The mystery of Rosemary Sutcliff and the ninth legion | Simon Parke in the Church Times | Sutcliff Discovery of the Day

One of you regular readers – but I cannot find who at the moment, sorry – commented a while back pointing me to the fact that Rosemary Sutcliff’s story of the ninth legion, The Eagle of the Ninth, was the jumping off point for a column in The Church Times earlier this year by Simon Parke (sic!), entitled ‘The Mystery of the Ninth’. He concluded:

It was the Ninth ..the most exposed and northerly of all legions in Britain, that bore the brunt of the unrest. But where and why did they cease to exist? After York, the archaeological trail of this elite force of soldiers grows strangely cold. Sometimes mystery is more gripping than fact, and loss more wondering than gain.

The full column is reproduced, with permission from the writer, below. It sets out broadly one version of the case for and against Rosemary’s ‘imagined’ version of events.

‘Since I am a writer, not an historian,’ she said, ‘I will choose a good story over absolute historical accuracy.’

In 1954, Rosemary Sutcliff wrote the much-loved historical novel, ‘The Eagle of the Ninth.’ It was an attempt to explain the mysterious disappearance of the Roman’s Ninth legion in the 2nd century AD. It’s a story which haunted many childhoods, and is now appearing as a Hollywood film called ‘The Eagle’. But is the story true?

Historically, we don’t know very much. The last certain piece of evidence relating to the legion comes from York, where an inscription from 108 AD credits the Ninth with rebuilding the fortress in stone. After that, nobody knows. Yet by the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius half a century later, this legion, famed for its fighting prowess, was no more.

The Ninth Legion had arrived in Britain in 43 AD. Created by the Roman general Pompey in 65 BC, it had fought victorious campaigns across the Empire, from Gaul to Africa, Sicily to Spain and Germania to Britain. Once in Britain, they suffered a severe mauling during the violent revolt Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni tribe, in 60 AD. They endured 50-80% casualties and the Roman historian Tacitus calls this battle ‘The Massacre of the Ninth.’

But, restored to strength, the legion was then sent to guard the northern fringes of the Roman Empire in York. There it helped build the imperial fortress in its last recorded action. And then? Sutcliff’s authorised version says this: a Roman legion, the Ninth ‘Hispana’ – so named due to bravery in Spain – marches north into the Scottish mist to put down a rebellion. 5000 armed men, veterans of the Empire – but they never returned.

The alternative version is that the legion was either disbanded or continued to serve elsewhere, before finally being destroyed at another battle in the East of the Roman Empire some years later.

On Sutcliff’s side is the fact that the last archaeological evidence for the Ninth is in York. Surely there’d be evidence if they moved? The case for the alternative version lies in the fact that several of the legion’s commanders appear independently in other battles after this date.

Certainly the early years of the 2nd Century were deeply traumatic for the Roman province of Britannia. We know large numbers of Roman soldiers were killed during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. ‘The Britons could not be kept under Roman control,’ says the Augustan History, compiled in the 3rd Century. And the emperor himself visited the island in 122 AD, in order to ‘correct many faults’, bringing with him a new legion, the Sixth.

It was the Ninth ..the most exposed and northerly of all legions in Britain, that bore the brunt of the unrest. But where and why did they cease to exist? After York, the archaeological trail of this elite force of soldiers grows strangely cold. Sometimes mystery is more gripping than fact, and loss more wondering than gain.

Author: Anthony Lawton

Chair, Sussex Dolphin, family company which looks after the work of eminent children’s & historical fiction author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). Formerly CEO, chair & trustee of various charity, cultural & educational enterprises in UK.

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