Monday, July 28, 2014

Legio IX Hispana : The ‘Ninth’

by David Coles

The Roman Legions – even the phrase quickens the heartbeat. Stuff out of legend but, in fact, everything you’ve ever heard about them is probably true.

A Roman legion consisted of a force in excess of 5000 legionaries and there may have been up to 50 legions in the Roman army although this total varied throughout the 500 or so years of history because of disbanding, merging and raising new units. At its height, the Army probably numbered more than a million men.

‘Probably’ becomes an over-used word  in the history of the Ninth, including the raising of the Legion in the first place. Julius Caesar raised the original Ninth Legion but this was disbanded following Caesar’s final victory. After Julius Caesar’s assassination, the Ninth’s veterans were recalled to fight against the rebellion in Sicily after which they were sent to Macedonia then to Hispania which led to their nickname Hispana, which meant ‘stationed in Hispania’.

Later, the Ninth went to the uneasy border of the Rhine lands to campaign against the Germanic tribes and then to Pannonia – very roughly, the area we know as the Balkans.

Now, ‘probably’ comes thick and fast. They were probably involved in Claudius’ invasion of Britain. Here, they constructed the fort at Lincoln and put down the first revolt by Venutius but suffered serious defeat in Boudicca’s rebellion. They were reinforced with some 2000 legionaries from the German provinces and moved on to York where they constructed a new fort.

These lads got around. The cavalry were mounted, of course, but the infantry marched; the top speed of the Legion was limited to that of the slowest: the oxen which drew the wagons. So, a legion would move at three to four roman miles an hour (a mile = 1000 paces) for about six hours a day; in a forced march, they would make five miles an hour in full battle gear. Marching from one side of the Empire to the other was not a task undertaken lightly.

The legionaries who made up the bulk of the Ninth were unlikely to have included many Romans. The original veterans would have been augmented as they retired or died by recruits from the areas they controlled – Germany, the Balkans, Spain and some from Britain. This seems to have been general policy – such a broadly based force would have little sympathy for the local population and therefore, the possibility of collaboration would be minimized.

Probably, the biggest ‘probably’ of all concerns the apparent disappearance of the Ninth Hispana from the history books. How, why and where?

The academics are divided into three groups each espousing a different ending… a massive defeat in Scotland, official disbandment and the favourite – the Legion was moved to the eastern Empire where it suffered defeat in the Jewish revolt or at the hands of the Parthians. There is scant, if any, evidence for these scenarios and each occasions a certain amount of sneering from the other factions.

A forth possibility remains – it may be that the Legion just faded away… A legion had its own engineers, construction crews, surveyors, blacksmiths and the legionaries themselves doubled as grunt labourers. The Ninth had long experience in construction, their last project being the rebuilding of Hadrian’s Wall in stone rather than the original turf with extensions at either end. The work was completed to strict plans from the distant administration departments; there is at least one example of a mile castle with a gateway overlooking a 100 foot drop at the doorstep! Oh yes, bureaucracy was in full flower 2000 years ago.

It seems possible, therefore, that the Legion was split up and moved to other units requiring these skills – a gradual decline rather than some terrible mishap. An AD108 record of Legions omits the name entirely suggesting just such an administrative demise rather than a spectacular defeat.

The popular concept of a legionary’s life is one of fighting: putting down rebellion, preventing raids, punitive expeditions. In reality there were long periods of comparative peace. Hadrian’s Wall itself was a line on the ground – this is the end of Empire! It was also a customs post, the Ninth allowed trade in cattle and hunting dogs, minerals, textiles and these were inspected at the gateways and taxed as necessary. Many officers and higher-ranking legionaries took local wives although always on the understanding that they might be abandoned if the Legion moved on. Retiring legionaries often chose to stay where they were; granted an acre of land to farm; with a local wife, perhaps children, it could be an appealing prospect after 25 years of service.


The Last Free Men
by Jack Everett and David Coles

In 2008, we spent a long weekend walking the route of Hadrian’s Wall in the North of England. Initially, this was a guys’ get-away-break with no literary intentions. However, one evening, we came to a place where the Wall had once crossed the little river Irthing, a place called Willowford today. There was a quay, the remains of a causeway with sluiceways and across the river, a tumble of stone blocks marking the course of the Wall where the river’s erosion had ruined the original stepped ascent. We were entranced.

It was near sunset, birds sang, the river gurgled, otherwise all was silent. Quite plainly in our mind’s eyes, we could see the raiders of 2000 years ago making their way down the steep gorge left by a stream and then floating down with the river current. Unseen, they squirmed through the sluice ways, gained the bank on the south side and fell on the unsuspecting Romans from the back.

The fort at Banna was only a mile or so distant but out of sight beyond the high bank. The first the garrison knew was when the flames of the burning mile castle and wall turrets rose into the night air. Too late, much to late…

That was where our book was born.

But a gradual depletion of the Ninth’s force was not the stuff of adventure, nor the administrative decision to move them to a new theatre. We championed the defeat in Scotland. A British-born scout from the fort at Vircovicium, groomed by the local Druid leader, unites the tribes north of the Wall. The Roman force is lured into a chosen killing ground and wiped out almost, but not quite, to a man.

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Note: Hadrian’s Wall is now a protected English Heritage site, fenced off from farm and common land and with a gravel path alongside. A modern metal footbridge spans the river near Willowford making it an easy matter to walk from a nearby car park. To the writer’s mind, it takes away much of the romance of place.

… David Coles


  1. Thank you. I just purchased the book for my iPad.

  2. I might have know I would come across David Coles on this sight! I read The Last Free Men some time ago and highly recommend it.

  3. This era in Roman Britain fascinates me, too. My Celtic Fervour Series of adventures begins in 'Yorkshire' / Brigantia AD 71, and moves north to 'Aberdeenshire'/ Taexali country. I'm very keen to read your novel having read this article!


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