Theban Legion

There is an interesting story told in John Fox’s Book of Martyrs which presents an interesting case study of how early Christians viewed the issue of military participation, self-defense, and martyrdom.

Fox tells the story this way:

“In the year of Christ 286, a most remarkable affair occurred; a legion of soldiers, consisting of 6666 men, contained none but Christians. This legion was called the Theban Legion… they were quartered in the east till the emperor Maximian ordered them to march to Gaul, to assist him against the revels of Burgundy.”

The Legion, however, met with some unexpected orders:

“Maximian, about this time, ordered a general sacrifice, at which the whole army was to assist; and likewise he commanded that they should take an oath of allegiance and swear, at the same time, to assist in the extirpation of Christianity in Gaul.”

The soldiers objected both to the pagan sacrifice and to the oath and resolutely refused. This enraged the emperor who commanded that the legion be decimated, that is, that every tenth man be executed. The men were killed but this failed to change the mind the surviving solders. The emperor then ordered a second decimation. When this also failed to persuade the remaining men, the entire legion was executed.

The historical veracity of this event has its critics. The event probably did not occur exactly as described though there are early manuscript witnesses to the event. Regardless, I find several things fascinating and instructive.

First, the soldiers apparently did not object to military service in general and, importantly, this occurred before Constantine.

Second, the soldiers did object to unjust military service. According to one interpretation “The moral of the Theban Legion was employed to condemn atrocities committed under military orders” (Wikipedia).

Third, the soldiers appeared to respond to religious persecution with non-violence. It would seem as though a legion of trained soldiers would be able to put up quite a fight, or at least go down swinging. However, none of accounts include any hint of violent resistance.

Fourth, and probably most importantly, the soldiers resolutely refused to engage in any State sponsored idolatry, even to death. In other words, while they apparently did not object to service to the State, they refused to make it their god. When the god of the State and the Living God came into conflict they decided to fear God instead of fearing the acts of men.

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2 thoughts on “Theban Legion

  1. Michael Snow

    On the first point, this would be an exception rather than the rule in the first three centuries and leaves un-answered the queston of whether they were soldiers who became Christians or Christians who became soldiers.
    As Charles Spurgeon said, ” I always rejoice to find a soldier a Christian, but I always mourn to find a Christian a soldier… The followers of Christ in these days seem to me to have forgotten a great part of Christianity.” http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

    1. stevenkopp Post author

      Indeed. It’s hard to draw too much out of the historical event itself, in part because it’s historicity is in question. More importantly, the story speaks to the values of the early church. The the story passed along seems to indicate a great deal of concern for unjust military action but, at least, less concern for military action in general.

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