[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.