The True Story Of The Roman Legion That Mysteriously Disappeared Without Trace

Two thousand years ago, a mighty legion fought on behalf of the emperors of Rome. After 120 A.D., however, the men simply vanished from contemporary accounts for good. And over the years, many have speculated over what became of the missing warriors. Will we ever get to the bottom of one of history’s most enduring mysteries?

The story of the Roman Empire began way back in 509 B.C. with the founding of the Roman Republic. During that period, the rulers of Rome had sought to extend their reach beyond the city walls. And although the region was initially torn apart by civil war, leaders such as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony ultimately laid the foundations for Rome to become one of the greatest powers that the world has ever seen.

Then the renowned military leader Octavian became the first ever emperor of the brand new Roman Empire in 27 B.C. And although Octavian wielded less military power than the leaders of the republic that had come before him, his armies still conquered vast swathes of territory in his name. Indeed, the emperor’s reign saw the influence of Rome spread across Asia Minor, Africa and southwest Europe.

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Over the decades, in fact, the might of the Roman Empire continued to grow; in 117 A.D. it stretched all the way from Britain in the east to the gulf of Persia in the west. And at its peak, the empire is thought to have covered almost two million square miles, with some 70 million citizens under the emperor’s control.

But such an achievement would not have been possible without the Roman legions – sizeable military units that were dispatched across the empire to keep watch over acquired territories, quash rebellion and control the population. Indeed, it’s believed that as many as 50 separate legions fought and died for the emperors of Rome over the years.

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And according to experts, Roman legions were so advanced that they could easily take on and defeat armies many times their size. In all, then, legions were an elite force within the Roman military, with only true citizens of the empire able to join their ranks. At their height, these units were each comprised of more than 5,000 highly trained fighting men.

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Today, then, the legions hold a rightful place as one of the most efficient fighting forces in history. And there’s no doubt, either, that they once played a vital role in the rise of the Roman Empire. There is one unit in particular, however, that continues to fascinate thousands of years after it first emerged: the Legio IX Hispana, or the Ninth Legion.

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Yet although the early history of the Legio IX Hispana is uncertain, most believe that it had its roots in the armies of the Roman Republic. Apparently, a Ninth Legion is thought to have taken part in the Social War that took place from 91 B.C. to 88 B.C. And with the men’s help, the republic emerged victorious, bringing all of Italy under the control of Rome.

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Then, a quarter of a century on, the Ninth is thought to have been hired or raised once again – this time, by Pompey the Great, the fifth leader of the Roman Republic. And in 58 B.C. it seems that Julius Caesar took control of the legion – along with three others – when he became governor of Italy’s Cisalpine Gaul region.

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By this time, the Ninth was likely based in Aquileia – an Italian city located near the Adriatic Sea. There, it most likely kept enemy tribes at bay. All the while, though, tensions between the republic and the Gauls – who inhabited much of what is now Belgium and France – were on the rise.

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But, in the end, the Ninth helped Caesar to defeat his enemies in the Gallic Wars. And the legion proved similarly handy when the Roman Republic descended into civil war in 49 B.C. Over the course of at least three battles, the soldiers fought for their leader in Africa, Albania and Greece, finally seeing him emerge victorious in 45 B.C.

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With the civil war over, then, Caesar dismissed the men of the Ninth and offered the veterans a new life in the Italian region of Picenum. However, this peace did not last. And when the Roman leader was assassinated in 44 B.C., his protégé Ventidius Bassus sought to recall a number of legions –including the Ninth.

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But although Ventidius’ assignment ultimately proved short-lived, the Ninth Legion was soon raised once more, as Octavian needed it to fight in the last battles of the Roman Republic. Then, when Octavian became emperor, he stationed the unit on the Iberian Peninsula, or Hispania – earning it the name Legio IX Hispana.

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As the Roman Empire grew in power and influence, then, the Ninth Legion continued to fight – probably against the Rhine region’s Germanic tribes. However, it would be the events of 43 A.D. that would really shape the legion’s legend for centuries to come. That year, Emperor Claudius began the conquest of Britain – a long and difficult campaign that would take four decades.

