Short history

A short history of Legio VI Victrix – with grateful thanks to Rosemary Waugh, Queen Margaret’s School.

The Sixth Legion

The Origins of Legions

Although it’s common to read and discuss the might of the Roman Army as if it were a single unit, the individual soldier would almost certainly have claimed and felt much stronger allegiance to his legion – just as a modern soldier would be more likely to describe himself as a member of the Green Howards, the Paras or the Grenadier Guards than to say he was “in the army”. The pride of the legion, epitomised by the eagle and standards which are the symbols of the group identity, was the overwhelming motive for the individual soldier.

Originally, the Republican legions were formed by compulsory levy of Roman citizens (who met a minimum property qualification) and raised whenever it was necessary. Usually they were authorized by the Roman Senate, and were later disbanded. A rich or influential man would raise a legion, like a private militia, for a specific purpose or cause – similarly to those regiments of the modern army who still have “The Duke of Whatever’s Own” among their names , or the Atholl Highlanders.

The politicianGaius Marius‘ reforms of 107 B.C. transformed legions into standing units, which could remain in being for several years, or even decades. This became necessary to garrison the Republic’s now far-flung territories. Legionaries started large-scale recruiting of volunteer soldiers, who enlisted for a minimum term of six years and a fixed salary, although conscription was still practised. The property requirements were abolished by Marius, so that the bulk of recruits were henceforth from the landless citizens, who would be most attracted to the paid employment and the land offered after their service.Retired veterans lived in settlements called colonies, where they doubtless whiled out their old age exchanging battle stories and comparing scars.

As the territories of Rome grew in the last century B.C., proconsuls governing frontier provinces became increasingly powerful. Their command of standing legions in distant and arduous military campaigns led to more of a cult of personality, so that the legions developed more independently, and would fight for one general against another in civil conflicts. Julius Caesar, in particular, must have been a very charismatic leader whose legions felt a fierce personal loyalty to him rather than to the corporate Roman state. The original VI legion, which was nicknamed the Ferrata or “Ironclad” legion, was formed under Julius Caesar in 58 B.C. , and was involved in his conquests in Gaul .

The Early Years

After Julius’ death in 44 B.C. and the leadership disputes which followed it, the administration of the Roman Empire was divided between Octavian in the West and Mark Antony in the East. During this period, the Sixth legion had its spin-off: the Ferrata continued to operate in the East, and the new Sixth Victrix was founded under Octavian to support his battles. Their first recorded action  was in Perusia – modern Perugia, in central Italy – in 41 B.C. Lucius Antonius, younger brother of the better known Marcus Antonius, was holed up here with his sister-in-law Fulvia, after they had launched a violent campaign in Rome claiming that Mark Antony should have complete power and not have to be sharing with Octavian and Lepidus in a triumvirate. This was pretty loyal of them considering Mark himself was well on the way to extended dalliance, shall we say, with the exotic charms of Cleopatra.  Antonius had retreated to Perusia and Octavian defeated him after a long and hard siege. The legion also served against Sextus Pompeius, who occupied Sicily and made threats to discontinue sending grain to Rome. In 31 BC the legion fought in the Battle of Actium against Mark Antony. The important thing here, of course, is that Octavian, or Caesar Augustus as he became known once he had defeated Antony at Actium , was the winning side, so from then on the Victrix would probably have considered themselves the “real” sixth legion and the old Ferrata the provisionals – rather like the People’s Front of Judaea and the Judaean People’s Front!

After this, the legion took part in the final stage of the Roman conquest of Hispania, participating in Augustus’ major war against the Cantabrians, from 29 BC to 19 BC, which brought all of the Iberian Peninsula under Roman rule. The legion stayed in Spain for nearly a century and received the surname Hispaniensis, founding the city of Legio (modern-day León).Soldiers of this unit and X Gemina numbered among the first settlers of Caesaraugusta, which became modern-day Zaragoza. The cognomenVictrix (Victorious) dates back to the reign of Nero, who was in charge from 54 to 68   (the numbers have now started going forward because we’re into A.D).  But Nero was unpopular in the area, and when the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba, said he wished to overthrow Nero, the legion supported him and he was proclaimed Emperor in the VI Victrix legionary camp. Galba created VII Gemina and marched on Rome, where Nero killed himself. Nero was a horrible man and in many ways a very bad emperor, who showed little understanding of or care for the people under his rule, so it seems likely that this was always going to happen sooner or later, but certainly the support of the Sixth can be said to have made a decisive impact on history at this point. Galba wasn’t one of the greats – the clue is that he came to power in what became known as the Year of the Four Emperors – but he was the figurehead of the campaign that got Nero out, and he did it with and because of the support of the Sixth.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Empire…

