A Roman Mystery - The Lost 9th Legion And The Silchester Eagle

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There is a mystery and considerable speculation1 regarding the fate of the 9th Legion VIIII2 Hispana. Originally the 9th legion arrived in Britain as one of the four chosen to conquer the new province, and seems to have disappeared whilst on active service. Opinions are divided as to the fate of the 9th, some favour the explanation was that around 117 AD it was wiped out by the tribes north of the yet to be built Hadrian’s Wall. There is little evidence that this was the case, apart from the fact the legion's name disappears from the military rolls. That and a memorial to a soldier of the 9th killed ‘in a great battle’. Compelling perhaps but not conclusive, a further piece of evidence is an eagle, alleged to be military found in Colchester that has been claimed to be the lost standard of the 9th, more of that later. There are other pieces of evidence that point to the fact the legion may have survived and indeed saw action on the Rhine frontier and later in Parthia where the legion seems to have been wiped out around 160 AD.

A Brief History Of The 9th Legion (VIIII) Hispana

Formed in 58 BC, the legion was awarded the title 'The Hispana' after action in Hispania (Spain) in the campaign against the Cantabrians (25 – 13 BC). The battle standard of the legion was a bull. The 9th Legion was a favourite of Julius Caesar and fought with him through all the Gallic wars, they also stayed loyal to Caesar in the civil war against Pompey. The legion was at the battles of Dyrrhachium and Pharsalus in 48 BC. After the disaster of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, the legion was sent to reinforce Germania, and later was moved to duties in Pannonia (Austria, Hungary and Serbia).

At the time of the British invasion, the 9th legion was under the command of Caesius Nasica.

Four legions were sent to conquer Britain:

  • The 9th Legion (VIIII) Hispana.
  • The 20th Legion (XX) Valeria Victrix.
  • The 14th Legion (XIIII) Gemina Martia Victrix.
  • The 2nd Legion (II) Augusta.

These men were battle-hardened campaigners from all over the empire. Some history of the legions shows the sort of encounters they would have had before the British invasion would have made them well suited to the campaign. Three of the legions had fought together before: the 2nd, 14th and 20th legions. The 9th Legion Hispana had not fought alongside the others but was more than capable of the task before it.

Most Roman legions had about 5,000 men; the number however could vary from about 4,200 to about 5,500. They had a rigid hierarchy of officers at different levels, so that no officer had to give orders to more than about ten subordinates. Senior officers included Legatus Legionis, Praefectus Castrorum and Tribune. A legate was a deputy general. The Centurion was a junior officer normally in charge of 80 to 100 men. Other officers included Vexillum, Duplicarius, Sesquiplicarius, Salararius, and Triplicarius. The best known of these officers was the Vexillum or Company Commander. The Vexillation Fortress has been named after this officer and the company under his command. Lower non-officer ranks in the legion included Immunis, Miles and the un-trained Discens and Tiro.

Locations In Britain Associated With The 9th Legion

Eburacum (modern York) – 'The place of yew trees'

The name Eburacum has an alternative interpretation as 'the land or estate of Ebracus or Ebros,in the history written by Geoffrey of Monmouth it is stated that the founding king of York was Ebracus. York was founded in 71 AD. Initially York was a fortress constructed by the 9th legion, it was built at a suitable point close to the Rivers Fosse and Ouse, and at a site where a bridge could be built. The area had a ready supply of timber for the construction work. The site of the fort was positioned on a sandstone outcrop and protected by the rivers to the south and east and had substantial masonry walls. The settlement built around the legionary fort thrived. Many of the streets were paved and houses were built mostly from stone, as were many fine municipal buildings, including legionary baths, theatres and temples to the town's gods. It was form this base that the 9th legion kept the peace in northern Britain.