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According to contemporary sources, the Ninth was among the legions that traveled to Britain on the emperor’s orders, and in 50 A.D. it battled successfully against the resistance fighters of British chieftain Caratacus. Later, the soldiers are said to have quelled yet another rebellion – this time by the Brigante king Venutius – in around 52 A.D. to 57 A.D.

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But despite the Ninth’s early successes in expanding Claudius’ empire, the unit was far from indestructible. The legion’s numbers were in fact seriously depleted in 61 A.D., when the British tribal queen Boudica led an uprising against the invaders. Yes, in the ensuing battles, many of the Ninth’s foot soldiers lost their lives.

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A decade later, however, the Ninth seemed to have recovered, with its soldiers then assisting governor Cerialis in reclaiming Britain’s rebellious north. And in 82 A.D. the men joined the Roman general Agricola on his mission to conquer Caledonia – the wild and untamed land we know as Scotland today.

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According to reports, the Ninth was almost destroyed early in the invasion, as a group of Caledonian rebels attacked while the soldiers slept. The legion subsequently recovered, however, and went on to fight for Agricola in the Mons Graupius battle. And even though the Romans were vastly outnumbered, their superior military tactics won them a decisive victory.

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After Agricola’s victory, then, many of the Caledonian natives accepted their new position in the Roman Empire. As some stubborn tribes continued to fight against the invaders, though, the Ninth saw fit to build a fortress in the city of York. And there the unit is thought to have been one of the northernmost Roman forces in Britain – tasked with defending a volatile frontier.

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According to experts, however, the last record of the Ninth Legion on British soil came from York in the form of a stone tablet dated to 108 A.D. And from that point onward, the fate of the band of Roman soldiers remains unknown. Indeed, after a brief mention in contemporary accounts in 120 A.D., the Ninth appears to have vanished without a trace.

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At around the time that the Ninth disappeared from the history books, though, the Roman Empire reached its peak. And as the years progressed, the empire’s military went from strength to strength. It’s believed, in fact, that some Roman legions survived into as late as the seventh century A.D.

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But what happened to the Legio IX Hispana? Well, over the years, many theories have appeared to explain its strange disappearance. None of these hypotheses have been definitively proven, though – meaning the mystery of these loyal soldiers continues to haunt history to this day.

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Today, one popular suggestion is that the Ninth headed north to Caledonia. Once there, though, the unit purportedly met defeat at the hands of a band of rebels. And that theory is lent credence, perhaps, by the fact that Emperor Hadrian was struggling to keep the British under control at around the time the Ninth disappeared from contemporary accounts. In fact, over the course of Hadrian’s reign, many Roman soldiers lost their lives.

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And in 122 A.D. the British rebellion had become so bad that Hadrian himself paid a visit to the eastern border of his empire. There, he apparently discovered a situation so dire that he decided to construct a wall to keep the rebels at bay. But could the Ninth have fallen victim to this volatile period of history?

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Well, as there are no records of exactly how many Roman troops fell during this time, the soldiers of the Ninth could indeed have been among those killed by British tribes. And Theodor Mommsen – a German historian writing in the 19th century – theorized that the men may have met their deaths soon after their last recorded presence in York.

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“Under Hadrian there was a terrible catastrophe – apparently an attack on the fortress of Eboracum [York] and the annihilation of the legion stationed there, the very same Ninth that had fought so unluckily in the Boudican revolt,” Mommsen is reported to have written. Moreover, he implied that an uprising by the Celtic Brigantes in around 108 A.D. could have spelled the Ninth’s doom.

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However, not everyone subscribes to this explanation of the Ninth’s ultimate fate. And after Mommsen published his theories, evidence emerged that reportedly placed the soldiers in the Netherlands’ Nijmegen region in 120 A.D. There, various artifacts were discovered that seem to suggest that the missing legion survived the slaughter in Britain and traveled westward once more.

