In the mid-fifth century Eucherius, bishop of Lyons (ca. 434-450) wrote a letter to his fellow bishop Salvius that included the oldest known account of the martyrdom of St. Maurice. Eucherius credits the story, which he has heard third-hand, to bishop Theodore of Octodurum in eastern Italy. In the tale, a Theban legion of Christian soldiers were ordered by the evil Emperor Maximianus to persecute fellow Christians in Acaunum (present-day Saint-Maurice-en-Valais, Switzerland). Under the command of the noble Maurice, the legion refused to carry out the ungodly orders, declaring that their oath to God took precedence over their oath to the Emperor. The Emperor first decimated the legion–killing every tenth man–but when this punishment failed to overcome their resistance he ordered them slaughtered wholesale. Following Christ’s example, Maurice and his men lay down their arms and offered themselves freely to their executioners.
David Woods nicely summarizes the wide range of historical impossibilities in this tale that have led scholars to presume the figures never actually existed. He suggests that Theodore invented the story to convince Egyptian troops stationed in his area to oppose the usurper Eugenius, who relied heavily on pagan barbarians. Less dramatically, the story also could have been meant to shore up the confidence of isolated Christian communities in the region, who still suffered periodic persecution at the hands of non-Christians, by noting the heroic deeds of the Egyptian unit in defense of the faith. In any event, the martyr’s tale became the basis for a saintly cult adopted by German rulers seeking to emphasize their strength and worldliness.
The Passion of the Martyr of Acaunum
1. I am unfolding with my pen an account of the suffering of the holy martyrs who light up Acaunum with their glorious blood, with especial faithfulness to the account of the martyrdom which has come down to us, since forgetfulness has not yet overtaken memory of the deed thanks to the report of successive generations. And if those individual places which possess them, or cities even, are distinguished by their individual martyrs, not undeservedly, because the saints pour forth their precious souls for God Most High, in how much awe should we hold that sacred place of the Acaunenses, where so many thousands of martyrs are said to have died by the sword for Christ ? Let me now recount the very cause of their most blessed passion.
2. During the reign of the Maximianus who ruled the Roman republic together with Diocletian as his colleague, crowds of martyrs were tortured or killed throughout various provinces. Furthermore, just as he raged because of his possession by greed, lust, cruelty and other vices, so also in his dedication towards unspeakable rites and his impiety towards the God of heaven did he arm his impiety to extinguish the name of Christianity. So if anyone then dared to confess the worship of the true God, when bands of soldiers were scattered everywhere, they were snatched away for punishment or death, and he set his weapons directly against religion like a foreign soldier at a time of barbarian invasion.
3. There was at that same time in the army a legion of soldiers who were called the Thebaei. A legion so-called then contained 6,600 men under arms. When they had been summoned to his support by Maximianus from the regions of the East, these men, active in battle and renowned for their courage, although more renowned for their faith, came; they strove in bravery for the emperor, but in devotion to Christ. Mindful of gospel teaching even under arms, they returned that which was God’s to God and restored that which was Caesar’s to Caesar.
4. Accordingly, when these also were assigned to harass the multitude of Christians, just like the other soldiers, they alone dared to refuse the cruel task and declared that they would not obey commands of this kind. Maximianus was not far off, since, tired by his journey, he was resting near Octodurum. When it was reported to him there that this legion was in rebellion against his royal commands and had halted in the pass at Acaunum, he was inspired to indignation and burned with rage.
5. But before I report the rest of the story, it seems to me that I ought to include a description of the situation of this place in my account. Acaunus is almost 60 miles from the city of Geneva, and is 14 miles distant from Lake Lemannus into which the Rhone flows. The place itself is situated in a valley among the Alpine peaks and those travelling there find the path narrow and dangerous and the crossing difficult; for the hostile Rhone has left in the foothills of the rocky mountain a ridge which travellers can barely pass. When the narrows of the passes have been conquered and left behind, a not inconsiderable plain is suddenly revealed among the mountain cliffs. It was in this place that the holy legion had halted.