The settlement of York was also sited at an important junction in the Roman spreading road network, and eventually had road connections to the following forts and settlements to the north of the city:

  • North-east to Derventio (modern Malton) a distance of 17 miles.
  • South-east via Ermine Street to Petvaria (modern Brough on Humber) – 28 miles.
  • South by road and ferry to Winteringham: the southern ferry crossing point of the river Humber.
  • South-west via Ryknild Street to Calcaria (modern Tadcaster) – 10 miles.
  • North-west to Isurium Brigantum (modern Aldborough) 15 miles, to Dere Street and the roads north of the wall.

From the base in York the legion garrison could march out and access north on the newly established route of Dere Street. The journey north progressed through the following established Roman settlements and forts.

The settlement of Aldborough is interesting as it shows evidence of the presence of the 9th provided by the following inscription found impressed on an excavated tile LEG VIIII HISP – Property of Ninth Legion Hispanic. It also provides evidence that the legion constructed some buildings on the site. The town itself later developed into a city defended by stone walls, earth ramparts and ditches, with strong gateways. There were paved streets, a basilica, several temples and altars, a mansio – one of a number of privately-owned accommodation hostels established along the routes – and a bath house. The housing was of good quality, of both stone and timber-framed construction. How much of this the 9th started is unclear however the vast majority was completed much later after the legion left the area.
If you follow the route of Dere Street north from York, you will reach the area of the wall after a journey of around 88 miles. This is a three day journey for a legion travelling at a standard pace over easy ground or roads.

The route north from York would have probably have been as follows. Only the locations in bold type would have been known to the 9th legion.

  • Cataractonium (modern Catterick) – 'The Waterfall Town' founded around 70AD.
  • Morbium (modern Piercebridge) founded around 125AD.
  • Vinovium (modern Binchester) – 'the winemaker's way' founded around 128 AD.
  • Longovicium (modern Lanchester – 'the town of the fighting ship' founded around 140 AD.
  • Vindomora (modern Ebchester) – 'the fort on the end of the hill' was at first a marching camp, then a fort was built by the 5th cohort of an unknown legion, between 80 and 180 AD.
  • Corstopitum (The Stanegate Fort, Corbridge) – 'the valley of great noise' the fort that constructed here was founded in 79 AD
  • Hadrian's Wall Fort 113: Onnum (modern Halton Chesters) – 'the rock' was constructed by the 6th legion around 190 AD.

At this point the route enters the area that was to become north of the wall, and was hostile territory.

  • Habitancum (modern Risingham)The fort was built in 189 AD to support the Antonine expansion north.
  • Bremenium (modern High Rochester) – 'the roaring stream' a turf and timber fort constructed here in 80 AD.
  • Chew Green: Marching camps4were built by the legions between 80 and 189 AD.
  • Cappuck: Marching camp built by the 20th legion around 80 AD.
  • Trimontium (modern Melrose)– 'the fort at the foot of the three Eildon Hills. The fort at Melrose was built in 80 AD.

When the fort at Melrose was complete it was garrisoned for around 100 years. At its largest the fort was 60,700 square metres and the garrison comprised 1,000 infantry and 500 cavalry. In all, the fort extended to 80,937 square metres of fortified areas and enclosures, grouped around a parade ground. A large settlement developed to support the garrison, and this featured several shrines as well as a military amphitheatre. The water supply for the fort and town came from over 200 wells dug around the site. All this survived and appeared to thrive in hostile territory for a considerable time.

To the west of Dere Street, was another route north into Caledonia from the settlements of Carlisle and Stanwix. It is likely that this would have come into the area protected by the 9th, as the nearest support legion the 14th was 180 miles to the south in Wroxeter Staffordshire.

Uxelodunum5 'The River Fort' (modern Stanwix) also known as Petriana the fort on Hadrian's Wall (estimated size 32,420 square metres) was built by 20th legion, around 122 AD. This legion 20th was based in a legionary fort built by the 14th legion in 58 AD, at Viroconium Cornoviorum (modern Wroxeter) 6 from 88 AD. This was the largest fort on the Wall and was placed at the point where the course of the Wall moved from the north bank of the River Eden to the southern bank. It appears that Stanwix was built on a ridge of high ground clear of the northern edge of the flood plain to defend the side of the Wall north of the river. The fort also was positioned to defend the end of River Eden bridge supported by Carlisle in guarding the southern end.

