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The Roman Theban Legion

- All 6600 Martyred for Jesus in 286 A.D.

Title: The Martyrdom of Maurice and
the Theban Legion [c 1580-1582]
 (Catholics say: Saint Maurice)
Artist: El Greco [Spanish, 1541-1614]


An entire Roman Legion was Martyred for Christ

The Holy Lance was said to have been passed to Saint Maurice
(See the amazing history of the Holy Lance here)

In the year of Christ 286, a most remarkable affair occurred; a legion of soldiers, consisting of six thousand six hundred and sixty-six men, contained none but Christians. This legion was called the Theban Legion, because the men were Egyptian Christian Copts who had been recruited from and stationed in Thebias in Upper Egypt.  The Theban Legion were quartered in the east until the emperor Maximian ordered them to march to Gaul, to assist him against the rebels of Burgundy.
It was the custom of the Romans to move troops from extreme parts of the empire to avoid the problem of Roman-trained soldiers participating in uprisings to free their native lands.  

It should be noted here that the Egyptians or the Copts accepted Christianity so very rapidly to the extent that the Romans had to exercise a series of persecutions in an attempt to suppress the growth of a religion which openly defied the divinity of the Emperor. The Roman Edict of 202 A.D. decreed that Christian conversion should be stopped at all costs. The edict of 250 A.D. decreed that every citizen should carry at all times a certificate issued by the local authorities testifying that he had offered sacrifice to the gods.  Those who refused to conform were tortured with unprecedented ferocity. Some were beheaded, others were thrown to the lions and others were burnt alive. All were subjected to even innovated veracious torture regardless of age or sex. The Catechetical School of Alexandria was closed by order of the authorities, though its members continued to meet in other secret places. At one time, the number of bishops was restricted by the State to three. The consummation of the age of persecution is considered by the Copts to be during the reign of Emperor Diocletian (284-305). So severe was the mass execution and the savage torture of the Copts that they took the day of DiocIetian's military election as Emperor to mark the beginning of the era of the Coptic martyrs. That very day marked the start of the Coptic Calendar known in the Western world as Anno Martyrum (A.M.) or the year of the Martyrs.

The area around Thebes has always enjoyed a reputation for its strong, almost fanatical, Christianity. The first monks in the Christian tradition, known as "The Desert Fathers," contained a majority of Thebans, and Theban Christians celebrate many martyrs who have refused to yield their faith to the many persecutions in the first centuries of the church.  

The Theban Legion passed through the Alps into Gaul, under the command of Mauritius, Candidus, and Exupernis, their worthy commanders, and at length joined the emperor.  About this time, Maximian ordered a general sacrifice, at which the whole army was to assist; and likewise he commanded that they should take the oath of allegiance and swear, at the saame time, to assist in the extirpation of Christianity in Gaul. Alarmed at these orders, each individual of the Theban Legion absolutely refused either to sacrifice or take the oaths prescribed. This so greatly enraged Maximian, that he ordered the legion to be decimated, that is, every tenth man to be selected from the rest, and put to the sword. The names of the soldiers were written on papers and placed in the caps of the centurions, for 600 were destined to perish as examples. These embraced their comrades, who encouraged them and even envied their fate. The plain soon flowed with the blood of the martyrs.  The survivors persisted in declaring themselves Christians, and the butchery began again; the blood of another 600 reddened the waters of the Rhone.  This second severity made no more impression than the first had done; the soldiers preserved their fortitude and their principles, but by the advice of their officers they drew up a loyal remonstrance to the emperor. This, it might have been presumed, would have softened the emperor, but it had a contrary effect: for, enraged at their perseverance and unanimity, he commanded that the whole legion should be put to death, which was accordingly executed by the other troops, who cut them to pieces with their swords, September 22, 286.  The Maximian period is known as the Sixth Primitive Persecution in Fox's Book of Martyrs.  During this persecution, raised by Maximinus, numberless Christians were slain without trial, and buried indiscriminately in heaps, sometimes fifty or sixty being cast into a pit together, without the least decency.  See Fox's Book of Martyrs here.

The Holy Lance was said to have been passed to Saint Maurice.  Down through the years it fell into the hands of Mauritius (Saint Maurice), the head of a 3rd century garrison of Roman soldiers called the Theban legion.  

