Saint Maurice: Leader of the legendary Roman Theban Legion


Saint Maurice
Saint Maurice Magdeburg.jpg

St. Maurice as depicted in Magdeburg Cathedral, Germany (c. 1250)
Born 3rd century.
Died 287
Honored in Oriental Orthodoxy,
Roman Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Church
Canonized Pre-Congregation for the Causes of Saints
Majorshrine Abbaye de Saint-Maurice d’Agaune(until 961), Cathedral of Magdeburg(961-present)
  • September 22 (West),
  • October 5 = Thout 5 (Coptic)
  • December 27 (Orthodox)
Attributes banner; soldier; soldier being executed with other soldiers, knight; indigenous African in full armour, bearing a standard and a palm; knight in armour with a red cross on his breast, which is the badge of the Sardinian Order of Saint Maurice
Patronage against cramps; alpine troops;Appenzell Innerrhoden;  armies; armorers; BurgundiansCarolingian dynasty;  Austria; clothmakers; cramps; dyers; gout; infantrymen;LombardsMerovingians; PiedmontItaly; Pontifical Swiss GuardsSaint-Maurice-en-Valais;St. Moritz; SardiniaSavoyards; soldiers; Stadtsulza, Germany; swordsmiths; weavers; Holy Roman Emperors


Saint Maurice (also MoritzMorris, or Mauritius) was the leader of the legendary Roman Theban Legion in the 3rd century, and one of the favorite and most widely venerated saints of that group. He was the patron saint of several professions, locales, and kingdoms. He is also a highly revered saint in the Oriental Orthodox churches.



Maurice was born in AD 250 in Thebes, an ancient city in Egypt near the site of the Aswan Dam. He was brought up in the region of Thebes (Luxor—Egypt) and became a soldier in the Roman army. He was gradually promoted until he became the leader of the Theban legion, formed of 6600 soldiers.  Maurice was an acknowledged Christian at a time when the Church was considered to be a threat to the crumbling Roman Empire. Yet, he moved easily in the pagan society of his day. 

According to the hagiographical material, the legion, entirely composed of Christians, had been called from Thebes in Egypt toGaul to assist Maximian to defeat a revolt by the bagaudae.  The Theban Legion was dispatched with orders to clear the St. Bernard Pass across Mt. Blanc. Before going into battle, they were instructed to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods and pay homage to the emperor. 


St. Maurice as depicted on the City of Coburg’s Coat of Arms.


However, when Maximian ordered them to harass some local Christians, they refused and Maximian ordered the unit to be punished. Every tenth soldier was killed, a military punishment known as decimation. More orders followed, they still refused, partly because of Maurice’s encouragement, and a second decimation was ordered. In response to their refusal to use violence against fellow Christians, Maximian ordered all the remaining members of the 6,600 unit to be executed. The place in Switzerland where this occurred, known as Agaunum, is now Saint Maurice-en-Valais, site of the Abbey of Saint Maurice-en-Valais.

So reads the earliest account of their martyrdom, contained in the public letter Eucherius, bishop of Lyon (c. 434–450), addressed to his fellow bishop Salvius. Alternate versions  have the legion refusing Maximian’s orders only after discovering a town they had just destroyed had been inhabited by innocent Christians, or that the emperor had them executed when they refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods.



A papyrus found at Panopolis on the Nile just north of Thebaid district, contained a receipt of delivery and an auditor’s note mentioning requisition and receipt. The letter is dated “In the Sixth year of our Lord the Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Probus Pius Augustus, Tubi sixteenth” (January 13, 282 CE), and the delivery was for 38,496 modii of bread (estimate about 577,440 pounds, or 384,490 daily rations, which would sustain a legion for about three months) to be delivered to Panopolis to the “mobilized soldiers and sailors”. The papyrus did not call them legionaries, which may have been due to the fact that native Egyptians were forbidden from serving in legions, but were allowed to serve in auxiliary corps during that time period. 

The coins

Coins from Alexandria that also coincided with the same time period, were minted in a style used only when troops for a new legion were leaving port. An eagle flanked with banners was depicted on Alexandrian coins during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Septimus Severus, and Aurelian, and on no other occasion prior to 282. These coins were minted precisely during the times when troops were raised to create (respectively) the new legions I and III Italica, nova classis Libica, I II and III Parthica, I Illyricorum with IV Martia.  


