A traveler 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 impious Emperor Maximian (285-305 AD).
The story of these martyrs, commonly known as the Theban Legion (Alkateeba alTeebia or Alkateeba al-sa'eedia) has been preserved for us by Saint Eucher, the bishop of Lyons, who died in 494 AD. The bishop starts the account of the martyrdom of these valiant soldiers by the following introduction: "Here is the story of the passion of the holly Martyrs who have made Aguanum illustrious with their blood. It is in honour of this heroic martyrdom that we narrate with our pen the order of events as it came to our ears. We often hear, do we not, a particular locality or city is held in high honour because of one single martyr who died there, and quite rightly, because in each case the saint gave his precious soul to the most high God. How much more should this sacred place, Aguanum, be reverenced, where so many thousands of martyrs have been slain, with the sword, for the sake of Christ."
Under "Maximian", who was an Emperor of the Roman Commonwealth (Empire) with Diocletian as his colleague, an uprising of the Gauls known as "Bagaude" forced Maximian to march against them with an army of which one unit was the Thebian Legion composed of 6600 men. This unit had been recruited from upper Egypt and consisted entirely of Christians. 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 the revolt was quelled, the Emperor Maximian issued an order that the whole army should join offering sacrifices for the Roman gods for the success of their mission. The order included killing Christians (probably as a sacrifice to the Roman gods). Only the Thebian Legion dared to refuse to comply with the orders. The legion withdrew itself, encamped near Aguanum and refused to take part in these rites.
Maximian was then resting in a near-by place called Octudurum. When these news came to him , 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. A second "decimation" was ordered unless the men obeyed the order given but their was a great shout through the legion camp: they all declared that they would never allow themselves to carry out such a sacrilegious order. They had always the horror of idolatry, they had been brought up as christians and were instructed in the One Eternal God and were ready to suffer extreme penalties rather than do any thing contrary to their religion.
When Maximian heard these news, he got angrier than ever. Like a savage beast, he ordered the second decimation to be carried out, intending that the remainder should be compelled to do what they hitherto refused. Yet they still maintained their resolve. After the second decimation, Maximian warned the remainder of the Theban legion that it was of no use for them to trust in their number, for if they persisted in their disobedience, not a man among them would be able to escape death.
The greatest mainstay of their faith in this crisis was undoubtedly their captain Maurice, with his lieutenants Candid, the first commanding officer, and "Exuperius" the "Compidoctor". He fired the hearts of the soldiers with the fervor by his encouragement. Maurice, calling attention to the example of their faithful fellow soldiers, already martyrs, persuaded them all be be ready to die in their turn for the sake of their baptismal vow (The promise one makes at his baptismal to renounce satan and his abominable service and to worship only God). He reminded them of their comrades who had gone to heaven before them. At his words, a glorious eagerness for martyrdom burned in the hearts of those most blessed men.
Fired thus by the lead of their officers, the Theban legion sent to Maximian (who was
still enraged) 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 provocation 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 realized that these men were obstinately determined to remain in their Christian faith, and he despaired of being able to turn them from their constancy. 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. They were all slain with the sword. They never resisted in any way. Putting aside their weapons, they offered their necks to the executioners. Neither their numbers nor the strength of arms tempted them to uphold the justice of their cause by force.
They kept just one thing in their minds, that they were bearing witness to him who was lead to death without protest, and who, like a lamb, opened not his mouth; but that now,they them selves, sheep in the Lord's flock, were to be massacred as it by ravaging wolves. Thus, by the savage cruelty of this tyrant, that fellowship of the saints 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.
Not all the members of the legion were at Aguanum at the time of the massacre. Others were posted along the military highway linking Switzerland with Germany and Italy. These were progressively and methodically martyred wherever they were found. Some of the most celebrated saints who were martyred are:
The following five Saints were martyred at Aguanum place (also this city is known now as Saint Maurice en Valais), along with the rest of their cohort.. - Saint Maurice
- Saint Exuperius
- Saint Candid
- Saint Innocent
- Saint Vitalis
The following two Saints were found at Solothurn along with 66 others:
- Saint Ursus
- Saint Victor
In Zurich, the following Saints were martyred:
- Saint Felix
- Saint Regula
- Saint Exuperantius
- Saint Verena of Zurzach.
The following saint was martyred in Bergamo:
- Saint Alexander
The following saints were martyred in Turino:
- Saint Octavious
- Saint Adventor
- Saint Sotutor
The following saint was martyred in Piacenza:
- Saint Antonius of Piancenza
The following saints were martyred in the Cottian Alps: - Saint Constantius
- Saint Alverius
- Saint Sabastianus
- Saint Magius.
