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The Martyrs of the Theban Legion

Gregory DiPippo

September 22 is traditionally the feast of a group of soldiers martyred in 287 A.D, known as the “Theban Legion” from the Egyptian city of Thebes where they were recruited. The story recounts that the whole legion was Christian; sent to the area around Lake Geneva, they were placed under the command of the Emperor Maximian. The first account of their martyrdom was written by St Eucherius, bishop of Lyon, who was born about a century after their time, and died ca. 450; he represents Maximian as a ferocious persecutor of the Christians, one who, “beset by greed, lust, cruelty and the other vices … had armed his impiety to extinguish the name of Christianity.”

The emperor therefore ordered the legion to participate in the persecution of their coreligionists, which they refused absolutely to do, withdrawing to the town of Agaunum, a short distance from the main encampment. For this, they were then “decimated”, a traditional Roman disciplinary practice by which every tenth man of a refractory military unit was killed. Encouraged particularly by three of their officers, Mauritius, Exsuperius and Candidus, the soldiers remained wholly unintimidated. Eucherius’ account includes a text purporting to be their written statement to the Emperor, expressing their continued refusal to obey him:

“Milites sumus, imperator, tui; sed tamen servi, quod libere confitemur, Dei. Tibi militiam debemus, illi innocentiam; a te stipendium laboris accepimus, ab illo vitae exordium sumpsimus. Sequi te imperatorem in hoc nequaquam possumus, ut auctorem negemus Deum, utique auctorem nostrum, Dominum, auctorem, velis nolis, et tuum. Si non ad tam funesta compellimur, ut hunc offendamus, tibi, ut fecimus hactenus, adhuc parebimus; sin aliter, illi parebimus potius quam tibi. … Christianos ad poenam per nos requiri jubes. Jam tibi ex hoc alii requirendi non sunt: habes hic nos confitentes Deum Patrem auctorem omnium, et Filium ejus Jesum Christum Deum credimus. …  Tenemus ecce arma, et non resistimus: quia mori quam occidere satis malumus, et innocentes interire quam noxii vivere peroptamus. Si quid in nos ultra statueris, si quid adhuc jusseris, si quid admoveris; ignes, tormenta, ferrum subire parati sumus. Christianos nos fatemur, persequi Christianos non possumus.

(The Martyrdom of St Maurice and Companions,  by El Greco, 1580-2. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

We are thy soldiers, o emperor, but yet servants of God, which we freely confess. To thee we owe our military service, but to Him our innocence. (i.e., the duty to remain free from sin.) From thee we have receive the wage of our work, but from Him, the very beginning of our life. In this, we can in no wise follow the emperor, that we should deny God, who is indeed our maker and Lord, and thy maker too, will thou or no. If we are not forced so grievously to offend Him, we will obey as we have hitherto; otherwise we will obey him rather than thee. … You order that the Christians should be sought out by us for punishment. Already, there is no need for you to seek out any more on that score; you have us here who confess God the Father, the creator of all, and we believe that his Son Jesus Christ is God. … Behold, we have weapons, and we do not resist; because we prefer to die than to kill, and we choose to perish in innocence, rather than live in guilt. If you make any further decree against us, any order, any move, we are ready to undergo fire, torture and sword. We confess ourselves to be Christians; we cannot persecute Christians.”

The legion, numbering 6000, was then massacred without offering any resistance. Eucherius also reports that a veteran named Victor happened to pass by as the soldiers who had perpetrated the massacre were dining off the spoils of their victims, and invited to join them. On learning the cause of the party, he refused to participate; when asked whether he too was a Christian, he replied that he was and always would be, for which he was immediately killed, “caeterisque martyribus in eodem loco, sicut morte, ita etiam honore conjunctus est. Haec nobis tantum de numero illo martyrum comperta sunt nomina: id est beatissimorum Mauricii, Exsuperii, Candidi atque Victoris; caetera vero nobis quidem incognita; sed in libro vitae scripta sunt. – And as he was joined to the other martyrs in that same place in death, so also he is joined to them in honor. Of that company of martyrs, only these names are known to us, those of the most blessed Maurice, Exsuperius, Candidus and Victor; the rest are unknown to us, but are written in the book of life.”

This account has long been regarded as historically unreliable. It is well-established that Maximian was in the region of Lake Geneva in 287 not to institute or enforce a general persecution of Christians, but to put down a rebellion that had broken out against the Romans among several Gallic tribes in the area. Furthermore, in that period, Diocletian and Maximian were literally pulling the Roman Empire back from the brink of collapse, and had neither the means not the time to institute such a persecution. It seems likely, therefore, that Eucherius assumed too much about the events of Maximian’s earlier career from his later actions during the great persecution. The broad scholarly consensus now holds that although he exaggerated or misunderstood their numbers, the martyrdom of a substantial company of Egyptian soldiers really did take place near Lake Geneva.

(A 12th century reliquary bust of the skull of St Candidus, from the treasury of the Abbey of St Maurice, which is located on the site of their martyrdom in ancient Agaunum, now known as Saint Maurice. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Lothar Spurzem, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE)

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