The Mysterious Disappearance of the Ninth Legion

The disappearance of the Ninth Legion or Legio IX Hispana (The “Spanish Legion”) is one of the most enduring legends of Roman Britain and has long baffled the historians. No one knows for sure why, but sometime after 108 or 109 AD, the legion all but disappeared mysteriously from the records. The last concrete information of its whereabouts is in 107-108 AD, where they are mentioned being stationed to help rebuild the legionary fortress at York (Eboracum). The popular version of events is that the Ninth, at the time numbering some over 4,000 men, was sent to vanquish the Picts of modern day Scotland, and never returned.

The historians have dissented, theorising that the Ninth did not disappear in Britain at all. 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. 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. Three stamped tiles bearing the unit number of the Ninth found at Nijmegen, Netherlands which had been evacuated by X Gemina have been used to support the idea of transfer from Britain. But these evidence seem to date to the 80s AD, when detachments of the Ninth were indeed on the Rhine fighting Germanic tribes. And they do not prove that the Ninth left Britain for good.

In fact, the last certain piece of evidence relating to the existence of the Legion from anywhere in the Roman Empire comes from York where an inscription, dating to AD 108, credits the Ninth with rebuilding the fortress in stone. Some time between then and the mid-2nd Century, when a record of all Legions was compiled, the unit had ceased to exist.

The Ninth Legion was raised, along with the 6th, 7th and 8th, by Pompey in Hispania in 65 BCE. Julius Caesar first commanded them as Governor of Further Spain in 61 BCE. From 58-51 BC it served in Gaul throughout the Gallic Wars, and during Caesar’s Civil War against Pompey and the Senate from 49-48 BC. Victory at Pharsalus was decisive in ensuring Caesar’s ultimate grip on the Republic, and the Ninth played a key role. He repaid its service by – after his African campaign of 46 BC, and ultimate triumph at the Battle of Thapsus – disbanding the legion, and settling its veterans at Picenum.

After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Octavian (Caesar’s adopted son) recalled the Ninth to fight against the rebellion of Sextus Pompeius in Sicily. The legion was then stationed in Macedonia after defeating Sextus in 36 BC. The Ninth remained with Octavian in his war against Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and fought by his side in the battle of Actium in 31 BC. After that, the legion was sent to Hispania to take part in the large scale campaign against the Cantabrians (25–13 BCE) with Octavian as sole ruler of the Roman world. The campaign eventually ensured Roman dominance in the region and this was probably the reason why the Ninth earned its title “Hispana”.

After the campaign, the Ninth Legion was likely pitched into the imperial army stationed in the Rhine area, against Germanic tribes, then relocated to Pannonia following the abandonment of the Eastern Rhine area for a relatively long period sometime after 9 AD. It wasn’t until 43 AD that the legion was on the move again, joining with other Roman forces, under Emperor Claudius and general Aulus Plautius, in invading Britain. Under the command of Caesius Nasica they put down the first revolt of Venutius between 52 and 57 AD.

Under Quintus Petillius Cerialis the Ninth suffered a serious defeat in battle against the rebellion of Boudicca (61) and was later reinforced with legionaries from the Germania provinces. Around AD 71 they constructed a new fortress at York (Eboracum), in its last recorded and datable action on the basis of legionary stamps. Legend has it that the Ninth later embarked on its fateful march against the Picts, a confederation of tribes located in modern day eastern and northern Scotland, and was annihilated, prompting Emperor Hadrian to cut his losses in the north of Britain and build his famous wall from coast to coast. This appears to be the point where myth overtakes reality however – numerous scraps of evidence suggest the Legio IX Hispana met a different fate.

It is often said that the legion disappeared in Britain about 117 CE. However, the names of several high ranking officers of the Ninth Legion are known who probably served with the legion after ca. 120 (e.g., Lucius Aemilius Karus, governor of Arabia in 142/143), which suggests that the legion continued in existence after this date. It has been suggested that the legion may have been destroyed during the Bar Kochba Revolt in Iudaea Province, or possibly in the ongoing conflict with the Parthian Empire but there is no firm evidence for this.

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. Sutcliff wrote in a foreword that she created the story from two elements: the disappearance of the Legio IX Hispana (Ninth Legion) from the historical record, following an expedition north to deal with Caledonian tribes in 117; and the discovery of a wingless Roman eagle in excavations at Silchester. She also assumed that the legion's title of "Hispana" meant that it was raised in modern Spain, but it was probably awarded this title for victories there. At the time Sutcliff wrote, it was a widely accepted theory that the unit had been wiped out in Britain during a period of unrest early in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138). Scholarly opinion now disputes this, for there are extant records that have been interpreted as indicating that detachments of the Ninth Legion were serving on the Rhine frontier later than 117, and it has been suggested that it was probably annihilated in the east of the Roman Empire. This in turn is disputed by historians who assert that it was indeed destroyed north of Hadrian's wall.

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Mike Golch said...

I like the new look of the site.

Rational νεόφυτος said...

Maybe they just fled to the arms of America. Hey, it happens in Tom Clancy novels...

Tripzibit said...

(@ Mike Golch) Thanks, Mike
(@ Lavender Darwin) Interesting thought, maybe you're right. My friend speculate they were killed by the Jocks. Since there is no evidence such as the mass burial grave, i think any theory is possible.


Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

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