A Short History of Leg IX Hispana

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A Short History of Leg IX Hispana

Postby Aldus Marius on Fri Mar 12, 2010 7:40 am

From the Heritage Key blog:

What Really Happened To The Roman Ninth Legion?
Submitted by MalcolmJ on Thu, 09/03/2009 - 10:09

The legendary Ninth Legion – Legio IX Hispana (The “Spanish Legion”) – was one of the oldest and most feared units in the Roman army by the early 2nd century AD. Raised by Pompey in 65 BC, it had fought victorious campaigns across the Empire, from Gaul to Africa, Sicily to Spain and Germania to Britain.

No one knows for sure why, but sometime after 108/9 AD, the legion all but disappeared from the records. The popular version of events – propagated by numerous books, television programmes and films – is that the Ninth, at the time numbering some 4,000 men, was sent to vanquish the Picts of modern day Scotland, and mysteriously never returned.

The real explanation is very likely much more mundane – the unit was probably either simply disbanded, or continued to serve elsewhere, before finally being destroyed at another battle some years later. The myth, as is so often the case, tends to overshadow the truth.

Rome’s Most Fearsome Fighting Machine

Legio IX Hispana was put together in Spain alongside the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Legions in 65 BC, and first came under the command of Julius Caesar, then the Governor of Further Spain, in 61 BC. Expert at inspiring loyalty in his troops, he found one of his most devoted veteran armies in the Ninth. Although no record of the legion’s emblem exists, we can deduce that it was probably a bull, like all of Caesar’s faithful legions.

It served in Gaul throughout the Gallic Wars from 58-51 BC, and during Caesar’s Civil War against Pompey and the Senate from 49-48 BC. Victory at Pharsalus was decisive in ensuring Caesar’s ultimate grip on the Republic, and the Ninth played a key role. He repaid its service by – after his African campaign of 46 BC, and ultimate triumph at the Battle of Thapsus – disbanding the legion, and settling its veterans at Picenum and Histria.

The Ninth’s service didn’t end there, however. After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, it was recalled by his adopted son Octavian, and sent into battle against the rebellious Sextus Pompeius in Siciliy. Victory took until 36 BC; the legion was then stationed in Macedonia, before promptly being launched into another campaign, the Final War of The Roman Republic, as Octavian faced off against Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, eventually defeating them at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

A legionary’s work never done, the Ninth was next posted in Spain, where it fought with distinction in the long battle against the Cantabrians from 25-13 BC, which eventually ensured Roman dominance in the region. This was probably the campaign that earned the all-conquering Ninth its title “Hispana”.

The Last Campaign?

After Spain, the Legio IX Hispana was likely pitched into the imperial army stationed in the Rhine area, to battle against Germanic tribes, then relocated to Pannonia (an area lying roughly within the boundaries of modern Hungary) for a relatively long period sometime after 9 AD. It wasn’t until 43 AD that the legion was on the move again, joining with other Roman forces, under Emperor Claudius and general Aulus Plautius, in invading Britain, where it was eventually stationed at two camps at Longthorpe and Newton-on-Trent.

The Ninth suffered terribly in the revolt led by Boudicca in 60 BC, suffering as much as 50-80% casualties (the battle was recorded by Tacitus as the Massacre of the Ninth). The unit’s pride evidently remained intact, however, because the legion’s commander Quintus Petillius Cerialis wasn’t removed from his post. Restored to strength with reinforcements and regrouped at Lincoln in 65 AD, the legion was next sent to guard the northern fringes of the Empire in York, where it helped build the imperial fortress Eboracum, in its last recorded and datable action on the basis of legionary stamps.

Legend has it that the Ninth later embarked on its fateful march against the Picts, a confederation of tribes located in modern day eastern and northern Scotland, and was annihilated, prompting Emperor Hadrian to cut his losses in the north of Britain and build his famous Wall from coast to coast. This appears to be the point where myth overtakes reality, however – numerous scraps of evidence suggest the Legio IX Hispana met a different fate.

What Really Happened

Certainly it's true that Roman historians could be very reticent in recording the facts about legions that had been disgraced, and officials weren’t averse to covering up as best as possible the fate of vanquished armies, for purposes of preserving public morale. The Legio IX Hispana may have even been crushed so completely and so mercilessly that Hadrian deemed that telling the true story of its fate should be constitutionally banned. But more likely, the Ninth was just moved on again, as it had been so many times before.

At least a detachment of the Ninth is known to have served in the Germania Inferior province of the Roman Empire – near modern Nijmegen, Holland – around 121 AD (possibly trading places with the legion VI Victrix, which arrived in Britain from Germania Inferior around the same time). The main force wasn’t present though, and since detachments had fought separately in Germania before – for instance near Mainz against the Chatti in 83 AD – this arguably could have been the same detachment.

Yet, several high-ranking officers, who could only have served after 117 AD, are well known to us from their later actions – such as Lucius Aemilius Carus, governor of Arabia in 142/143 AD. We can safely assume that the core of the unit was still operating in the reign of Hadrian (117-138 AD). Some voices even speculate that the Ninth may even have assisted in building segments of Hadrian’s Wall, although this seems fanciful.

The one certainty is that Legio IX Hispana had been disbanded or wiped out altogether by the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180), because a listing of active legions by that Emperor makes no mention of the Ninth. Probably it was annihilated in Iudaea Province during the Bar Kochba Revolt, or at some stage in the long-running battle between Rome and the Parthian Empire.

The Ninth Legion in Popular Culture

No good storyteller would let something trivial like the facts get in the way of a good yarn, of course, and the legend of Legio IX Hispana’s mysterious destruction at the hands of Scots savages is certainly a gripping tale. Little surprise, then, that it continues to be retold in novels and on the big and small screen.

Red Shift by Alan Garner, Engine City by Ken MacLeod, Warriors of Alavna by N. M. Browne, Legion From the Shadows by Karl Edward Wagner and La IX Legione by Giorgio Cafasso are just a few of the many books that touch on the legendary destruction of the Ninth in some way. The most famous novel to deal with the legion’s story – The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, published in 1954 – is one of the most celebrated children’s books of the 20th century, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. A BBC TV serial of the book was aired in 1977.

A film called The Eagle of the Ninth, based on Sutcliff's book, directed by Kevin Macdonald and starring Channing Tatum and Donald Sutherland is due to shoot in Scotland in autumn 2009. Another movie about the Ninth, Centurion – directed by Neil Marshall and starring Dominic West and Olga Kurylenko – has coincidentally also been filmed in Scotland recently, and is slated for release in late 2009. Whatever the true story is about the demise of the Legio IX Hispana, popular fascination with its perceived mysterious and macabre fate will probably never be usurped.


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Re: A Short History of Leg IX Hispana

Postby Cleopatra Aelia on Fri Mar 12, 2010 5:25 pm

Gratias tibi ago for this interesting post on the Ninth esp. since I just read "Eagle of the Ninth" by Rosemary Sutcliffe a few months ago.
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Re: A Short History of Leg IX Hispana

Postby Aldus Marius on Fri Mar 12, 2010 10:40 pm

Salve, mi Aelia!

For my part, I was impressed by the illustrations of Tacitus Hibernicus'/Sean Richards' Legio IX Hispana...that reenactor unit has come a long, long way from its beginnings as an SCA fight-club! (I was its first out-of-state member, being the Texas vexillatio in its entirety.)

To old times!! :wine:
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