The Notitia Dignitatum

The Notitia Dignitatum, a roman army list, recorded four legions from Thebes, plus reference to a fifth ‘legio Thebeorum’ and a ‘Thebei Palatini’, which was the only eastern force in the west after Constantine and remarkably replaced the ‘Praetoriani’ (i.e. the Praetorian guard) whom he had disbanded, which raises the question as to whether Constantine, the first Christian emperor, knew of the story of the martyred soldiers from Thebes. The four legions from Thebes were ‘I Maximiana Thebeorum’, ‘II Flavia Constantia Thebeorum’, ‘III Diocletiana Thebeorum’, and ‘I Flavia Constantia’ (the first and the third bear the names of tetrachs in 293, the second and fourth bear Constantine’s name and were listed serving in Thebaid in the late fourth century).  The names of these legions meant they were personal bodyguards for the pagan tetrarchs (I Flavia Constantia may have formerly been IV Galeriana Thebeorum). It is not clear why Theban troops were chosen for the imperial bodyguard, although Donald O’Reilly hypothesized that if they were in fact Christian units, this may have been as a result of the fact that Christians refused to murder and every single emperor in the previous century had been killed by his own soldiers. 


A passage from the account of the martyr Maximilian which shows the existence of Theban Christian legionaries in the same units as mentioned in the Novita Dignitatum.  The martyr Maximilian was executed in North Africa in 295, for refusing Diocletian’s conscription to the army. In the acta of his martyrdom, there is a record of his trial which contains the following exchange at one point:

Maximilian: “I will not accept the seal. I already have the seal of Christ who is my God.” [to which the judge responded] “In the sacred bodyguard of our Lords Diocletian and Maximian, Constantius and Maximus, there are soldiers who are christians, and they serve.” 

A hagiography stated that the soldiers were baptized by Zabdes, bishop of Jerusalem, which could have fit if their corps had been raised to fight in the contemporary war with Persia, and would also fit with the fact that roman military doctrine held that new legions should be used to replace experienced units in order to move them to the front (thus leaving the newly raised Theban corps in the rear closer to Jerusalem). 

File:Schwarzhäupter 09.jpg

The coat of arms of the Brotherhood of Blackheads, featuring Saint Maurice.




One of the strongest arguments against the story is the fact the Romans did not execute entire legions for insubordination.  Decimation had not been used to discipline a Roman legion for centuries : the previous documented execution of this sentence was in the reign of Galba, who ordered this done to a formation of marines that Nero had formed into a legion, and who demanded an eagle and standards. The monastic accounts themselves do not specifically state that all the soldiers were collectively executed; an eleventh-century monk named Otto of Freising wrote that most of the legionaries escaped, and only some were executed.  It’s possible that the legion was simply re-organized during Diocletian’s re-organization of units (breaking up legions of 6000 men to create smaller units of 1000), and that some of the soldiers had been executed, and that this was where the story of the legion’s destruction originated from. 

Henri Leclercq suggests that it is quite possible that an incident at Agaunum may have had to do not with a legion, but with a simple vexillatio. 

Further, the military staunchly followed Isis or Mithras (Sol Invictus), until Constantine’s time at the earliest, making it unlikely they filled an entire legion.

Some  suggest that the statement that the entire legion was Christian was a pious fabrication by Theodore,bishop of Octodurum, sometime between 388 and 394, whom Eucherius, bishop of Lyon, cites as his source for this story, to encourage his contemporary Christians serving in the Roman army to ignore the orders of theirpagan superiors and instead side with the Church. This view is not accepted by Church historians, who assert the authenticity of the account. If it was a later fabrication, by Eucherius himself, its dissemination was certainly successful in drawing pilgrims to the abbey at Agaunum. That institution was created ex nihilo from 515 onwards by Sigismund, the first Catholic king of the Burgundians. The abbey was unique in its time as the creation of a king working in concord with bishops, rather than an organic development that occurred round the central figure of a holy monk.


