[Review] Roman Britain’s Missing Legion by Simon Elliott

Today, I am absolutely thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour for Simon Elliott’s new book Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispania? A huge thanks first of all to Pen & Sword for sorting me out with a copy of this absolutely wonderful book, and secondly to Simon Elliott for writing it.

Legio IX Hispana had a long and active history, later founding York from where it guarded the northern frontiers in Britain. But the last evidence for its existence in Britain comes from AD 108. The mystery of their disappearance has inspired debate and imagination for decades. The most popular theory, immortalized in Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, is that the legion was sent to fight the Caledonians in Scotland and wiped out there.

But more recent archaeology (including evidence that London was burnt to the ground and dozens of decapitated heads) suggests a crisis, not on the border but in the heart of the province, previously thought to have been peaceful at this time. What if IX Hispana took part in a rebellion, leading to their punishment, disbandment and damnatio memoriae (official erasure from the records)? This proposed ‘Hadrianic War’ would then be the real context for Hadrian’s ‘visit’ in 122 with a whole legion, VI Victrix, which replaced the ‘vanished’ IX as the garrison at York. Other theories are that it was lost on the Rhine or Danube, or in the East. Simon Elliott considers the evidence for these four theories, and other possibilities.

The second I picked up this book, I was transported back to my university days. I have to admit that I had little interest in the history and archaeology of Roman Britain back then – I found most of my lectures to be dry and boring (sorry, lecturers. I love you really) but when I opened up this book I was wowed. This is the sort of book on Roman Britain that I wish I’d read back in my uni days.

Elliot tells the story of IX Hispania, a Roman legion who mysteriously disappeared. No explanation was given for the disappearance, they just….poof, gone. In this book, Elliot explores the disappearance of these soldiers and goes through each theory, looking at what may or may not have happened to the legion in a meticulous and very well written way. The narrative flows beautifully all throughout and, although you can tell that this is a very scholarly work, the author explains things in a clear and concise way making this work easily accessible to those who aren’t that familiar with Roman Britain or IX Hispania. And in the same way, Elliott clearly explains the background of where in the time frame of Roman history the legion were based, explains the background and makeup of Roman Britain as a whole as well as the Roman army.

Each theory is gone through – for instance there are chapters dedicated to the legions potential loss in the north of Roman Britain, the loss of them in a rather nasty and gruesome event in London, the loss of them over in Europe etc etc. As you read, you are presented with both sides of each theory and the reasons as to why the legion disappeared from the annals of history – it’s been a long time since I’ve been presented with a book that does this in such a scholarly yet readable way, and I have to admit it’s been an absolute pleasure to read. And let me just say, if Elliot writes in such an engaging way then his lectures must be even better! I may or may not be ever so slightly jealous of his students!

I would say that in an ideal world, you would need at least some knowledge of the history of Roman Britain before picking up this book but it’s not the be all and end all if you haven’t. Elliot gives a brief and engaging background of the history before launching into the main course of the books. I truly found this book to be an easy read with an engaging and highly interesting narrative – I would highly recommend it to anyone with at least a passing interest in Roman history.

5/5

Rome – Day 3

Our final day in Rome and we saved the best until last. Our original plan had been to visit the Vatican museums on the first day however that plan had soon be quashed when we’d seen the length of the queues thanks to us not pre-booking tickets. So, having pre-booked we took ourselves off on the little walk from our hotel to the Vatican and managed to skip the lines before the official opening times stated on the website.

Let me tell you – those halls were empty. And it was utterly glorious as we made our way as quickly as we possibly could to the part of the Apostolic Palace that had been one of the main reasons for our visit to Rome.

The Borgia apartments.

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Early morning in the Vatican’s Hall of the Maps. It felt like we had the place to ourselves. A very blurry photo by me.

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The disputation of St. Catherine. Photo by me.

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Borgia coat of arms above a fireplace. Photo by me.

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Pope Alexander VI kneeling. Photo by me.

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The name Borgia carved into a fireplace. Photo by me.

The moment that we stepped foot inside the Borgia apartments and my eyes fell upon the Disputation of St. Catherine, particularly the figure of Lucrezia Borgia, my eyes welled up with tears. It was an incredibly special moment walking into that set of rooms and being completely and utterly alone. In a way it was almost as if, when you closed your eyes, you could imagine the family within the rooms as they spoke amongst themselves in the Valencian dialect. It took me a while to compose myself, let me tell you.

These apartments were build following Pope Alexander VI’s election in 1492 for his personal use and the frescoes that adorn the walls were completed by the Umbrian artist Pinturicchio in around 1493. The Hall of the Saints holds the most famous of the frescoes – the Disputation of St Catherine, which shows the members of Alexander’s family, whilst other rooms such as the Hall of the Mysteries of the Faith include the Adoration of the Magi and the Resurrection (in which Pope Alexander can be seen kneeling before the Risen Christ).

Below is a video I took whilst within the apartments, and whilst the place was still so incredibly quiet.

We spent a good hour sat in the apartments just drinking the whole thing in. Literally everywhere you look whilst in there you can see the Spanish influence – from the tiles on the floor to the pomegranates carved on the ceiling. It’s almost like you’ve walked into a Muslim influenced palace, such as the alhambra, and it is truly breathtaking. The second you walk through the door you know you are in the room of a Spanish family, and you know that these rooms are all about showing just how powerful the Borgia family were.

Of course, once we were done drinking in the solitude of the Borgia rooms we had an entire museum to look around. And we spent probably eight or nine hours wandering the corridors of the Vatican museums. Below are a selection of my favourite photographs from our visit.

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Photo by me

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View of St. Peter’s. Photo by me.

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This acorn was originally at the front of old St. Peter’s. Photo by me.

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Photo by me

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Anubis. Photo by me.

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Laocoon and His Sons. Photo by me

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Photo by me

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Photo by me

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Photo by me

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Photo by me

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Medici crest. Photo by me.

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Jesus bursting out of his tomb – gallery of tapestries. Photo by me.

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Ceiling of the Gallery of Maps. Photo by me.

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Gallery of maps. Photo by me.

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Gallery of maps. Photo by me.

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Borgia coat of arms. Photo by me

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Mini Cesare chilling on a game board in the Borgia apartments. Photo by me

We spent hours and hours walking around the museum, happily getting lost in various galleries and gazing at treasures from so long ago. The amount of history they have in those halls is honestly just mind-blowing and, despite spending so long there, I honestly think we missed parts.

It just gives us an excuse to go back though, right?

After leaving the Vatican museums – and me spending far too much time in the gift shop – we headed for St. Peter’s Basilica…

And then we saw the queue…

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The queue just kept going….and going…

So we decided to do something else. I’d seen signs dotted about for a Raphael Exhibition at the Palazzo Farnesina so we decided to hunt it down. We walked…and walked…and walked some more…only to find out that the place had closed earlier on in the afternoon. Back to the hotel it was, one last casual stroll back through the streets of Rome, so we could rest up before heading out for another fantastic meal.

The three full days we spent in Rome were honestly crammed full of activities – each day we walked well over ten miles but it was well and truly worth it. Every ache at the end of the day was worth it. We had an absolutely phenomenal time and although we saw loads, there’s still SO much more left to see. So there will be another trip to Rome on the cards at some point in the (I hope) not too distant future.

One thing’s for sure, though – this trip has given me so much inspiration for my next book! Let the writing commence!