Legio IX: Did they stay or did they go?

Since the introduction of my contact form I have received a number of questions from people who, for various reasons, didn’t want to ask questions in the comments section of the relevant post. Most of these I answer independently. However one I felt merited a post of its own. “JeffHead” asked in response to my post on Boudicca “What stories are there about the disappearance of the ninth legion, and what do you think happened to them”.

There are a lot of very sensible theories about what happened to Legio IX Hispana. We know prior to the invasion of Britain around 43 AD, they were fighting in Germania. Here they built a fairly impressive reputation even by legionary standards and up until Boudicca beat the living shit out of them in 61 AD they were largely considered to be undefeatible. Five-thousand five-hundred experienced infantry and cavalry, battle hardened and well led felled by a crushing hubris and Celtic iron.

Their commander at the battle of Camulodunum was a chap called Quintus Petillius Cerialis. Given how in Roman society, reputation is all I would imagine his recall to Rome was probably more punitive. We know the ninth were restored to full strength with infantry from Gaul under a new commander. For the next forty years they were bouncing around Britain. In 71 and 72 AD once again under the command of Cerialis they undertook a successful campaign against the Brigantes. In 82 AD they entered Caledonia under Agricola where they experienced a stunning defeat.

Side Note: It is not recorded how Agricola managed to get as far as Caledonia with Tacitus head lodged so far up his arse.

The last record of the ninth was rebuilding the city of Eboracum in 101 AD. After this there is nothing. Which is odd given the Romans wrote everything down in painful detail. So lets look at some popular theories.

They Naturalised

One theory is that given they were not a legion formed from one region they lost unit cohesion and there were mass desertions, bare in mind most of this legion were from Gaul and had never been to Rome, they had far more in common with the Britain’s they were occupying than the commanders who would never endorse them with the rights of a citizen. The native Britons were also running a bit short on men after almost a century of war. I would guess there were some pretty convincing incentives to drop your spear and settle down with a nice Celtic girl. It is however hard to believe all 5500 men naturalised, it was unlikely to be a bloodless mutiny however I would argue Rome would be disinclined to record losing an entire legion to desertion.

This theory expands into the possibility that a naturalised Roman leader went on to command an army of Celts against the Saxons, thus giving rise to the mythology of King Arthur. This however suggests that the legion was maintained in Britain until the fourth century when the Romans withdrew from Britain. However this would still leave the proposed leader Artorius Aurealis well in his nineties at the battle of Camlynn where the legendary Arthur was mortally wounded.

Side Note: The romanised name for this commander is Ambrosius which evolves linguistically into Ambrose which translates in Welsh into Emrys which is one of the myriad suggested names for Merlin.

They Disbanded

There is a running theme in the military “If you wipe the name, you may wipe the shame”. The two defeats experienced by Legio IX Hispania were crushing and shattered the illusion of immortality Rome had forged since its sacking by Brennus in 387 AD. It is possible that the legion was simply disbanded and its men sent to reinforce other legions. However again we have no surviving written records and I cant imagine any Roman having the discipline to avoid writing anything down.

They Got Slaughtered

The were a highly experienced and trained military unit, their two high profile defeats should have been insignificant against centuries of victories. However as is true today we often only get recognised for our failures and not our victories. However what if one of their defeats was a little more momentous? one theory is that they marched again into Caledonia and were promptly destroyed. However you’d imagine five thousand bodies would leave something in the archaeological record.

My Theory

Of the available theories, the one I feel is most plausible is administrative error. As mundane as it may be perhaps someone just forgot to log the legions departure from the island, after which they continued to serve in Gaul. There is little convincing evidence to support the legions continued existence however I am always willing to presume bureaucratic error.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned in my previous post the ghosts ninth legion are reported to march through the old treasure house in York on a moonlight night. I doubt this mystery will ever find a resolution but it does inspire a great deal of romanticism.

Thank you to JeffHead for the question.

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