Thursday, 25 January 2007

The Lost Legion

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.)

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Frontier history

It's not every day that a new book about Antoninus Pius appears. In fact, the last one (by my reckoning) was 70 years ago.

Antonine wall bookNow, David Breeze, former Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments in Scotland, has penned a short, 210-page, glossy account to accompany the preparation of the Antonine Wall as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Divided into 11 chapters, the first of which deals summarily with the emperor's life (pp. 1-18), Professor Breeze has followed a tried-and-tested formula for this kind of book. He explains the sources of evidence (ch. 2, pp. 19-34) and summarises the Roman army (ch. 3, pp. 35-43), before describing Antoninus' invasion of present-day Scotland (ch. 4, pp. 44-58). The Antonine Wall itself accounts for by far the longest chapter (ch. 5, pp. 59-102). (Incidentally, the Professor's arithmetic is not as good as 18th Century antiquary William Roy's. The latter, quoted on p. 59, observed that "the wall ... consists of three parts; a large ditch, a rampart, and a military way", but Professor Breeze writes (p.71) that "there were three essential linear elements: the rampart, the ditch, with the earth tipped out to the north. [So far, I make that two.] Behind the Wall ran a fourth feature, the Military Way." One, two, ... four?)

The rest of the book covers military deployment (ch. 6, pp. 103-128), everyday life (ch. 7, "Life on the Edge"!, pp. 129-143), the function of the wall (ch. 8, pp. 144-159), and its final abandonment (ch. 9, pp. 160-171). The post-Roman history of the wall is described in ch. 10 ("Grim's Dyke", pp. 172-180), and the Professor rounds off his book with some "Final thoughts" (ch. 11, pp. 181-188).

The absence of footnotes (indeed, of referencing of any kind) often tantalises the reader. For example, many claims are made of the fort at Bearsden, claims which Professor Breeze (as the excavator in the 1970s) may be able to substantiate but which only an excavation report (hitherto unforthcoming) can settle. To say that "The number of barrack-blocks is often a guide to the size of the unit stationed at a particular fort" (p. 109) is perhaps self-evident. But why is it safe to assume that "the small barrack-blocks at Bearsden ... were probably occupied by cavalry"? We are earlier told that "the plan [of Bearsden] was clearly carefully designed" (p. 107), because it fits into a grid of 5 by 3 1/2 actus (the actus is 120 Roman feet square), but most of the interior is vacant and, on the contrary, gives the impression of having been surveyed by a one-eyed apprentice. "In some instances", we read, "the ditches continued across the front of the entrance without a gap", so should we perhaps envisage some kind of drawbridge? "At Bar Hill, unusually, an extra short ditch provided additional defence at the east gate" (p. 107), but the reconstruction sketch on p. 108 shows a similar feature at the south gate, too. When Professor Breeze writes in broad generalisations, is it safe to take them at face value? "On the Antonine Wall, the regimental bath-house was often inside the fort" (p. 109). Let's be clear: out of ten excavated forts, bath-houses were found at six, of which three were inside the fort and three outside in an annexe.

Occasionally, there is evidence of sloppy cutting-and-pasting. On p. 115, Professor Breeze refers to "the sewage at Bearsden". What sewage? On the next page, we read that "one of the most exciting discoveries at Bearsden arose from the biochemical analysis of the sterols surviving in the sewage". So, the picture is gradually building up. Finally, full clarity arrives on p. 120, where we learn that "the sewage from the latrine [aha -- a latrine was excavated at Bearsden!] drained into the fort ditches". Or, on p. 137, Professor Breeze writes that "Local or British gods were sometimes identified with the Roman gods: Camulus with Mars, Magusanus with Hercules, as we have seen." But we haven't seen ... yet. Not until p. 139 do we read about the "altar dedicated to Hercules Magusanus by a cavalryman" near the fort at Mumrills. There's a similar problem on p. 139, where we are told that "the historical importance of the dedication to Mercury found at Castlecary has already been noted". Certainly, "two altars ... to the west of Castlecary fort, one recording the erection of a shrine", were mentioned on p. 132, but the Professor doesn't divulge the full historical implication until p. 162! (And fails to mention that the altar is depicted as fig. 9.2 on p. 163, but the general lack of cross-referencing is another matter entirely.)

The book is admittedly short, and Professor Breeze does give the reader a flavour of the Antonine Wall and its history, as far as we understand it. But I can't help thinking that a splendid opportunity has been missed to present a new authoritative account for the twenty-first century, instead of this lightweight overview.