Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Martyrs of the Theban Legion

On the calendar of the Extraordinary Form, today is the feast of St Thomas of Villanova (1488-1555), an Augustinian friar who became Archbishop of Valencia in Spain in 1516, and served in that office until his death, which happened on the feast of Our Lady’s Nativity. When he was canonized in 1658, Pope Alexander VII took the unusual step of assigning him to a date already occupied by another feast, that of Ss Maurice and Companions, also known as the Martyrs of the Theban Legion, who were thus reduced to a commemoration. This is unusual for two reasons.

The Martyrdom of Ss Maurice and Companions, by El Greco, 1580-2 (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
First, at the time, there was a date closer to that of his death, September 18th, which was free of any general observance; indeed, the Saint who would later occupy it, Joseph of Cupertino, was still alive in this world. Second, even though the feast of these martyrs was kept at the lowest rank, it was still very uncommon to place one feast on top of another where it was possible to avoid doing so, and this remained a general principle for centuries. [1] Even so late as 1954, the feast of Pope St Pius X was assigned to a date two weeks after that of his death, rather than place it where it would impede either of the lowest-ranked feasts in the area (Aug. 26 and Sept. 1).

This decision most likely reflects a certain diffidence about the historical details of the martyrs in question, whose feast was previously reduced in the Tridentine reform from an Office of nine proper historical readings to only one.
They are called “the Theban Legion” from the place where they were recruited, Thebes [2], which in very ancient times had been the capital of the Kingdom of Upper Egypt. The traditional story recounts that they were all Christians, and sent to Gaul in the year 287 AD, specifically, the area around Lake Geneva, where they were placed under the command of the Emperor Maximian. The first account of their passion was written by St Eucherius, bishop of Lyon, who was born about a century after their time, and died ca. 450; he represents Maximian as a ferocious persecutor of the Christians, one who, “beset by greed, lust, cruelty and the other vices … had armed his impiety to extinguish the name of Christianity.”
The emperor therefore ordered the Theban legion to participate in the persecution of their coreligionists, which they refused absolutely to do, withdrawing to the town of Agaunum, a short distance from the main encampment. For this, they were then “decimated”, a traditional disciplinary practice of the Roman army by which every tenth man of a refractory military unit was killed. Encouraged particularly by three of their officers, Mauritius, Exsuperius and Candidus, the soldiers remained wholly unintimidated. Eucherius’ account includes the text of their written statement sent to the Emperor, expressing their continued refusal to obey him, which begins as follows.
“We are thy soldiers, o emperor, but yet servants of God, which we freely confess. To thee we owe our military service, but to Him our innocence. (i.e., the duty to remain free from sin.) From thee we have receive the wage of our work, but from Him, the very beginning of our life. In this, we can in no wise follow the emperor, that we should deny God, who is indeed our maker and Lord, and thy maker too, will thou or no. If we are not forced so grievously to offend Him, we will obey as we have hitherto; otherwise we will obey him rather than thee.”
A 12th century reliquary bust of the skull of St Candidus, from the treasury of the Abbey of St Maurice, which is located on the site of their martyrdom in ancient Agaunum, now known as Saint Maurice. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Lothar Spurzem, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE)
The legion, numbering 6000, was then massacred without offering any resistance. Eucherius also reports that a veteran named Victor happened to pass by as the soldiers who had perpetrated the massacre were dining off the spoils of their victims, and was invited to join them. On learning the cause of the party, he refused to participate; when asked whether he too was a Christian, he replied that he was and always would be, for which he was immediately killed. “And as he was joined to the other martyrs in that same place in death, so also he is joined to them in honor. Of that company of martyrs, only these names are known to us, those of the most blessed Maurice, Exsuperius, Candidus and Victor; the rest are unknown to us, but are written in the book of life.”
The historical difficulty here lies in the reported cause of the martyrs’ death, which requires a bit of background to understand.
The 3rd century was an era of prolonged crisis for the Roman Empire, often described as a “military anarchy”, with one general after another contending for the imperial throne, and most meeting a violent death at the hands of their successor after only a few years. The man who, after almost 50 years of this, finally began to restore stability was Diocletian, who became emperor in 284, and is now infamous as the last major persecutor of the Christians. Recognizing that the empire was too large for a single man to rule, he divided it into two parts, East and West, [3] each ruled by an “Augustus” and a “Caesar”, i.e., an emperor and a vice-emperor. He also instituted an orderly succession, by which an Augustus would resign after 20 years and be succeeded by his Caesar. [4] Within this system, known as the Tetrarchy, the Maximian named above was the first Augustus of the West, as Diocletian was of the East. And in due course, they both resigned in 305 in favor of their respective Caesars, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus, the latter of whom was the father of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine.
A sculptural group representing the Tetrarchs, made ca. 300 AD out of Egyptian porphyry, an extremely durable material, the color of which was long considered a sign of royalty by the Romans. It was originally located in a public square in Constantinople called the Philadelphion; the piece missing at the lower right was found near there in 1965, and is now in the Istanbul Archeological Museum. During the sack of Constantinople in 1204, it was stolen by the Venetians, brought to their city, and installed in a corner of the façade of St Mark’s Basilica. A Venetian legend claims that they were four thieves (unusually well-dressed!) who attempted to steal some of the basilica’s treasures, and were petrified by St Mark as a warning to other miscreants. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Rino Porrovecchio, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Now the historical problem. First of all, it is a well-established fact that Maximian was in the region of Lake Geneva in 287 not to institute or enforce a general persecution of Christians, but to put down a rebellion that had broken out against the Romans among several Gallic tribes in the area.
