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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
according to Eucherius, was a legion of 6600 men (the usual number) which had come from the East to render assistance to Maximian. The latter having issued orders to his whole army to persecute the Christians, this legion alone refused to obey. The emperor was in the neighborhood, at Octodurum (Martinach, at the foot of Mount St. Bernard); irritated when he heard of the refusal of the Theban legion, he had it decimated twice, and finally, as he failed to secure its members to join in persecuting their Christian brethren, he ordered their extermination by the remainder of his army. Another account, giving I substantially the same version of this event, embellishes it by what seems to have taken place about the year 286, although it mentions a pope Marcellinus as having advised them rather to submit to death than to act against the dictates of their conscience, while this Marcellinus only became pope ten years after the above time. This second version appears to be but a rear regement of the legend of Eucherius, just as there have been others until the time of the Reformation (by Petrus Canisius and Gulielmus Baldesanus). This legend was first treated as untrue in Magdeburg; then Jean Armand Dubourdieu, a French Reformed minister at London, undertook to prove that the number of the legion did not by any means amount to 6666 (the figures given in the second version). This led to a protracted controversy. The silence of the leading early ecclesiastical historians — Eusebius, Lactantius, Sulpicius Severus, and Orosius — over the event some have advanced to prove that it is simply a fable, but their silence does not, in our mind, go far to disprove it. Eusebius says little of the Western martyrs, yet mentions that an officer picked out the Christians in the Roman army before the beginning of the great persecution, and gave them the choice of renouncing their religion or of leaving the army, adding that many Christians were killed by his orders.
The others either do not mention the martyrs of that period, or were by other circumstances prevented from becoming acquainted with much of their history. On the other hand, Ambrose († 397) says, "Every city prides itself that has had one martyr; how much more, then, can Milan prilde herself, who had a whole army of divine soldiers?" Eucherius takes this as an allusion to the Theban legion. Another testimony to the same effect is contained in St.Victricius's work, De laudibus martyrum (390). The third is the discovery of a shield in the bed of the Arve, near Geneva, representinhg the Thebas, with the inscription Largitas D. M. Valentiniani Augusti. A fourth is found ins the life of St. Romanus (520), who mentions, among others, his journey to Agaunumn (Castra martyrum), probably between the years 460 and 470. It also corroborates Eucherius's figures (6600). The fifth is that of Avitus, archbishop of Vienna, a breastplate originally belonging to whom is yet kept in the convent: this dates from the year 517. A sixth is given in the Vita of Victor of Marseilles. It is most probable, however, that while the legend rests on a foundation of facts, these facts were generalized and amplified, so that a number of Christian soldiers in the Roman army became a legion first of 6600, then of 6666. Those who deny the truth of the legend take their stand on its similarity with that of a certain SimesonMetaphrastes, according to whom, also, one Mauritiuis, under the same emperor, is said to have suffered mart yrdom with Photinus, Theodorus, Philippus, and sixty-seven others, all of the military order. But, aside from the name of Mauritius, all the others have different names, while the details of the event also vary. Among the writers who have contested the truthfulness of the legend concerning the Theban legion, the most important are Dubourdieu, Hottinger, Moyle, Burnet, and Mosheim; it has been defended by George Hickes, M. Felix de Balthasar (Defense de la Legion Thebeenne, Lucerne. 1760, 8vo), Dom Joseph de Lisle (Defense de sla Verite du Martyre de la Legion Thebeenne, 1737, 8vo), Rossignoli (Historia di San Maurizio), and P. de Rivaz (Eclaircissements sur les Martyres de la Legion Thebeenne, Paris, 1779, 8vo). See Herzog, Real — Encyklopä die, vol. 9, s.v. Mauritius. (See MAURITIUS).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Legion, Theban'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/l/legion-theban.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.