The Theban Legion was a Christian legion of soldiers during the reign of Diocletian. A legion of men consisting of 6,600 (some say: 6,666) soldiers were all Christian. Called Theban legion because there were all conscripted from Thebias in Upper Egypt; they were quartered in the east until they were ordered them to march to Gaul. 

A traveler on the highway that leads from Geneva to Rome, will notice a small and a very old Swiss town called "Saint Maurice" (now Saint-Moritz or Saint Maurice en Valais or Saint Maurice d’Augaune) in Switzerland. This town was known in the Roman times as "Aguanum", an important communication center. It was there that a Coptic officer named Maurice and 6600 of his fellow soldiers died for the sake of Christ at the hands of the impious Emperor Maximian (285-305 AD). 

The bodies of the martyrs of Aguanum were discovered and identified by Saint Theodore the Bishop of Octudurm, who was in office at 350 AD. He built a Basilica in their honour at Aguanum, the remains of which are visible untill now. This later became the center of a monastery built about the year 515 AD on the land donated by King Sigismund of Burgundy.

The story of these martyrs, commonly known as the Theban Legion (Alkateeba alTeebia or Alkateeba al-sa'eedia) has been preserved for us by Saint Eucher (aka: Bishop Eucherius of Lyon), the bishop of Lyons, who died in 494 AD. The bishop starts the account of the martyrdom of these valiant soldiers by the following introduction: 

"Here is the story of the passion of the holy Martyrs who have made Aguanum illustrious with their blood. It is in honour of this heroic martyrdom that we narrate with our pen the order of events as it came to our ears. We often hear, do we not, a particular locality or city is held in high honour because of one single martyr who died there, and quite rightly, because in each case the saint gave his precious soul to the most high God. How much more should this sacred place, Aguanum, be reverenced, where so many thousands of martyrs have been slain, with the sword, for the sake of Christ."

Saint Eucher mentions that in his time (he died 494 AD), many came from diverse provinces of the empire devoutly to honour these Saints, and to offer presents of gold, silver and other things. He mentions that many miracles were performed at their shrine such as casting out of devils and other kinds of healing "which the might of the lord works there everyday through the intercession of His saints."

This historic telling begins:

In the middle ages Saint Maurice was the patron saint of several of the roman dynasties of Europe, and later on of the Holy Roman emperors. In 926, Henry I (919-936 AD), even ceded the present Swiss Canton (province) of Aargua in return of the lance of the saints. Some emperors were also anointed before the Altar of saint Maurice in saint Peter's Cathedral in Rome. The sword of Saint Maurice, was last used in the coronation of the Austrian Emperor Charles as King of Hungary in 1916.


(Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus)

Under "Maximinus Daia" also known as Maximian, who was an Emperor of the Roman Commonwealth (Empire) with Diocletian as his colleague (co-Emporer), an uprising of the Gauls known as "Bagaude" forced Maximian to march against them with an army of which one unit was the Thebian Legion composed of 6600 men, in the Spring of 285.. This unit had been recruited from upper Egypt and consisted entirely of Christians. They were good men and soldiers who, even under arms, did not forget to render to God the things of God, and to Caesar the things of Caesar.  Diocletian and Maximian transferred the Theban Legion, among other imperial units, to Gaul in an effort to crush the revolt. Landing near Rome, the Theban Legion marched through northern Italy, across the St. Bernard pass, and encamped near the present-day town of St. Maurice.

After the revolt was quelled, the Emperor Maximian issued an order that the whole army should join offering sacrifices for the Roman gods for the success of their mission. Although these types of offerings were routine, this offering was also tantamount to recognizing the emperor´s claim to divinity.  The order included killing Christians (probably as a sacrifice to the Roman gods). Only the Thebian Legion dared to refuse to comply with the orders. The legion withdrew itself, encamped near Aguanum and refused to take part in these rites. 

Maximian was then resting in a near-by place called Octudurum. When these news came to him , he repeatedly commanded them to obey his rules and orders, and upon their constant and unanimous refusal, he ordered that the legion should be "decimated". Accordingly, every tenth man was put to death. A second "decimation" was ordered unless the men obeyed the order given but their was a great shout through the legion camp: they all declared that they would never allow themselves to carry out such a sacrilegious order. They had always the horror of idolatry, they had been brought up as christians and were instructed in the One Eternal God and were ready to suffer extreme penalties rather than do any thing contrary to their religion. 

