Maurice and the Theban Legion, St. (Moorish, dark-skinned) (Died 286) In Christian legend, Roman captain of the Theban Legion. Patron of armies, armorers, infantry, hatters, and knife grinders. Invoked against Demonic possession, enemies of religion, and gout. Venerated at St. Maurice-en-Valois, St. Moritz, and Zofingen. One of the patron saints of Austria. Feast, 22 September.
Among the legions that made up the Roman army at the time of Diocletian and Maximin was one called the Theban Legion because it originated in Thebald. All of the 6,666 soldiers were Christians, and their leader was Maurice, or Mauritius. About the year 286 Maximin summoned the legion from the East to reinforce the army about to march into Gaul. After the passage through the Alps, some of the army was sent on to the Rhine while the rest remained on the banks of Lake Geneva, where Emperor Maximin ordered sacrifices to pagan gods, accompanied by games and ceremonies. Maurice and the Christian soldiers retired some three leagues away and made camp at Aganum, now Saint-Maurice. In the account of The Golden Legend, when Maximin heard of this,
. . . he sent knights to them, and commanded that they should come hastily unto the sacrifices of the gods. . . . and they answered that they might not so do because they held the faith of Jesu Christ.
And then the emperor . . . said: “The injury celestial is meddled with my despite, and the religion Roman is despised with me. Now shall each contumacious knight feel not only for me, but to avenge my gods.” Then Caesar commanded his knights that they should go and constrain them to do sacrifice to the gods, or else they should slay always the tenth man. Then the holy saints stretched tofore that other to come to the death. And after, S. Maurice arose up and said to his fellows among other things: “Enjoy ye with us, and I thank you, for we be all ready for to die for the faith of Jesu Christ.” . . . And when the emperor heard that, he commanded to behead yet the tenth man of them. (Caxton translation)
Some of the Theban Legion were trampled down by the cavalry, some hung on trees and shot with arrows, some killed by the sword. Maurice and some of his officers knelt down and were beheaded.
St. Maurice is usually shown in complete armor; he bears in one hand a standard, in the other a palm. Southern European art often shows him dressed as a Roman soldier, as in El Greco’s painting of the saint. German art shows him as a Moorish knight, as in Hans Baldung Grien’s painting.
Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow
Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante