The Historical Legion VI

The past and present of Legio VI Victrix Pia Fidelis Britannica

Julius Caesar founded the original Legio VI during his conquest of Gaul, ca. 59-49 BC. The VI became one of his most reliable legions, accompanying Caesar across the Rubicon into Italy, and later to the battles of Alexandria in Egypt and Zela in Asia Minor (the famous “veni, vidi, vici” battle).

As far as we can tell, this Legio VI eventually became Legio VI Ferrata (“Ironsides”) and was taken over by Mark Antony after Caesar’s murder.  Around 40 BC, Caesar’s nephew and heir Octavian founded a Legio VI of his own, perhaps using a core of veterans from his uncle’s original. This Legio VI fought with Octavian at Perusia in 41 BC against Mark Antony’s wife and brother, in the Pannonian campaigns of AD 39-36, and at Actium, dashing Antony and Cleopatra’s dreams of empire. In the postwar settlement, Octavian (later Augustus) stationed his Legio VI in Spain, giving it the name Hispaniensis. Augustus and Agrippa led the VI to victory over the Cantabrians in several tough campaigns between 25 and 13 BC. By AD 63, the VI had been renamed Victrix (“Victorious”).

In AD 68, in response to the collapse of Nero’s corrupt regime, VI Victrix acclaimed the proconsul of Spain, Servius Sulpicius Galba, as Emperor. Nero obligingly committed suicide and the Roman Senate confirmed Galba’s appointment. When he departed for Rome, however, Galba left the VI behind in Spain, sparing them a role in the terrible civil wars of AD 69, the infamous Year of the Four Emperors. The chaos led to a revolt by the Batavian tribes in Germany, and in AD 70, the new emperor Vespasian dispatched Legio VI to Germany to crush the rebellion. This the VI accomplished with a smashing victory at Xanten, commemorated by an inscription that names its commander as Sextus Caelius Tuscus. By AD 80, VI Victrix was stationed at Novaesium on the Rhine, 30 miles north of Cologne.

In AD 89, Antonius Saturninus, Roman governor of Upper Germany, rebelled against the Emperor Domitian. The legions of Lower Germany remained loyal and suppressed the revolt, earning VI Victrix the additional title of Pia Fidelis Domitiano (with Domitian’s assassination in AD 96, Domitiano was quietly dropped). Over the next 30 years, VI Victrix proved instrumental in constructing the impressive limes forts along the Rhine, gaining the men valuable expertise in frontier fortification.

Meanwhile, up in Britannia..

Claudius had launched the conquest of Britain in AD 44, but it took another 40 years to bring most of the island under Roman control. Even then, with three legions present, (II Augusta, IX Hispana and XX Valeria Victrix), the province still proved restive and vulnerable to raids from the barbarian tribes to the north and west. A serious rebellion or invasion erupted ca. AD 119, and subsequent battles dangerously depleted the ranks of IX Hispana. In response, the Emperor Hadrian rushed VI Victrix from Germany to northern Britannia, basing them at Eburacum, modern York.

The arrival of VI Victrix restored the situation and avenged the damage done to IX Hispana, which was shipped back to the Rhine frontier to recuperate. Hadrian celebrated a British victory in AD 119 and made a personal visit to Britannia in AD 122, stopping in York to inspect VI Victrix and survey the route for an immense new fortification that would bear his name. Shortly after this, the men of VI Victrix commenced construction on HADRIAN’S WALL building the section between Newcastle and Carlisle, as well as a massive stone bridge across the Tyne.

The wall apparently worked as intended, for Britannia remained at peace for two decades until the Emperor Antoninus Pius decided to push the frontier into Scotland. Ca. AD 143, detachments from VI Victrix helped build the Antonine Wall about 80 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall. But the northern tribe of Brigantes rose in rebellion in AD 155, requiring three years of heavy fighting by the legions and auxiliary forces before order was restored. The legions abandoned the Antonine Wall ca. AD 163 and Hadrian’s Wall once again marked the northernmost limits of the Roman Empire.

More fighting occurred north of the wall in AD 182-183, in which VI Victrix was successful enough that the Emperor Commodus celebrated a British victory on his coins and adopted Britannicus as one of his names. One of Legio VI’s tribunes, Helvius Pertinax, rose through the ranks to become Emperor for two months after Commodus’ murder in AD 192. In AD 196-197, Clodius Albinus, proconsul of Britannia, took the British legions, including a detachment of VI Victrix, to the continent in his bid for sole rule against the legitimate Emperor Septimius Severus. A ferocious battle at Lugdunum (modern Lyons, France) ended with defeat for the British legions and Albinus’ head on a pike. This was VI Victrix’s first taste of defeat in its 230-year history, and, coming at the hands of fellow Romans, it must have seemed especially bitter. A badly mauled VI Victrix returned to Britain to find York and Hadrian’s Wall overrun by the Caledonians of Scotland. The VI recaptured and rebuilt York, and the Wall was restored by 205.

