-Saint Gereon of the Theban Legion and soldier companions, by Stefan Lochner, c. 1440
The members of a Roman Legion composed largely of Egyptians and serving in the army of co-Emperor Maximian (r. 286-305 AD), colleague of the famed hater of Christians, Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305 AD).
While serving in France, the legion marched to Agaunum (now St Maurice, Switzerland), where it encamped for pagan rituals. Maurice, a commander — along with Exuperius, Candidus, Innocent, Vitalis, two Victors, and the men of the legion — refused to worship pagan deities, or possibly refused to massacre the local innocent populace.
They were supposed to be pressured to obey by witnessing the beheading of some of their officers, but they refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods.
Reportedly, Maximian brought in another legion to slay the sixty-six hundred Christians. A basilica, St.-Maurice-en-Valais, was built from about 369-391 AD to commemorate this remarkable martyrdom.This cult is now confined to local calendars as of 1969 in the reform of the Roman liturgical calendar. The whole world is no longer obligated to observe their liturgical celebration.
The Theban Legion (also known as the Martyrs of Agaunum) figures in Christian hagiography as an entire Roman legion — of “six thousand six hundred and sixty-six men” — who had converted en masse to Christianity and were martyred together, in 286 AD, according to the hagiographies of Saint Maurice, the chief among the Legion’s saints. Their feast day is held on September 22.
According to Eucherius of Lyon, ca. 443–450, the garrison of the Legion was the city of Thebes, Egypt. There the Legion were quartered in the East until the emperor Maximian ordered them to march to Gaul, to assist him against the rebels of Burgundy. The Theban Legion was commanded in its march by Saint Maurice (Mauritius), Candidus, Innocent, and Exuperius, all of whom are venerated as saints.
At Saint-Maurice, Switzerland, then called Agaunum, the orders were given to make sacrifice and worship the “genius/deity of the Emperor”. Being Christian, The Theban Legion refused. Since the Legion had refused to worship a mere man, a sinful mortal, to sacrifice to the Emperor, their punishment was to be “decimated” putting to death a tenth of its men, each time it refused the order until they complied. Not a single man in the Theban Legion complied. Decimation was repeated until none were left.
According to a letter written about 450 AD by Eucherius, Bishop of Lyon, bodies identified as the martyrs of Agaunum were discovered by Theodore (Theodulus), the first historically identified Bishop of Octudurum, who was present at the Council of Aquileia, 381 AD and died in 391. The basilica he built in their honor attracted the pilgrim trade; its remains can still be seen, part of the abbey begun in the early sixth century on land donated by King Sigismund of Burgundy.
The earliest surviving document describing “the holy Martyrs who have made Aguanum illustrious with their blood” is the letter of Eucherius, which describes the succession of witnesses from the martyrdom to his time, a span of about 150 years. The bishop had made the journey to Agaunum himself, and his report of his visit multiplied a thousandfold the standard formula of the martyrologies:
We often hear, do we not, 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 Christ.
As with many hagiographies, Eucherius’ letter to Bishop Salvius reinforced an existing pilgrimage site. Many of the faithful were coming from diverse provinces of the empire, according to Eucherius, devoutly to honor these saints, and (important for the abbey of Aguanum) to offer presents of gold, silver and other things. He mentions many miracles, such as casting out of devils and other kinds of healing “which the power of the Lord works there every day through the intercession of his saints.”
In the late sixth century, Gregory of Tours was convinced of the miraculous powers of the Theban Legion, though he transferred the event to Cologne, where there was an early 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.
Saints associated with the Theban Legion include:
- St Maurice
- St Alexander of Bergamo
- St Bessus
- St Candidus
- St Cassius and Florentius
- St Chiaffredo (Theofredus)
- St Constantius
- St Defendens
- St Exuperius (Exupernis)
- St Felix and Regula, the patron saints of Zürich
- St Fidelis of Como
- St Fortunatus of Casei
- St Gereon
- St Magnus of Cuneo
- St Solutor, Octavius, and Adventor
- St Tegulus
- St Ursus of Solothurn
- St Victor of Xanten
- St Victor of Solothurn
- St Verena
-statue of St. Viktor von Xanten
-The Martyrdom of Maurice and the Theban Legion [c 1580-1582], by El Greco
“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 honor.
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.”