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Twelfth Legion |
The Christians of the imperiled Twelfth Legion prayed, and then…

Twelfth Legion is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 130, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The Twelfth was said to be riddled with Christians–was the storm that saved them sent by God? They called it a miracle, but officialdom could hardly agree

Twelfth Legion - The Christians of the imperiled Twelfth Legion prayed, and then...

Twelfth Legion - The Christians of the imperiled Twelfth Legion prayed, and then...
Surrounded by their enemies, exhausted and thirsty, soldiers of the Twelfth Legion are revived by a sudden thunderstorm. When the case was made that the prayers of the significant number of Christians in the ranks of the Twelfth had brought on the storm and subsequently routed the barbarians, Marcus scoffed and attributed the miracle, if it were one, to the god Hermes, to whom he erected a commemorative temple.

Wounded and exhausted, the Roman soldiers had run out of water after a long and unsuccessful campaign. The Germanic barbarians known as the Quadi vastly outnumbered and surrounded them. So confident of victory were the Quadi that they stopped fighting altogether, posting guards to watch the Romans collapse in the withering heat.

Parched with thirst, too weak to fight, unable to retreat, the Romans stood unmoving as the sun beat down upon them.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, dark clouds formed above the battlefield, and a cool, heavy rain showered down upon them. At the same time, thunder, hailstones, and lightning over the Quadi encampment filled the barbarians with terror. As the downpour continued, the Romans turned their faces upwards and drank eagerly, then caught more water in their helmets and shields and gave it to their horses to drink. The confused and frightened Quadi were shortly overrun by the revived Romans.

That much is supported as fact by a wide array of historical evidence. A controversy, however, surrounds the further question of why it happened. The legion involved was the Twelfth, the same unit that had been humiliated in a.d. 66 during the early stages of the Jewish War (Chapter 9, The Veil Is Torn, this series). In the 106 years that had elapsed since that event, the Twelfth had been moved north to the German frontier, and included in its ranks a notable number of Christians. These, when all else seemed lost, had prayed to God to save the legion, it was said. The thunderstorm followed. It was a miracle, according to the Christians.

Historians recording the events of the storm include the pagan Cassius Dio and the Christians Eusebius, Apollinarius, and Tertullian. What has been repeatedly questioned over the centuries, however, is the miraculous element. Was the rescuing storm God’s answer to urgent battlefield prayers sent up by the Twelfth’s Christians? By the Christian accounts, the emperor Marcus Aurelius himself, acknowledging the miracle that had won the day for his army, decreed that thenceforth, the praying soldiers would be known as the “Thundering Legion” and that persecuting the Christians within his empire would be forbidden.

Marcus’s supposed gratitude and his change of heart toward the Christians are recorded in a letter he was said to have written to the Senate. Its text is appended to Justin’s work known as his First Apology. However, historians and scholars generally agree that the letter is fanciful, even a forgery. The truth is that Christians continued to be cruelly persecuted after the Roman victory, and while Marcus recognized that something quite unusual had occurred on the battlefield, if he gave credit to any higher power, it was to a god of the Romans.

The event likely occurred in 172. Roman coins minted in 173 indicate that Marcus erected a temple to the god Hermes in gratitude. The celebrated Column of Aurelius, built to commemorate Marcus’s victories and still standing in Rome in the twenty-first century, depicts the rainfall that won the battle, pouring from the beard of a grim, half-human deity, perhaps Hermes or the Egyptian god Thoth-Shou.

To those arguments against the Christian view of the providential storm, John Henry Newman, the nineteenth-century Roman Catholic cardinal and scholar, offered a reasoned response in his essay, The Miracles of Early Ecclesiastical History. That the unexpected happened on the battlefield is clear, Newman writes–after all, even Marcus recognized its unusual nature, as is recorded on his column. “Under these circumstances, I do not see what remains to be proved. Here is an army in extreme jeopardy, with Christians in it; the enemy is destroyed and they are delivered. And Apollinarius, Tertullian, and Eusebius attest that these Christians in the army prayed, and that the deliverance was felt at the time to be an answer to their prayers; what remains, but to accept their statement?” Pagans may have accounted for the event “by referring it to their own divinities,” but that puts no one else under any obligation to take “their hypothetical explanation of it.”

He concedes that the events in the battle may not have been miracles “in the philosophical sense of the word.” But “the common sense of mankind will call them miraculous; for by a miracle, whatever be its formal definition, is popularly meant an event which impresses upon the mind the immediate presence of the Moral Governor of the world. He may sometimes act through nature, sometimes beyond or against it, but those who admit the fact of such interferences will have little difficulty in admitting also their strictly miraculous character, if the circumstances of the case require it.”

This is the end of the Twelfth Legion category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 130, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Twelfth 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