According to Eucherius of Lyon (c. AD 380 – c. 499), in AD 286, a legion of soldiers made up of 6,666 men was massacred in its entirety. Two significant factors set this legion apart from other Roman legions of the time: first, the high number of legionnaires and the special number of soldiers; second, it was made up exclusively of Christians. It was called the Theban Legion (Alkateeba al Teebia) because the men were Egyptian Christian Copts recruited from and stationed in Thebes in Upper Egypt. There they stayed until the emperor Maximian posted them to Gaul, to fight against a rebellious Gallic tribe, the Bagaude, which is around modern Burgundy. This was in line with standard Roman policy of not having Roman armies fight in their own recruiting grounds for fear of uprisings to liberate their homelands.
The Theban legion served at a time when Christianity was very popular amongst Copts, and just as unpopular amongst the Roman authorities; so much so that there were a number of persecutory measures to suppress Christianity around this time. An edict of AD 202 decreed that an end should be put to all conversions, while the edict of AD 250 decreed that all citizens were required, by means of an official certificate, to show evidence that he or she had offered sacrifice to the pagan gods. Thebaei is the name of Legio I (Maximiana), or the Maximiana Thebaeorum, as recorded in the Notitia Dignitatum (Register of Dignities).
There were two legions with the name ‘Theban’, both formed by Diocletian (co-ruler with Maximian) and stationed at Alexandria.³ A papyrus found at Panopolis, on the Nile just north of Thebes, contained a delivery note and invoice dated ‘In the Sixth year of our Lord the Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Probus Pius Augustus, Tubi sixteenth’ (13 January 282 CE). The delivery was for 38,496 modii (measure) of bread (about 577,440lb, or 384,490 daily rations), which would feed a legion for about three months; it was to be delivered to Panopolis to the ‘mobilized soldiers and sailors’.
Dissenters against official Roman religion, regardless of age or sex, were cruelly tortured: some were decapitated, while others were thrown to the lions or else burnt alive. The Catechetical School of Alexandria was shut down, although this only led to clandestine meetings taking place elsewhere; the number of bishops was restricted to three. Persecutions reached their high point during the reign of Diocletian (AD 284–305). Such was the ferocity of his programme of mass executions and torture that the Copts adopted the day of Diocletian’s election as emperor to mark the beginning of the era of the Coptic martyrs. This became the start of the Coptic Calendar known as Anno Martyrum (AM), the year of the Martyrs. Eusebius describes some of the torture in a campaign of eye-watering atrocity which, it is estimated, claimed 20,000 lives:
They were torn to bits from head to foot with broken pottery like claws till death released them. Women were tied by one foot and hoisted in the air, head downwards, their bodies completely nude … the most shameful, brutal and inhuman of all spectacles to anyone watching. Others again were tied to trees and stumps and died horribly; for with the aid of machines they drew together the very stoutest of boughs, fastened one of the martyr’s legs to each and let the boughs fly back to their normal position … in this they continued not for a few days or weeks but year after year.
Thebes was a hotbed of Christianity. Some of the first Christian ‘monks’, The Desert Fathers, were largely made up of Thebans. Historically, Theban Christians honour a number of martyrs who defied the authorities during these persecutions. The purge of Christians from the military between AD 284 and 299 under Diocletian suggests that non-compliance to emperor worship was a common way of revealing Christian soldiers and bringing them to eventual execution.
The Theban Legion reached Maximian’s army in Gaul to engage the Bagaude by way of the St Bernard’s Pass in the Alps. The leaders of the Theban Legion were Mauritius (St Maurice or St Moritz), Candidus and Exupernis (Exuperantius). The Gallic revolt was quashed, the legion camping at Agaunum (what is now St Maurice). Here Maximian, smelling religious dissent, organized a universal sacrifice, in which the whole army was required to participate and swear an oath of allegiance, as well as promise to assist in the extermination of Christianity from Gaul. Maximian was uncompromising: he organized the un-Roman rite of adoratio (proskynesis in Greek), which was the Persian rite of worship to the Shah-I-Shah as a living god, translated over to the Roman emperor. Worshippers were obliged to prostrate themselves before the emperor three times, ironically and poignantly for the Christians, as it was just as Satan had asked of Jesus.
This, of course, presented insoluble problems for the all-Christian Theban legion. They all refused point-blank to sacrifice or take the oaths, incensing Maximian, who immediately ordered the decimation of the legion at Martigny. But it was not to be any ordinary decimation. When every tenth man had been butchered, the survivors bucked the trend and enthusiastically reasserted their Christian faith, further enraging Maximian; 666 more soldiers then met their deaths, their blood turning the Rhone and its flood plain crimson. This was repeated until all the soldiers were dead.
