|The Theban Legion, early modern style.|
One of my very closest friends made the observation yesterday that this is pretty much how the armies of fading empires get represented generally, and yes, I think that's completely true, and specifically true when you think of the way that the British army in literature and film, from Kipling all through to any number of movies about British heroes at war.
In fact, the very best example of this sort of thing is the 2010 British movie Centurion, which is basically about the British experience in Iraq, and a direct reimagining of British military ur-paean Bravo Two Zero, only instead of an elite SAS squad trapped in Iraq, it's a group of Roman legionaries trapped on the wrong side of Hardrian's Wall.
|Michael Fassbender in Centurion.|
Of course, one of the big problems with empires with pervasive myths of military heroism is that empires change, and sometimes the myths get left behind. And while the myth of the can-do hero, stuck behind enemy lines and vastly outnumbered who wins through with British pluck and discipline (compare Bravo Two Zero and Zulu) has persisted, its character has changed.
So it was with Rome, and of course the biggest change the Roman Empire experienced in terms of its mythology was the adoption of Christianity as its state religion. Now, although the Christian faith had, along with its culture of civil disobedience, a tradition of pacifism, both quickly fell by the wayside. Christianity won through an act of military violence, after all. On the other hand, the tradition of not bowing to civil authorities remained deeply problematic in getting the various strands of the faith on side – and remained also something that the faith itself would consistently praise, even when the religious hierarchy itself was enforcing the will of state. And for a while the place of the Christian soldier was ambivalent in Christian thinking. In the New Testament Letter to the Ephesians, it says this:
Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.The important thing is that the military metaphor has effect because its intended audience are not soliders. They're not expected to be. They're taking up the supposed Full Armour of God instead of taking up actual arms, and in the early Christian writing that follows this, it is a constant that you take up God's armaments because you're not taking up, you know, army armaments.
Ephesians 6: 11-17 (NRSV)
In the fourth century, the most famous soldier-turned-saint was St Martin of Tours. While a soldier, he divided his cloak to clothe a beggar and saw a vision of Christ, but early on in his career he became, as a Christian, a conscientious objector.
He said to Caesar (Julian), I have fought for you. Let me now be a soldier of God. Anyone who follows you can receive your bonus, but it's not right for me to fight.So, we're talking nearly 50 years after Constantine here, this incident happening sometime shortly before 360CE. And here, it's still problematic for a convinced Christian to be a soldier. And this is where the stories place themselves.
Sulpicius Severus, Life of St Martin 4
So. What then to make of the Theban Legion?
The earliest written story about the Theban Legion, Passio Agaunensium Martyrum (The Passion of the Martyrs of Agaunum) is by a prolific writer, Eucherius, Bishop of Lyons (later St. Eucherius), and it comes from some time not long before 450CE. There isn't a freely available English translation I know about, so this is all me.
The story is actually set during the early reign of Maximian the Tetrarch, so in the late 280s. Maximian, appointed Augustus of the West, is beginning (so the story says) to embark on a wholesale persecution of Christians.
He enlists his army to do it. Some of them won't.
Because Maximian, who I've already mentioned, was mad with cruelty, lust, sadism and any number of other vices, he was dedicated to violating the religion of decent people, and doing things that profaned God in Heaven. He turned his impiety towards extinguishing the name of Christ. He sent scattered bands of soldiers everywhere, looking for anyone who dared to worship the True God, either to force them to recant, or to arrest and kill them...Maximian comes himself to confront the mutiny. Eucherius takes great care to place the story in Agaunum, an alpine settlement (that'll matter in a minute, so hold that thought), and after a short digression about geography and terrain, he tells how Maximian orders the legion to be decimated – that is, for one tenth of them to be executed.
There was a legion of soldiers in the army about then who were called the Thebans. They were designated a legion but were in fact six thousand, six hundred men at arms. They had come from the East to support Maximian. They were men tireless in conflict and oustanding in their courage, but they were even more notable due to their faith, for they fought with the trust of the Emperor, but they gave their devotion to Christ. The men-at-arms never forgot the line from the Evangelist, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."
And so it was that along with the other troops they were commanded to drag crowds of Christians from their homes. But they alone dared to make a stand against the cruelty of this command, and so they said that they would not obey the order.
Eucherius, Passio Agaunensium Martyrum 2 (PL 50: 827-828)
This done, he tells them to do it again.
He has another one-tenth of the legion killed, and commands them a third time.
This time, an officer named Maurice and another named Candidus stand up and declare at some length who they are, what they believe, and crucially that they are proud and faithful soldiers save for this one thing.
Maximian is unconvinced, and has the lot of them killed. They accept their martyrdom without fighting, and they die.
As the executioners are stripping the bodies of their arms and armour, an army veteran called Victor arrives in the camp.
(Victor) unexpectedly came across the men who, in fine mood, were looting the bodies of those they had martyred. They offered that he join them, and freely explained what they had been ordered to do. Cursing the celebrants and the celebration alike, he refused. They asked him if he was a Christian, and he said he had always been a Christian and always would be. So they charged him and killed him too, in the same place as the other martyrs.So Victor, Candidus and especially Maurice are the martyrs, along with over six thousand nameless men; Eucherius makes it clear that the other men's names are lost (but they're "written in the Book of Life"). After they die, they're seen in visions. There's a healing. They are sainted.
Eucherius, Passio Agaunensium Martyrum 6 (PL 50: 831)
This is a really popular story. It's a watershed story, the first time in Christian literature that soldiers can be soldiers, the mythical adjunct to the ethical stand of Augustine's City of God, where the philosophy of Just War is espoused in the light of a Christian Empire.
So popular in fact that Agaunum was renamed according to its most famous inhabitant, and is now St Maurice.
But, and this is going to piss off the Catholic readers and I'm sorry about that, there was no Theban Legion. Even if you take as read the idea that an entire Egyptian Legion might convert en masse, and then be martyred, the persecutions didn't start until 301, and there's no real evidence that Maximian ever had a Legion stationed there, let alone killed the lot of them. It can't have happened. The logic of the whole story doesn't work.
But the meaning of it, the myth, there's the thing. Suddenly a Christian Empire could have Christian soldiers. The last plank of paganism – and the army had been host to its own religions for hundred of years, the Undefeated Sun, the cult of Mithras – could be now Christian as a whole and had its own Christian mythology.
Vegetius gave us a perfect imperial army of the past. Eucherius gave us a Christian army for the middle ages. Christus Tandem Victor.