After finding the following excerpt in a Christian magazine, I could not help but write a review since I found so many historical errors in the work.
The Thebian Legion — During the reign of Nero, in the first century, repeated persecutions were brought against Christians. Yet the greater the persecution, the more the early Church grew. One day Nero ordered all of his armies to assemble near the city of Gaul. Tens of thousands of soldiers were there. They stood at attention to give a loyalty oath which included the killing of Christians. The captain of 6,000 men, known as The Thebian legion, replied to this oath by saying, “We will fight and die for Nero in battle, but we will not kill Christians. We ourselves are all Christians.” Nero became infuriated. He ordered their ranks to be decimated. Every tenth man was killed by the sword. The remaining legion still refused. More men were killed until the entire legion was martyred for their faith. The tens of thousands who watched saw men who had something worth dying for. Soon, thousands became converted, and in A.D. 313 the entire Roman Empire adopted the Christian faith.
I have proof that this account is historically inaccurate, besides the potential of the story being a fictitious account.
- The magazine article called it “The Thebian Legion” when the real name was “Theban,” named after the Egyptian city of Thebes where the legion originated.
- The article claims that the legion was executed by Nero during the first century; other more detailed versions of the story all say that the legion fought for Maximilian in A.D. 286.
- There is no “city of Gaul.” Gaul (modern France) was a region in the northwest conquered territories of the Roman Empire.
- The amount of men killed is highly debated among the various accounts with the most accepted number being 6,600 men.
- The accounts vary about why the men were martyred. This account and the account by the Catholic Church both claim the men were martyred for refusing to kill Christians. Several other sources say the men were ordered to sacrifice to the Roman gods, so their refusal caused their deaths.
- The method of execution is also debated. Most sources claim that every tenth man was killed in the first decimation, and then the entire legion was executed. A few minor sources say that the men all laid down their weapons and proudly offered their throats at the same time.
- In 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine granted some religious freedoms to Christians and ended the persecutions, but the Roman Empire did not adopt Christianity until 380 A.D. under Emperor Theodosis.
In the end, there are far too many historical errors in this copy to make it a legitimate version of the Theban legion’s story.
The most important idea of all is that the story of the Theban legion may be a glorified myth. There are no primary documents or even contemporary secondary sources that recount the story. The origin of the story most likely was an oral tradition which was written down by a bishop in the fifth century, over two hundred years after the death of the legion. Although John Foxe did include the legion in his Acts and Monuments, many of his stories were also based on oral traditions which could not be proved. The Encyclopedia Britannica records that the story is an oral tradition of a Roman commander who was martyred with only seventy of his men; they were not Thebans, and it was not an entire legion. The Catholic Church glorifies the legion in their hagiography, but several historians dispute the tale all together. Donald O’Reilly, a New York historian, wrote a book about the legion. He proves that the legion was real, but he does not believe the tale of their annihilation. To explain the disappearance of the legion, O’Reilly claims the legion was probably assimilated into other Roman legions, because their colors and banners appeared in other military units later in history. David Woods, a college professor, also studied the story of the Thebans, and his conclusion is that the tale is completely fictitious.
– Hannah S. Bowers
Bible Probe, www.bibleprobe.com/theban.html (the most common account of the story)
Catholic Encyclopedia, www.newadvent.org/cathen/10068c.htm
John Foxe, Acts and Monuments
Encyclopedia Britannica, “St. Maurice”
David Woods, The Origin of the Legend of Maurice and the Theban Legion
Donald O’Reilly, Lost Legion Rediscovered: The Mystery of the Theban Legion