The Theban Martyrs (The Martyrs of Agaunum)
Guest blog post by John "Barnie" Barnes, Summerville, SC
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was, at one time, a very well known work among Christians. Sadly, this time seems to have passed into the night. John Foxe (1517-1587) published his initial work in 1563 which detailed the torment and savagery of the Christian persecutions from the 12 Disciples, to the early Church and right on up to his own era. If you have never read this classic you can catch it online, just prepare yourself for some very graphic scenes.
One of the hundreds of accounts of persecution and martyrdom described by Foxe involved a Roman Legion known in history as “The Theban Legion”. These legionnaires were all recruited from northern Egypt and were stationed near the city of Thebias with a standard compliment of 6,600 men. The distinguishing characteristic of this legion was that they were, to a man, Egyptian Coptic Christians. (Coptic has to do with the ancient dialect of Egypt)
In the preceding decades Christianity had been spreading rapidly in Egypt. This became an increasing threat to Imperial Rome and several edicts were issued to suppress this spread. The Edict of 250 A.D. decreed that all citizens must at all times carry with them documentation that they had sacrificed to the gods. Ponder that! Those who refused to comply became subject to unprecedented torture and savage persecution. It was in this setting that the Theban Legion served Imperial Rome as a tested and formidable fighting unit.
In the year 286 the Theban Legion was ordered to Gaul by Emperor Maximian to suppress a rebellion there. The legion set sail from Egypt, landed in Italy and marched across the Alps into Gaul under the command of Mauritius and ably assisted by Candidus and Exupernis. Upon arrival in Gaul they joined the Emperor and other Roman forces already assembled. This is where the Foxe’s Book of Martyrs account begins.
The Emperor Maximian issued an order in September 286 that the whole army should join in sacrifices to the Roman gods. At the same time they would take an oath of allegiance to assist in the ‘extirpation’ of Christianity in Gaul. Upon hearing these orders the Theban Legion refused to comply, withdrew and encamped near Agaunum.
Maximian, upon hearing of this action, became enraged and ordered the decimation of the Theban Legion. This meant that every tenth man would be ‘put to the sword’. The names of legionnaires were placed in each centurion’s helmet and 660 names were drawn. After embracing their comrades, those whose names were drawn were then put to the sword by other Roman forces.
Again the Theban Legion, to the man, refused to comply with the Emperor’s order to make sacrifices to the Roman gods and comply with the edict. This further enraged Maximian who then ordered a second decimation that included about 600 men. At this point, the blood of over 1,260 men soaked the ground of the legion’s encampment.
Mauritius, after calling the legion’s attention to the hundreds of faithful, fellow soldiers who had already been martyred, sent this reply to Maximian:
“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, (and) you cannot place any confidence in our second oath if we violate 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 honor. 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.”
Perhaps some may have thought this loyal remonstrance would have changed and softened Maximian’s thinking. However, it had a contrary effect in than the Emperor became even more enraged at the unity and perseverance of the Theban Legion. Accordingly, on September 22, 286, Maximian ordered that the entire legion be put to the sword.
And so the order was carried out with many of the legionnaires presenting their necks to the sword of fellow Roman soldiers. It was said that in the process many Roman soldiers became converted to a belief in the God that their fellow legionnaires were so willing to surrender their very life for.
Over the years I have read many inspirational stories about the sacrifices made by Christians in their faithful service to God. It has certainly not been intentional, but many of these accounts have been forgotten along the way. Perhaps you have had a similar experience. I came upon the story of the Theban Legion many years ago and I have never been able to forget the details of this incredible event. Perhaps you will have a similar experience.
What is our response to be (this year) to this event of some 1727 years ago? We have such touchy feely/seeker friendly doctrines today in the American Church that any attempt to connect the Theban Legion to them might cause mass fainting or even a mass exodus in many congregations. And yet there is the stark reality that Egyptian Coptic Christians, surely Theban Legion descendants, continue to experience great persecution at the hands of Islamic extremist. Just witness the news out of Egypt regarding the Muslim Brotherhood’s actions!
I believe our response must be to acknowledge, honor, and ‘rejoice’ over our Brothers’ of the Theban Legion and their intrepid faith. This would simply mimic Mauritius actions upon being an eye witness to the sacrifice of 1260 of his own dear soldiers. Let’s do it!
I have found Hebrews 12 a good place to encamp while considering the courage, faith and ‘joy’ of the Theban Legion and reflecting upon their sacrificial service to God and to man. We can rejoice in the reality of God’s tapestry that so carefully weaves us into the testimony of these warriors, The Martyrs of Agaunum, and be inspired by the exemplary standard they have set before us.
There is one Body, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all. -Apostle Paul
22 August 2013