Some myths die hard.
It used to be thought that the Ninth Legion, the famous legio VIIII Hispana, had come to a sticky end in the wilds of Scotland. This particular legion, which dated back to the days of Augustus if not before, was probably in Britain from the start, participating in the invasion of AD 43. It certainly formed part of Agricola's army when he brought the Caledonian tribes to battle at Mons Graupius forty years later. The legion was engaged in construction work in its fortress at York (Roman Eburacum), some time in AD 108 (according to a stone inscription found there). But, thereafter, it seemed to disappear from the archaeological and historical record.
During the reign of Trajan (AD 98-114), the garrison of Britain stood at three legions. When Hadrian visited the province in AD 122 and planned the building of his well-known frontier wall, he brought a legion with him, the Sixth Victrix from Germany. Scholars assumed that the new legion was required to fill the gap left by some dreadful military disaster. Writing in 1936, Wilhelm Weber, the German biographer of Hadrian, confidently asserted that "the Britons had destroyed the legion IX Hispana in the camp of Eburacum".
In his monumental survey of the Roman legions, the German scholar Emil Ritterling had earlier noticed evidence of officers serving in the Ninth later in Hadrian's reign. So, when the British archaeologist Professor Sir Ian Richmond came to write on the subject, he was loathe to concede the annihilation of an entire legion, and posited instead a convoluted scenario whereby "the legion was cashiered following an ignominious defeat ... [but] some of its officers survived".
But already in the 1960s, Dutch archaeologists had found evidence of the Ninth Legion at the fortress of Nijmegen (Roman Noviomagus) in the Netherlands, dating from early in the reign of Hadrian. Most probably, there had been a troop rotation, a straight exchange of legions, Sixth Victrix replacing Ninth Hispana at York; sadly, there was no dreadful destruction of the Ninth at the hands of the Britons.
However, at some point, a new variation of the myth arose, and became enshrined in Rosemary Sutcliff's delightful Eagle of the Ninth. Generations of book-reading school children have grown up with the idea of the lost legion, an idea that recently resurfaced in an article on the ABS-CBN web site. There, the writer William Esposo listed world-class Scots literature and the many Scots inventors of the past, celebrating the Scottish character:
"At the peak of the expansion of the Roman Empire," he writes, "the Scots successfully resisted Roman conquest. Two Roman legions that were sent as an advance column to Scotland vanished without a trace – no bones, no armor, no signs of battle to suggest what became of them. The mighty Romans lost their nerve and zest for conquering Scotland and instead built Hadrian’s Wall; running 73 miles of open country to separate Romans from the barbarians."
Aye, some myths die hard.
(See also: Lost Legion Myth Lives On.)