That was the Theban Legion and why do many western churches commemorate it on this day, September 22? According to the earliest accounts we have, an entire Roman legion was martyred for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods and/or take an oath to extirpate the Christians of Gaul.
The year was 287 or thereabouts. Diocletian shared imperial rule with Maximian Herculius. The two claimed to be sons of the gods, incorporated the names of Jove and Hercules into their titles, and set about imposing Roman peace to the empire. A revolt was in progress in Gaul, its adherents calling themselves the Bagaudians. It was to quell this disturbance that Maximian brought up the Theban Legion from Egypt.
The region of Thebes was the most fiercely Christian of all Egypt. Supposedly this whole legion of 6,600 men were Christians. Ordered to sacrifice to pagan deities they refused, and were encouraged by their commanders, Maurice, Exuperius and Candidus to remain strong. Consequently, Maximian had 1/10th of the Theban soldiers executed. When the rest of the men remained stubborn, he killed more, and finally slaughtered everyone who was left. Certainly Maximian was brutal enough to order such a deed. Maurice was beheaded, too. This took place near Lake Geneva.
The memory of the event was so strong that in the middle of the following century, a church was built in honor of the martyrs. Bishop Theodore claimed he had a vision showing where the martyrs' bones were buried. The name of the town of Saint-Moritz, Switzerland preserves the memory of Maurice.
But is the tale probable as told? Most writers doubt it. It seems incredible that every one of over 6,600 men would remain a dedicated Christian in face of death. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that not all the Thebans were present at the site of the massacre. Nor do Christian historians who lived at the time mention the event, which, if it took place as recorded, was surely an astonishing occurrence. More likely, a single squad or detachment was involved.
Just what happened we will probably never know in this life. The problem is that the first significant account we have of the affair was written 150 years after the events by Eucherius, who was Bishop of Lyons from 435 to 450. Because some details of his account are wrong, there is reason to suspect the other details, too, although he assured his readers that he had the story on good authority.
- Baring-Gould, Sabine. "SS. Maurice and Comp., MM." Lives of the Saints. Edinburgh: John Grant, 1914.
- Butler, Alban. "SS. Maurice and His Companions, Martyrs of the Theban Legion." Lives of the Saints. Various editions.
- Firth, John B. Constantine the Great. New York: Putnam, 1905. Source of the portrait.
- Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I. Britannica Great Books. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952; see p. 225f for a discussion of Maximian's implacable hatred toward Christianity.
- Masri, Iris Habib el. The Story of the Copts; the true story of Christianity in Egypt. Merry Springs, California: St. Anmny Monastery, p. 107 ff.
- "Maurice, St." and "Theban Legion." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- Scarre, Chris. Chronicle of the Roman Emperors. (Thames and Hudson, 1995), especially pp. 196 ff (this account paints a rosier picture of Maximian than seems warranted).
- Various internet articles.
Last updated June, 2007