Luguvalium (modern Carlisle) is sometimes confused with Stanwix which was the fort to the north of the Stanegate road. This was at first a timber fort built around 72 AD. This fort was later enlarged in 122 AD, and garrisoned to provide support Stanwix Fort. This fort was situated a mile south of the wall and a road ran north from Carlisle to the Wall and Stanwix fort.

The town of Luguvalium provided a crossing point for the western end of Stanegate Roman road, passing through Carvioan, Chesterholm and ending at Corbridge. There are three crossing points on the Wall in this area and local roads ran north to Neatherby (Castra Exploratorum) 12 miles. This meant Carlisle was well placed as the local trading centre. The settlement was on an important trading and supply route as goods came up from the coast via the port of Ravenglass (Glannoventa). Other roads also entered the town, from York via Catterick and from the west coast road from Ribchester. The traffic meant trade would have been good and the town became very prosperous with paved streets, stone housing, municipal buildings, trade buildings and warehouses.

There is only evidence of three legions being engaged in the construction of Hadrian's Wall. The fourth legion could have been held in reserve to reinforce the other legions, or deal with other trouble spots. This was the other route into Caledonia that the 9th could have taken if it went north in 177 AD.

  • The 20th Legion (XX) Valeria Victrix.
  • The 5th Legion (VI).
  • The 2nd Legion (II) Augusta.

As the home of the 9th was York and the area that was to become Hadrian’s wall was in the legion's patrol area. As the legion took no part in the construction of the wall, it could indicate that either the 9th were either busy elsewhere in Britain. They may have been moved to duties elsewhere in the empire or had indeed fallen in battle with the Caledonians in 117 AD. However compelling it might appear this is not evidence of or proof of either a posting or annihilation.

So What Happened In Caledonia 117 to 180 AD

Perhaps the question should be: who happened to the 9th Legion? That 'who' was Gaius Julius Agricola, originally a general serving under the Governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, in command of the 20th Legion.

He left Britain only to return as consul and governor of the province in the summer of 77 AD. His actions in the province may have had an influence of what happened to the 9th.

His first task was to finally subdue revolt of the Ordovices tribe in what is now Wales, crushing the final resistance in Mona (modern Anglesey), 7 forcing the tribe to beg for peace. Agricola then turned his attention toward the northern tribes.

Now Agricola’s invasion of the north was some 35 years prior to the alleged demise of the 9th, however it serves as an illustration of how an incursion into this8 hostile region was handled by the Romans. It could be that this act of pacification caused problems that could possibly have led to the circumstances that may have overwhelmed the 9th thirty five years later. However the survival of the garrison and the settlement of Melrose 60 miles north of the wall until after 180 AD9, indicate the opposite.

Agricola chose 79 AD to launch the expedition into Caledonia, so during the early summer the forces were assembled. We now have to deal with uncertain estimates of the numbers involved. The Roman forces were said to have numbered between 17,000 and 30,00010 Tacitus claims the numbers were as follows

  • Auxiliary infantry, 8,000.
  • Auxiliary cavalry, four squadrons, 4,000.
  • And the XX Legion, 5,000.

That number equates with the lower estimate of 17,000 where the other 13,000 came from is anybody’s guess, it would be a second legion and another 8,000 Auxiliary units.

