Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Thanks so much for inviting me here, Amy. I’ve been thinking about what you asked me: If I could solve any of the world's unsolved mysteries, what would it be? And the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the one mystery I’d want to solve the most is the same one at the heart of my novel, The Shadowy Horses (which Sourcebooks has just re-released in the States).
I’d like to solve the mystery of what happened to Rome’s “lost” Ninth Legion.
The Ninth—known to historians as Legio IX Hispana, because of its connections to the Roman province of Hispania, which we now call Spain—was one of the legions sent over to help “civilize” Roman Britain. Apparently, they ran into a problem.
Here’s how my heroine, Verity, sums up the mystery itself in the novel’s third chapter:
“Historians the world over had hotly debated dozens of theories, but the facts themselves were few. All anyone could say for certain was that, some time in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, Legio IX Hispana had been ordered north from its fortress at York.
The soldiers of the Ninth, already veterans of the long campaigns in Wales and the brutal war with Boudicca, were crack troops, rarely called upon to deal with minor skirmishes—the task of day-to-day front-line defense was left to the auxiliaries. It took a true emergency to set a legion on the march.
And when several thousand men marched out to do battle, the spectacle would have been stunning. At dawn would come the auxiliary units of archers and cavalry, forming an all-seeing shield for the legion behind. Then the standard-bearer, holding high the sacred golden Eagle of the Empire, symbol of honor and victory. If an enemy touched the eagle he disgraced the legion; if a legion lost the eagle it disgraced Rome. Close round the eagle marched the other standard-bearers, followed by the trumpeters, and then, in ordered ranks, six men abreast, came the legionaries, ripe for war…
These were hard men, hard fighting men, and a legion on the march with all its baggage train and brilliant armor would have been a sight that one remembered.
Which made the disappearance of the Ninth Legion all the more puzzling, I thought. Because nobody had remembered. At least, no one had bothered to keep a record of what became of the Ninth in its northern battle, and the legion itself had been struck from the military lists. Modern historians offered several explanations—the men of the Hispana might have mutinied, or disgraced themselves by losing the eagle in battle…or else, in that barbaric wilderness, they’d met an end so terrible that the survivors could not bear to speak of it.
Those few survivors—a pitiable scattering of them, identified by stray tombstones crumbling at the farthest corners of the fallen Empire—had kept their secret well. So well, in fact, that nearly two thousand years later, the full fate of Legio IX Hispana—all those thousands of men—continued to elude historians like a ghost in the mist of a barren moor.”
To put it into perspective, it would be as if, during the final days of the American Revolution, the British commander, Cornwallis, had marched his entire red-coated army of 8,000 men out to meet George Washington at Yorktown…and no one had ever recorded what happened next, letting them all “disappear” from the pages of history.
Then again, not knowing what happened to the Ninth Legion has, if nothing else, provided plenty of inspiration to a lot of writers and filmmakers over the years—from Rosemary Sutcliffe, who wrote her own adventurous solution in The Eagle of Ninth, which I read as a child and which not only inspired me, but also found its way onto the screen a few times, most recently as “The Eagle” with Channing Tatum in the lead role of Marcus—to Italian writer Valerio Massimo Manfredi, whose novel The Last Legion was made into a film starring Colin Firth—to filmmaker Neil Marshall, who wrote and directed “Centurion”, starring Michael Fassbender.
So actually, now that I think about all of those movies and good-looking actors, it’s probably not such a bad thing at all that the fate of the Ninth Legion has stayed a mystery!
What mystery would you solve?
Guest Post: Susanna Kearsley, Author of The Shadowy Horses
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