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Friday, January 9, 2015

A Bio-Sketch of Maurice of Thebes: The Legionnaire Who Died for Christ

The pleasure seekers and jet setters that visit the Swiss resort town of St Moritz, Switzerland are most likely unaware of its namesake – an Egyptian-born Legionnaire of the Roman Army. 

St. Moritz or rather, Maurice, was born in A.D. 250 in Thebes, an ancient Egyptian city. He joined the Roman army and was eventually made leader of what was known as the Thebian Legion ( that is 6,600 soldiers). The thing that was different about Maurice was that he was a known Christian in what was then a decidedly non-Christian society under Diocletian. It is even said that his entire legion were Christians. 

A statue of St. Maurice placed next to the grave of Otto I of Germany

According to the letter of Eucherius to Salvius, a fellow bishop, Maurice’s legion was eventually summoned by Maximian one of the Tetrarch Roman Emperors under Diocletian. His orders were to travel to Gaul in order to help squash an uprising of the bagaudae ( a group of peasant insurgents) - and this is where the story really begins. Although there is some debate as to the particulars, it seems clear that it was on their way to Gaul, near the present site of St. Moritz, that Maurice was martyred for his adherence to his faith in Christ.

Eucherius tells us that when Maurice and his legion were ordered to persecute some Christians in the area they steadfastly refused and were thus “decimated”, a Roman military punishment that involved the killing of every tenth man. As they continued to disobey the order, eventually all were killed.

This letter may contain some exaggeration as decimation had not been practiced for centuries. Other accounts record only a small portion of the Thebian Legion being killed which may be more accurate. It is worth noting Donald F. O’Reilly’s work pointing to four main pieces of historical evidence though to confirm that the Thebian Legion did exist and that its leader was Maurice. See Wikipedia’s summary of this.  

Maurice was often depicted as a Black man in art. If accurate, this would make him the first Black saint
 canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

In his book “How Shall We Then Live” renowned Christian theologian and philosopher, Francis A. Schaeffer, uses the events at St. Moritz as an example of how a Christian should balance their loyalties to Church and State. 

“During the persecutions of the Christians under the Roman emperors, the action of the Roman military commander Maurice is a good example of a possible response. When he received an order to direct a persecution of Christians, he handed his insignia to his assistant in order to join the Christians and be killed as a fellow believer.” 

It is noteworthy and admirable that Maurice did not fight back and war “in the name of Christ”, as a soldier might and as some countries erroneously have, but rather laid down the proverbial sword and followed the example of his Saviour only centuries earlier. 

“And suddenly, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, struck the servant of the high priest, and cut off his ear. But Jesus said to him, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?” Matthew 26:51

Ours is truly a spiritual battle that will one day end in perfect peace, not a physical or political one to be fought over and over again to no end - and Maurice understood that. 

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