The Late Republican Legion

The VI Legion was raised by Julius Caesar for his Gallic wars probably in 53-52 BC, and that its first formal engagement was at the famous siege of Alesia in 52 BC, at which the Gallic revolt of Vercingetorix was crushed. The Legion then followed Caesar in an epic journey through his civil war with Pompey the Great, seeing fighting in both Spain and Greece. From there, with Pompey defeated, they moved with Caesar to Alexandria in Egypt, where he was determined to end the dispute for the throne between Cleopatra VII and her younger brother - and husband - Ptolemy XIII. In Caesar’s heroic defence of Alexandria, it is believed that the size of the Legio VI was reduced to all but 1000 men, barely a fifth of its full strength. Continuing its association with Caesar, the Legion sailed from Egypt to Syria, and was the deciding factor in Caesar’s great victory over Pharnaces II of Pontus, son of the infamous Mithridates, at the battle of Zela in 47 BC. It was after this rout that Caesar declared in his dispatches to the Senate, ‘Veni, vidi, vici,’ - I came, I saw, I conquered.

The Early Imperial Legion

Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, the Legio VI Ferrata, or Iron-Fist, was transferred to Marcus Antonius, and took part in the battle of Philippi, which saw the end of Brutus and the assassins. However, as Antony’s association with Cleopatra of Egypt became increasingly unpopular, Octavian, heir of Caesar, raised his own VI legion including retired veterans of Caesar's old VI. After the civil war, and the great naval battle of Actium in 31 BC, the Ferrata was dispatched to Syria and Judea, to continue on a very different path to its namesake.

As Octavian became sole ruler and Emperor Augustus, his Legio VI was sent with Marcus Agrippa to complete the conquest of Northern Spain. The total war that ensued in that region was won at immense cost to manpower, but the VI survived with distinction, and early in the First Century AD, received the title Victrix- the Victorious. The wars ended, the VI remained stationed in northern Spain, but frequently dispatched vexillations to fight in the Germanic frontier along the Rhine, which saw ongoing warfare for much of the Imperial period. In the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD), the Victrix was further honoured with the titles, Pius et Fidelis - Pious and Faithful - after it was instrumental in crushing a serious revolt by the Rhine legions against the unpopular emperor.

The VI Victrix in Britannia

By the reign of Hadrian, the Legio VI Victrix had transferred its centre of operations permanently to the upper German frontier, being based at Novaesium (now Neuss), but it was soon transferred to Britannia. Moving with Platorius Nepos in 122 AD, the VI Victrix landed at modern Newcastle, where it erected a shrine to Neptune in thanks for the safe crossing of the treacherous northern seas (see inscriptions below). Based in the large fortress colony of Eboracum (York), the VI Victrix was commissioned with the construction of the eastern section of the Hadrian’s Wall frontier, whilst detachments of the Legio II Augusta and the Legio XX Valeria Victrix constructing the western portions.

In the reign of the subsequent emperor, Antoninus Pius, the legions pushed north in a series of aggressive campaigns, and were instructed to erect a massive ditch and palisade defence system known as the Antonine Wall as a new Northern Frontier, between 139 and 142 AD. The VI Victrix, although still based at York, was responsible for much of the north, and also had troops stationed at Corbridge, and Bertha and Cramond on the river Almond. During the revolt of the Brigantes in 155 AD, the officer of the VI Victrix erected an altar to Mars the Avenger at Corbridge, but the seriousness of the revolt caused the general withdrawal of the Roman troops to Hadrian’s Wall, and the abandonment of the Antonine Frontier.

By 208 AD, border warfare had become so intense and disruptive that the emperor Septimus Severus came in person to reassert control of the frontier. A massive campaign was begun, and former Antonine forts such as Cramond were reoccupied and strengthened. For their successful part in this hard-fought war, the VI Victrix received its final battle honour, Britannicus. Nevertheless, before his campaigns were completed, Severus died at Eboracum in 211 AD. His less accomplished son, Caracalla, was distracted by his need to dispose of his brother and secure his position in Rome, and his short-lived reign began with an abandonment of the Caledonian campaigns. Large bribes held the warbands at bay north of Hadrian’s frontier.

The Legio VI Victrix officially remained in Britain, despite losing troops in bids to support a succession of governors of Britannia in claims to the later imperial purple. Eventually, in the year 410 AD, Rome herself was sacked by the Visigoths, and a general recall was issued for all legions stationed in Britannia. The islands were instructed to look to their own defence, and the shore forts that had held the intentions of the Saxons in check were now abandoned.