By William Napier

Over the course of its majestic, turbulent and bloody 1,000-year history, Ancient Rome gave rise to many extraordinary stories which live on to this day.

Tales filled with unforgettable, larger-than-life characters who, whether heroes or villains, seem – like Shakespeare’s brilliant, but fatally ambitious Caesar – to ‘bestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs, and peep about…’

No wonder Hollywood has always loved Rome, whose ferocity, passion and sheer spectacle have given rise to great epic movies from Ben-Hur to Gladiator.

Roman soldier

Mystery: The unexplained disappearance of the 6,000 legionaires from Ninth Legion in Scotland is the inspiration behind two competing films

Yet the latest movies inspired by the barbarous magnificence of the ancient world comes not from the heart of Rome, but from a remote northern province on the edge of the Empire, and an ancient legend that continues to haunt the imagination.

A province we now call Scotland, but which the Romans knew as Caledonia.

Both films (still in production) concern the Roman Ninth Legion and the bizarre fate that befell them in the mists of the Scottish Highlands around AD117.

The Eagle Of The Ninth will vie with rival project Centurion, starring British actor Dominic West and Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, to do this epic tale justice.

For the facts, as far as they can be discerned, are as thrilling as they are peculiar.

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall is the only visible landmark that remains testimony to the Ninth’s disappearance – an admission of defeat by the Romans

The Ninth Legion was one of the toughest and most experienced legions in the entire Roman Empire.

It was raised in Spain in 65BC, hence its nickname, the Hispanica, although it would soon include soldiers from every nation. Julius Caesar was its first commander, as Governor of Spain, and led it in triumph after triumph.

The men of the Ninth fought across the length and breadth of Europe for their beloved general: from the wide fields of Gaul to bitter battles in the Balkans.

Like all soldiers, they showed their affection for their great commander by singing obscene songs as they marched along, mocking Caesar’s baldness or his notorious and numerous female conquests.

Caesar didn’t mind. As long as they continued to fight like lions for him, they could sing what they liked.

Caesar himself made a couple of fleeting visits to the fog-bound and unknown island of Britain, in 55 and 54BC, claiming them, in an outrageous bit of political spin, as ‘conquests’.

They were nothing of the sort. It wasn’t until AD43, under the Emperor Claudius, that the island was finally brought within the Empire, with the armed might of four entire legions – the IX Hispanica among them.

Yet ancient Britain was filled with proud and warlike Celtic tribes, and Rome constantly dreaded rebellion.

While Spain and the entire coast of North Africa were kept at peace with a single legion apiece, Britain required three permanent legions.

Even so, in AD61, the nightmare came true and much of the island erupted into bloody revolt, under Queen Boudicca.

A brutal and corrupt Roman official was to blame. When Boudicca’s husband died, the official ordered the seizure of his tribal lands, and had his Queen publicly whipped and her daughters raped for good measure.

Such an insult could not be endured.

Russell Crowe

The Ninth Legion, originally raised in Spain in 65BC – similar to the character Maximus played by Russell Crowe in the 2000 Oscar-winner Gladiator – was one of Rome’s most successful

The flame-haired Boudicca stirred her people to a fury, scorning the Romans under their Emperor Nero as ’slaves to a lyre-player,’ and comparing Roman rule of her Iceni tribe to ‘hares trying to rule over wolves’.

The Queen led her vast tribal army south, striking terror into the hearts of the colonists.

She fell upon Colchester and burned it to ground, and then did the same to Verulamium – now St Albans – and London.

Even today, when deep foundations are dug in the City of London, the builders invariably encounter a stratum of reddish ash: Boudicca’s burning.

As many as 70,000 civilians were slaughtered, some in the cruellest ways imaginable.

‘They could not wait to cut throats, hang, burn, crucify,’ wrote the Roman historian Tacitus.

‘In the groves of their terrible dark goddess, Andraste, they tortured their captives to death, sewing the severed breasts of the women to their lips, and impaling others on stakes driven through their bodies.

‘No cruelty was too great. When the oppressed rise up against cruel oppressors, restraint is rare.’

The first legion to face up to Boudicca was the Ninth. And despite their formidable reputation, in this first conflict they were routed.

Massively outnumbered, they lost as many as a third of their number.

But their heroism won valuable time for the Governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus, to march south from Anglesey, down the Roman road later known as Watling Street – and even later, more prosaically, as the A5 – and meet Boudicca’s furious onslaught head-on, somewhere in the flat lands of the East Midlands.

Even then Paulinus was outnumbered, his legionaries of 10,000 facing 100,000 howling tribesmen.

Yet this would have caused his veterans, the remainder of the Ninth among them, little concern.

Odds of ten to one against? The Romans had faced far worse than that before.

They knew that in the end, what won battles wasn’t weight of numbers, nor the chaotic onrush of vainglorious painted warriors, but years of weapons training, strict formation, and iron discipline.

Sure enough, against the implacable shield wall of Roman legionaries, bristling with those short, squat, brutally effective stabbing swords, wave after wave of tribesmen broke and fell apart.

The Iceni were utterly crushed. When Boudicca realised the day was lost, she took poison.

But it was also said that, as she lay dying, she put a curse on the legions that had destroyed her people – a curse that people would recall, some 60 years later, in very different circumstances.

After Boudicca’s rebellion, the Romans slowly and steadily set about subduing the whole island, pushing further north each year.

Having conquered the powerful tribe of the Brigantes, the Ninth was stationed at the imposing legionary fortress of York.

Sometimes the curtain of history parts and we get a poignant glimpse, and a moving reminder, that these soldiers weren’t mere players in a Hollywood movie, but flesh-and-blood people like us.

A tiny tombstone was found at York recently, set up by one of those hardbitten, grim-faced legionaries, in memory of his little daughter.