The following saints were martyred in Pinerolo:
- Saint Maurelius
- Saint Georgius
- Saint Tiberius
The following saints were martyred in Milano:
- Saint Maximius
- Saint Cassius
- Saint Secundus
- Saint Severinus
- Saint Licinius
The following saint was martyred in Ventimilia among many others:
- Saint Secundus of Ventimilia
The following saints were martyred in Terier along with many others of their comrades:
- Saint Tyrsus
- Saint Palmatius
- Saint Bonifatius
The following two saints were martyred in Bonn among many others in their cohort:
- Saint Cassius
- Saint Florentius
The following saint was martyred along with 318 others in Cologne:
- Saint Gereon
The following two saints were martyred along with 330 others in Xanten:
- Saint Victor
- Saint Mallosius
During their martyrdom, numerous miracles happened, which undoubtedly largely contributed to the massive conversion of the inhabitants of these regions to Christianity. In Zurich for instance, the three beheaded saints Felix, Regula and Exuperantius miraculously rose, carried their heads on their own hands, walked to the top of a hill, where they knelt, prayed and at last lay down. On the same spot, a large cathedral was later erected. The three saints carrying their heads on their hands appear on the coat of arms and seal of Zurich until today.
Saints Victor, Orsus and their comrads were barbarously tortured by Hirtacus, the roman governor of Solothurn. During this torture, several miracles occurred, e.g. the shackles suddenly broke open, the fire was instantaneously extinguished, etc. The lookers-on were thus filled with wonder and began to admire the Theban legionaires, upon which the furious Hirtacus ordered their immediate beheading. Without the slightest resistance they offered the executors their necks. The bodies of the beheaded Saints then shown in glaring brightness. The bodies of the Saints which were thrown in the river Aar, advanced the bank, stepped out, walked heads on hands, then knelt and prayed at the spot where the Basilica of St. Peter later arose.
The bodies of the martyrs of Aguanum were discovered and identified by Saint Theodore the Bishop of Octudurm, who was in office at 350 AD. He built a Basilica in their honour at Aguanum, the remains of which are visible untill now. This later became the center of a monastery built about the year 515 AD on the land donated by King Sigismund of Burgundy.
Saint Eucher mentions that in his time (he died 494 AD), many came diverse provinces of the empire devoutly to honour these Saints, and to offer presents of gold, silver and other things. He mentions that many miracles were performed at their shrine such as casting out of devils and other kinds of healing "which the might of the lord works there everyday through the intercession of His saints."
In the middle ages Saint Maurice was the patron saint of several of the roman dynasties of Europe, and later on of the Holy Roman emperors. In 926, Henry I (919-936 AD), even ceded the present Swiss Canton (province) of Aargua in return of the lance of the saints. Some emperors were also anointed before the Altar of saint Maurice in saint Peter's Cathedral in Rome. The sword of Saint Maurice, was last used in the coronation of the Austrian Emperor Charles as King of Hungary in 1916.
Kings, noblemen, and church leaders vied to obtain small portions of the relics of the saints in order to build churches in their honour. The famous King Charlemangne offered the monastery one of the treasured thorns that came from the crown of thorns of our Savior in return for a small portion of the sacred relics. He later built a church in honour of the martyrs inside the court of his palace.
Saint Maurice has always been one of the most popular saints in Western Europe, with over 650 foundations in his name in France alone. Five cathedrals, innumerable churches, chapels and alters are consecrated in his name all over Europe. Aguanum (Saint Maurice en Valais) has always remained the main focus of veneration of the Thebans and a significant pilgrimage resort. In the monastery that bears his name there, the monks perform a special devotion to the saints every day, and celebrate their feast on September 22 of each year. An all night vigil, on the night before the feast is attended by nearly 1000 people. On the feast day, they carry in procession the relics of the martyrs in the ancient silver caskets. Over seventy towns bear the name of Saint Maurice.
In the Monastery carrying his name in Switzerland, the vigil "Tasbeha" has been chanted continuously (24 hours a day) without stopping for more than 500 years now.
Saint Maurice and the Theban Legion in the Coptic Tradition:
There is no entry in the Coptic Synxarion for these saints, neither is their any Coptic Church concecrated in their names. The only altar concecrated in their names. As of the writing of this article (September 1992), the only altar concecrated in the name of saint Maurice is found in the Church of the Virgin Mary and Saint Athanasius in Mississauga, Canada. There is an icon depicting the martyrdom of saint Maurice and Saint Mary's Coptic Orthodox church in Cambridge, Canada.
In 1991, The Christian world celebrated the seventeenth centennial of the martyrdom of these saints. H.H. Pope Shenouda delegated His Grace Bishop Serapion to represent the Coptic Church in these celebrations. On that occasion parts of the relics of Saint Maurice, St. Cassius and St. Florentius were returned to the Coptic Church.
1) Samir F. Girgis, PhD, "The Theban Legion in Switzerland".
2) Samir F. Girgis, PhD, "The significant contribution of the Copts to the early evangelization of Switzerland ".
3) Samir F. Girgis, PhD, "A short introduction to the Coptic orthodox Church of Alexandria.
4) J.R.Fox: "The treasure at Saint Maurice of Aguanum".
5) L'Abbaye Saint Muarice en Valais: A place called Saint Maurice.
6) Thurston & Attwater: Butler's lives of the Saints.