It is the year 120 A.D., the Romans are in southern Britain and Hadrian is Emperor in far away Rome. The Romans first came to Britain with Julius Caesar, came back again during the reign of Claudius and now one hundred years later are fully encamped.
In 43AD the Ninth Legion is thought to have landed at Richborough with the rest of the Roman invasion force comprising the Second, Twentieth and Fourteenth Legions. The invasion force was under the command of Aulus Plautius who was the governor of Pannonia (western Hungary and eastern Austria) just prior to the Claudian invasion.
Seventeen years later the Ninth was mauled during the Boudicean uprising and was eventually posted to the most exposed northern outpost of Roman Britain, sending much of it’s time at York.
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.
ÏBut what happened to the Ninth? Did the Legion march out of York and into Scotland around 120 A.D., never to be heard from again? Or was it simply transferred back to the European mainland and wiped out elsewhere in some other Roman conflict?
The early years of the 2nd Century were deeply traumatic for Britannia. The Roman writer Fronto observed that, in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117 – 138), large numbers of Roman soldiers were killed in Britain.
The number and full extent of these losses remain unknown, but they were evidently significant. An anonymously authored Augustan history, compiled in the 3rd Century, provides further detail, noting that when Hadrian became emperor, “the Britons could not be kept under Roman control”.
The British problem was of deep concern to Roman central government. Emergency reinforcements of over 3,000 men were rushed to the island on “the British Expedition”, early in Hadrian’s reign. The emperor himself visited the island in AD 122, in order to “correct many faults”, bringing with him a new legion, the Sixth.
The fact that they took up residence in the legionary fortress of York suggests that the “great losses” of personnel, alluded to by Fronto, had occurred within the ranks of the Ninth.
It was the Ninth, the most exposed and northerly of all legions in Britain, that had borne the brunt of uprisings; did it end it’s days fighting insurgents in the turmoil of early 2nd century Britain?
If so, he loss of such an elite military unit in Scotland had an unexpected twist which reverberates to the present day. When the emperor Hadrian visited Britain at the head of a major troop surge, he realized that there was only one way to ensure stability in the island – he needed to build a wall. The demise of the Ninth might have made the wall a reality.
“Hadrian’s Wall was designed to keep invaders out of Roman territory as well as ensuring that potential insurgents within the province had no hope of receiving support from their allies to the north. From this point, cultures on either side of the great divide developed at different rates and in very different ways.”
“There is an appeal to stories surrounding the loss of the Roman Ninth Legion – a disadvantaged band of Brit warriors inflicting a humiliating defeat upon a well-trained, heavily-armored professional army.
For the English, the massacre of the Ninth is an inspiring tale of home-grown “Davids” successfully taking on a relentless European “Goliath”. For the Scots, given the debate on devolved government and national identity, not to say the cultural impact of Braveheart, the tale has gained extra currency – freedom-loving highlanders resisting monolithic, London-based imperialists.”
“The ultimate legacy of the Ninth was the creation of a permanent border, forever dividing Britain. The origins of what were to become the independent kingdoms of England and Scotland may be traced to the loss of this unluckiest of Roman legions.”