In AD 208, the Emperor Severus came to Britain to personally lead punitive expeditions into Scotland, making York his man base of operations and VI Victrix his primary legion. The Severan campaigns were gritty slogs against a tough guerilla insurgency, but they were successful enough to keep Roman Britain at peace for nearly a century thereafter. Furthermore, the campaign expunged the legacy of disloyalty and defeat occasioned by Albinus’ revolt. Legios VI and II Augusta even built an elaborate fort at Carpow in Scotland, more than 100 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall. Severus awarded VI Victrix the additional appellation of Britannica, making its full title Legio VI Victrix Pia Fidelis Britannica. Severus never got to celebrate his triumph, however. Worn out from the campaign, he died at York in AD 211.

Between AD 211 and 214, Severus or his son Caracalla divided Britannia into two provinces, Britannia Superior (“upper”) and Inferior (“lower”). The legate of Legio VI at York was officially designated Proconsul (governor) of Britannia Inferior.

Britannia rode out the chaos of the mid-third century in relative calm. But in AD 287, the opportunistic general Carausius set himself up as Emperor of northern Gaul and Britannia in revolt against the legitimate rulers Diocletian and Maximian.

Legio VI is conspicuously absent from a series of coins struck by Carausius honoring legions supporting his rebellion. This could mean that Legio VI remained at its post in York and did not participate in the revolt. Britain remained in revolt for six years, first under Carausius, then under his murderer and successor Allectus. Diocletian named the capable general Constantius Chlorus as Caesar in AD 290 with the task of recovering Britannia. He successfully achieved this with a carefully prepared invasion in AD 293. Legio VI apparently stayed out of the fray, forcing Allectus to rely on barbarian mercenaries to fight the disciplined legions of Constantius.

Again, the barbarians used civil war as an opportunity to overrun Hadrian’s Wall and ravage northern Britannia. The continuing strife led Constantius to return to Britain in AD 305, this time to lead VI Victrix and supporting units against a new enemy in Scotland, the ferocious Picts.

The campaign was a success, but once again, as in Severus’ day, the emperor fell ill and returned to York, where he summoned his eldest son to his side.

On the death of Constantius on July 25, AD 306, Legio VI was among the units that acclaimed his son Constantine as Emperor at York, launching the career of one of Rome’s greatest rulers. Over the next 60 years, Britain prospered under the rule of Constantine the Great and his heirs.

In AD 367, a great “barbarian conspiracy” of Picts, Scots, and Saxons once more overthrew the northern defenses and pillaged the prosperous province.

The Emperor Valentinian sent his general Count Theodosius with a field army strong enough to re-establish Roman authority in 368, but the wounds were slow to heal, and Roman rule in Britain had little time left. Two other usurpations by generals based in Britannia, Magnus Maximus in AD 383 and Constantine III in AD 407, further stripped the province of fighting men. Yet the Notitia Dignitatum, a document composed circa AD 395-400 listing military units throughout the Empire, still puts Legio VI in Britain at this late date, listing it among the Limitanei, or stationary frontier forces, as opposed to the mobile field army, or Comitensis. At right, an illustration from the Notitia represents the Legio VI (“Sextae”) as a castle-like fortress in the northern part of the island, placing it under the overall command of the Dux Britanniarum, or Duke of Britain. Interestingly, Legio VI is listed by itself and not shown at York, its usual station; perhaps it may have been in the midst of a transfer at the time the Notitia was compiled.

As to the final fate of Legio VI, we have a single tantalizing clue: The late Roman poet Claudian, writing around AD 402 in a panegyric to the great general Stilicho, recounts that Stilicho withdrew “a legion” from Britain the previous year to use against the Visigoths under Alaric. Since Legios VI and II Augusta are only full-fledged legions named in Britain by the Notitia Dignitatum, it is tempting to conclude one or both may have been withdrawn by Stilicho. If so, Stilicho’s strategic victory over Alaric in 402 may have been Legio VI’s swan song.

In the winter of AD 406-407, and enormous tide of barbarians swept over the frozen Rhine and Danube rivers and commenced ravaging Gaul and Italy.

Stilicho, the last really capable Roman general in the West, was beheaded by the incompetent and treacherous Emperor Honorius. The Roman legions of the West, reduced to mere shadows of their former strength, simply disintegrated in the ensuing chaos. In AD 410, Alaric and his Visigoths sacked Rome. The Roman Empire of the West hung on as a steadily shrinking rump state before finally fading out with scarcely a whimper in AD 476.

If any Roman troops were left in Britain, they probably remained on station for a time even after their regular pay chests stopped arriving. Perhaps a lonely detachment of Legio VI continued to stand guard at Eburacum, its home of three centuries, as darkness closed over Roman Britain and the Western Empire.