6. Accordingly, just as I have said above, when Maximianus learned the reply of the Thebaei, he burned with a fierce anger on account of their neglect of his commands, and ordered every tenth person from that same legion to be executed by the sword in order that others, terrified by fear, might more easily yield to royal injunctions; and he renewed his commands and ordered the remainder to be forced to persecute the Christians. When this repeat command reached the Thebaei, and they learned that impious actions were being enjoined upon them once more, there rose indiscriminately throughout the camp the hue and cry of men declaring that they would never submit to such sacrilegious tasks, that they had always cursed the wickedness of idols, that they had been steeped in the sacred rites and reared in the observation of the divine religion, that they worshipped the one eternal God and that they would suffer death rather than go against the Christian faith.
7. When Maximianus learned this next, crueller than any beast, he returned to his natural savagery once more and ordered every tenth man to be executed once more in order that the others might be forced nevertheless to those actions which they were refusing. When these commands were announced at the camp for a second time, the tenth men were chosen by lot, separated, and executed, but the remaining crowd of soldiers urged each other to continue in such a distinguished effort.
8. But the greatest incitement to faith at that time was the holy Maurice, primicerius, as it is called, of that legion then, who together with campidoctor Exuperius, as they say in the army, and the senator militum Candidus, encouraged [his fellow soldiers] by exhorting and advising them individually. Setting before them the examples of their faithful fellow soldiers, now martyrs, he persuaded them all also to die on behalf of the sacrament of Christ and the divine laws, if it should prove so necessary, and advised them to follow their allies and tentmates who had already preceded them into heaven. For a glorious desire for martyrdom burned in these most blessed men even then.
9. Accordingly, inspired by these leaders and authorities, they sent to Maximianus as he still burned with madness a message as brave as it was pious, which is said to have run in the following vein: “We are your soldiers, O emperor, but God’s servants, nevertheless, a fact that we freely confess. We owe military service to you, but just living to Him; from you we have received the pay for our toil, but from Him we have received the origin of life. No way can we 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. Unless we are being forced on a path so destructive that we give offence in this manner, we will still obey you as we have done hitherto; otherwise, we will obey Him rather than you. We offer our hands, which we think wrong to sully with the blood of innocents, against any enemy. Those right hands know how to fight against wicked enemies, not how to torture pious citizens. We remember to take arms for citizens rather than against citizens. We have always fought for justice, piety, and the welfare of the innocent. These have been the prices of our dangers hitherto. We have fought for faith; what faith will we keep with you at all, if we do not exhibit faith to our God? We swore oaths to God first, oaths to the king second; there is no need for you to trust us concerning the second, if we break the first. You order us to seek out Christians for punishment. You do not now have to seek out others on this charge, since you have us here confessing: “We believe in God the Father maker of all and God his Son Jesus Christ.” We have seen the allies of our toils and dangers being butchered with iron, and yet we neither wept nor grieved at the deaths of our most holy fellow soldiers and the murder of our brothers, but we praised and rejoiced in them rather, since they had been deemed worthy to suffer for the Lord their God. And this final necessity of life does not now force us into rebellion. That despair which is at its bravest amidst dangers has not even armed us against you, O emperor. Behold! We hold arms and do not resist, because we well prefer to die rather than to live, and choose to perish as innocents rather than to live as criminals. If you ordain any further measure against us, give any further command, or direct any other measure, we are prepared to endure fire, torture, and steel. We confess that we are Christians and cannot persecute Christians.
10. When Maximianus heard these things and realised that the men’s minds were resolute in their faith in Christ, despairing that he could recall them from their glorious steadfastness, he decreed in one sentence that they were all to be killed and ordered the surrounding military columns to effect the matter. When these, having been sent, reached the most blessed legion, they drew their wicked swords against the holy men who did not refuse to die because of a love for life. Accordingly, they were indiscriminately slaughtered by the sword. They did not cry out even or fight back, but laid aside their arms and offered their necks to their persecutors, presenting their throat, or intact body even, to their executioners. Nor were they inspired by their number, or by the protection of their weapons, to attempt to assert the cause of justice by the sword; but remembering this alone, that they were confessing Him who was led to his death without a cry and, like a lamb, did not open his mouth, they, the Lord’s flock of sheep so to speak, also allowed themselves to be torn by the onrushing wolves as it were.