Saint Maurice became a patron saint of the Holy Roman Emperors. In 926, Henry I (919–936), even ceded the present Swiss canton of Aargau to the abbey, in return for Maurice’s lance, sword and spurs. The sword and spurs of Saint Maurice were part of the regalia used at coronations of the Austro-Hungarian Emperors until 1916, and among the most important insignia of the imperial throne. In addition, some of the emperors were anointed before the Altar of Saint Maurice at St. Peter’s Basilica.  In 929 Henry I the Fowler held a royal court gathering (Reichsversammlung) at Magdeburg. At the same time the Mauritius Kloster in honor of Maurice was founded. In 961, Otto I was building and enriching the cathedral at Magdeburg, which he intended for his own tomb. To that end,

in the year 961 of the Incarnation and in the twenty-fifth year of his reign, in the presence of all of the nobility, on the vigil of Christmas, the body of St. Maurice was conveyed to him at Regensburg along with the bodies of some of the saint’s companions and portions of other saints. Having been sent to Magdeburg, these relics were received with great honour by a gathering of the entire populace of the city and of their fellow countrymen. They are still venerated there, to the salvation of the homeland.  

Maurice is traditionally depicted in full armor, in Italy emblasoned with a red cross. In folk culture he has become connected with the legend of the Spear of Destiny, which he is supposed to have carried into battle; his name is engraved on the Holy Lance of Vienna, one of several relics claimed as the spear that pierced Jesus’ side on the cross. Saint Maurice gives his name to the town St. Moritz as well as to numerous places called Saint-Maurice in French speaking countries. The Indian Ocean island state of Mauritius was named after Maurice of Nassau, a member of the House of Orange, and not directly after St. Mauritius himself.

Over 650 religious foundations dedicated to Saint Maurice can be found in France and other European countries. In Switzerland alone, seven churches or altars in Aargau, six in the Canton of Lucerne, four in the Canton of Solothurn, and one in Appenzell Innerrhoden can be found (in fact, his feast day is a cantonal holiday in Appenzell Innerrhoden).  Particularly notable among these are the Church and Abbey of Saint-Maurice-en-Valais, the Church of Saint Moritz in the Engadin, and the Monastery Chapel of Einsiedeln Abbey, where his name continues to be greatly revered. Several chivalric orders were established in his honor as well, including the Order of the Golden Fleece, Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus and the Order of Saint Maurice.  Additionally, fifty-two towns and villages in France have been named in his honor. 

Maurice is also the patron saint of a Roman Catholic parish and church in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, and including part of the town of Arabi in St. Bernard parish. The church was constructed in 1856, making it one of the oldest currently used churches in the area. The church was devastated by the winds and flood waters of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005; the copper-plated steeple was blown off the building. The church is currently closed, and the building is for sale.

On July 19, 1941 Pope Pius XII declared Saint Maurice to be patron Saint of the Italian Army’s Alpini Mountain Infantry Corps  The Alpini Corps has celebrated Saints Maurice’s feast every year since then.


St Maurice is the patron saint of the Duchy of Savoy (France) and of the Valais (Switzerland) as well as of soldiers, swordsmiths, armies, and infantrymen. He is also inexplicably the patron saint of weavers and dyers, and is invoked against menstrual cramps. Manresa (Spain), Piedmont (Italy), Montalbano Jonico (Italy), Schiavi di Abruzzo (Italy), Stadtsulza (Germany) and Coburg (Germany) have chosen St. Maurice as their patron saint as well. St Maurice is also the patron saint of the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a historical military order of unmarried merchants in present-day Estonia and Latvia. In September 2008, certain relics of St. Maurice were transferred to a new reliquary and rededicated in Schiavi di Abruzzo (Italy).

Depiction as a black African

“The oldest surviving”   image that depicts Saint Maurice as a Black African in knight’s armour   was sculpted in mid 13th century for the Cathedral of Magdeburg; there it is displayed next to the grave of Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor. Jean Devisse, The Image of the Black in Western Art, laid out the documentary sources for the saint’s popularity and documented it with illustrative examples.  When the new cathedral was built under Archbishop Albert II of Käfernberg (served 1205-32), the relic  was said to be the head of Maurice was procured from the Holy Land.

The image of Saint Maurice has been examined in detail by Gude Suckale-Redlefsen,  who demonstrated that this image of Maurice has existed since Maurice’s first depiction in Germany between the Weser and the Elbe, and spread to Bohemia, where it became associated with the imperial ambitions of the House of Luxembourg. According to Suckale-Redlefsen, the image of Maurice reached its apogee during the years 1490 to 1530. Images of the saint died out in the mid-sixteenth century, undermined, Suckale-Redlefsen suggests, by the developing African slave trade. “Once again, as in the early Middle Ages, the color black had become associated with spiritual darkness and cultural ‘otherness'”.  There is an oil on wood painting of Saint Maurice by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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