When Maximian heard this news, he got angrier than ever. Like a savage beast, he ordered the second decimation to be carried out, intending that the remainder should be compelled to do what they hitherto refused. Yet they still maintained their resolve. After the second decimation, Maximian warned the remainder of the Theban legion that it was of no use for them to trust in their number, for if they persisted in their disobedience, not a man among them would be able to escape death. 

The greatest mainstay of their faith in this crisis was undoubtedly their captain (Commanding Officer) Maurice, with his lieutenants Candid, the first commanding officer, and "Exuperius" the "Compidoctor". He fired the hearts of the soldiers with the fervor by his encouragement. Maurice, calling attention to the example of their faithful fellow soldiers, already martyrs, persuaded them all be be ready to die in their turn for the sake of their baptismal vow (The promise one makes at his baptismal to renounce satan and his abominable service and to worship only God). He reminded them of their comrades who had gone to heaven before them. At his words, a glorious eagerness for martyrdom burned in the hearts of those most blessed men. 

Fired thus by the lead of their officers, the Theban legion sent to Maximian (who was still enraged) a reply as loyal as it is brave: 

``Emperor, we are your soldiers but also the soldiers of the true God. We owe you military service and obedience, but we cannot renounce Him who is our Creator and Master, and also yours even though you reject Him. In all things which are not against His law, we most willingly obey you, as we have done hitherto. We readily oppose your enemies whoever they are, but we cannot stain our hands with the blood of innocent people (Christians). We have taken an oath to God before we took one to you, you cannot place any confidence in our second oath if we violate the other (the first). You commanded us to execute Christians, behold we are such. We confess God the Father the creator of all things and His Son Jesus Christ, God. We have seen our comrades slain with the sword, we do not weep for them but rather rejoice at their honour. Neither this, nor any other provocation have tempted us to revolt. Behold, we have arms in our hands, but we do not resist, because we would rather die innocent than live by any sin.''

When Maximian heard this, he realized that these men were obstinately determined to remain in their Christian faith, and he despaired of being able to turn them from their constancy. He therefore decreed, in a final sentence, that they should be rounded up, and the slaughter completed. The troops sent to execute this order came to the blessed legion and drew their swords upon those holy men who, for love of life, did not refuse to die. They were all slain with the sword. They never resisted in any way. Putting aside their weapons, they offered their necks to the executioners. Neither their numbers nor the strength of arms tempted them to uphold the justice of their cause by force. 

They kept just one thing in their minds, that they were bearing witness to him who was lead to death without protest, and who, like a lamb, opened not his mouth; but that now,they them selves, sheep in the Lord's flock, were to be massacred as it by ravaging wolves. Thus, by the savage cruelty of this tyrant, that fellowship of the saints was perfected. For they despised things present in hope of things to come. So was slain that truly angelic legion of men who, we trust, now praise the Lord God of Hosts, together with the legions of Angels, in heaven forever. Not all the members of the legion were at Aguanum at the time of the massacre. Others were posted along the military highway linking Switzerland with Germany and Italy. These were progressively and methodically martyred wherever they were found. Some of the most celebrated saints who were martyred are:

During their martyrdom, numerous miracles happened, which undoubtedly largely contributed to the massive conversion of the inhabitants of these regions to Christianity. In Zurich for instance, the three beheaded saints Felix, Regula and Exuperantius miraculously rose, carried their heads on their own hands, walked to the top of a hill, where they knelt, prayed and at last lay down. On the same spot, a large cathedral was later erected. The three saints carrying their heads on their hands appear on the coat of arms and seal of Zurich until today. Saints Victor, Orsus and their comrads were barbarously tortured by Hirtacus, the roman governor of Solothurn. During this torture, several miracles occurred, e.g. the shackles suddenly broke open, the fire was instantaneously extinguished, etc. The lookers-on were thus filled with wonder and began to admire the Theban legionaires, upon which the furious Hirtacus ordered their immediate beheading. Without the slightest resistance they offered the executors their necks. The bodies of the beheaded Saints then shown in glaring brightness. The bodies of the Saints which were thrown in the river Aar, advanced the bank, stepped out, walked heads on hands, then knelt and prayed at the spot where the Basilica of St. Peter later arose. The bodies of the martyrs of Aguanum were discovered and identified by Saint Theodore the Bishop of Octudurm, who was in office at 350 AD. He built a Basilica in their honour at Aguanum, the remains of which are visible untill now. This later became the center of a monastery built about the year 515 AD on the land donated by King Sigismund of Burgundy.