11. The earth there was covered by the bodies of the pious as they fell forward into death; rivers of precious blood flowed. What madness has ever effected so great a slaughter of human bodies outside of war ? What ferocity has in the one sentence ordered so many accused to be put to death at the same time ? Their multitude did not obtain the non-punishment of the just, although the wrong which the multitude does usually remains unpunished. Accordingly, that body of saints who despised the present world on account of their hope for the next was executed by the cruelty of a most monstrous tyrant. Thus was slain that quite angelic legion which forever praises the Lord God Sabaoth in heaven, together with the legions of angels, so we believe.
12. The martyr Victor did not belong to the same legion, nor was he a soldier, but a military veteran long discharged. When, during the course of a journey, he suddenly came upon those who were were happily and indiscriminately feasting upon the spoils of the martyrs and, having been invited by them to partake with them, had learned in detail from them the cause of their joy, he cursed his hosts and, having cursed them, fled from the feast. When they asked whether he was not also a Christian himself, by any chance, he replied that he was a Christian and would always remain one. They immediately rushed upon him and killed him, and just as he was joined to the other martyrs by his death in the same place, so too he was joined to them in honour.
13. Of that number of martyrs, these names alone are known to us, that is, those of the most blessed Maurice, Exuperius, Candidus, and Victor; the other names are unknown to us, indeed, but they have been written in the book of life.
14. The martyrs Ursus and Victor whom rumour alleges to have suffered at Salodorum are also said to have been from this same legion. Salodurum is a fortress-town above the river Arula, and is situated not far from the Rhine.
15. It is worth reporting also the fate which befell the savage tyrant Maximianus afterwards. 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 Marseilles, and was strangled not long afterwards. Punished in this most shameful way, he ended his wicked life with a fitting death.
16. Meanwhile, the bodies of the most blessed martyrs of Acaunum are said to have been revealed to holy Theodore, bishop of the same place, many years after their suffering. I do not think that a miracle which happened then when the basilica, which close at hand now to a large cliff lies inclined to one side, was being built in their honour, ought to be passed over in silence.
17. It happened that there was a certain workman among the rest of the craftsmen who seemed to have been invited and have gathered for that task whom, it was agreed, was a pagan still. When this man remained alone on the building on the Lord’s Day, when the others had departed in order to wait out the festivities of that day, the saints suddenly revealed themselves in a bright light in that lonely place. This workman was seized and stretched out for retribution or punishment even, and seeing the crowd of martyrs made visible, he was scolded and beaten, either because he alone was absent from church on the Lord’s Day or because he dared to undertake that holy work of construction even though a pagan. It is agreed that the saints did this so mercifully that, shocked and terrified, that workman demanded the saving name for himself and was immediately made into a Christian.
18. Nor should I pass over that one among the saints’ miracles which is especially famous and known to all. The wife of Quintus, an excellent and honourable man, when she had been so stricken by paralysis that even the use of her feet was being denied to her, asked her husband to be taken over the long journey to Acaunum. When she arrived there, she was carried into the basilica of the holy martyrs on the hands of her slaves, but returned to her lodging-house on foot, and she herself now reports around the miracle concerning the restoration of health to her paralysed limbs.
19. I decided that these two miracles only ought to be included in my account of the passion of the saints. Otherwise, there are many miracles which the power of the Lord works everyday there through his saints, either the expulsion of demons or other cures.
I have sent this written account of the passion of our martyrs to your blessedness; for I was afraid lest, through neglect, time should remove from the memory of men the account of so glorious a martyrdom. Moreover, I have sought the truth of this very matter from suitable sources, especially from those who claimed that they had learned the sequence of the account which I have related from holy Isaac, bishop of Geneva; who, I believe, had learned these things in turn again from the most blessed bishop Theodore, a man of an earlier time. Accordingly, although others from various places and provinces offer gifts of gold and silver and of other kinds in honour and service of the saints, I offer these writings of mine, if they are deemed worthy of your support, begging in return for these intercession for all my sins and the perennial protection for posterity of my patrons always. Remember me also as you engage before the sight of the Lord in the service of the saints, Lord Holy and deservedly Most Blessed brother.
Source: “The Passion of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion (BHL 5740),” The Military Martyrs, trans. by David Woods (http://www.ucc.ie/archive/milmart/BHL5740.html). ©David Woods.
Original text: Eucherius, “Passio Acaunensium Martyrum,” Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptorum Rerum Merovingicarum, Vol. III (Hannover: Impensis Bibliopolii Hahniani, 1896), 32-40.
The legend of St. Maurice (ca. 434-450) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.