The Ninth Legion occupy a unique place in the mythology of the Roman army, their alleged ‘disappearance’ in the 2nd Century AD the subject of much speculation and some outlandish fiction. One incident earlier in their history, however, recently piqued my interest while preparing for a lecture – the massacre they allegedly suffered during the revolt of the Iceni under Boudica in AD60/61, and in particular how it might have affected the mindset of the legion as it subsequently established its new fortress at Lincoln.
The story goes that, after the death of king Prasutagus of the Iceni, the Roman state decided to ignore the wishes set out in his will and annex the tribe, which had previously enjoyed privileged status (to Roman eyes at least) as a client kingdom. A combination of the recall of huge loans made to individual high status Britons, perhaps forced on them in the first place, and the arrogant actions of the Roman procurator Decianus Catus, led to confrontation. The final insult, Tacitus tells us, was when Prasutagus’ wife Boudica was:
“subjected to the lash and his daughters violated: all the chief men of the Icenians were stripped of their family estates, and the relatives of the king were treated as slaves” (Tacitus, Annals, 14.31)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this led to rebellion among the Iceni, swiftly joined by the neighbouring Trinovantes, who were perhaps suffering or at least fearing similar mistreatment. The first target of Boudica’s army was the colony at Colchester (Colonia Vitricensis), at this time an unwalled settlement defended only by the veterans living there and, according to Tacitus (Annals 14.32), 200 soldiers sent by Catus but who had insufficient weapons. The destruction of the town and the massacre (and seeming mutilation) of the population, are well known and attested archaeologically.
News of the revolt soon reached the ears of the closest Roman legion, and the only legion in eastern England at the time, the Ninth. The Fourteenth and Twentieth Legions were with the governor, Suetonius Paulinus, assaulting the druidic stronghold of Mona (Anglesey) and the II Legion were in Devon. The Legate of the Ninth, Petilius Cerialis, whether acting on his own initiative or under direct orders, headed south to meet the threat.
In AD60 it seems likely that the main base of the Ninth was the fortress of Longthorpe, near Peterborough. Excavations here between 1967 and 1971 (Frere and St Joseph 1974) revealed two phases of military activity, with the fortress being constructed between AD44-47 and occupied until AD60/61 – the latter date of course being far from coincidental in the context of the Boudican revolt. The entire legion would not have been based at Longthorpe (Frere and St Joseph estimated that it would have held a maximum of 2,800 men, including a cavalry contingent), and it seems likely that it was this detatchment, led by Cerialis himself, that set out to meet the threat, leaving the remainder of the legion at other forts around Lincolnshire and along the Trent. Whether the failure to mobilise more of the legion and its attendant auxiliaries was due to a belief that the Longthorpe detachment was sufficient to deal with the revolt, or whether it was felt that leaving such a large and recently occupied area devoid of troops would invite further uprisings must remain speculation.
Marching his contingent south towards Colchester, Cerialis soon met with disaster. The location of the encounter with Boudica’s army is unknown, as is the nature of the battle, such as whether the Romans were ambushed. The only evidence we have is Tacitus’ chillingly brief description.
“Turning to meet Petilius Cerialis, commander of the ninth legion, who was arriving to the rescue, the victorious Britons routed the legion and slaughtered the infantry to a man: Cerialis with the cavalry escaped to the camp, and found shelter behind its fortifications.” (Tacitus, Annals 14.32)
Tacitus’ account makes no mention of the number of Roman troops killed, and in fact suggests that the entire legion was destroyed, only Cerialis and the remains of his more mobile cavalry able to escape the slaughter and return to Longthorpe. The loss of an entire legion, however, was a rare event in Roman history, and one that usually elicited intense mourning – the loss of seven legions at Carrhae in 53BC and three legions in Germany in AD9 rank among the darkest events in the whole of Roman history. Could a writer such as Tacitus really have reported such a momentous event in such a brief manner? After all, he was writing only c.50 years after the event – within living memory for some – and had personal connections to Britain through his father in law Agricola, who would undoubtedly had personally served with soldiers and magistrates who had been in Britain at the time.