Maurice and the Theban Legion became still more important with the rise of the Kingdom of Burgundy. The Burgundians moved into southeast Gaul, as Roman allies, in 443 after crossing the Rhine in 406. Like the other Eastern barbarian tribes, who had been evangelized by Ulfilas in the fourth century, they were Arian rather than Catholic. They remained Arian despite numerous attempts to convert them to Catholic Christianity. Avitus, Catholic bishop of Vienne, attempted to convert the Burgundian king Gundobad in the 490s. Although tradition says that Gundobad favored the Catholic faith, he refused baptism by Avitus because the monarch feared his Arian nobles would revolt. His son Sigismund, however, was baptized a Catholic around 500, approximately the same time in which Clovis, king of the Franks, became Catholic. Since Burgundy was still Arian, Sigismund had to find a way to balance his Catholic faith with the political realities of an Arian society. While he tried to placate Clovis by publicizing his Catholicism, he never sought to establish Catholicism as the state faith. Since the Arians never had any type of monastic establishment, Sigismund could build a monastic base without offending his Arian bishops and aristocracy. In 515, one year before he became king, Sigismund enlarged and renovated the monastery of St. Maurice at Agaunum. Although previously there had been some sort of hospice and community to minister to pilgrims, Sigismund set out to build something unique. Most monasteries originated and grew from disciples attracted to some holy ascetic. That is, once the fame of an ascetic grew, he would attract disciples to his cave or hut. As the numbers grew, an informal community would spring up with its own rules, while a method of worship typically evolved over a period of time. The monastery of St. Maurice, however, would be unique. It would not evolve, but spring up almost fully developed. Between 515 and 521, Sigismund lavishly endowed its foundation and ensured that it would flourish. He spent huge amounts of money to build a sanctuary, and he transferred monks from other Burgundian monasteries to ensure that the liturgy was kept. The liturgy, known as the laus perennis (perpetual praise), was imported from Constantinople and was distinctive to the monastery of St. Maurice.

St Maurice's blood and ring, as well as the stone on which he was beheaded are preserved in St-Maurice-en-Valais, Switzerland to this day.


 Related to the above is this story from the 6th Century:

At Cologne there is a church in which the fifty men from the holy Theban Legion are said to have consummated their martyrdom for the name of Christ. And because the church, with its wonderful construction and mosaics, shines as if somehow gilded, the inhabitants prefer to call it the "Church of the Golden Saints". Once Eberigisilus, who was at the time bishop of Cologne, was racked with severe pains in half his head. He was then in a villa near a village. Eberigisilus sent his deacon to the church of the saints. Since there was said to be in the middle of the church a pit into which the saints were thrown together after their martyrdom, the deacon collected some dust there and brought it to the bishop. As soon as the dust touched Eberigisilus' head, immediately all pain was gone.


Source of Translation: R. Van Dam, Gregory of Tours: Glory of the Martyrs (Liverpool, 1988), 85.
Commentary: Writing in the 590s, bishop Gregory of Tours (573-94) records the miraculous cure of bishop Eberigisilus, a contemporary, at the "Church of the Golden Saints" at Cologne.

This has survived from the 10th Century:

Emperor Otto I of Germany had precious marble, gold, and gems brought to Magdeburg. And he ordered that relics of saints should be enclosed in all of the columns. He had the body of Count Christian, as well as those of others among his familiars, interred next to the same church in which, while he still lived, he wished to have a burial place prepared for himself. In the year 961 of the Incarnation and in the twenty-fifth year of his reign, in the presence of all of the nobility, on the vigil of Christmas, the body of St. Maurice was conveyed to him at Regensburg along with the bodies of some of the saint's companions and portions of other saints. Having been sent to Magdeburg, these relics were received with great honour by a gathering of the entire populace of the city and of their fellow countrymen. They are still venerated there, to the salvation of the homeland.


Source of Translation: David A. Warner, Ottonian Germany: The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg (Manchester, 2001), 104.
Commentary: Writing c.1013, bishop Thietmar of Merseburg (1009-18) describes how the Emperor Otto I (936-73) had the body of St. Maurice translated to Magdeburg in 961.

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