For centuries, historians have puzzled over the disappearance of a legion of 5,000 battle-hardened Roman soldiers in northern Britain around 108 AD.
The ancient riddle, which has captivated storytellers, has just been dramatised by Hollywood in The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell.
Now, experts have revealed that the children’s book on which the film is based is more fact than fiction.After helping to quell Queen Boadicea’s rebellion, and later crushing Caledonian tribes at the battle of Mons Graupius in Scotland in 83 AD, nothing more is recorded of the legendary Ninth Legion.
Historians were left baffled how thousands of heavy infantry soldiers could simply disappear. They suggested that the most likely explanations were that the legion disbanded and its members joined other units, or it was deployed to an eastern part of the empire.Meanwhile, the myth-making continued. In 1954, children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff published The Eagle Of The Ninth, an adventure novel in which the heroic legion was massacred by Pict hordes in hostile mountainous terrain.
Now a group of experts say the elite infantry force was indeed defeated by a band of ‘barbarians’ in a military catastrophe that shamed the empire, prompting a conspiracy of silence.
The dramatic new evidence hinges on a single gravestone tribute and was brought to light by historian and film-maker Phil Hirst, whose documentary Rome’s Lost Legion will be screened next month.
‘The battle of Mons Graupius was thought to have marked the end of any serious threat to imp¬erial might,’ he said. ‘But the discovery of a tombstone of a centurion stationed at the Northumbrian fort of Vindolanda shows the Romans were under attack from the north 20 years later.’
Historian Neil Faulkner, of Channel 4’s Time Team, said: ‘It is likely the insurgents formed a confederation of tribes. So what the Romans could have been facing was a rising of pretty well the whole of the north of Britain.’
Rome’s reaction after the Ninth’s disappearance lends weight to the theory. Reinforcements were drafted in to Britain to fight a major war at the beginning of Emperor Hadrian’s reign around 117 AD and the construction of Hadrian’s Wall was ordered.
Mr Hirst said: ‘The loss of the Ninth may have led Hadrian to realise that the total conquest of Britain was unachievable and a dividing wall needed to be built separating occupied territory from the barbarian hordes.’
Mr Faulkner added: ‘My guess is that the Ninth Legion was destroyed in a carefully executed ambush by northern tribes.’
The Eagle opens in UK cinemas on March 25.