This indicates that the Romans did not appear to venture into hostile territory either unprepared or short of manpower. So the idea of the 9th setting off in 117 AD to subdue the Caledonians with a force of only 5,000 legionaries is to be blunt amounts to criminal folly12 even if there was a massive military emergency. It is also worth remembering that in 60 AD during the rebellion led by Boudicca , the 9th had been routed whilst trying to relieve Camulodunum. And as a result during the battle and subsequent withdrawal had suffered a reported casualty rate of over 50%. The survivors of this battle would be familiar with the tactics of the native armies and have a respect for what they could achieve en masse. Tacitus has claimed that the Caledonian forces could number as many as 30,000, not an enemy to approach outnumbered and unprepared.

The forces led by Agricola were supported and supplied by ships of the Classis Britannica who patrolled the eastern coast as far north as the Moray Firth. The advance of the force was restricted to the relatively flat areas along the western cost penetrating as far as Cawdor as evidenced by a marching camp. So to indicate a later incursion by the 9th there would evidence provided by a string of marching camps which would also provide proof of the route taken.

When after 4 years of campaigning the Romans finally brought the Caledonian forces were brought to battle by Agricola13 at the battle of Battle of Mons Graupius took place in AD 84. The casualty figures given for the battle were Romans killed 360, Caledonians killed 10,000 with 20,000 fleeing the field to hide in the forests. This is an indication of the power of a Roman field army even when outnumbered nearly 2 to 1.14

So What Happened To The 9th Legion

Did the 9th legion march north into Caledonia to meet annihilation at the hands of hostile tribes? There is little evidence that this was the case, apart from some odd and interesting facts.

  • The 9th legion's name disappears from the Roman military rolls.
  • The memorial to a soldier of the 9th killed ‘in a great battle’ though this could have been the earlier battle with Boudicca.
  • The Roman Eagle found in Silchester Hampshire sometime after the disappearance of the 9th legion.

The Vindolanda tablets (tablet 164) do provide a testimony to the fighting spirit of the British warriors. The site at Vindolanda dates from 85 AD but date of the tablets has been described as (roughly contemporary with Hadrian's Wall) would place them after the events concerning the 9th.

At Corbridge 57 miles to the east of Carlisle, a box containing a quantity of iron articles clearly of a military origin was discovered. It appears to be of the correct period as it contains pieces of Lorica Segmentata, legionary body armour. This again indicates military activity although it is impossible to attribute the find to any particular unit.

If the 9th went north in 177 AD, it would have most probably have travelled along Dere Street, and on into Caledonia using the route taken by Gaius Julius Agricola 35 years earlier. It is evident that this route was taken as it was familiar and went across easier country.

This evidence is very compelling however these facts alone are far from conclusive, they do however deserve investigation.

It also very odd that if the legion disappeared it was not recorded. It is also incredible that a vast opportunity for political point scoring was by missed by the powerful in the senate. A defeat of that magnitude had also appeared to have gone unrecorded in the military records.

There are some records indicating that former officers of the 9th were still on active duties after the, possible loss of the 9th. Perhaps the most notable former officer was the Governor of Arabia 142 to 143 AD, Lucius Aemilius Karus. Cohorts of the 9th are recorded performing frontier duties during 121 AD, stationed near Nijmegen in Holland.

It has been claimed these men were on detached duties when the 9th could have moved north and missed the disaster, it is very possible however like all the evidence subject to interpretation.

There are other pieces of evidence that point to the fact the legion may have survived and indeed saw action on the Rhine frontier and later in Parthia or Judea where the legion seems to have been wiped out around 160 AD.

The Roman Eagle Found In Silchester Hampshire

A piece of evidence indicating the loss of a legion in Britain is an eagle, alleged to be military that was found in Silchester. This has been claimed to be the lost standard of the 9th. Unfortunately this appears to be a case of a wrongly interpreted evidence.

The Silchester or to give it its proper name the Calleva Eagle was found by the Reverend. J.G. Joyce on 9 of October 1866. Reverend. J.G. Joyce was engaged on the site excavations of Calleva Atrebatum near Silchester Hampshire15 between 1864 and 1878. What he is best remembered for is the discovery of a bronze Eagle. It is fortunate that the eagle survived, as this treasure was discovered in what are probably the ruins of the town’s basilica which had been destroyed by fire.

