Monday, September 22, 2008

Today In History: The Sacred Band?

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:






The next thing you know, I'm going to find out that George Washington didn't really chop down a cherry tree...


Anonymous said...

Well, glad to hear you got that sorted out.

One of those things itching at the back of your mind (put off for years) that finally had to be scratched and put to bed.

Time and research well spent.

Well done.


Chas S. Clifton said...

You mean that I can't take everything in Fox's or the Golden Legend as fact? I am just shocked.

Nothing like primary sources, eh.

José Giganté said...

Ah, this is why I prefer ignorance, if I were to learn that little George really didn't chop down the Cherry tree, well, I don't know what I'd do...

J.R.Shirley said...

Excellent. Gotta love good old history and research...

Anonymous said...

Dammit, Tam! A guy can learn more by accident here than by intent at other places.

Thanks for the (obscure) history lesson.


James E. Griffin said...

Thucydides - scary I spelled that right the first time - seemed to be the first in a long line to say that what motivated the Mk1 Mod1 human doesn't change much. That being the case, I've found you don't have to embellish history to find inspiration for us sometimes-lesser mortals.

Lazy folk make stuff up, less lazy folk don't check sources. You don't have to go far, especially in today's world to find true inspirational stories.

Hell, I'm inspired by Tam's story of living life through adversity.

Folks in charge of children could do worse than to use that story in place of fiction.

the pawnbroker said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JHardin said...

A Burma Shave C|N>K moment - thank you, oh high priestess of snark!

Earl said...

Hmm, wonder why I never heard of the whole legion suffering, much myth missed in the mists of mine - I knew about the Ten Thousand but no decimated to the end Legion. Do know they would get misused about the same amount as the current armed forces.

TBeck said...

I first read about the Sacred Band in one of Janet Morris' THIEVES WORLD books. That was unusual in that most of my Roman history comes from David Drake, Harry Turtledove, and Monty Python.

Zendo Deb said...

I'm sure it is just confusion.

Mitha was born on December 25th (of course that was the date of Winter Soltice back then, but anyway.

Mithra had 12 companions.

Ceremonies involved water, bread, and wine.

He died and came back after 3 days - according to the legends.....

You can see how people could get confused about which religion a legion might be following.

Deyan said...

But-but Mitra was not born of a virgin, right? :)

As for the Theban Legion, the legend is even more elaborated - their commander has been canonized by the Church (St. Maurice). There are two old swords, in Vienna and Turin, which were believed to have been the execution weapon. Why two and not just one? Why not? There a so many nails and pieces of wood from the Holly Cross in the churches that you can build a ship from them :)

Here is a good investigative article on the swords:

Anonymous said...

Mithras, also a soldier--teach us to die aright!

Cybrludite said...

I'm going to have to remember the Burma Shave bit for the next time one of my Legions of Terror fail their Evil Overlord. (Being that I'm surrounded by idiots, that shouldn't take too long...)