Monday, April 24, 2006

St. Maurice and the Theban Legion

"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.''

A testament of faith. These words set the stage for a massacre. It is said:

Thebian Legion was composed of 6600 men. 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.

The legion balanced supporting the unity of the empire and their faith. Their faith did not prevent them being Christian and supporting their nation, but the emperor did:

Under "Maximian", who was an Emperor of the Roman Commonwealth (Empire) with Diocletian as his colleague, 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. 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.

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. 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.

Here a name rears it's ugly head. A name that is forgotten by too many Christians in the west: Diocletian. Maximian was vicious and a tyrant who, later in life, would try and kill his own son.

Diocletian was evil. Modern historical viewpoints want to paint Diocletian as a brilliant emperor whose persecution of Christians was at first at the urging of Galerius. Historians wish to sing the praises of this man who is one of the only people to resign from being emperor and made great administrative reforms.

They wish to paint him as a strong and powerful man with a singular will that held the empire together...and that he was. Possessed of a vicious will that was not prone to manipulation or falling to the urges of another.

Diocletian must be viewed as he was. And in that light he can not be repainted in history without being painted in the blood of the innocent. The blood of children. The blood of the Matryrs.

Popular history remembers Nero, but the second Nero who was more perverse and hateful than the first, is often forgotten. It is in a world tainted by this presence that the Theban Legion makes a stand more courageous than any military action.

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 these 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 Legion stood firm. Over 6000 men. They could have fought. They could have bathed in blood and escaped. When sword were raised against them they could have met them with swords. Did they? We are told they sent the message I have at the beginning of this post. And then:

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 of the legion was camped at Aguanum. Some were posted in other places. They were hunted and killed. Spread across the empire, the blood of Martyrs watered the ground. What grew in it's place? We are told and know that:

Saint Eucher mentions that in his time (he died 494 AD), many came 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."

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.

Kings, noblemen, and church leaders vied to obtain small portions of the relics of the saints in order to build churches in their honour. The famous King Charlemangne offered the monastery one of the treasured thorns that came from the crown of thorns of our Savior in return for a small portion of the sacred relics. He later built a church in honour of the martyrs inside the court of his palace.

Saint Maurice has always been one of the most popular saints in Western Europe, with over 650 foundations in his name in France alone. Five cathedrals, innumerable churches, chapels and alters are consecrated in his name all over Europe. Aguanum (Saint Maurice en Valais) has always remained the main focus of veneration of the Thebans and a significant pilgrimage resort. In the monastery that bears his name there, the monks perform a special devotion to the saints every day, and celebrate their feast on September 22 of each year. An all night vigil, on the night before the feast is attended by nearly 1000 people. On the feast day, they carry in procession the relics of the martyrs in the ancient silver caskets. Over seventy towns bear the name of Saint Maurice.

In the Monastery carrying his name in Switzerland, the vigil "Tasbeha" has been chanted continuously (24 hours a day) without stopping for more than 500 years now.

What grew?

Devotion to the Lord


The blood of the Theban Legion, Egyptian blood, helped spread the Church west. Diocletian gave up being emperor to be a gardener. But there is the true Gardener. He who grows the greatest flowers and produces the sweetest fruit through His Holy Spirit. This Gardener turned the evil of Diocletian to good. This Gardener grew a lasting garden.

The Theban Legion proved that the unity of a nation is not split by those who love Christ. True Christians follow justice, peace and love. Unity is only threatened when those in power make unjust demands or treat a part of the population as lesser than the rest.

If ever there are patrons of giving to Caeser what is Caeser's and to God what is God' is the Theban Legion and their leader St. Maurice.

The Story of St. Maurice and the Legion (link)


erudit said...

Wow thank you for posting this! It's the first I've heard of these great saints, but I'll be sure to remember them on their feast day.

Egypeter said...

Thanks for the great post Dave! Can't help but feel great pride for these courageous Christians.

You said:

"Diocletian was evil. Modern historical viewpoints want to paint Diocletian as a brilliant emperor whose persecution of Christians was at first at the urging of Galerius. Historians wish to sing the praises of this man who is one of the only people to resign from being emperor and made great administrative reforms."

This man was WORSE than evil! How could any historian try and improve this man's image?? He is NO DIFFERENT than the dispicable Nero in his savage attemps to exterminate Christianity!!

Let me reiterate that point.

Diocletian tried to personally eliminate Christianity from the face of this Earth and especially in the Roman Empire. His murderous rampages were especially felt by the Christians of Egypt.

David, here is some important info for you:

The Coptic New Year is called "Nayrooz" and it is celebrated in Septemember. The Coptic New Year is commemorated on the first day of the beginning of the reign of Emperor Diocletian. While "Westerners" may "forget" or try and paint a sympathetic image of this guy the Copts will never forget what he did to our brothers and sisters.

Diocletian commited some of the worst atrocities against Christians. But his acts of great evil acts were returned with acts of great goodness.

God bless

xavier said...

Great hagiographies. Just a clarification: was Maurice a memeber of the Thebean legion?


DavidNic said...

Oh Yeah, Maurice was their Commander. I was worried I didn't make that clear until the end, but I wanted to focus on the Legion as a whole. But it is said of Maurice:

The greatest mainstay of their faith in this crisis was undoubtedly their captain 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.

To you think I should add that text to the post? I was 50/50 on that.