September 22, 2017

Saint Maurice and the Theban Legion

St. Maurice and the Theban Legion (Feast Day - September 22)

Towards the end of the third century (c. 285), the Roman Emperor Maximian Herculius summoned a select legion from Thebes (in Upper Egypt) to go to Switzerland to strengthen his western front by defeating a revolt by the bagaudae. The legion was composed of Christian warriors whose ardor in battle was matched by an equally ardent faith. The Theban Legion was dispatched with orders to clear the Great St. Bernard Pass in Switzerland across Mont Blanc. Before going into battle, they were instructed to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods and pay homage to the emperor. Maurice pledged his men’s military allegiance to Rome. He stated that service to God superseded all else. To engage in wanton slaughter was inconceivable to Christian soldiers he said. He and his men refused to worship Roman deities.

Because the Theban legion refused to comply to the offering of the sacrifice, as well as to harass some local Christians, they withdrew from the encampment at Octodurum (today's Martigny, Switzerland) southeast to Agaunum (today's Saint-Maurice, Switzerland, site of the Abbey of Saint Maurice). Maximian tried to intimidate them into submission by randomly executing one tenth of the legion, a military punishment known as decimation. But he did not succeed. The head of the legion, Saint Maurice, encouraged his soldiers to stand fast in their faith and prepare themselves for the honor of suffering for Christ in imitation of their martyred companions who had already joined the armies of Christian warriors in heaven. Another tenth of the legion was executed. Finding the remaining soldiers still unwilling to surrender their faith, Maximian ordered a general slaughter. The legionnaires, numbering several thousand, did not resist. The site of their martyrdom, outside Agaunum, received the name Verroliez which is old French for vrai lieu or "actual place," i. e., where the martyrs were slaughtered, a name it carries to this day.

St. Maurice and the Theban Legion by El Greco

In Agaunum the pagan executioners celebrated their bloody operation. A man by the name of Victor, on learning the cause of such revelry, refused to drink with the soldiers or to accept any of the dead legionnaires' belongings. On being questioned he unhesitatingly confessed the Christian faith and was promptly executed.

Unfortunately, of the nearly 6,000 martyrs slain in Agaunum, tradition has handed down to us only the names of Maurice, Exuperus, Victor and Candidus (a senator). Their story was recorded by Saint Euchertus, Bishop of Lyons (c. 434).

Two of the Theban soldiers, Victor and Ursus, escaped the slaughter and fled north to Solothurn where they began preaching the gospel. It wasn't long, however, before they were caught by soldiers of the pagan governor Hirtacus and executed. Their relics are still in Solothurn.

Soon after the Agaunum slaughter, the Theban martyrs began working miracles. A church was built in Agaunum and also a monastery. The latter was enlarged in 515 by the pious Burgundian King Sigismund, a convert from the Arian heresy. Agaunum, with 900 monks, became the chief monastic center of Burgundy. Day and night choirs of monks took turns in chanting psalms.