St. Maurice and companions
Sts. Maurice, Exuperius, and Candidus were leaders of a legion of Christians in the Roman army who were killed for leading the troops in heroic faithfulness.
Around the year 287, the Roman army marched out to suppress a revolt in what is now Switzerland. The emperor, Maximian, led the army, which was composed of troops conscripted from various parts of the empire. One legion of 6,600 soldiers was recruited from northern Egypt and was composed entirely of Christians.
When the Roman army arrived on the battlefield, Maximian ordered all soldiers to offer sacrifice to the gods for the success of the enterprise. The Christian legion withdrew from the army and refused to participate in the rites.
Maximian made several orders for them to obey. They refused, and he ordered the legion decimated—every tenth, randomly-selected soldier was executed. Maximian threatened continued decimations until the legion obeyed—he warned them he was willing to execute the entire legion.
Maurice, Exuperius, and Candidus led the legion, and they responded to Maximian by saying, “We are your soldiers, but we are also servants of the true God. We owe you military service and obedience, but we cannot renounce God who is our creator and master… We have arms in our hands, but we do not resist because we would rather die innocent than live by any sin.”
Maximian ordered the army to surround the legion and kill them all. The ground was covered with bodies and blood, and the other soldiers looted what they could from the slain legion. One soldier, Victor, refused to participate in the massacre and looting. Soldiers asked him if he was Christian. When he answered that he was, he was killed as well.
A shrine was built where these soldiers died, and miracles were attributed to the intercession of these martyrs.
This story has been under much study over the years, and it is well within reason that the account has been exaggerated. There does not seem to be outside evidence for the slaughter of a whole legion. What seems certain is that a soldier named Maurice and a number of his companions were martyred, but how many were killed is unknown. What was perhaps a squad was exaggerated to become a legion.
Relics of Sts. Maurice, Exuperius, Candidus, and Victor all rest in the reliquary chapel in the Basilica. The bust of St. Maurice pictured above stands in the Snite Museum of Art—it is actually a reliquary vessel itself, though today it stands empty in the museum’s medieval gallery.
St. Maurice is patron saint of the Pontifical Swiss Guards at the Vatican, and also of soldiers, swordsmiths, and weavers.
Sts. Maurice, Exuperius, Candidus, and Victor, who led their legion to faithfulness and martyrdom, pray for us!
Image credit: Unknown artist, Northern Italian, Reliquary Bust of Saint Maurice, c. 1530, gilt carved wood. Snite Museum of Art: University of Notre Dame Purchase Fund, 1962.030.