What happened to the Roman Ninth Legion? Rosemary Sutcliff may have been right! Or not wrong …

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I learned yesterday from some history documentary makers who were interested in Rosemary Sutcliff, her life and ideas, that more evidence may be coming to light about the Ninth Legion’s fate. Recall this is an element of The Eagle of the Ninth story. Rosemary’s instincts for a great story as told in The Eagle of the Ninth were based on (then) contemporary historical research. I find it especially pleasing (as a non-specialist and perhaps biased relative) to learn this – after in recent years some commentators have, in the eyes of others only on limited evidence and to limited dissent –  disputed the idea of the ninth legion disappearing in Britain at all. A new TV programme next year purports, its makers tell me,  to “reveal how Rosemary and fans of the book and her take on history can look forward to complete vindication”. She needs no vindication; but it would be pleasing and to me not at all surprising to find her imaginative leap once again in line with where the ‘evidence’ and (some) historians’ interpretations may be taking us!

(Post slightly amended, twice,  from original in light of most interesting comment below from Robert Vermaat, to be a little more measured! But I write as a relative not an academic or other specialist, so hope I am allowed a little licence for passion! This I am sure will run and run, here and elsewhere?)


  1. You are quite right: Rosemary Sutcliff needs no vindication. She wrote a wonderful story that generations of children (and adults who used to be children) have enjoyed.

    Unfortunately, she was not an archaeologist, so she was unaware that her basic premiss was wrong. This does not detract from her sublime storytelling.

    I would be fascinated to learn whether her notebooks survive, and whether we might be able to see the process of her research? (As she wrote in the early 1950s, I imagine her source was the Cambridge Ancient History. I wonder if this could be confirmed?)


  2. Mind you, I’m an enormous fan of Rosemary Sutcliff, and her ‘Eagle of the Ninth’ is especially dear to me. I still love to read it, as it it’s very well written and it was the book that got me into Roman history. I later bought it from the library and I treasure it.

    However, as a historian I must say that although this book was largely responsible for the common myth that the Legio VIIII Hispana* disappeared in Caledonia, it’s no longer based on sound research. By the time that it was written it largely was, but decades of research have overtaken not just this detail in Rosemary Sutcliff’s books. That does not diminish them, as it is the fate of all historical novels at some point in their existence.
    However, and especially with two recent movies based on her scenario, the myth crops up again despite article after article written by eminent scholars over the past decades. Any claim that “some academics have, to limited dissent and on limited evidence, disputed the idea of the ninth legion disappearing in Britain at all” is a distortion of academic fact, as all who know more about Roman military history have long since agreed upon.

    I’m fairy certain that Rosemary Sutcliff, who used research fir her books, would have changed her facts had she only known about the results of later research. By this I mean, she for instance showed this by changing the story about how the eagle itself was hidden under the floor of a Calleva villa, when she later learned that it was not found beneath a villa. Changing details through changing research data never diminished her book. Let us now leave her books and intentions intact by not – on hindsight – claim that research of her days was right after all, in the face of conflicting evidence.

    Please read these articles for balance:

    * The use of IX is a modernism, the Ancient use of the number would have been VIIII


    1. Thank for this, so much. I shall read your references with great interest. I have been moved to edit a little my original post as you can see, although your points remain very germane to my amended text as well as the old one. For anyone reading now, here is the earlier version in case anyone wants to see exactly what I wrote originally and exactly what I have changed! You may feel a slightly less gung-ho post: I was on my blackberry at the time!
      ORIGINAL READ towards the end
      ….Especially pleasing to learn this after in recent years some academics have, to limited dissent and on limited evidence, disputed the idea of the ninth legion disappearing in Britain at all. A new programme next year will reveal how Rosemary and fans of the book and her take on history can look forward to complete vindication ….


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