Legio IX “Hispana”

Legio IX flagLegio Nona Hispana (Ninth Spanish Legion) was a Roman legion which operated from the first century BCE until mid 2nd century CE. The Spanish Legion’s eventual fate is uncertain. Earlier speculation that it was destroyed in Scotland in about 117 CE, inspiring several works of fiction and movies, has been replaced with a belief that it was transferred out of Britain sometime between 108 and the early 120s. Suggestions for its destruction include its loss during the Roman-Parthian Wars or during the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132–136 CE. It is mentioned as being stationed to help rebuild the legionary fortress at York (Eboracum) in 107–108 CE and tile stamps at Nijmegen showing that it or at least part of it was there later.

In AD 117 the 9th Legion marched north from its base at York to deal with a tribal uprising in Caledonia. After that date it vanishes altogether from the Roman army’s records. Some 1,800 years later, archaeologists digging at the Roman city of Silchester in Berkshire discovered its Eagle, with its wings stripped off. Was the legion massacred somewhere in Scotland? And, if so, how was its Eagle saved and carried into southern England? If the Legion was destroyed, why have later tiles bearing its stamp turned up in Nijmegen? And what about later funerary altars erected in memory of members of the Legion? Do these fragments prove its continued existence after AD 117?

Legio IX in battle

Rosemary Sutcliff provides one answer in her fiction book The Eagle of the Ninth. In her story the Legion has become badly disciplined and is massacred. On learning that its Eagle is now housed in a barbarian temple, the hero sets out to recover it, which he succeeds in doing after many adventures. What is certain is that the 6th Legion was shipped over from the continent to garrison York. This happened shortly after the 9th marched north and suggests that some sort of disaster occurred for the 6th to be drafted in. Some of the 9th may have survived whatever took place, as someone took steps to preserve the Eagle – the very symbol of the Legion’s honour – in its final resting place in Silchester.

Alternatives to massacre are mutiny provoked by bad leadership and flight in the face of the enemy. The punishment for mutiny and cowardice was decimation of the Legion, disbandment, dispersion, removal from the army’s list, and withdrawal of the Eagle. In this case the stripping of the Eagle’s wings looks like an intentional slight, similar to the ceremonial breaking of a disgraced officer’s sword. If this happened, the 9th’s survivors were dispersed to other units. Those sent to Nijmegen, probably from the Legion’s rear party in York, may have defiantly continued to use the tile stamp to emphasise their own innocence in the affair. That’s the best solution I can come up with, and if you can think of a better one I’d like to hear it!

Further readings:

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