September 21, 2018

St. MAURICE and his Companions, Martyrs of the Theban Legion

Saint Maurice (also Moritz, Morris, or Mauritius; Coptic: Ⲁⲃⲃⲁ Ⲙⲱⲣⲓⲥ) was the leader of the legendary Roman Theban Legion in the 3rd century, and one of the favorite and most widely venerated saints of that group. He was the patron saint of several professions, locales, and kingdoms.

A NUMBER of the Gauls, called Bagaudae, having risen in revolt, the Augustus Maximian Hercuiius marched against them with an army, of which one unit was the Theban Legion. This had been recruited in Upper Egypt and was composed entirely of Christians. When he arrived at Octodurum (Martigny), on the Rhone above the lake of Geneva, Maximian issued an order that the whole army should join in offering sacrifice to the gods for the success of their expedition. The Theban Legion hereupon withdrew itself, encamped near Agaunum (now called St Mauriceen-Valais), and refused to take any part in these rites. Maximian repeatedly commanded them to obey orders, and upon their constant and unanimous refusal sentenced them to be decimated. Thus every tenth man was put to death, according as the lot fell. After the first decimation, a second was commanded, unless the soldiers obeyed the orders given ; but they cried out that they would rather suffer all penalties than do anything contrary to their religion. They were principally encouraged by three of their officers, Maurice, Exuperius and Candidus, referred to respectively as the primicerius, the campiductor and the senator militum. Maximian warned the remainder that it was of no use for them to trust to their numbers, for if they persisted in their disobedience not a man among them should escape death. The legion answered him by a respectful remonstrance : " We are your soldiers, but are also servants 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 all your enemies, whoever they are ; but we cannot dip our hands into the blood of innocent persons. We have taken an oath to God before we took one to you : you can place no confidence in our second oath if we violate the first. You command us to punish the Christians ; behold, we are such. We confess God the Father, author of all things, and His Son, Jesus Christ. We have seen our companions slain without lamenting them, and we rejoice at their honour. Neither this nor any other provocation has tempted us to revolt. We have arms in our hands, but we do not resist because we would rather die innocent than live by any sin." This legion consisted of about six thousand six hundred men, and Maximian, having no hopes of overcoming their constancy, commanded the rest of his army to surround them and cut them to pieces. They made no resistance but suffered themselves to be butchered like sheep, so that the ground was covered with their dead bodies, and streams of blood flowed on every side. Maximian gave the spoils of the slain to his soldiers for their booty, and they were sharing it out when a veteran named Victor refused to join in. At this the soldiers inquired if he was also a Christian. He answered that he was, upon which they fell upon him and slew him. Ursus and another Victor, two straggling soldiers of this legion, were found at Solothurn and there killed, and according to local legends many others elsewhere, such as St Alexander at Bergamo, SS. Octavius, Adventor and Solutor at Turin, and St Gereon at Cologne. The Roman Martyrology mentions Vitalis and Innocent, as well as the above three and Victor, today, SS. Ursus and Victor on September 30, and St Antoninus at Piacenza, wrongly associated with the Theban Legion, on the same date. St Eucherius, speaking of their relics preserved at Agaunum in his time, says, " Many come from divers provinces devoutly to honour these saints, and offer presents of gold, silver and other things. I humbly present this monument of my pen, begging intercession for the pardon of my sins, and the perpetual protection of my patrons." He mentions many miracles to have been performed at their shrine and says of a certain woman who had been cured of a palsy by them : " Now she carries her own miracle about with her."

This St Eucherius is the principal witness for the story which has just been related. He was bishop of Lyons during the first half of the fifth century, and wrote down for a Bishop Salvius an account of these martyrs of Agaunum, in whose honour a basilica had been built there towards the end of the previous century, in consequence of a vision of their place of burial vouchsafed to the then bishop of Octodurum, Theodore. Eucherius says he had the story from informants of Isaac, Bishop of Geneva, who, Eucherius thought, was told it by Theodore. It will be noticed that, as related above, the legionaries in their manifesto speak of refusing to spill the blood of innocent Christians. This protest was doubtless composed by St Eucherius himself, who states that they were killed for refusing to undertake the massacre of Christians and does not mention the revolting Bagaudae ; other accounts of the martyrs say they suffered for not sacrificing. St Maurice and his companions have been the subject of much discussion. That a whole legion was put to death is highly improbable ; Roman imperial generals were not incapable of such a wholesale slaughter, but the circumstances of the time and the lack of early evidence of an entirely satisfactory sort are all against it. Alban Butler notes with pain that " the truth of this history is attacked by some Protestant historians ", but it has been questioned by Catholic scholars as well, and some have even gone so far as to reject the whole of it as a fabrication. But it seems clear that the martyrdom at Agaunum of St Maurice and his companions is an historical fact : what was the number of men involved is another matter ; in the course of time a squad could easily be exaggerated into a legion.

The church built at Agaunum by St Theodore of Octodurum later became the centre of an abbey, which was the first in the West to maintain the Divine Office continually by day and by night by means of a cycle of choirs. This monastery came into the hands of the canons regular, and is now an abbey -nullius. Relics of the martyrs are preserved here in a sixth-century reliquary, but veneration of the Theban Legion has spread with other relics far beyond the borders of Switzerland. They are commemorated in the liturgy of the whole Western church, and St Maurice is patron of Savoy and Sardinia and of several towns, as well as of infantry soldiers, sword-smiths, and weavers and dyers.

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