Second, it is true that as the Tetrarchy approached its first (and last) peaceful transition of power, the hostility which its eastern half, Diocletian and his Caesar Galerius, had long shown to the Christians broke out into open persecution. This was enforced with great severity and violence in the East, marginally less so in the provinces governed by Maximian, hardly at all in those governed by Chlorus. [5] However, persecution of this sort was hardly even possible in 287, when Diocletian and Maximian were literally pulling the empire back from the brink of collapse. It seems possible, therefore, that Eucherius assumed too much about the events of Maximian’s earlier career on the basis of his actions during the great persecution.
Third, the story of the Theban legion was embellished considerably over time, which is always a red flag to the hagiographical skeptics. Like the veteran Victor mentioned by Eucherius, several other Saints from different regions have been made honorary members of the legion, and by the 6th century, St Gregory of Tours had transplanted them and their martyrdom to Cologne. According to the version of their story in Bl. Jacopo of Voragine’s Golden Legend, they were ordered by Diocletian and Maximian to sacrifice to the idols, which was a feature of many ancient persecutions, but which is nowhere hinted at by Eucherius. In the Breviary of St Pius V, this is made the sole cause of their conflict with Maximian.
As one might guess from all this, their legend has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly discussion; the broad consensus now seems to be that Eucherius exaggerated or misunderstood their numbers, but that the martyrdom of a substantial company of Egyptian soldiers in the area of Lake Geneva really did take place. In the post-Conciliar reform, their feast was removed from the general calendar. According to the official account of the reform, this was done, not in function of the almost total suppression of commemorations, since St Thomas of Villanova was also suppressed, but because “not a few difficulties are found in regard to their history”, and because their feast, which was adopted at Rome only in the 11th century, “does not belong to the Roman tradition.” This latter alleged reason is difficult to square with the suppression of any number of other feasts which are thoroughly Roman and much older than the 11th century.
As to the difficulties in their history, Prof. Donald O’Reilly, in an article published in Vigiliae Christianae in 1978, makes some very interesting observations. A papyrus dated to the year 282, and found at Panopolis, which is not far from Thebes, records the requisition of a quantity of bread large enough to support a legion-sized unit for three months, roughly the time needed to travel at a military march from Egypt to Gaul. In the same period, coins were minted in Egypt of a type specific to the commemoration of the founding of a legion.
A page of the Notitia Dignitatum, with the shields of military units under the “magister peditum – master of the footsoldiers”; the “Thebans” are in the middle of the 4th rank. All of the surviving copies of this document depend on a single Carolingian manuscript which was in the capitular library of Speyer Cathedral, and lost sometime before 1672. The copy from which this page (folio 110v, image cropped) is taken was made directly from the Speyer manuscript in 1436 at Basel in Switzerland, for one of the bishops participating in the Ecumenical Council then being held there, which was later transferred first to Ferrara, and then to Florence. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 9661)
Prof. O’Reilly then argues that one of the principal objections to the legend, the massacre of an entire legion of over 6000 men, is also the result of a misunderstanding. Diocletian effected a major reorganization of the Roman army, in which many legions were brought down to only 1000 members. By 293, a document called the Notitia Dignitatum, an explanation of the Roman imperial administration which includes the names of many military offices and titles, lists four such units as the bodyguard corps of the four Tetrarchs, each named after one of them (e.g. “Legio Diocletiana”), and qualified with the words “Thebaeorum – of Thebans.” Thinking of their last sixty years’ worth of predecessors, most of whom were murdered by their own troops, what better guards could the Tetrarchs find than men who believed, as a matter of strongly held religious conviction, that such an act would be a grave offense against God? The original Theban legion, therefore, would not have been massacred to a man, but rather, after suffering a decimation, and that, very possibly for some matter having to do with their religion, simply organized out of existence as a unit, and its former members assigned to the newly created corps of imperial bodyguards.
[1] Particularly in the 19th century, the calendars of many dioceses, individual churches and religious orders came to be filled with so many Saints that this principle could no longer be maintained.
[2] There were several ancient cities called “Θῆβαι” in Greek, “Thebae” in Latin, whence the English “Thebes”. The most important of these, in the region of Greece called Boeotia, was known as “the city of seven gates”, and figured prominently in both myth and history; the Egyptian Thebes was known as “the city of 100 gates.”
[3] The division effected by Diocletian would be undone and redone a few times over the course of the 4th century, and become definitive only in 395 with the death of Theodosius I.
[4] If a Caesar were to die before his term ended, his Augustus would appoint a new one; if an Augustus died, his Caesar would complete his term, and appoint a new Caesar as his own eventual successor.
[5] In his book On the Deaths of the Persecutors (cap. xv in fine), Lactantius reports that Chlorus permitted the demolition of some churches, but inflicted no violence on the Christians themselves.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: