ST. MAURICE, THE LEADER OF THE THEBAN LEGION
Coptic Date: 25 Thout
A traveller on the highway that leads from Geneva to Rome will notice a small and a very old Swiss town called “Saint Maurice”. This town was known in the Roman times as “Aguanum”, an important communication center. It was there that a Coptic officer named Maurice and 6600 of his fellow soldiers died for the sake of Christ at the hands of the Emperor Maximian (285-305 AD).
Under “Maximian”, an Emperor of the Roman Commonwealth with Diocletian as his colleague, an uprising of the Gauls known as “Bagaude” forced Maximian to march against them. He recruited into his army a unit from Upper Egypt, the Theban legion composed of 6600 Christian men. They were good men and soldiers who, even under arms, did not forget to render to God the things of God and to Caesar the things of Caesar.
After their victory, Emperor Maximian issued an order that the whole army should join offering sacrifices for the Roman gods. The order included killing Christians (possibly as a sacrifice to the Roman gods). Only the Theban legion dared to refuse to comply with these orders.
When the news came to Maximian, he repeatedly commanded them to obey his rules and orders, and upon their constant and unanimous refusal, he ordered that the legion should be “decimated”. Accordingly, every tenth man was put to death. Upon the further refusal of the legion, Maximian ordered a second “decimation” and warned that they would all face death if they failed to comply.
The greatest mainstay of their faith in this crisis was undoubtedly their captain Maurice. He fired the hearts of the soldiers by his encouragement. Maurice, calling attention to the example of their faithful fellow soldiers, already martyrs, persuaded them all to be ready to die in their turn for the sake of their baptismal vow. At his words, a glorious eagerness for martyrdom burned in the hearts of those men.
Fired thus by the lead of their officer, the Theban legion sent to Maximian a reply as loyal as it is brave:
“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 honour. Neither this, nor any other provocations 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.”
When Maximian heard this, he despaired of being able to turn them from their strong Christian faith. 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. Putting aside their weapons and without any resistance, they offered their necks to the executioners.
They kept just one thing in their minds, that they were bearing witness to him who was led to death without protest, and who, like a lamb, opened not his mouth. Thus, by the savage cruelty of this emperor, that fellowship of the saints, led by Saint Maurice, 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.