Monday, September 22, 2008

September 22 - Maurice and the Theban Legion, Martyrs, Soldiers, Radicals

Maurice had accompanied his men to the place where the battle was soon to be held. His men were the Theban Legion of the Roman Army. The legion was comprised of almost entirely Christians from Northern Egypt by this point. Over the years, the life and words of the Christian soldiers had an influence on their companions in arms and many conversions were reported as the days and battles wore on. They had now been called to battle to put down a peasant revolt. The peasants had grown tired of being oppressed and abused by the Roman Empire and had begun to resist them. These were known as the bagaudae. These were the reason that the Theban legion (all 6,600 of them) had been called to Gaul.

When they arrived, they discovered two things that made them balk: (1) they were being asked to make war on peasants, and (2) they were asked to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods on the night before battle. Maurice and his legion resisted both of these requests. They continued to proclaim their faith and refuse to sacrifice even as they were threatened and coerced. Finally, the Emperor ordered the decimation of the legion. This meant that all 6,600 men were lined up and every tenth soldier was murdered. 660 men died because they refused to comply with the Emperor's orders. The remaining 5,940 men were asked again if they would make a sacrifice and spare their own lives. When the legion refused, they were decimated again. 594 more men died because they refused to submit their lives and wills to the Emperor. As they were decimated, some of the men tasked with executing them were converted by the Christians' nonviolent resistance. Even as they held weapons, they allowed themselves to be killed. Each murder made a strong statement about the inability of the Empire ever to win a single heart and will. Some were converted because, in the midst of death, they had seen true life.

The remaining 5,346 were given another chance to make sacrifice and appease the Empire. As they stood among the dead bodies of 1,254 people who had already made the sacrifice of their life for their soul, they refused again. Maurice offered some words to his superiors:
"We are your soldiers, but we 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 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....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 honor. Neither this nor any other provocation has tempted us to revolt. We have arms in our hands, but we do not resist because we could rather die innocent than live by any sin."
After this, the Emperor ordered the slaughter of the remaining 5,346 soldiers. They stood still and allowed their executioners to take their lives. Though it cost them their lives, they refused to sin. Though it cost them their lives, they maintained the Faith that held them to a higher calling than the Empire. Their oath to God held them stronger than any other and they laid down their lives in the proclamation of their faith and hope in God.

2 comments:

Tom Arthur said...

Once again I'm amazed at this story. But I'm left with one serious question about Maruice and the Theban Legion: what were they doing in the army to begin with? If they were willing to die and not sin by fighting back at the end, why were they not willing to do so at the beginning when they were recruited (or were they coerced into "service")?

JHearne said...

Good question.

Some accounts of the story emphasize that they were refusing to sacrifice to Roman gods before the battle and this created the conflict.

Others suggest that their disagreement stemmed from slaughtering non-combatants.

The question you raise bothers me given my non-violent stance but apparently it didn't bother the Theban Legion.