This is unusual site as it was abandoned after the Romans left Britain this has allowed researchers to create the most accurate survey of any Roman settlement in Britain. The eagle is cast in bronze, and the position of the talons indicates that it originally mounted on something. The wings were broken off in Roman times and it appears it was repaired however the wings were broken again and lost in antiquity.

Today the eagle can be found in the Silchester Collection at Reading Museum. This cast bronze eagle was the inspiration for Rosemary Sutcliff’s book The Eagle of the Ninth16 and the sequel The Silver Branch. This Eagle is not however a legionary standard it is a civilian municipal symbol. Examination has revealed that the eagle originally stood upon a globe and was very likely to have been an integral part of a statue almost certainly that of Jupiter the Roman god. It has also been suggested that it was an Imperial gift to a local tribal leader.

The Final Verdict

The verdict, however you look at the facts there is just quite not enough evidence to prove either school of thought is correct.

It is probable that the 9th Hapania was wiped out on the battlefield. Whether it was in Caledonia in 117 AD or in Parthia in 160 AD, rather depends upon your own point of view. The balance of academic opinion seems to be slightly in favour of Caledonia as the resting place of the 9th, the battle site would be a useful find to prove it17. But if there were to be a public enquiry today it may well prove to be inconclusive.


There is another theory that has some merit, which encompasses and explains all the evidence. It is this, the 9th were badly mauled in Caledonia and the survivors and garrison units that stayed in barracks at York, were stood down from active duty. Later the 9th were later re-established and sent east to Parthia where they may have been annihilated around 160 AD. It takes the middle way but would explain almost all the circumstances of the other two scenarios.

1Made famous by the novel The Eagle of the ninth by Rosemary Suttcliffe.2The usual representation 9 in numeral’s is IX. The legion styled itself as the VIIII or VIIII H and stamped inscriptions and roof tiles as such this short history will use the legion's own choice.3Numbered from the western end of Hadrian’s wall.4These camps were built by a legion at the end of a day's march to provide shelter for the troops whilst moving through hostile territory.5It is worth noting that the garrison fort at Uxelodunum was built in 122 AD by the 20th legion, just 5 years after the possible incursion of the 9th into Caledonia. The tribes in the area do not appear to be have been actively hostile for some years.6The settlement round the fort later developed into the Roman town of Viroconium Cornoviorum. 7Destroying the Druid cult a form of worship that disgusted the Romans, they must have been fairly awful to disgust a Roman, alas we shall never know as the destruction was total.8And any other hostile regions around the empire.9The fort and settlement of Melrose was abandoned sometime after 180 AD some 60 years after the alleged loss of the 9th, archaeological examination does not seem to indicate the population were forced out.10This being from Tacitus, (Of whom it was said "Tacitus never let the truth get in the way of a good story", Cassius Dio.)11 and what official sources that remain. The same problems are even worse when we try and trace the fate of the 9th.11 Tacitus apart from being a historian was also Agricola’s father in law, so perhaps a little pro Agricola enhancement was included in the history.12 And as such would be unlikely to have happened, normal procedure alone indicating that a supporting force of auxiliary troops would have been part of any force heading north.13 Agricola forced the Caledonians to fight by attacking and destroying the grain stores of the tribes, it was a fight or starve choice.14The final battle with Boudicca provides ample proof of the ability of the legions to slaughter the Celts, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus and a force of 10,000 men outnumbered 8 to 1, defeated Boudicca and her army of 80,000 in this area in 60 AD, Roman losses were around 400.15The Roman town of Silchester is in Hampshire it is close to the boundary with Berkshire. It is located just 5 miles (8.6 km) north of Basingstoke and approximately 9 miles (14.2 km) south-west of Reading.16The films The Centurion 2010 and The Eagle, March 2011 were inspired by this book.17The site of the disaster of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, has been found.

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