Legio Vicesimae Valeria Victrix – The Twentieth Legion, Valiant and Victorious

Raised by Augustus

Octavian’s army before the battle of Actium in 31bce probably contained legions with the numerals IV to XIX. Two other legionary numerals, XX and XXI are first recorded during Augustus’ reign. The origins of both of these new Augustan legions are unknown.

The Twentieth Legion was stationed on the lower Danube at some stage during Augustus’ early years.

During the Dalmatian revolt of AD6, ‘… Legio XX under its commander Valerius Messallinus, though operating at, or reduced to, half its normal strength, cut through encircling forces and reached safety.’

For further activities of Legio XX Valeria in Germania AD6, vide Legio II Augusta.

Stationed in Britain

The legion was moved from its fortress at Novaesium (Neuss) in Germany to take part in the Claudian invasion of Britain in AD43, when a new legionary fortress was established in the centre of the British capital at Camulodunum (Colchester, Essex). From this time forward, the Twentieth Legion would be permanently stationed in Britain.

The legion was again moved, by the proconsul Ostorius Scapula to a new vexillation-sized fortress at Kingsholm in Gloucester AD49, and a colony of veterans left behind at Colchester. The majority of the colony’s citizens would probably have come from the Twentieth Legion, though almost certainly, they would have been joined by a few soldiers from the other British legions who were then due for retirement.

Victorious Against Boudicca

The Boudican rebellion of AD60/61 started with the torching of the new Roman colony at Claudia Camulodunensis, and the sacking of two other Roman towns; Londinium (London) and Verulamium (Saint Alban’s). This was accompanied by the complete destruction of a vexillation of Legio IX Hispana, as the Iceni and Trinovantes ran amok throughout south-east Britain. The Roman proconsul Suetonius Paullinus, then on campaign against the Ordovices tribe on Mona Insula (Isle of Anglesey), was forced to march his army back to the Midlands, where he confronted the British forces near Manduessedum (Mancetter, Warwickshire).

As far as can be ascertained, his forces consisted of a vexilatio of XX Valeria, the whole of Legio XIV Gemina, together with several other Auxiliary forces. Though vastly outnumbered, the Roman general was able to secure a victory due to the presence of his highly-trained legionary troops, and the Romans reputedly slew eighty thousand British warriors. Both XX and XIV legions were to obtain titles for their decisive part in this campaign (vide infra).

Shortly after the Boudican revolt c. AD65, the Twentieth Legion were moved from the Kingsholm fortress in Gloucester, to Viroconium (Wroxeter, Shropshire) where they took over the fortress of XIV Gemina who had been removed to Germany c. AD64. They were in turn replaced at Gloucester by Legio II Augusta, who were to build a new legionary fortress on a nearby site and were moved up piecemeal from Isca Dumnonorum (Exeter, Devon) c. AD67.

Favoured by Agricola

The legion, under the command of the legionary legate Gnaeus Julius Agricola, was marched along the western coast of Britain and across the Pennines. Acting in unison with the main force comprising of Legio IX Hispana and Auxiliaries under the command of the proconsular governor Quintus Petillius Cerialis which moved from Malton along the Vale of York. Legio XX Valeria was instrumental in the operation to catch the Brigantian forces of Venutius in a pincer movement at Stanwick in North Yorkshire.

Agricola used his old legion when he returned to Britain as proconsular governor in a sweeping series of campaigns in the highlands of Caledonia between AD78 and AD84 during which the legion was first moved to a campaign fortress at Carlisle before establishing a new legionary fortress at Inchtuthil in Perthshire.

The Inchtuthil fortress was still incomplete when the order for it to be demolished was issued c. AD88 and the legion removed to Deva (Chester, Cheshire), where they replaced Legio II Adiutrix which Domitian had withdrawn from Britain for use in the Dacian Wars.

Vexillations of XX Valeria, together with others from VI Victrix were used, along with the whole of Legio II Augusta to build the Antonine wall in lowland Scotland.

