Simon Elliott, Roman Britain’s Missing Legion (Pen and Sword, 2021)
Who doesn’t love a historical mystery? And for military historians, there are fewer mysteries more prominent and perplexing than the sudden ‘disappearance’ from the record of the Roman IX Hispana Legion in 108AD. Was it destroyed in battle or more prosaically by an administrator’s pen? Roman military historian, Simon Elliott, endeavours to find out, analysing the four main theories for what happened to the 9th before delivering his own solution.
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Elliott circles in on the IX Legion through a description of the typical Roman Legion’s organisation and the roles played by the legionaries. A second chapter fills in the background of early Roman Britain and the progress of the Roman Legions into northern Scotland. Elliott then tackles his first theory, and the most popular, that the IX Legion was destroyed fighting in the north. As with all the theories he presents, Elliott works his way through the key evidence for and against the thesis before delivering his verdict. Staying in Britain, Elliott examines the theory that a Hadrianic war in London led to the Legion’s destruction, perhaps in a mutiny that led to the Legions erasure from history. Was the IX Legion transferred to Northern Europe then disappeared in the various wars along the Rhine or Danube? This seems to be the weakest of the theories presented by Elliott. His final search takes Elliott into the east and more wars to consider against extremely dangerous enemies, especially the Parthians. In his conclusion, Elliott brings his theories together and offers his own solution, which is… that would be telling, but this reader was quite surprised, particularly after reading Duncan Campbell’s brilliant, and still very recent, analysis of the problem in The Fate of the Ninth.
Historians of the ancient world are often fickle about their evidence, the paucity of which requires careful handling like fine porcelain. That is as it should be because minor errors can easily undermine or skew historical interpretations. Proofreading is essential. Unfortunately, the lack of proofreading in Roman Britain’s Missing Legion over simple matters creates doubts over the more complex arguments that Elliott presents; for example, Septimius Severus died in 211 not 213. Mistakes relating to some of the seemingly inconsequential background information can also be misleading: Elliott’s claim that the Caledonians attacked the legionary fortress of Inchtuthil during Agricola’s campaigns is baseless but sets up a scenario where the IX Legion could have been operating in the far north of Scotland and therefore more easily lost that way. That is careless writing, as is the resort to bullet points and summaries and introductions within chapters. It all feels a bit perfunctory, which is a shame because Elliott is obviously a knowledgeable Roman military historian, and he works his way through the four theories on the fate of the IX Legion with admirable clarity for the most part. Readers who want to skim through the mystery and gain useful background knowledge will enjoy this book, but it should have been much better.