The long sojourn in Spain means that the Sixth had enjoyed a relatively calm time during the early years of the Empire, when other legions were storming around, notably in Germany, and extending the Empire sometimes at considerable cost – such as the total massacre of three complete legions It is interesting to look at  some of the glimpses of military life which the historian Tacitus gives  from this time; the following is a translation from his Annals, of a speech given by a discontented rabble-rouser in the army’s camp in Germany, in A.D.14,  when the men, unsettled and disheartened by recent defeats, started up a mutiny:

We have blundered enough by our tameness for so many years, in having to endure thirty or forty campaigns till we grow old, most of us with bodies maimed by wounds. Even dismissal is not the end of our service, but, quartered under a legion’s standard we toil through the same hardships under another title. [In other words, even after retirement they could still be called up into active service as reservists.] If a soldier survives so many risks, he is still dragged into remote regions where, under the name of lands, he receives soaking swamps or mountainous wastes. Assuredly, military service itself is burdensome and unprofitable; ten as a day is the value set on life and limb; out of this, clothing, arms, tents, as well as the mercy of centurions and exemptions from duty have to be purchased. But indeed of floggings and wounds, of hard winters, wearisome summers, of terrible war, or barren peace, there is no end. Our only relief can come from military life being entered on under fixed conditions, from receiving each the pay of a denarius, and from the sixteenth year terminating our service. We must be retained no longer under a standard, but in the same camp a compensation in money must be paid us. Do the praetorian cohorts, which have just got their two denarii per man, and which after sixteen years are restored to their homes, encounter more perils? We do not disparage the guards of the capital; still, here amid barbarous tribes we have to face the enemy from our tents.”

There was enthusiastic support: Tacitus tells us that a sergeant known as “Bring-me-another” because he broke so many sticks over men’s backs was beaten up, and a camp-prefect was dragged from a waggon, loaded with baggage, and driven on at the head of the column, while the men asked him in ridicule whether he liked to bear such huge burdens and such long marches. A guy called Vibulenus, who got up and made an impassioned speech about how the army could never return his lost brother to him, had troops running around scouring the countryside for this brother’s body, until it came to light that he had never actually had a brother…  Rather endearingly, the main factotrin quashing the rebellion was not force or the moral authority of the powers from Rome, but an unexpected lunar eclipse.: the men had no idea what was happening and concluded that they had angered the gods. Order was eventually restored and the men got some concessions in the way of pay, pensions, and length of service, and doubtless the Sixth in sunny Spain reaped some of the benefits.

The Sixth come to Britannia

119, Hadrian relocated the Sixth Legion to northern Britannia, to assist those legions already present in quelling the resistance there. Claudius had colonised Britain in 43 B.C..,but things were far from settled and the Roman headquarters at Deva were constantly active on all fronts. The Victrix legion was key in securing victory, and would eventually replace the diminished IX Hispana at Eboracum  – the ninth, of course, are the ones who disappeared, probably somewhere in northern Britannia,and whose fate remains a mystery.  In 122 the legion started work on Hadrian’s Wall which would sustain the peace for two decades and beyond.