The Legion’s Titles and Emblems

The epithet Valeria was once thought to have been adopted during Augustus’ reign, awarded for sterling service under the command of Valerius Messallinus during the Pannonian revolt of AD6-9 (vide supra). Although it is possible that the Twentieth Legion could have taken the unofficial title ‘Valerian’ in honour of their old Augustan general, it is very unlikely that any such title was officially recognised, because the ageing Augustus could not allow the name of such a distinguished senatorial family be given such prominence, at a time when his own succession was in doubt.

An even more improbable theory suggests that the title Valeria may be derived from the name of Claudius’ wife, Valeria Messallina, but seeing as she was beheaded for adulterous behaviour in AD48, it is doubtful whether the legion would continue to be thus linked with so shameful a person.

Almost certainly, the later titles Valeria Victrix should be translated ‘Valiant and Victorious’, and were coined following the legions exploits during the Boudican revolt of AD61. At this same time, the Fourteenth Legion was to aquire the epithets Martia Victrix, meaning ‘Martial and Victorius’.

The boar, a familiar battle-emblem of the Britons (appearing on some coins), was used by XX Valeria.

Documentary Evidence for Legio XX Valeria in Britain

Ptolemy’s Geography: early second century ad

‘… From these¹ toward the east are the Cornavi, among whom are the towns: Deva,² Legio XX Victrix 17*30 56°45 …’

  1. The Ordovices tribe of Central Wales.
  2. Deva (Chester, Cheshire).
The Antonine Itinerary: late second century ad
“ITER II – Item a vallo ad portum Ritupis. mpm. cccclxxxi sic. … Deva, leg. xx vict, xx …
Route Two – From the entrenchments¹ to the seaport of Rutupiae,² four-hundred and eighty-one thousand paces. … Deva Victrix³ and the Twentieth Victorious Legion, twenty [miles from Northwich] …”
  1. i.e. Hadrian’s Wall.
  2. Portus Ritupis (Richborough, Kent).
  3. Deva Victrix – Castra Legionis (Chester, Cheshire).

Epigraphic Evidence for Legio XX Valeria in Britain

Marcus Aurelius Alexander, a Syrian of Commagene, praefectus castrorum of XX Valeria, died at the age of seventy-two and left a tombstone at Chester (R.I.B. 490). His name indicates that he could not have died before the age of Caracalla. Gaius Mannius Secundus, beneficiarius of XX Valeria, left a tombstone at Wroxeter datable to the time during which the fortress was occupied by XIV Gemina. It is thought that this legionary was seconded to the governors staff at the time that he died, and that the Twentieth Legion was not stationed at Viroconium at the same time as XIV Gemina.

London (13, 18), Gloucester (124b, 124c), Bath (156, 158, 160), Godmanstone (190a), Colchester (200, 203), Wroxeter (293), Chester (449-452, 460, 489-503, 505, 507, 508, 509-516, 573a), Ribchester (588, 592), Watercrook (754), Moresby (801), Maryport (853, 854), Old Penrith (940), Carlisle (964b), Cumberland Quarries (998, 1005, 1014, 1020), Piercebridge (1026), Lanchester (1093), Corbridge (1125, 1130, 1149, 1164-66), Whitley Castle (1204), High Rochester (1284), Newcastle (1322), Benwell (1327), Halton Chesters (1430, 1431), Chesterholm (1708), Great Chesters (1725), Carvoran (1826), Castlesteads (1999), Stanwix (2028), Hadrian’s Wall (many), Birrens (2114), Cappuck (2119), Newstead (2122-25, 2127), Cramond (2135), Rough Castle (2144), Bar Hill (2171, 2173), Auchendavy (2184), Balmuildy (2197-99, 2206, 2208), Hutcheson Hill (2198), Camelon (2210), Antonine Wall near Bar Hill (2312).

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