12 Renowned Roman Legions and How They Earned Their Names

 MatthiasKabel - CC BY-SA 3.0
MatthiasKabel - CC BY-SA 3.0

Roman legions could become famous for their endurance or victories in war. Though all were numbered, many also had names that recorded their history, origins or achievements. These were often a mark of their particular renown. Roman legionnaires were devoted to their legion and were prepared to die to save its eagle standard.

I Flavia Minervia Pia Fidelis

One of six legions to bear the number I under the late republic and early empire, this legion earned the title ‘Pia Fidelis’ for loyalty to the Emperor Domitian, who founded the legion in 82 AD. A despotic ruler, Domitian sometimes faced violent opposition. Two other legions – XIV Gemina and XXI Rapax – rebelled against him under Saturninus. He was eventually assassinated by court officials.

The other part of the legion’s name indicates that they were devoted to the goddess Minerva, whose image appeared on their standard.

II Traiana Fortis

This legion bore the name of its founder, the Emperor Trajan, and went on to earn the title ‘fortis’, meaning strong. This reflected the legion’s tough military record, in particular their role in suppressing a second-century revolt in Egypt, an area known as Rome’s bread basket. As the main troops in the region at the time, II Trainana held out until reinforcements could arrive, ensuring Rome’s control of the province that provided much of its food.

IIII Flavia Felix

The Emperor Vespasian rose to power from the chaos of the year of the Four Emperors, in 69 A.D.. His position was, therefore, an uncertain one, and so he disbanded several legions that had been loyal to opponents, including Legio IIII Macedonica. From its remnants, he formed IIII Flavia Felix, “Flavian’s Lucky Fourth”. These were the men lucky enough to have survived his purge, given the added name “Flavian” as this was one of the Emperor’s names.

V Alaudae

The first legion formed of provincial soldiers, V Alaudae was created by Julius Caesar from Gallic troops. They were named ‘alaudae’ or the larks because the high crests of their helmets reminded people of these birds.

VI Ferrata Fidelis Constans

‘The sixth ironclad, loyal and constant’, this legion earned the first part of their name for service during the late republic, when they fought for Pompey in Spain and served Caesar well in Syria and Pontus, winning the Battle of Zela through brutal close quarters fighting. The title ‘fidelis constans’ came from an act of loyalty in the first century AD, possibly helping to crush a mutiny against Claudius.

VII Gemina

Several legions bore the title ‘gemina’, or ‘the twins’. For the seventh legion, this had two meanings. One was that it was formed by bringing together two separate legions, uniting their individual parts into something stronger. The was a reference to the twins Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.

X Fretensis

Named after the Fretum Siculum – Strait of Messina – this legion earned its title for performance in battle. In 36 BC they fought for their founder Octavian, later Augustus, in the civil war then rocking the empire. This included a victory against Sextus Pompey at the Battle of Naulochus, a sea battle fought near the Strait of Messina.

XIV Gemina Martia Victrix

The ‘victorious Martian twin’ was a legion with many grand titles. Another legion formed from combining two together, it thus earned the ‘twin’ title. ‘Martia’ came from one of the elements that went into this combination, the Martian legion, named after the Roman god of war.

The title of ‘victirx’ or ‘victorious’ came from one of the most notable actions ever performed by Roman legions in Britain. In 60-61 AD, the XIV faced Boudicca’s rebel army. Vastly outnumbered by hundreds of thousands of Britons, their superior training and careful use of the land ensured victory and allowed Rome to retain their island province.

XV Apollinaris

Raised by Octavian – later the Emperor Augustus – the XV legion fought for him in the civil wars that marked the end of the republic and rise of the empire. In 31 BC they fought in the Battle of Actium, a naval battle in which Octavian’s forces defeated those of Mark Anthony and the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra. It was after this battle that the legion was given the title ‘Apollinaris’ – ‘Apollo-revering’ – associating them with one of Rome’s powerful gods, a god with which Octavian also associated himself.

XX Valeria Victrix

The XX probably earned their titles while serving in the province of Illyria under the governor Marcus Valerius Messalla Messallinus. ‘Valeria’ appears to be a version of his clan name, bestowed upon the legion for serving him, in the same way that emperors sometimes leant their names to legions. ‘Victrix’ refers to their success under his leadership in suppressing rebels, a victory they achieved despite being under-manned.

XXI Rapax

‘The rapacious 21st legion’ had a slightly more oblique title than others, but one that still referred to their military might – they were seen as rapacious or grasping for victory. Formed in 31 BC by the Emperor Augustus, they were made up of men from other legions. They suppressed the Raetian rebellion in 16-15 BC. Following the Teutoberg disaster, they were among those sent to reinforce the German border and to crush the rebellion there. Backing their commander Vitellius, they ended up on the wrong side of the year of the four emperors, but survived this period of political turmoil. They were probably destroyed fighting the Sarmatians in 92 AD – greed was not always enough for victory.

XXX Ulpia Victrix

Founded in 100 AD by Hadrian, the 30th legion was assembled to fight in the Dacian wars. They were so successful in these wars that they ended  the serious Dacian threat to Rome’s Danubian provinces. The legion almost immediately earned the title of ‘victorious’, one of the proudest names a Roman legion could bear.

The names of the legions were important as they gave its history. The name of the legion was to remind the legionnaires of their predecessors glorious victories and achievements and to encourage them to follow their example.

Andrew Knighton

Andrew Knighton is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE