Lost Legion Rediscovered: The Mystery of the Theban Legion, by Donald O’Reilly, Pen and Sword Books, Barnsley, United Kingdom, 2011, $24.99
Among the most compelling bits of lore during Christianity’s transition from victim of Roman persecution to Roman state religion is the story of the Theban Legion, more than 6,600 Christian soldiers whose loyalty drew the line at sacrificing to the imperial gods, and who paid the price in 286 with their complete annihilation at the hands of Emperor Maximian. In Lost Legion Rediscovered, Donald O’Reilly, a retired history teacher from New York’s Rockland Community College, considers the reality behind the legend.
To begin with, the author shows the that legion was no legend, having been organized by Emperor Probus in 282 in what is now Sudan, comprising men from the Blemmyes tribe, some of whom were Coptic Christians, and the Itureans, Levantine tribesmen who had converted to Judaism and constituted a significant element among the earliest Christians. The Theban Legion, named for the Egyptian city where it was originally stationed, was a light-infantry unit with a contingent of archers, and its commander is known only by his Latin nickname, Mauritius. Rome later transferred the unit to Gaul to fight marauding bagaudae (“fighters,” mixed bands of rebelling farmers and soldiers). It was at Agaunum (present-day St. Maurice-en-Valais in southwestern Switzerland) that Mauritius and the legion underwent their mass martyrdom.
The first known written sources date to a century later in Christian Rome, when Bishop Eucherius of Lyon wrote in 383 about the discovery of a common grave on the banks of the Rhone River and identified the bodies therein as the executed soldiers of the Theban Legion. After interpreting the available records, the author believes the legion was not annihilated, but that after two decimations its troops were absorbed by other units, and that their distinctive red and yellow colors also passed to other units. Despite its occasional errors, Lost Legion Rediscovered is a remarkable book that should appeal to both the common reader and the historian of late Roman antiquity.