Today (September 22) is the feast of Saint Maurice, patron of the infantry. I recently had the privilege of attending the induction of a Soldier from my host nation into the order of Saint Maurice. One version of Maurice’s story goes like this:
Saint Maurice was Primicerius of the Theban Legion. In 287 AD it marched in service of the Roman Empire fighting against the revolt in the Berguadae Gauls. His men were composed entirely of Christians recruited from upper Egypt, near the Valley of the Kings. The Legion marched to the Mediterranean Sea, was transported across, and traveled across Italy to an area in Switzerland. Serving under Augustus Maximian Hercules, Maurice was ordered to have his legionnaires offer pagan sacrifices before battle near the Rhone at Martigny. The Theban Legion refused to participate, and also refused to kill innocent civilians in the conduct of their duty, and withdrew to the town of Agaunum. Enraged, Maximian ordered every tenth man killed, yet they still refused. A second time the General ordered Maurice’s men to participate and again they refused. Maurice declared his earnest desire to obey every order lawful in the eyes of God. “We have seen our comrades killed,” came the reply. “Rather than sorrow, we rejoice at the honor done to them.” At this Maximian ordered the butchery of the Thebans and the martyrdom of Saint Maurice.
Like so many stories of old, the historicity of this has been questioned. There was an actual Theban legion in history, but the earliest reference to the Maurice story comes from 100-150 years after the events it describes. While some Christians did serve within the Roman legions, a legion composed entirely of Christians would have been highly unusual in the late 3d century.
While it’s impossible to prove the story of Maurice is historical in all its details, Christians serving in the Roman army did face persecution and death. Maurice remains a saint within the Roman Catholic canon. Whether Maurice is historical or legendary – or a mixture of both – his story encapsulates soldierly ideals: honor, courage, faithfulness to one’s beliefs and respect for the innocent. Such honorable behavior may or may not have existed in the 3d century Theban legion. By the late 4th century, after Christianity became the religion of the the empire, at least some members of society expected it of soldiers, and that’s why the story was told.