This week’s episode of Doctor Who, Rona Munro’s The Eaters of Light, delves into genuine history for its central story, telling the tale of the real Ninth Roman Legion who are said to have mysteriously disappeared in Northern Britain some time in the 2nd century AD.

But what really happened to the Ninth, and how accurate is this week’s episode at depicting it? Read on to find out…


The real Ninth Roman Legion

A Roman from this week’s episode of Doctor Who

The Ninth Roman Legion or Legio IX Hispana (Spanish Ninth Legion), was a Legion of the Imperial Roman Army that took fought in various provinces of the late Romand Republic and the early Roman Empire from the 1st century BC until at least AD 120.

However, the Legion disappeared from Roman records after AD 120, leading to considerable speculation from historians as to where the 5,000 fighting men disappeared to.


So what actually happened?

Pict warriors in this week’s Doctor Who

Well, no-one knows for sure. An early theory for their disappearance was that the Legion were wiped out by native Britons some time after 108, as the last datable inscription left by the Ninth found in Britain dates from this time.

As suggested by 19th-century German historian Theodor Mommsen, “under Hadrian there was a terrible catastrophe here, apparently an attack on the fortress of Eboracum [York] and the annihilation of the legion stationed there, the very same Ninth that had fought so unluckily in the Boudican revolt.”

This view has been particularly popularised by Rosemary Sutcliff’s classic 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth (which saw the Ninth march into Caledonia, present-day Scotland, to never return again), though in recent years this idea has fallen out of favour with some as an inscription from the Ninth was found in the Netherlands that could suggest they were present in that country later than the supposed massacre.

Accordingly, some have theorised that the Ninth might have perished or disbanded during either the Second Jewish Revolt against the Romans in Judea in 132 (where the Romans took heavy casualties) or the 161-166 Parthian War waged by Emperor Marcus Aurelius against King Vologases IV, a conflict which was noted to include the annihilation of an unnamed Roman Legion in Armenia.

However, there’s little evidence to support either of these claims, leading some to go back to the original Celtic uprising theory and suggesting that the later Netherlands inscription could have been made by a detachment from the Legion rather than the whole group (after all, detachments from the Ninth were fighting in the Rhine against Germanic tribes around this time).

As archaeologist Dr Miles Russell said in 2011, “there is not one shred of evidence that the Ninth were ever taken out of Britain,” and many historians do still believe the Ninth met their end somewhere in Britain during the chaotic years around this time.

And who knows? Maybe they really WERE wiped out by some sort of mysterious alien activity as this week’s Doctor Who probably suggests. There’s about as much evidence for and against it as any other historical theory…


In popular culture

The mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion has been depicted multiple times over the years, with Sutcliff’s aforementioned novel kicking off the trend in 1954 when it told the story of a young Roman officer, Marcus Flavius Aquila, trying to recover the Eagle standard of the Legion beyond Hadrian’s Wall.

The Ninth Legion also appear in Alan Garner’s 1973 novel Red Shift, Karl Edward Wagner’s 1976 fantasy Legion from the Shadows, Amanda Cockrell’s 1979 historical novel Legions of the Mist, David Gemmell’s Stones of Power historical fantasy book series, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Lady of Avalon, Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera fantasy series and 2010 historical novel Last of the Ninth among other works.

Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth has also been adapted twice for radio (in 1956 and 1996), once for TV (in 1977) and for film in 2011’s The Eagle (pictured), starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell. The Legion’s fate is also explored onscreen in 2007 movie The Last Legion (based on Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s 2002 historical novel L’ultima legion) and 2010’s Centurion, which starred Michael Fassbender and former Doctor Who star Noel Clarke.

In other words, then, The Eaters of Light is just one more entry in the long and complicated discussion about a Legion of Romans who went missing thousands of years ago. We can only hope the Doctor will finally clear things up.