Saint Maurice and the Theban Legion, Martyrs

September 22

Today is the feast day of Saint Maurice and the Theban Legion.  Orate pro nobis.

The legend (Acta SS., VI, Sept., 308, 895) relates that the legion, composed entirely of Christians, had been called from Africa to suppress a revolt of the Bagandæ in Gaul.

Sion in Valais (a canton of Switzerland), at a place called Aguanum (now called Saint-Maurice), the birthday of the holy martyrs Maurice, Exuperius, Candidus, Victor, Innocent, and Vitalis, with their companions of the Theban Legion, who were massacred under Maximian for the name of Christ, and filled the whole world with the renown of their martyrdom” (Roman Martyrology—Sept. 22). Let us unite with Rome in paying honor to these valiant soldiers, the glorious patrons of Christian armies as well as of numerous churches.

“Emperor,” said they, “we are thy soldiers, but we are also the servants of God. To Him we took our first oaths; if we break them, how canst thou trust us to keep our oaths to thee?” No command, no discipline can overrule our baptismal vows. Every soldier is bound, in honor and in conscience, to obey the Lord of Hosts in preference to all human commanders, who are but His subalterns. These Christian soldiers, who suffered in the third century, were commanded something against their Faith. When they refused, they were tried by the discipline known as decimation, that is—every tenth of their number was put to the sword. The rest were then given another opportunity to comply with the wicked order they had refused to obey. When these remained firm, the decimation was repeated. These slaughters continued until they had all suffered martyrdom.

However, a detachment of some fifty Christian soldiers of the same Theban Legion had been sent to Colonia Agrippina (Cologne, Germany) under the leadership of St. Gereon. There they too won the palm of martyrdom. They are greatly venerated in Cologne and the Rheinland.

This group of over 6600 Roman soldiers, led and inspired by Saint Maurice, were summarily executed for failing to sacrifice to idols and cut down unarmed Christians. The heroic deaths of Rome’s only all-Christian legion, based out of Thebes, is testament to the faith of each individual man, as well as the growing conviction of the Christian Church (and willingness to stand up to persecution and oppression) in the late third and early fourth centuries. We are inspired today by that conviction and sacrifice, to take stock of the role our own individual faith plays in our lives.

The story of Theban Legion has been preserved for us by Saint Eucher, the bishop of Lyons, who died in 494 AD. The bishop started 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 [modern day Saint Maurice-en-Valais in Switzerland, where the martyrdom took place] illustrious with their blood. It is in honor 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 honor 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 Maurice became a patron saint of the Holy Roman Emperors. In 926, Henry I (919–936), ceded the present Swiss canton of Aargau to the Abbey of Saint Maurice-en-Valais, in return for Saint Maurice’s lance, sword, and spurs. These relics were used at the coronations of the Holy Roman, and were among the most important insignia of the imperial throne. Many emperors were anointed before the altar of Saint Maurice in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

In 961, Emperor Otto the Great built and enriched the cathedral at Magdeburg in preparation for his own tomb. In that year, in the presence of all of the nobility, on the vigil of Christmas, the body of St. Maurice was conveyed to Emperor Otto at Regensburg along with the bodies of some of the saint’s companion legionaries. They were then conveyed to Magdeburg, received with great honor and are still venerated there.

St. Maurice is represented as a knight in full armour (sometimes as a Moor), bearing a standard and a palm; in Italian paintings with a red cross on his breast, which is the badge of the Sardinian Order of St. Maurice. Many places in Switzerland, Piedmont, France, and Germany have chosen him as celestial patron, as have also the dyers, clothmakers, soldiers, swordsmiths, and others. He is invoked against gout, cramps, etc.

Image: Martyrdom of St Maurice and the Theban Legion, artist: Pontormo, circa 1528-1530 (6)

Research by REGINA Staff


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