It reads: ‘To the Gods, the Shades. For Simplicia Forentiana, a Most Innocent Being, Who Lived Ten Months. Her father, Felicius Simplex, made this.’

Yet the northern border had still to be pushed back.

Beyond York lay the lowland hills of the Borders, and then the Highlands, home of many a ferocious and untamed tribe who were still raiding with impunity down into Roman territory.

Caledonia, too, must be ‘pacified’ for Rome to feel safe. The capable new Governor of Britain, Agricola, led the surge.

They called their enemy Picti – the Painted People.

The tribesmen of Caledonia were fine specimens of men, with reddish hair and huge limbs. They called themselves ‘the last men on earth, the last of the free’.

In even the coldest weather they wore nothing but primitive kilts of homespun wool, their bare chests and arms covered in tattoos depicting terrifying emblems of severed heads, shining suns, intertwined serpents and crossed daggers dripping blood.

In time of war, though, they painted blood-red stripes across their faces, clad themselves in animal pelts, wolf skins and bear skins, clasped with brooches of red Hibernian gold, and decorated their spears with blue-grey herons’ feathers.

As they rushed into battle, their shaman priests, called the Druithyn in the ancient Celtic tongue, wearing deer’s antlers on their heads, stood on nearby hillsides and raised their arms to heaven to summon the spirits of the dead.

They gashed themselves with knives, beat monstrous drums, burnt huge bonfires and howled in fury.

The Romans regarded them as nothing but sorcerers – and yet they still evoked fear. Only the strictest discipline and the finest command would prevail against such an enemy.

‘Only the faintest rumours ever returned of what had befallen the men’

In AD84 the expeditionary force led by Agricola, including the men of the Ninth, finally met the Caledonian tribes in open battle, under the Picts’ own brilliant commander, Calgacus, ‘The Swordsman’.

The site of the mighty confrontation was called Mons Graupius, somewhere in the wilds of the Cairngorms, and the Roman legionaries were once again savagely triumphant.

After the slaughter, records Tacitus: ‘A grim silence reigned on every hand, the hills were deserted, only here and there was smoke seen rising – our scouts found no one to encounter them.’

It was then Calgacus himself delivered his damning judgment on the whole Roman Imperial enterprise: ‘They create a desolation, and they call it peace!’

Believing they had taught the rebellious Picts one final lesson, the Romans marched south.

But a generation later, fresh rebellion broke out. Which was why, one bleak grey morning in AD117, the 6,000 men of the Ninth Legion tramped north once more.

Little did those they left behind, the girlfriends, auxiliaries and townspeople of York, suspect that this would be the last they ever saw of them.

Carrying sword and shield and finely-pointed javelin, along with full kit, weighing perhaps 40 or 50lb per man, the legion marched at the steady military pace of 20 miles in five hours.

Having marched, they would then set down their kit and build a full camp, every night, including ditches and palisades and gateways, on exactly the same plan as any legionary fortress.

For every day a legionary wields a sword, went the saying, he spends a dozen wielding a shovel.

Only the very fittest armed forces today could compete with that sort of regime. These were very tough soldiers, indeed.

Yet the great loneliness of mountain and moorland and the trackless wild must have weighed on them.

They would have glimpsed the occasional wisp of peat smoke, the huddle of turf huts among the gloomy moors, but no more.

Their enemy would have eluded them, and they would have had only their meagre rations of bread and bacon and thin soup for comfort, only the endless rain or the first flurries of winter snow for company.

And the mist. The mist would have been their worst enemy.

For in the mist, the enemy might have closed in on them like wolves as they marched through the lonely glens and begun to harry them, to pick them off one by one. The fear would have begun to grow.

Any stray legionaries the tribesmen captured would have been mutilated horribly and left disembowelled, slung over a wayside thornbush for their comrades to find.

And there would be worse horrors in store.

For there was the defeat of Mons Graupius for the Picts to avenge, and, a generation before that, there was the dying curse of a flamehaired queen called Boudicca…

Somewhere out on those godforsaken Scottish moors, death closed in upon the brave, much-honoured IX Legion.

Only the faintest rumours ever returned of what had befallen the men – rumours of some terrible battle one winter’s day among the heather-clad hills, of an alien army led into some lethal mire.

Of the red-crested foreigners fighting to a heroic finale in freezing rain and hail, a last small, wounded band gathered about their silver Eagle totem, fighting to the last man, the motto of every legion on their lips: ‘Eagle lost – honour lost; honour lost – all lost.’

All we know for certain is that the IX Hispanica disappeared abruptly from the records, an entire legion vanished.

A fresh legion, the VI Victrix, was brought over from the Lower Rhine to replace them and stationed at York in AD122.

But one visible landmark remains testimony to the Ninth’s disappearance.

When the new Emperor Hadrian visited Britain soon after, on hearing of the loss of the IX, he commanded a huge wall to be built, a wall studded with fortresses and watch towers, 80 miles from the Solway to the Tyne.

We look at Hadrian’s Wall today as a splendid monument of Roman power and confidence.

But really it was an admission of defeat – and of fear.

An entire legion had been eradicated as if at some sorcerer’s command. Not a single survivor had stumbled back into camp to tell the tale.

There were mysteries and horrors out there in the mists and the mountains of Caledonia which not even the Romans could face again.

As in other timeless tales and enigmas that continue to haunt our imaginations, the Ninth Legion simply marched away, beyond our understanding.

The tramp, tramp, tramp of those hobnailed boots on the straight Roman roads – and then falling quiet as the roads ended and they set off over the soft heather moorland…

They had disappeared from the pages of history – to become legend.

• William Napier’s Attila The Hun trilogy is published by Orion.