Archaeologist, historian, author and broadcaster Simon Elliott is an expert on Roman military history. A trustee of the Council for British Archaeology and ambassador for the Museum of London Archaeology, he has written numerous books on Roman themes and has appeared on the BBC, the National Geographic and Discovery channels, and other broadcast media. Elliott often conducts archaeological fieldwork and is co-director of a Roman villa excavation in Maidstone, Kent, U.K. His latest book, Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispana? investigates the fate of a legion that vanished from written history in the second century.
What intrigued you about Legion IX Hispana?
I have always been fascinated about all things ancient world, and particularly with classical Greece and Rome, and latterly have been fortunate to become a full-time historian, archaeologist and broadcaster. That gave me time to focus attention on some of my favorite themes from the period, and one that really jumped out was the fate of the “lost legion,” IX Hispana. This allowed me to tackle historical writing from a detective perspective, trying to track down details about what really happened to the legion, and that seriously appealed to me.
Why has the story retained its appeal?
Because it remains truly one of history’s greatest mysteries. How do you lose 5,500 legionaries?
How did you approach the mystery?
Well, that was one of the issues, actually. There is more than one theory about its fate.
In fact, I was able to develop no fewer than four hypotheses about why IX Hispana simply disappeared from history. These were that it was lost in the north of Britain, lost in the south of Britain, lost on the Rhine or Danube, or lost in the east.
In the conclusion I then determined that, based on all of the available data to date, the legion was most likely lost in the north of Britain—just as [novelist] Rosemary Sutcliffe had speculated in her wonderful children’s book The Eagle of the Ninth.
What support have you found for your theory?
The available hard dates fit with the legion being lost in the north of Britain. It is last mentioned in contemporary history in AD 82, fighting in Scotland; last mentioned in epigraphy in York in 108, on a gate inscription; and then replaced in 122 in York by another legion. So IX Hispana must have left by then, and it is never recorded again.
‘The legion’s last mention, in AD 82 in contemporary history, is by Tacitus, when he recounted its near annihilation at the hands of the natives of the far north of Britain’
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
Unusually for me when writing a history book, the main issue I had here was separating fact from fiction, given there had been so much coverage of the legion’s fate in popular culture, including two Hollywood movies, a BBC TV series and a Doctor Who episode.
Did you learn anything surprising?
Yes, the fact that an entire Roman legion was lost in the east fighting the Parthians in AD 161. Given that it isn’t named, it became a serious candidate for the lost ninth legion.
What military lessons do the exploits of Legion IX Hispana convey?
I would say the lesson to learn is one of historiography for the historian. Most people assume that the legions of Rome were usually the victors in any battle, and their exploits the stuff of legend, but in the story of the ninth there are numerous examples of it actually not living up to the ideal. For example, the legion’s last mention, in AD 82 in contemporary history, is by Tacitus, when he recounted its near annihilation at the hands of the natives of the far north of Britain.
What impact might your book have on the history of Roman Britain?
It has certainly attracted a lot of attention, and the introduction of the “lost in the south” option, whereby IX Hispana was caught up somehow in an insurrection in London around the time of the accession of Hadrian in AD 117, is definitely new.
What will you be working on next?
The next book—my twelfth—is called Legacy of Rome, through The History Press. It examines in detail how the world of ancient Rome is still to be found all around us, in every aspect of our everyday lives. MH
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