During Queen Boudicca’s Iceni revolt against the Roman Empire in the years of AD 60 to 61 near Camulodunum (Colchester, Essex – Today’s England); A large number of soldiers from Rome’s Ninth Legion was almost wiped out. It was the famous Hispania IX Legion, which has become legendary in stories concerning its time in Ancient Britain. Such stories like; Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff caused many to wonder about the famous Ninth Legion. Some historians know that this Hispania IX was permanently stationed in Britain for a long period of time – around one hundred years, but then it suddenly vanished from the record without mention.
The Rosemary Sutcliff novel is, of course, fictitious but tells the story of the Legion being destroyed in Caledonia (Today’s Scotland.) This is almost certainly not true and the most likely probability is; Rome disbanded the Hispania IX or stationed it somewhere else without the detailed and historical documentation to hand. Also, some of the high-ranking officers of the Ninth are later recorded in other Legions in other parts of the Empire. They (Roman Ninth Legion) are recorded as being in areas of Germany and the Netherlands after Britain.
However, in reality; it is known that a large portion of the Ninth was slaughtered in battle by Boudicca’s Iceni, who were allied with Trinovante warriors during her attack on Camulodunum. This Roman relief force of the Hispania IX was dispatched to march to the aid of the remaining Roman survivors in Camulodunum. The last wretched inhabitants of the settlement for discharged Roman soldiers and their families. Some of the ex-soldiers had escaped with women and children from Boudicca’s initial attack. They sought sanctuary in the huge Claudian Temple and were besieged by the Iceni and Trinovante. Here the remaining defenders had barricaded themselves in and tried desperately to resist the merciless onslaught of Boudicca's Celtic warriors.
The unfortunate people of Camulodunum who got caught by the sudden attack had been slaughtered in horrific ways. These inhabitants had not been able to get to the Claudian temple and were caught in the streets and their dwellings. The mayhem and panic must have been horrendous. Woman and children who were Roman; or British who worked for the Roman settlers were butchered without any moderation – even slaves. Many were believed to have been impaled as the town was set ablaze - families put to the sword before the eyes of their relatives. In Colchester today; there is a layer of ash in the ground and archaeologists know that anything below the ash layer is the pre-chaos time of Boudicca AD 60.
The Ninth Legion is ordered to March
A Roman soldier named Quintus Petillius Cerialis was legate of the Hispania Ninth Legion and ordered by Suetonius (Roman Governor of Britain) to rescue the last remaining survivors of the besieged Claudian Temple. The forces of Cerialis were spread in various locations around the Cambridgeshire area some 75 miles away from Camulodunum. In surrounding forts of the marshy and flat Fenlands; he commanded around 5,000 troops. He was able to muster about 2,500 Roman soldiers, around fifty percent of his overall command. Once this was done, Quintus Petillius Cerialis hurriedly set off for Camulodunum. It is believed that the location was just north of the besieged town where the Iceni and Trinovante Britons lay in ambush along a pathway leading through dense woodland. Their own scouts would have learnt of the relief force and it is thought that 10,000 plus warriors were included in the British force that would confront the advancing Roman cohorts. Around 2,000 soldiers on foot and about 500 horsemen.
The Claudian temple, where the last remaining survivors were, might have fallen already by this time. It held for two days before being set ablaze with everyone inside. The last settlers perished amid flame and cascading debris as the temple was destroyed by the inferno. This might have given Queen Boudicca more time to prepare for the conflict that would come about.
Compared to the massacre of Camulodunum, then the further events of Londinium, Verulamium and the final Battle of Watling Street; the defeat of the Ninth Legion seems to be overshadowed. It was, however, a significant defeat upon Rome as the Britons were up against a more organised resistance. It might have been what led the British tribes to have ill-deserved confidence when they finally faced Gaius Suetonius Paulinus at the Battle of Watling Street.
What the conditions of the conflict with the Ninth Legion were is not properly known, though the ambush in dense woodland seems plausible. The Roman soldiers could have been rushed while on the march and from close proximity. They would have been spread out along a road carrying their equipment, allowing no time to form organised battle formations. The foot soldiers and other auxiliaries were overwhelmed and slaughtered. Only the troops on horseback escaped – among them Quintus Petillius Cerialis. Around 80% of the 2,500 troops were lost and this left the rest of the Ninth hold up in fortifications in the Fenlands of today’s Cambridgeshire, awaiting new instruction from Suetonius. These events were recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus and the British force that attacked the Ninth Legion was believed to be in excess of 10,000 warriors.
Cerialis was able to make some amends by taking part alongside Gaius Suetonius Paulinus during the final confrontation with Boudicca’s warriors at Watling Street. He would later become the Roman Governor of Britain in AD 71, some ten years later. After AD 69 – (Year of four Emperors,) he was seen in favour by Emperor Vespasian. He would lead campaigns against Venutius of the Brigante and may have destroyed the Great Hill Fort.