Mark Antony’s Lost Legion

I’ve been rereading Charles Miller’s The Lunatic Express, which is ostensibly a history of the building of what is now the Mombasa Nairobi railway, but is much more than that – essentially a history of the early days of British involvement, and latterly, colonialism in East Africa.

In the book, Miller mentions the off the wall hypothesis that the Masai are the descendants of a lost Roman legion, the basis of which seems to be

  • warriors wear red cloaks
  • warriors carry short swords
  • warriors use a battle formation akin to the testudo

and of course three coincidences do not a hypothesis make. In fact the idea seems to be on the level of Howard Dubs’ hypothesis that the population of Liqian in descended from prisoners taken after Crassus’s disastrous foray into Parthia.

As it is the Masai/lost legion hypothesis probably owes more to nineteenth century racial prejudice and a misplaced belief in European exceptionalism than solid facts.

In fact the most interesting thing about the hypothesis is that a google search produces few if any references to the hypothesis, and what it does turn up seem (to me) to be references or quotes from Miller’s book, which has an infuriating footnoteless index.

Miller was clearly well read and well versed in East African history – I doubt he invented the existence of the hypothesis, but where did it come from ?


I’m still no closer to finding where the idea came from – I suspect some nineteenth century traveller with a classical education and a set of imperialist prejudices, but I can think we can confidently say that the hypothesis is a pile of the proverbial.

Masai oral histories place their origin to somewhere in the Turkana valley around the year 1500 when they coalesced out of other tribal groups. DNA studies show that the Masai, unlike other closely related groups such as the Samburu have had repeated admixtures with Cushitic speaking peoples from what is now Somalia and Ethiopia, but with no serious evidence of mixing with ethnic groups from elsewhere.

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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