SAINT MAURICE AND THE THEBAN LEGION
- (St. Maurice, a great saint of the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates
Tout 25 on 5 October 2008. His blood and the blood of his companions
were the seeds of Christianity in Europe).
A traveler, on the highway that leads from Geneva to Rome, will
notice a small and very old Swiss town called Saint Maurice. This
town was known in Roman times as Aguanum, an important communication
centre. It was there that a Coptic officer named Maurice and his
fellow soldiers died for the sake of Christ at the hands of the
impious Emperor Maximian (285-305 AD). The story of these martyrs,
commonly known as the Theban Legion, has been preserved for us by
Saint Eucher, bishop of Lyons, who died in 494 A.D. The bishop
starts the account of the martyrdom of these valiant soldiers by the
"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 has come to our ears. We often hear, do we not, how 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
Under Maximian, who was an Emperor of the Roman Commonwealth,
with Diocletian as his colleague, an uprising of the Gauls known
as "Bagaudae" forced Maximian to march against them with an army of
which one unit was the Theban Legion. This unit of 6600 men had
been recruited from Upper Egypt and consisted entirely of
Christians. They were good men and excellent 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 in offering sacrifices to the
gods for the success of their mission. The order included killing
Christians (probably as a sacrifice to the Roman gods.) Only the
Theban Legion dared to refuse to comply with these orders. The
legion withdrew itself, encamped near Aguanum and refused to take
part in these rites.
Maximian was then resting in a nearby place called Octudurum.
When the news came to him, he repeatedly commanded them to obey his
orders, and upon their constant and unanimous refusals, sentenced
them to be decimated. Accordingly, every tenth man was put to
death. A second decimation was ordered unless the men obeyed the
order given, but there was a great shout through the camp: they all
declared that they would never allow themselves to carry out such a
sacrilegious order. They had always had a 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 anything contrary to their religion.
When Maximian heard this, he became even angrier than before. Like
a savage beast, he ordered the second decimation to be carried out,
hoping that the remainder should be compelled to do what they had
hitherto refused. Yet, they still maintained their resolve. After
the second decimation, Maximian warned the remainder 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 escape death.
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 "campidoctor." He fired
the hearts of the soldiers with fervor by his encouragement.
Maurice, calling attention to the example of their faithful fellow
soldiers, already martyred, persuaded them all to be ready to die in
their turn for the sake of their baptismal vow (the promise one
makes at his baptism 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. Due to his words, a glorious
eagerness for martyrdom burned in the hearts of those most blessed
Fired thus by the lead of their officers, the Thebans sent to
Maximian who was still enraged, a reply as loyal as it was brave:
"Emperor, we are your soldiers, but also, the soldiers of the
True God. We owe you military service and obedience, however, 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 first. You commanded
us to execute Christians, behold we are such. We confess God the
Father, Creator of all things and His Son Jesus Christ, our 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 has 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; and that now, they themselves, sheep of the
Lord's flock, were to be massacred as if 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 members of the legion were at Aguanum at the time
of the massacre. Others were posted along a 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 in
Switzerland include the following names: Maurice, Exuperius, Candid,
Innocent and Vitalis with the rest of their cohort, were martyred at
Aguanum (Saint Maurice en Valais). Saints Ursus, Victor and 66
companions were found at Solothurn, Saints Felix, Regula and
Exuperantius at Zurich, and Saint Verena of Zurzach.
In Italy, Saint Alexander was killed at Bergamo, the three
Saints Octavius, Adventor and Solutor at Turin, Saint Antonius of
Piacenza, Saints Constantius, Alverius, Sebastianus and Magius from
the Cottian Alps, Saints Maurelius, Georgius and Tiberius in
Pinerolo, Saints Maximius, Cassius, Secundus, Severinus and Licinius
in Milan, and Saint Secundus of Ventimilia, together with a host of
names of lesser saints.
In Germany, we have Saints Tyrsus, Palmatius, Bonifatius and
their comrades in Terier, Saints Cassius, Florentius and their
cohort in Bonn, Saint Gereon and 318 others at Cologne and Saints
Victor, Mallosius with 330 companions at Xanten.
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 comrades 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 and venerate 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
shone in glaring brightness. The bodies of the saints which were
thrown in the river Aar, advanced to 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 A.D. He built a Basilica in their honour at Aguanum,
the remains of which are visible even now. This later became the
centre of a monastery built about the year 515 AD on land donated by
King Sigismund of Burgundy.
Saint Eucher (died 494 A.D.) mentions that in his time, 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 healings "which the might
of the Lord works there every day through the intercession of His
In the middle ages Saint Maurice was the patron saint of several
of the ruling dynasties in Europe, and later on, of the Holy Roman
Emperors. In 926, Henry I (919-936) even ceded the present Swiss
Canton (province) of Aargau in return for the lance of the Saint.
Some emperors were also anointed before the Altar of Saint Maurice
in St. 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 even small
portions of the relics of the saints in order to build churches in
their honour. King Louis of France offered the monastery one of the
treasured thorns that came from the crown of thorns of our Saviour
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 more than 650 foundations in his name in France
alone. Five cathedrals, innumerable churches, chapels and altars
are consecrated in his name all over Europe. In the monastery
that bears his name at Saint Maurice en Valais, 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 (which is a province holiday ,) Swiss guards in their beautiful
traditional attire, carry the relics of the martyrs in ancient
silver caskets, in a procession around the town, preceded by the
Mayor, the city officials and the monks and priests in the Monastery
of St. Maurice. Over seventy towns all over the world bear the
name of Saint Maurice, including one in Canada.
In 1991, the Christian world celebrated the seventeenth
centennial of the martyrdom of these saints. H.H. Pope Shenouda
delegated His Grace Bishop Serapion to represent the Coptic Church
in these celebrations. On that occasion, parts of the relics of
Saint Maurice, St. Cassius and St. Florentius were returned to the
Coptic Church. They are now in a small chapel in the Patriarchate
in Anba Reweiss complex.
(Reproduced by Coptic Evangelism in North America from
PAROUSIA,October, 2000: publication of St. Mary's Coptic Orthodox
Church, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada).
Salem Voice Ministries