The Scots, or Picts, were a perennial source of worry to the Romans, The Romans and the Scots had engaged in the battle of Mons Graupius, somewhere in the Grampians, in 83, at which Tacitus tells us that the Romans had a splendid victory over a fierce Scottish army whose leader, Calgacus, had made a great rousing speech about driving the invaders into the sea or dying in the attempt.  However, the Celtic peoples had all made one big mistake as far as posterity was concerned – they did not use writing. This means that we don’t have their side of the story to consider. If we admit that Tacitus may have been influenced by the need to present a Roman victory as splendid and heroic, it does seem likely that the Scottish forces were probably a great deal less valiant and hostile and altogether less equipped to take on the might and organisation of the Roman Army than Tacitus suggests. There seems to have been some kind of skirmish or battle in 142 A.D. about which evidence is very sketchy. Whatever happened though, it was enough to make the Emperor decide to build another wall, and troops of the Sixth were drafted up from York for this – we know because they left stones with their inscriptions on the surviving bits of wall. The Antonine Wall, however, was not constructed on the scale of Hadrian’s, being more of an extended earthwork, and it was largely abandoned by 164.

In 175, the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, defeated the tribe of Sarmatians, a race from somewhere near modern Iran. He took them into Roman service and settled 5,500 of them in Britain, where some were assigned to the VI Legion Victrix based in York. (It would be interesting to know if this early mass immigration had the older soldiers of the Sixth going, “They come over here, they take our jobs…”). Marcus Aurelius was a wise and a popular emperor, but as anyone who has seen Gladiator knows, he was succeeded by his son Commodus, who was not. He wasn’t quite as bad as in the movie – and there might be some excuse – he was only eighteen, he’d been ruling alongside his father, he’d been “born to the purple” and like so many royals had had a life of nothing but the leisure to pursue his own interests and an inflated idea of his own skill and importance.  In 185, the British legions mutinied and put forward a commander of their own, named Priscus, to replace the unpopular Emperor Commodus, but the former declined. The mutiny was suppressed by Pertinax, who would later become Emperor himself after Commodus was murdered. Within a year Septimius Severus became Emperor, again with the support of troops in Britannia, and he was the first to impose taxes on the Roman people to pay army salaries.

York’s very own Constantine, whose mother Helena may have been a native Briton herself,  also came to power in 306 thanks to the backing of the Sixth in York, before returning to establish his rule in Rome, so it is clear hat the Sixth could exert considerable political pressure when they put their force behind a candidate.

The closing chapters?

After this, history becomes considerably vaguer – the gradual decline of Roman power did not have reliable chroniclers until a lot later. The Army in Britain became more expensive to maintain and eventually was a luxury the Empire couldn’t afford: order had had to be restored a number of times, but we have no certain details.  VI Victrix must have suffered defeats. Yet the legion still existed in the late fourth century. 383 is the commonest date suggested for the end of Roman rule in the north and west of Britain, but coins from as late as 402 have been found on Hadrian’s Wall sites. The Sixth may have been withdrawn to the continent in 402 by Stilicho, the supreme commander of the Roman forces in western Europe. By the fifth century most of the remaining legionaries had probably intermarried with the Britons, settled down and established lives for themselves – the power of Rome was no longer something to reckon with.

The legacy of the Sixth in York and the North, though, is all around in York – the layout of the streets, the foundations of the Minster, the baths, the sewers, and above all – probably – the gene pool!

distance slab

This distance slab was found in 1812 in the Duntocher area of Clydebank, near to a Roman fort. These distance slabs were made by the legions to mark the completion of a section of the Antonine wall and have been found in several places along its length. The stone is richly decorated with two Roman soldiers flanking two winged females (unidentified mythological creatures) below the central area with the inscription. The inscription translates as: “For the Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of his country, a detachment of the Sixth Victorious, Loyal and Faithful Legion completed the rampart work [over a distance of] 3240 feet”. The sickle or axe-shaped banners on either side of the inscription plate are similar to animalistic symbols found on other distance slabs and jewellery from the Roman period, and may have been influenced by art from other cultures incorporated within the empire. (text from BBC History of the World in 100 Objects).

dice box

This is the dice tower found at Froitzheim in Germany. While nothing specifically links it to the Sixth, it certainly indicates that the soldiers enjoyed satisfaction in the defeat of their enemies and felt their leisure was improved by the knowledge that the Picts had been quashed, and it strengthens the theory that soldiers who had been in the North of Britain were re-stationed in Germany.