Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Maurice and His Companions, Martyrs

[The Theban Legion]Article

A.D. 286

The Emperor Carus, who had impiously assumed the title of a god, being killed by lightning, and his son Numerianus Augustus being cut off by the treachery of his uncle Aper, Dioclesian, a man of low birth, was saluted emperor by the army which he then commanded in the East, on the 17th of September, 284. He defeated and slew Carinus, the second debauched son of Carus, the year following, in Mæsia, and after this victory took the haughty name of Jovius from Jupiter, and creating Maximian Cæsar, allotted to him the care and defence of the West. The Bagaudæ, a people consisting chiefly of peasants in Gaul, who had been attached to the interest of Carinus, took up arms to revenge his death, under two commanders, Amandus and Ælian. Dioclesian ordered Maximian to march against them, and on that occasion declared him Augustus and partner in the empire; and this new emperor assumed the surname of Herculeus, from the god Hercules. In this expedition the most judicious historians place the martyrdom of the Thebean legion. It seems to have received its name from being raised in Thebais or Upper Egypt, a country full of zealous Christians. This legion was entirely composed of such; and Saint Maurice, who seems to have been the first commanding officer who was then with it, might make it a point to admit no others among them.

Dioclesian, in the beginning of his reign, was no enemy to the Christian religion, and employed many who openly professed it, near his own person, and in posts of trust and importance, as Eusebius assures us. Yet even private governors, and the giddy populace were at liberty to indulge the blindest passion and fury against the servants of Christ; and Maximian, on certain extraordinary occasions, stained his progresses with the blood of many martyrs. The Thebean legion was one of those which were sent by Dioclesian out of the East to compose his army for his expedition into Gaul. Maximian in crossing the Alps made a halt with his army some days, that the soldiers might repose themselves in their tedious march, while some detachments filed off towards Triers. They were then arrived at Octodurum, at that time a considerable city on the Rhone, above the lake of Geneva, now a village called Martignac or Martigni in the Valais. Its episcopal see seems to have been transferred to Sion in the sixth century. Here Maximian issued out an order that the whole army should join in offering sacrifice to the gods for the success of their expedition. The Thebean legion hereupon withdrew itself, and encamped near Agaunum, now called Saint Maurice, three leagues from Octodurum. The emperor sent them repeated orders to return to the camp, and join in the sacrifice; and, upon their constant and unanimous refusal, he commanded them to be decimated. Thus every tenth man was put to death, according as the lot fell; the rest exhorting one another all the while to perseverance. After the first decimation, a second was commanded, unless the soldiers obeyed the orders given; but they cried out over their whole camp, that they would rather suffer all extremities than do any thing contrary to their holy religion. They were principally encouraged by three of their general officers, Maurice or Mauricius, Exuperius, and Candidus. Saint Eucherius does not style Saint Mauricius the tribune, but Primicerius, which was the dignity of the first captain, next to that of the tribune or colonel. He calls Exuperius Campiductor or Major, and Candidus the senator of the troops.

The emperor sent forth fresh threats that it was in vain they confided in their multitude; and that if they persisted in their disobedience, not a man among them should escape death. The legion, by the advice of their generous leaders, answered him by a dutiful remonstrance, the substance of which was as follows: “We are your soldiers, but are 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 whilst 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 in 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, should we violate the first. You command us to punish the Christians: behold we are all 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 extremity to which we are reduced, nor any provocation hath tempted us to revolt. We have arms in our hands; but we do not resist, because we had rather die innocent than live by any sin.”

This legion consisted of about six thousand six hundred men, who were all well armed, and might have sold their lives very dear. But they had learned to give to God what is God’s, and to Cæsar what is Cæsar’s, and they showed their courage more in dying than they had ever done in the most hazardous enterprises. Maximian having no hopes of overcoming their constancy, commanded his whole army to surround them, and cut them to pieces. They made no resistance, but, dropping their arms, suffered themselves to be butchered like innocent sheep, without opening their mouths, except mutually to encourage one another; and not one out of so great a number failed in courage to the last. 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 army for their booty, and the soldiers were making merry over them, when Victor, a veteran soldier, who belonged not to that troop, happened to pass by. They invited him to eat with them; but he, detesting their feast, offered to retire. At this the soldiers inquired if he was also a Christian. He answered that he was, and would always continue one: upon which they instantly fell upon him and slew him. Ursus and Victor, two straggling soldiers of this legion, were found at Solodora, now Soleure, and massacred upon the spot. Their relics are still preserved at Soleure. There suffered at Turin, about the same time, SS. Octavius, Adventitius, and Solutor, who are celebrated by Saint Maximus in his sermons, and by Ennodius of Pavia, in his poems. These martyrs were styled by Fortunatus, “The happy legion.” Their festival is mentioned on this day in the Martyrologies of Saint Jerom, Bede, and others. Saint 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.” 1 He mentions many miracles to have been performed at their relics, and says of a certain woman who had been cured of a palsy by them: “Now she carries her own miracle about her.” 2 The foundation of the monastery of Saint Maurice at Agaunum is generally ascribed to King Sigismund in 515; but Mabillon 3 demonstrates it to have been more early, and that Sigismund only repaired and enlarged it.

In the martyrs we learn the character of true fortitude, of which virtue many may form a very false idea. Real valour differs infinitely from that fury, rashness, and inconsiderate contempt of dangers, which the basest passions often inspire. It is founded in motives of duty and virtue; it doth brave and great things, and it beareth injuries and torments; nor this for hope or reward, the desire of honour, or the fear of punishment; but out of a conscience of duty, and to preserve virtue entire. So infinitely more precious is the least part of integrity than all the possessions of this world, and so much does it overbalance all torments, that, rather than suffer it to be lost or impaired in the least point, the good man is ready to venture upon all perils, and behaves amidst them without terror. This foundation of great and heroical performances, this just and rational, this considerate and sedate, this constant, perpetual, and uniform contempt of dangers, and of death in all its shapes, is only derived from the Christian principle. The characters of true virtue go along with it, especially patience, humility, and gentleness. The Christian hero obeys the precepts of loving his enemies, doing good to those who persecute him, bearing wrong, and being ready to give his coat, without repining, to him who would take away his cloak.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Maurice and His Companions, Martyrs”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 23 September 2013. Web. 23 November 2017. <>