninth Legion is perhaps more elusive than ever. But while historians debate the events surrounding its disappearance, many writers have penned epic tales inspired by the historic mystery. Today, credit for kickstarting the trend goes to British author Rosemary Sutcliff, with The Eagle of the Ninth back in 1954.
In Sutcliff’s novel, Marcus Aquila, a fictional Roman officer, travels to Caledonia in search of the missing legion. And since its publication, the story of the lost Ninth has appeared in numerous other books, movies and television shows. Recently, the soldiers also featured in the popular British science fiction series Doctor Who, where they were shown to have been the victims of an alien attack.
While it seems unlikely that extraterrestrials really did have a hand in the disappearance of the Ninth Legion, the jury is still out on what really happened. And as a result, the mystery remains the subject of constant debate. But even if the truth eventually comes to light, the haunting legend of the missing legion seems likely to remain.