The Theban Martyrs

August 8, 2005

THE FAMOUS ANNUAL MONTREAUX JAZZ FESTIVAL WAS IN FULL SWING at the eastern end of Lake Geneva as our ‘Share the Heritage’ tour bus passed through last month en route to a destination a further twenty minute’s drive to the south, the town of St Maurice. This used to be on the main route from Geneva to Rome, leading to the St Bernard’s pass over the alps into northern Italy.

Seventeen centuries ago, a legion of Egyptian soldiers conscripted into the Roman army had followed this route northwards under orders to help quell the rebellious Helvetian Celts inhabiting the region around the lake. Maximian, co-emperor of Rome, had called for a legion of 6600 men from Thebes, in Upper Egypt. He assumed that as distant foreigners with no shared language and culture, the Egyptians would not be tempted to side with the rebels.

Various versions of the amazing story that unfolded have developed over the ages, the earliest coming to us from Saint Eucher, the bishop of Lyons, who died in 494 AD, almost exactly two centuries after the event. He wrote that after the revolt was quelled, Maximian issued an order that the whole army should join offering sacrifices for the Roman gods for the success of their mission. The order included killing Christians (probably as a sacrifice to the Roman gods). The Theban Legion dared to refuse to obey. Maurice, their commander after whom this town was named, and his men flatly refused to kill the Christians. They themselves were all Coptic Christians.

So Maximian ordered the “decimation” of the Thebans – one out of every ten soldiers was put to death. But when the Thebans stood their ground. Maximian was enraged. The bishop wrote: “Like a savage beast, he ordered the second decimation to be carried out, intending that the remainder should be compelled to do what they hitherto refused. Yet they still maintained their resolve.”

Finally the emperor ordered the execution of the remaining members of the legion – more than 5000 of his own soldiers – for refusing to kill their fellow believers.

Maurice’s speech to the emperor has been handed down to us by church tradition. Here it is in part:

“Emperor, we are your soldiers,
but we are above all servants of God.
We owe you military obedience,
but we owe Him innocence.
We receive from you the wages of our labor,
from Him we have received life.
We cannot deny God our Creator and Lord,
and your Creator also, whether you wish it or not.

“We have always fought for justice, respect, and the lives of the innocent;
that was our recompense for the dangers we faced.
We have fought in faithfulness;
but how can we preserve this faithfulness toward you,
if we refuse it toward our God?
We have first of all sworn an oath to God,
and secondly to the Emperor.
Know that our second oath is meaningless,
if we violate the first.
You order us to put Christians to death.
Search no further, here we are!
We confess our faith:
‘We believe in God, Father and Creator of all things;
we believe in His Son Jesus Christ, our God.’

“Christians we declare ourselves to be;
we cannot persecute other Christians.”
`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.”

Bishop Eucher wrote: “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; but that now, they themselves, sheep in the Lord’s flock, were to be massacred as it 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.”

The town of St Maurice stands today near the site of martyrdom, the Theban camp. In 515, King Sigismod of the Burgondes charged local monks to maintain the Laus perennis, or perpetual praise to the Lord, in an abbey built nearby. Daily mass has been observed in this abbey for 1490 years!

Other members of the Theban legion were on duty elsewhere along the imperial highways at the time of this incident, and chose also to join their brothers in martyrdom. Records exist of the executions of numerous soldiers serving as far north as Cologne and Bonn in Germany (over 300), and others in various stations in Italy. Ursus and Victor died along with 66 others in Solothurn, Switzerland, while in Zurich, Felix, Regula and Exuperantius were executed down by the river Limmat, but, so the legend goes, their decapitated bodies picked up their heads and marched to higher land to choose their burial sites. Later this site was chosen by Charlemagne to build the Gr√∂ssmunster, Zurich’s main cathedral. The these heroes live on as the city’s patron saints, and the city coat of arms depicts the improbable scene of the three bodies carrying their own heads.

The cult of St. Maurice spread far and wide across medieval Europe, principally along the Rhine River in Switzerland and in northern Italy. Over seventy European towns carry the name of St. Maurice. Also known as St. Moritz, St. Mauritius and St. Maurits, St. Maurice was a significant figure in Germanic iconography. His image is still found on many works today in cathedrals and museums throughout Germany. Over 650 foundations bear his name in France alone. Five cathedrals, innumerable churches, chapels and altars are consecrated in his name all over Europe. Both Mauritania and Mauritius are named after this Egyptian saint.

But what lay behind this courageous stand of Maurice and his fellow Thebans? Eusebius, the original church historian, tells us of a rich heritage of martyrdom in Thebes in the face of savage persecution of Christians under Emperor Decius a generation prior to Maurice, and in Maurice’s day under Diocletian.

“There were occasions when on a single day a hundred men as well as women and little children were killed, condemned to a succession of ever-changing punishments,”
writes Eusebius. “No sooner had the first batch been sentenced, than others from every side would jump on to the platform in front of the judge and proclaim themselves Christians. They paid no heed to torture in all its terrifying forms, but undaunted spoke boldly of their devotion to the God of the universe and with joy, laughter and gaiety received the final sentence of death: they sang and sent up hymns of thanksgiving to the God of the universe till their very last breath.” (Eusebius, The History of the Church, Penguin, London, 1965, p. 337-8)

At the Council of Nicea in 325, the Alexandrian delegation included a number of monks and hermits who bore disfigurement from Roman persecution. Two from Thebes, Potaman and Paphnutius, both had had their right eyes gouged out with a sword and the empty socket seared with a red-hot poker.

Such was the background to Tertullian’s most famous retort to the authorities who blamed Christians for public disasters, and which has comforted generations of persecuted believers worldwide: ‘Your cruelty [against us] does not profit you, however exquisite. Instead, it tempts people to our sect. As often as you mow us down, the more we grow in number. The blood of the Christians is the s

eed [of the church]… The very obstinacy you criticize teaches for us. For who on seeing it is not excited to enquire
what lies behind it? Who, h
aving enquired, does not embrace our faith?’
(Apology 50)

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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