As a youngster with an interest in history, I listened enthralled as a traveling evangelist regaled us with the tale of a Roman Legion that had converted to Christianity and was punished for its crime via the brutal process of decimation. Ordered to recant by a bloodthirsty emperor, the legion refused and every tenth member was put to death. The order was given again, and the same response was returned, and so the punishment cycle continued until the legion was no more. It was a stirring tale of faith, and sure to inspire a listener like myself, who had been raised on Cecil B. DeMille films to know that the Romans had been the bad guys ever since Julius Caesar killed Jesus.
I immediately consulted that entertaining volume beloved by pre-emo Protestant kids, Fox’s Book Of Martyrs, and sure enough, an entire legion had been killed by the evil emperor Maximian for… well, sources are unclear, either they didn’t sacrifice to the emperor or they didn’t rough up Christians... But no matter the exact reason, they were killed to a man for their faith. It’s a compelling picture: Most of your comrades already slaughtered in front of your eyes, you are offered the choice to recant or die, and you bravely stand up and be counted and are killed in turn.
The story lingered in the back of my head until today, which is the Saint’s Day of the Theban Legion, commemorating their death on this day in 286 AD. Curiosity piqued, I went back and re-read the story of my youth. Unfortunately, it didn't hold up well in the light of studying Roman military history for the last twenty years...
It seems that the Theban Legion was so-called because it had been stationed in Egypt and had been recruited from local Coptic Christians… Except that Christianity was extremely rare in the Roman army of the time, with most all legionaries still followers of Mithras or Sol Invictus. And a late Third Century field legion (as opposed to the static frontier legions just coming into being) was almost never an homogenous unit of locals, but consisted of troops drawn from the far corners of the empire, so an all Egyptian Coptic legion stationed in Thebes is pretty far-fetched.
Anyhow, this Theban Legion was summoned from Egypt by the evil Emperor Maximian to put down rebellious Christians in Gaul… Except that in 285 AD, Maximian was junior Emperor, second in command to Diocletian, and was in charge of the Western Empire; he could no more summon a field legion from Egypt than Alaska governor Sarah Palin could call out the Florida National Guard. Further, Egypt was under control of the senior Augustus, Diocletian, and he was up to his neck dealing with Rome’s volatile Mesopotamian frontier at the time; it’s highly unlikely he’d turn loose of a crack mobile legion from the vital breadbasket of the Nile valley to deal with a small band of brigands in Gaul. Lastly, later medieval legend to the contrary, the Third Century Bagaudae of Gallia Narbonnenses weren’t Christian, but rather a collection of brigands, household guards, and free farmers loyal to the preceding Carian dynasty, since its founder, Carus, was a homeboy from Narbonne.
But whatever… This legion of 6,666 men arrived in what is now Switzerland in 286 AD and wouldn’t help mean old Maximian put down the Bagaudae… But Maximian had put the Bagaudae on ice in 285, his first year on the job. By 286, he was haring off after an invasion of very decidedly non-Christian Burgundians and other heathen Germanic invaders and was a little busy to be engaged in idle persecution. Further, the “6,666” number of legionaries for a late Third Century field legion is positively ludicrous, as they rarely numbered much over 1,500 men.
Lastly, no contemporary documentary sources support this legend, even though we’ve recovered plenty of .gov correspondence from the Egypt of Diocletian’s reign, including the official records of the assistant governor. You’d think the guy would have noted that as much as a fifth of the troops he had to guard the grain fields that fed the empire had been sent haring off on a wild goose chase halfway across the world. Also the Fourth Century A.D. military writer Vegetius, who had an absolute boner for legionary discipline and how much better things were in the good ol’ days, would have at least noted it in passing. Heck, when a unit of marines was decimated way back in the Year of the Four Emperors, it drew note as the last instance of this punishment in the imperial army.
But no, it wasn’t until almost a century later that a Monk, sounding like a Martyr Tourist Chamber of Commerce, “discovered” the legend, and it took another hundred years before much of anyone believed it.
Sadly, I think the Theban Legion legend has to be chalked up to hyperbole at best and complete fabrication at worst. The Romans were meticulous about noting the placement of legions in the Fourth Century Notitia Dignitatum, and the Legio I Maximiana Thebeaoranum is right there, present, accounted for, and on the payroll. I spent the morning leafing through a dozen scholarly tomes on Roman military history, and not a word was whispered about the incident. Yet every time a legion was wiped out, from Varus in the Teutoburger Wald to Valens at Adrianople, the Romans mentioned it at hair-tearing, shirt-rending length.
One final argument might be that because the legion was destroyed by disciplinary action rather than the enemy, it was hushed up and swept under the rug, but that doesn’t hold water to anyone even casually acquainted with Roman history. I can guarantee that if the Romans had wiped out a legion via decimation, the bodies wouldn’t have been found years later by a Monk; they would have been hung on crosses on both sides of the road, one every mile between Avaunum and Moguntiacum with a series of signs around their necks like a macabre Burma Shave ad campaign, reading:
WHEN A LEGION FAILS
PUNISHMENT SOON COMES
The next thing you know, I'm going to find out that George Washington didn't really chop down a cherry tree...