We do have one other source for the events, albeit an historian writing at the end of the 2nd Century – Cassius Dio. Dio, however, makes no mention of the Ninth Legion at all, let alone its destruction. Although seemingly more interested in putting flowery rhetoric into the mouths of the major participants than recording the details of events, can Dio really have omitted the destruction of an entire legion? He seems to revel in describing the atrocities committed by the rebelling Britons – the breasts of female residents of London being cut off and sewn onto their mouths for example (Dio, Roman History, 62.7), so the massacre of a legion might be expected to feature in his narrative. At the outset of his account, he summarises the devastation caused by the revolt,
“While this sort of child’s play was going on in Rome, a terrible disaster occurred in Britain. Two cities were sacked, eighty thousand of the Romans and of their allies perished, and the island was lost to Rome.” (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 62.1)
It is unlikely that the eighty thousand Romans included the Ninth Legion, as they are clearly related to the sacked cities, of which there were actually three (Colchester, London and St Albans), throwing further doubt onto the veracity of Dio’s account. Also, the island was clearly not ‘lost to Rome’ as Dio cannot have failed to be aware. Dio’s account only survives as an epitome, so perhaps that can be cited as a reason – certain parts of the narrative not deemed worthy of retention by the later editor?
Tacitus thankfully clarifies his earlier statement and provides an indication of the scale of the loss when he describes the aftermath of the final defeat of Boudica’s army by Paulinus:
“The whole army was now concentrated and kept under canvas, with a view to finishing what was left of the campaign. Its strength was increased by the Caesar, who sent over from Germany two thousand legionaries, eight cohorts of auxiliaries, and a thousand cavalry. Their advent allowed the gaps in the ninth legion to be filled with regular troops” (Tacitus, Annals 14.38)
How many of the reinforcements were used to replace losses sustained by the Fourteenth and Twentieth legions in the final battle with Boudica is not clear, though Tacitus (Annals 14.37) states that these legions only sustained 400 casualties. If we assume, then, that the Ninth Legion effectively sustained 2,000 casualties, this amounts to the loss of around 35% of the entire legion. Not annihilation, then, but still an unusually severe defeat for a legion.
It is interesting to speculate what effect this might have had on Cerialis’ reputation. The loss of such a large percentage of your command is not a cause for celebration, but could be narrativised in different ways – for example as either a reckless act or as a brave following of orders despite the low chance of success. When Tacitus later describes Cerialis’ role in the suppression of the German Batavian uprising of AD69 (Histories books 4 and 5), he doesn’t consider his losses in Britain as worthy of mention, or as impacting on his reputation at Rome or with his soldiers. Cerialis, it would seem, was not tarnished by the affair.
Despite its fame in British history and mythology, the subjugation of the Boudican revolt was met with no fanfare in Rome – no triumphs were celebrated, no arches built, and no coinage celebrating victory that we can clearly identify. This is perhaps not surprising, as the recovery of a catastrophic situation that had been caused by Rome’s own actions, and led by a woman no less, was not seen as a glorious act.
I like to think, though, that the events of AD60 and AD61 add a different mood to the narrative of the establishment of the fortress at Lincoln in the early to mid AD60s – the construction of a new base doubtless a direct consequence of the Boudican revolt. The legion will still have been licking its wounds, mourning its dead, and getting used to the presence of the 2,000 reinforcements, a constant reminder of the colleagues they had lost. We have no literary or archaeological record of the interaction between the legion and the locals during those early years, but the memory of the Boudican revolt may have led to the survivors of the Ninth Legion treating them with suspicion or even hostility, fearing a reprisal of that fateful event.
Frere, S.S. and St Joseph, J. K. 1974. The Roman Fortress at Longthorpe. Britannia Vol 5