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Theban Legion |
The Christian invasion of the army

Theban Legion is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 107, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Though Christ was the ‘Prince of Peace,’ he had a curious appeal to Roman soldiers, and when one whole Legion went over to him, the emperor ordered them slaughtered

Theban Legion - The Christian invasion of the army

Theban Legion - The Christian invasion of the army
It must have seemed to the emperor Maximian that the Christians had infested each and every corner of his household and empire. Here, one of his best men, the Praetorian Victor, a loyal and dedicated servant of the Empire, spouts unyielding faith in that scoundrel the Christ. No amount of argument, threat or enticement sways the man, and in the end Maximian orders Victor’s execution.

Both in the ancient world and the modern, Jesus Christ was known as a man of peace, one who refused to resist his arrest and Crucifixion and who forbade his followers to take up arms on his behalf. Repeatedly, some Christians have included nonresistance among the obligations of their discipleship. Modern-day secular pacifists have also claimed him as one of their own. Yet he never condemned the Roman soldiery, so hated by many of his compatriots, and his first recorded Gentile convert was a centurion, for whom he had only words of praise.1 Indeed, the Prince of Peace has always had soldiers among his adherents, and never was this clearer than in the Roman Empire of the third and fourth centuries, when a Christian in the legions had as much to fear from his own comrades as from any barbarian warriors.

The Roman army’s success over its more numerous barbaric enemies depended in no small measure on a carefully cultivated group cohesiveness, firmly rooted in communal religious rites and loyalty oaths. For the Romans, any refusal to participate endangered the very survival of the military system and was punishable by death.

So found Victor, a grizzled North African member of Emperor Maximian’s own Praetorian or palace guard, stationed in the western empire’s capital of Milan. When Victor’s Christian beliefs became known, the emperor, an old soldier himself promoted from the ranks, gave him six days in prison without food or water to consider how best “you can escape these terrible tortures which will viciously rip you unless you offer sacrifice.” On the seventh day, the unrelenting Victor was stretched upon the rack “beyond the third mark,” but continued to denounce the Roman deities as demons.

Maximian offered him a promotion, gold and property. Victor responded, “I will not sacrifice to the gods, but I offer myself as a sacrifice of praise to God.” After another respite, Victor again defied the emperor, saying, “Do what you will, for I know that he who fights on my behalf is stronger than you.” More tortures followed, but the once-favored bodyguard endured them resolutely.

Tales of the fantastic later accumulated around him. The emperor orders him covered in molten lead. Victor prays for deliverance and the lead cools without harming him. Finally, he is beheaded, and his body left in the forest to be eaten by animals, perhaps lest it become an object of veneration. That plan fails, too. When soldiers return to the site, they find his corpse undamaged and protected by two beasts. Perhaps fearful of consternation among his troops, the emperor permits Victor’s body to be buried.

Not only individual soldiers, but an entire legion paid the supreme price under Maximian. This was the Theban Legion, whose story was recounted first by Eucherius, bishop of Lyon, in about 460. Originating, like Victor, in North Africa, the unit had been brought to Europe and stationed in the Swiss Alps. The entire 6,600 complement were Coptic Christians who refused to participate in persecuting their brothers in the faith, according to one account, or in pagan sacrifices, according to another.

Maximian promptly ordered the legion decimated–that is, every tenth man removed from the ranks and beheaded while his comrades looked on. The command was carried out on the unresisting troops by other units. But the Africans did not waver in their conviction. Their commander, Maurice, went among his soldiers, encouraging each one to follow the example set by their fellows–all the way to heaven, if that was God’s will.

The legionaries consequently sent the emperor a message that they would never submit to his unlawful commands, effectively anticipating later church doctrine: “We are your soldiers, O emperor, but God’s servants. . . . We have always fought for justice, piety, and the welfare of the innocent. There is no way we can follow an emperor in this, a command for us to deny God our Father, especially since our Father is your God and Father, whether you like it or not.” Despairing, Maximian had the entire legion slaughtered, even dispatching execution squads to hunt down members temporarily stationed elsewhere.

Eucherius’s account of the Theban Legion also relates, with undoubted relish, the fate of this “savage tyrant” Maximian: “When he contrived the death of his son-in-law Constantine, who was then in power, by means of an ambush, his trickery was discovered, he was captured at Marseille, and was strangled not long afterwards. Punished in this most shameful way, he ended his wicked life with a fitting death.”