Mauritius spoke to the survivors of the first round of decimation, firing their enthusiasm for martyrdom, urging them to join their newly-murdered comrades in death and reminding them of their baptismal vow: to renounce Satan, to worship only God. Before the decimation had started, the Christians had compromised when they agreed to swear loyalty to Maximian:
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.
But Maximian remained implacable and slew them all. The Maximian atrocity is what is known as the Sixth Primitive Persecution in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Thousands of Christians were slaughtered without trial and buried unceremoniously in unmarked mass graves; there was no resistance: they simply put down their weapons and offered their necks to their executioners.
The principal persons who perished under this reign were: Pontianus, bishop of Rome; Anteros, a Grecian, his successor, who gave offence to the government by collecting the acts of the martyrs Pammachius and Quiritus, Roman senators, with all their families, and many other Christians; Simplicius, a senator; Calepodius, a Christian minister, thrown into the Tyber; Martina, a noble and beautiful virgin; and Hippolitus, a Christian prelate, tied to a wild horse, and dragged until he expired. 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.
Not all the members of the legion were at Aguanum at the time of the massacre. Some were posted at various points along the military road linking Switzerland with Germany and Italy. These were systematically martyred wherever they were found. Eucherius records that during the massacre and martyrdom, there were a series of miracles: in Zurich, the three decapitated saints Felix, Regula and Exuperantius rose from the dead and carried their heads to the top of a hill, where they knelt, prayed and lay down. A cathedral was later built here. The three saints, their heads in their hands, feature on the coat of arms and seal of Zurich today. When saints Victor, Orsus and their comrades were tortured by Hirtacus, the Roman governor of Solothurn, their shackles snapped and a fire was extinguished. The bodies of the saints which were thrown in the river Aar stepped out of the waters, and knelt and prayed at the spot where the Basilica of St Peter was later built. The bodies of the martyrs of Aguanum were discovered and identified by Saint Theodore, the Bishop of Octudurm, around AD 350. He built a basilica in their honour at Aguanum, the remains of which still can be seen. This later became the focal point of a monastery, built about the year AD 515 on land donated by King Sigismund of Burgundy.
There is much controversy surrounding the historicity of the Theban Legion and the disaster which befell it. Some scholars believe it to be a fiction, as seems likely, born out of Christian hagiography, notably that of Saint Maurice, the chief among the Legion’s saints. Others argue that it was an actual event. Either way, it was a catastrophe of the first order, although it seems that many of the soldiers would not have seen it that way, delighting as they did in their martyrdom. Their feast day is on 22 September. Sigebert of Gembloux (d. AD 1112) wrote a poem on the martyrdom of the Theban Legion.
One of the strongest arguments against the story is that, at this time, the Romans did not execute complete legions for insubordination. Decimation had not been used to discipline a Roman legion for centuries, since the reign of Galba, who ordered this done to a formation of marines that Nero had formed into a legion, and who demanded an eagle and standards. It was less than successful in terms of morale and discipline. An eleventh-century monk called Otto of Freising wrote that most of the legionaries escaped, and only some were executed. It may be that the legion was simply re-organized during Diocletian’s reforming of units (breaking up legions of 6,000 men to create smaller units of 1,000), and that some of the soldiers had been executed. Some argue that it was only a vexillatio that was decimated. Furthermore, the soldiers’ god was typically Isis or Mithras (Sol Invictus), until the reign of Constantine at least (AD 306–337), making it unlikely that Christians filled an entire legion.
Gregory of Tours (AD 538–594) gloried in the miraculous powers of the Theban Legion, though he transplanted the event to Cologne where there was an earlier cult devoted to Maurice and the Theban Legion:
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.
Alexander of Bergamo is a good example of how the Romans relentlessly pursued the Theban legionaries. He is said to have been a survivor of the decimation and escaped to Milan, where he was recognized and imprisoned until he renounced his Christian faith. Nevertheless, Alexander escaped and fled to Como, only to be captured again and brought back to Milan; he was condemned to death by decapitation, but during the execution the executioner’s arms went stiff. He was imprisoned again and once again managed to escape, ending up in Bergamo. Alexander was once again captured and was finally decapitated on 26 August AD 303, where the church of San Alessandro in Colonna now stands.
Saint Maurice is one of the most popular saints in Western Europe, with over 650 foundations in his name in France alone. Five cathedrals, countless churches, chapels and altars are consecrated in his name all over Europe. Aguanum (Saint Maurice en Valais) has always remained the capital city of veneration of the Thebans and a major pilgrimage resort. An all-night vigil on the night before the feast is regularly attended by up to 1,000 people. On the actual feast day, they carry 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 twenty-four hours a day without stopping for more than 500 years now. On 19 July 1941, Pope Pius XII declared Saint Maurice patron Saint of the Italian Army’s Alpini Mountain Infantry Corps.