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And on the back of these finds, a number of new theories as to the Ninth’s fate have emerged. According to one of these hypotheses, the unit actually survived to fight in the Second Jewish Revolt of 132 A.D. Apparently, though, this bloody conflict with the Romans in Judea saw the empire dealt a hefty blow.

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So, were the Ninth among the Roman soldiers killed in Judea? It’s a possibility. That said, another unit, XXII Deiotariana, was apparently present in the region during that time. And while it is feasible that two legions could have fallen in the same conflict, this would rank as among the biggest losses in the empire’s military history – meaning the events would surely have been recorded for posterity.

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But if the Ninth didn’t die in Britain or Judea, what else could have happened to the soldiers? Well, according to another theory, they may have survived into the reign of Marcus Aurelius, who became emperor in 161 A.D. At around this time, you see, an unknown legion was reportedly completely annihilated by the enemy in Armenia during the Parthian War.

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Indeed, records suggest that two different legions were stationed in the region at that time. Since both units are known to have survived into the third century, however, it’s unlikely that either were the Ninth. But while some have suggested that the Ninth could have fallen victim to this massacre, others have pointed out the lack of evidence linking the legion to Armenia and the Parthian War.

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And the scarcity of records connecting the Ninth to the Roman empire’s activities in later years has had one big effect. Yes, many have returned to the idea that the soldiers did in fact perish in Britain after all. It’s also been said that the evidence from Nijmegen only indicates some – not necessarily all – of the unit were ever there.

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What’s more, the veracity of the Nijmegen artifacts themselves has been thrown into doubt. “There is not one shred of evidence that the Ninth were ever taken out of Britain,” British archaeologist Dr. Miles Russell wrote in a 2011 article for the BBC. “It’s just a guess which, over time, has taken on a sheen of cast-iron certainty.”

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According to Russell, the evidence from Nijmegen dates not from 120 A.D. but from 80 A.D. – a period when members of the Ninth were known to have been in the region. The Scottish historian Lawrence Keppie, meanwhile, has suggested a date of around 105 A.D., when the unit was temporarily stationed outside Britain.

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Moreover, scholars have suggested that the lack of later records can only mean one thing: it’s unlikely the Ninth survived to fight in either the Jewish Revolt or the Parthian War. “No inscriptions recording the building activities of the legion or the lives and careers of its members have come from the East,” Keppie wrote in his paper The Fate of the Ninth Legion: a problem for the Eastern Provinces?

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And for Russell, the solution to the mystery is simple. “By far the most plausible answer to the question, ‘What happened to the Ninth?’ is that they fought and died in Britain, disappearing in the late 110s [A.D.] or early 120s [A.D] when the province was in disarray,” he wrote in a 2011 article for BBC History Magazine. Keppie, by contrast, has proposed a different scenario.

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In particular, Keppie believes that the Ninth may well have left Britain around 117 A.D to fight in an earlier Parthian war. In fact, he has suggested that the soldiers’ absence from the northern frontier could have caused the British rebels to revolt – all of which led to the construction of Hadrian’s infamous wall.

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So, owing to these competing theories, the truth about what happened to the Ninth is perhaps more elusive than ever. But while historians debate the events surrounding the unit’s disappearance, writers have since penned epic tales inspired by the historic mystery. Today, credit for kickstarting the trend goes to British author Rosemary Sutcliff, whose work The Eagle of the Ninth was published back in 1954.

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In Sutcliff’s novel, Marcus Aquila, a fictional Roman officer, travels to Caledonia in search of the missing legion. And the story of the lost Ninth has appeared in numerous other books, movies and television shows since. In 2017, for example, the soldiers featured in the popular British science fiction series Doctor Who, where they were claimed to have been the victims of an alien attack.

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And while it seems unlikely that extraterrestrials really did have a hand in the disappearance of the Ninth Legion, the jury is still out on what really happened. As a result, then, the mystery remains the subject of constant debate. Still, even if the truth does eventually come to light, the haunting legend of the missing legion seems likely to remain.

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