Another story, that of Marinus, a soldier stationed in Caesarea in Palestine, pinpoints the twin challenges for the Christian soldier of Rome: he faced not only the army religion, but a culture of betrayal that surely undermined the comradeship crucial to fighting units. For Marinus managed to serve loyally and with distinction until singled out for promotion. About to be made a centurion, he was exposed as a Christian by a rival. He refused to recant and was executed.

Informing on one’s fellows was apparently a purchased service among civilians. The Romans recognized informers, or delatores, as near-professionals, who were paid out of the confiscated estate of those convicted on their word (see earlier volume, A Pinch of Incense, chapter 3).

Andrew, a successful general in Syria, also fell afoul of jealousy. After he and a hand-picked cadre of co-believers repelled an invading force of Persians, he and his troops became the darlings of the court of the Syrian governor, Antiochus–until rivals exposed them as Christians. They were tortured but maintained their faith. Because their defiance had drawn too much negative publicity, they were released; Andrew fled, only to be hunted down and slain, after once more refusing to sacrifice to the gods.

On the other hand, Menas, a senior centurion stationed in Egypt, indicted himself. When he first heard the edict from Emperor Diocletian ordering the persecution of Christians, he tore off his badges of office and fled to the wilderness. After a period of meditation, he reappeared in the middle of a stadium during a horse race and professed his faith. Beaten, burned, dragged over a field of iron spikes while his men begged him to recant his faith, he remained steadfast until beheaded.

Likewise another centurion, Marcellus, publicly renounced the symbols of his office upon baptism, declaring that as a Christian, “it is not proper to engage in earthly military service.” Another who might better be classified a conscientious objector, but is nonetheless counted among the military martyrs, is the Spaniard Maximian of Tebessa, beheaded in 295. “It is not permitted to me to serve in the army. I am a Christian,” he declared, after refusing conscription. It cost him his life.

And then there was Callistratus, a common legionary whose great-grandfather was said to have witnessed Jesus’ ministry firsthand and been converted at the first Pentecost. After being discovered at worship, Callistratus endured with such courage several ingenious tortures and a botched execution by drowning, that he converted forty-nine of his comrades. His teachings on Christianity, delivered to them in prison, survive to this day as The Armenian Apologies. All fifty were ultimately beheaded.

Sebastian’s courage under fire apparently had a similar result. According to old stories that historians now doubt, his efforts to encourage several Christians imprisoned in Rome for their faith led to the conversion of the jailer and sixteen prisoners, as well as the city’s governor. Made a captain of the Praetorians, Sebastian persisted in his activities until his discovery. He too was tortured, and after surviving an initial execution attempt at the hands of African archers, he was beaten to death.

How did this many soldiers come to be Christian when the risks were so manifest and the activity seemingly in violation of fundamental Christian teaching? Had not Jesus himself enjoined his followers to love their enemies and turn the other cheek, and ordered Peter to put down his sword? Had not the revered Tertullian at the end of the second century prohibited the faithful from the military life? “The Lord,” he had written, “in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”

However, Tertullian’s opposition to soldiering was based not on pacifism, but on the Roman army’s heavy reliance on capital punishment and its pervasive idolatry. Hardly a day passed in the communal life of the legion that did not see a sacrifice of a cow or ox to some member of Rome’s tangled pantheon. Moreover, Roman soldiers were required to worship each legion’s eagle insignia, climaxing with a religious festival each May.

A few decades after Tertullian, Origen repeated the injunctions against Christians in the military, while contending that the emperor had a duty to take up arms in defense of a righteous cause. Though Origen still wanted Christians exempted from military service, he had planted seeds that would blossom in the late fourth century with the just war doctrine of St. Augustine.

What Augustine articulated, many Christians had already worked out for themselves, joining the legions because they saw the Roman Empire, its peace, its order, and its lawfulness, as an institution worth defending with their lives, despite its unpredictable descents into terrifying persecution and apparently idolatrous ceremonies. For beyond its frontiers, every citizen well knew, lay something far worse: savage hordes, murderous, rapacious, destructive, pagan and anarchic. The legions held them at bay and preserved the Christians’ beloved families and church communities no less than their unbelieving neighbors.

Just as Christian values concerning personal rectitude appealed to the better sort of Romans, so too the army’s values of loyalty and fortitude in defense of civilization and against violence must have attracted Christians. Surely, many Christians must have reasoned, service with the legions could be honorable.

This is the end of the Theban Legion category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 107, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Theban Legion from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at