A new Hollywood film about the Romans might have benefited from a bit of research at the Yorkshire Museum, finds Matt Clark.

WHAT did the Romans ever do for us? Well for a start they built York, or more specifically the Ninth Legion did.

Raised by Pompey in 65 BC, the Ninth was Rome’s most feared fighting force and took part in every major Roman conflict, from Julius Caesar’s Gallic wars to the final war of the Roman Republic, as Octavian did battle with Anthony and Cleopatra.

The Ninth was then sent to Spain where it ensured Roman dominance in the region, gaining the title ‘Hispania’ in the process.

But when the Legion arrived in Britain, Queen Boudicca’s army decimated more than half of its 5,000 soldiers in a battle recorded by Tacitus as the Massacre of the Ninth. Once reinforcements arrived though; they headed north to York where they built the imperial fortress Eboracum.

And that was the last time anyone heard about the Ninth Legion.

The final reference to their endeavours is in the Yorkshire Museum; an inscription marking the date in 108 AD when its soldiers built the city walls.

Then the Legion vanished without trace – and so did its golden eagle standard.

Now Hollywood has taken up their mysterious demise in Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle, out in cinemas this weekend, which stars Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell and is based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s classic 1950’s novel.

Set two decades after the unexplained disappearance of the Legion, the film tells the story of a young centurion called Marcus Flavius Aquila who arrives from Rome to solve the puzzle and restore the reputation of his father, who commanded the Ninth, as well as retrieving the lost standard.

There are some who believe the Legion was wiped out in Scotland by marauding Picts, but the truth is likely to be more mundane, that the unit was disbanded, or simply sent to serve elsewhere.

But nothing was written about them after the inscription in York. And Natalie McCaul assistant curator of archaeology at the museum says that is highly unusual.

“There are stamped tiles found in Holland which suggests a detachment at least could have moved abroad, but unlike the plaque here, there is no date on them so it is difficult to say how old they are.

“We just don’t know what happened to the Legion after AD 108.”

The film of course takes Rosemary Sutcliff’s more exciting story of a massacre for its theme. Marcus Aquila travels beyond Hadrian’s Wall, in disguise and discovers a demoralised and mutinous Ninth Legion was annihilated by the northern tribes. However, there was some redemption in a heroic last stand around the standard and Aquila is able to bring the eagle back to Rome.

This is a story of fictitious characters, but had the film’s director visited York, he would have found a real person to write about. The tombstone dedicated to standard bearer Lucius Duccius Rufinus, who died here, is also on display in the museum.

“It’s my favourite thing about the Ninth Legion,” says Natalie. “It’s really enigmatic and brings home that they weren’t just soldiers but people.”

Being a standard bearer meant Lucius had to march in front of the army, making him an obvious target; a brave thing to do, and surely worthy of any Hollywood script. “He is one of the stars of our collection and had the movie team contacted us he could well have been a film star as well. We are the place to come because we have the last reference to the Legion and the fact that Lucius is a standard bearer ties in so nicely with this film.”

Or it would have done; it seems Kevin Macdonald may well have missed a trick.

Never mind; those of us fortunate enough to live in York can go along to the Yorkshire Museum and get to meet a real member of the Ninth Legion after watching this heroic but almost certainly fictitious movie.

The Eagle film trailer