Some Thoughts on the 10th Legion: How many nicknames can one Legion have?

The 10th Legion is arguably the most famous legion of the Roman army. Even in its day, it was called “Vaunted”. It was Caesar’s favorite legion and Caesar made it famous through his work “The Gallic War”. Time and time again, it is the 10th Legion that does something heroic, important, and noteworthy.

In my novel Casting Lots, Centurion Cornelius is the First Spear, the highest ranking Centurion, in the 10th Legion. His father and grandfather were legionaries and Centurions in the 10th Legion before him. In my novel, it is Centurion Cornelius’ grandfather, who was the first to jump off the ship to invade England when no other legionary would move.

How did the 10th Legion, first raised in Spain, and later which fought in Gaul, then invaded England, ever end up in Judea? And how did a Legion famous for its bravery end up in disgrace? Well, that story is covered in depth in Casting Lots. But of importance, is the fact that the 10th Legion did, in fact, wander from one end of the Roman Empire to the other and apparently traveled further than any other legion. I will tell you that the 10th Legion later covered itself in glory once again at during the siege at Masada.

In its wanderings, it gained a number of nicknames, again, apparently more nicknames than any other legion, or at least more than any other this historian/novelist has been able to research. Each of these nicknames tells us something about the legion and usually something very important.

During the Campaigns of Caesar in Gaul, Caesar showed great favor to the 10th Legion. He wrote of them: “‘…Even if no one else follows, I shall march with the Tenth Legion alone; I have no doubt of its allegiance, and it will furnish the commander- in chief’s escort.’ Caesar had shown special favor to this legion, and placed the greatest of reliance in it because of its courage.” The Gallic War, Book I, 40. Caesar went on to use the 10th Legion in a ruse with the German King Ariovistus. Ariovistus had asked for a parley which Caesar had accepted. Perhaps, re-thinking the matter and maybe thinking of a way to extricate himself from the parley, the German King later imposed a special condition that the parley be held on horse-back with only a cavalry escort-no infantry were to be allowed. Caesar agreed, but fearing that his own cavalry, composed of Galls, might betray him, he mounted the 10th Legion on the horses of this Gallic cavalry and, thus, escorted went to the parley. Thereafter, the 10th earned the nickname Equestris, or the “Mounted”.

Another nickname also underscores the connection of this legion to Caesar. In 69 BC, Caesar claimed, for example, that he was descended from Venus in his oration upon the funeral of his Aunt, the wife of Marius. Later, he claimed that his victories came from Venus (thus, his dedication of a Temple to Venus Genetrix [Venues the Mother]). Thus, his favorite legion became endowed with the nickname: Veneria (Devoted to Venus).

In the early 30’s BC, the Tenth Legion was apparently lent by Marcus Antonius to Octavian. It was stationed in Sicily near Messina. Sextus Pompey, the son of Pompey the Great, was fighting against the two Triumvirs. Sextus Pompey sought to cut off the flow of grain to Rome by controlling the Straits of Messina. Under Marcus Agrippa, in 36 BC, the Tenth Legion helped to defeat Sextus Pompey at the Battle of Naulochus. Due to its actions in the battles of Mylae and Naulochus, and possibly because it has been stationed near the Straits, the Legion was now nicknamed Fretensis (the Straits).

Later, during the Roman Civil War between Octavian and Marcus Antonius, there were two Legions numbered X. The original one, which was Caesar’s favorite legion, sided with Marcus Antonius, because he had been its leader under Caesar. Octavian, not to be without such a famous legion’s designation created his own Tenth Legion. When Octavian defeated Marcus Antonius, the original 10th Legion, was exiled to Judea, stripped of its number, stripped of its nickname, was deprived of its pensions and land grants, and was deprived of its discharge. This Legion, without name or number, languished in Judea for many decades and, again, its story is told in detail in Casting Lots. Octavian’s 10th Legion was named Gemina (the twin) and fought under him during the Civil War with Marcus Antonius and later was assigned to Hispania Tarraconensis.

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