The Thunderbolt Legion

Under “Maximinus Daia” also known as Maximian, who was an Emperor of the Roman Commonwealth (Empire) with Diocletian as his colleague (co-Emporer), 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, in the Spring of 285. 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.  Diocletian and Maximian transferred the Theban Legion, among other imperial units, to Gaul in an effort to crush the revolt. Landing near Rome, the Theban Legion marched through northern Italy, across the St. Bernard pass, and encamped near the present-day town of St. Maurice.

The Thebian legion, also known as the “Thunderbolt Legion, or Thundering legion”, was already famous at this time for ferocity  and victory in battle, as well as miracles that were recorded to have occurred in response to prayers of the soldiers.

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. Although these types of offerings were routine, this offering was also tantamount to recognizing the emperor´s claim to divinity.  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 this 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 (Commanding Officer) 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. 

It should be noted that this was a disciplined military unit, that did not shirk from battle or duty, but refused to comply with an order that violated the very principle of their faith.