With only a day remaining to organize February's post, a gift from the Gods landed on my lap. The (usually excellent) History of the Ancient World web site decided to enter the "Lost Legion" fray. As regular readers will know, we have been blogging on this subject (on and off) for quite some time.
A Mysterious Loss
Yesterday, under the title, "The Roman Ninth Legion's mysterious loss", the HotAW web site linked to a BBC News Magazine report (filed last March!) that we already commented on here. But it's not often that we get two bites at the same cherry!
The web site article is, in fact, a precis of a longer piece which appeared in the glossy BBC History magazine in May 2011. There, in a movie tie-in with The Eagle (which we blogged about here), Dr Miles Russell spun a fanciful tale, disingenuously labelled "A solid, historical truth".
The good people at the Daily Mail were sufficiently taken in to announce that "the 2,000 year riddle of Rome's lost Ninth Legion is solved at last"!
Dr Russell's article is surprisingly unbalanced for the BBC. It seems that their editor was snoozing. There are signs that Wikipedia formed a major source of information (both cite Winston Churchill -- that well-known Roman scholar!). Nor is Dr Russell's tone as measured as we would expect from the BBC: critics who point out "that the Ninth Legion did not die in a remote Scottish valley" (Scottish valley?!) are branded as "somewhat sniffy". These critics use their certainty, he claims, "to ridicule those who don't know any better".
Dr Russell's solid evidence of the legion's demise in some remote Scottish valley is contrasted with the "rather flimsy" evidence of transfer out of Britannia. The solid evidence from Britain ("an immense stone inscription") is contrasted with the flimsy evidence from the Netherlands ("fragmentary tiles, pottery sherds"). I sense someone playing to the crowd.
The competing Netherlands theory, according to Dr Russell, "stretches the evidence beyond all credibility". The seeds of doubt are, by now, firmly planted in the BBC Magazine reader's mind. Meanwhile, Dr Russell bolsters his own Scottish valley theory by claiming that Britannia was "a troublesome cultural backwater", dangerous and volatile, "an ancient equivalent perhaps of modern Afghanistan". (The "perhaps" has been inserted too late to save Dr Russell's credibility -- he has already spun his unsuspecting audience around his finger, by this stage. So much for impartiality.)
Dr Russell helpfully informs any doubting readers that "by far the most plausible answer to the question "what happened to the Ninth?", is that they fought and died in Britain". Er, so, why is there a mystery to solve? Why is there a controversy at all, if it's so plausible, and the alternative is so lacking in credibility? And -- more to the point -- where is the famous BBC even-handedness?
It seems that a new myth has been born, courtesy of Miles Russell. (I think I preferred Rosemary Sutcliff's version.)
The Curious Coda
In fact, things got even more curious at the History of the Ancient World web site. Later that same day, a rival article appeared on their web site, entitled "The fate of the Ninth: The curious disappearance of Legio VIIII Hispana"; an article which we already noted (almost two years ago!) here, and which seems to be a rather more balanced discussion than the BBC-sponsored one. Eheu! Just when you think a topic has finally died ...