The symbolism of The Eagle of the Ninth | What happened to the ninth legion: Part IX?

Last week I met Professor Michael Fulford of Reading University archaeology department, who introduced me (and a crowd of film journalists covering The Eagle film) to some Roman history at Silchester – Calleva in Rosemary Sutcliff‘s The Eagle of the Ninth historical novel for children (of all ages!). I asked him for his take on the fate of the ninth legion, and he has written to me (with permission to reproduce his words – thank you Michael):

At the time Rosemary Sutcliff wrote The Eagle of the Ninth it was the general view that legio IX Hispana, based at York (Eburacum) had somehow come to grief in northern Britain.  There was no specific evidence for a disastrous battle but the record of the legion stopped with an inscription of AD 107-8, commemorating the construction of a building by the legion within the fortress at York.

Since the 1950s further evidence of the fate of the legion has come to light.  There is a tile and a mortarium (specialist pottery vessel) from the legionary fortress at Nijmegen in the Netherlands, each stamped by the legion (LEG VIIII; LEG VIIII HIS), which date to the early 2nd century.  There are also inscriptions of NCOs and officers of the legion whose career profiles are such that the legion must have still been in existence in the 120s, ie after work started on the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in Britain.  Although there can be no certainty about this until more evidence emerges, it is likely that, after a period in lower Germany (at Nijmegen), the legion was transferred to the East.  If it was not destroyed in the war against the Jews later in Hadrian’s reign, it might have met its fate in the war against Parthia in the early 160s.  The historian Cassius Dio mentions an unnamed legion which was destroyed at the siege of Elegeia in Armenia in 161.

Even if we can no longer associate the loss of the Ninth with Britain, the story, The Eagle of the Ninth can be seen to be symbolic of the fairly constant struggle between Rome and the tribes of northern Britain, from the time of the 1st century governors like Petilius Cerealis and Agricola onwards, through the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, the later building of the Antonine Wall between Clyde and Forth, the return to the previous frontier line, and so on.

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