By: Phil Williams
On the shelf at my office is a shadowbox holding a large bronze medallion hanging from a ribbon approximately 1 ½ inches wide. The ribbon has two sky blue bands and one of yellow. The medallion itself is about two inches in diameter and hangs from a clasp on the ribbon in the shape of an eagle with the word “Legionnaire” imprinted on it. The medallion has a wreath around its borders and is emblazoned with the cast image of a Roman soldier extending his hand down to help a fallen comrade. Aside from the imagery, the medallion also reads “The Order of Saint Maurice” and “The National Infantry Association.”
The Order of Saint Maurice medallion is an award given to honor those who are inducted into the Order for their roles contributing to or serving in the US Army Infantry.
It becomes even more special with some research designed to better understand why the Infantry Association chose to call their special order the Order of Saint Maurice. What I found is an epic tale of heroism about which movies should be made.
The story of the real Maurice is also a testimony to the kind of attitude that we need more of during this time of heightened assault on conservative values. An attitude that says, “Not on my watch” and coupled with the kind of leadership that men and women look to that is so significant that they are willing to place themselves at risk for the greater good. The story of Saint Maurice is really a story of men who were willing to look evil in the eye and calmly take the position that “doin’ right ain’t hard” even when it means that doin’ right means great sacrifice.
What we know today of Maurice may be part fact and part fiction. But it is nonetheless documented and he is still revered in some parts of the world. Maurice was from the ancient city of Thebes in Egypt. Thebes was the capital of the region at that time during the period in which the Roman Empire had conquered Egypt.
Maurice’s image is depicted in multiple ancient paintings and frescos as a black man in full armor. As was the custom of the time, Rome expanded its military to include residents of conquered lands, and Maurice became a soldier of the Roman Army. He rose through the ranks and eventually became the commander of the Theban Legion with approximately 5000 men under his command.
Maurice was also an acknowledged Christian at a time when Christianity was considered suspect and a threat to the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, Maurice commanded his legion which is believed to also have been comprised entirely of Christians.
In the first quarter of the tenth century AD, the Theban Legion under Maurice’s command was dispatched to what is now the Swiss Alps to quell a rebellion. Before going into battle they were ordered to make sacrifices to Rome’s pagan gods. Maurice is said to have reaffirmed his loyalty to Rome but refused to take part in the pagan rituals. Legend says that he was then ordered to take his legion into the field and to kill and harass local Christians for no other reason than the Roman Emperor Maximian wanted them to be persecuted.
History says that Maurice told his superiors that while he was militarily loyal to Rome, his service to God superseded all else and he and his men saw wanton slaughter as something that was unacceptable. Maurice then ordered his men to withdraw from the field.
Under Maurice’s leadership, the Theban Legion refused to compromise their own faith by worshipping pagan idols and further refused to abandon their deep principles to destroy Christian villages.
Emperor Maximian is said to have been outraged and ordered that every tenth man be executed, a punishment called “decimation.” But it didn’t work. The Emperor then ordered a second decimation. It still did not work. So legend says that in and around the small village of what is now known as St. Moritz (or “Maurice”), Switzerland, the entire Theban Legion was martyred.
Earliest documents relating the events date to 453 AD and Maurice was eventually canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church. Over time more than 650 religious foundations and orders have been dedicated to his honor. The sword and spurs of Saint Maurice were a key part of the royal regalia used to coronate Austro-Hungarian emperors all the way up to 1916. It is said that his remains and those of several of his men are now entombed at Magdeburg Cathedral in Germany.
But Maurice’s story, while epic in its good-versus-evil narrative, is really about so much more. Despite the reverence for who he was and what he did, the real story of Saint Maurice is the backstory. The fact that the man, who his own commanders probably viewed as the least among them, was a leader of such determination and faith he was willing to look his leadership in the eye and let them know that wrong is still wrong, and he would take no part in it.
But even more than that, he was a leader who inspired his own men so intensely that they were willing to sacrifice their own well being to follow his example. We don’t have any stories of defectors from within the ranks of the Theban Legion. Perhaps there were some who caved, but we don’t know of them. Truth be told, cowards don’t become saints, and so history records the great and principled stand of the Theban Legion and the leadership of Saint Maurice.
I’m watching world events right now and believing that there are Maurice-types among us even now. There has to be. Because if there are not, then we are in a world of hurt. As many conservatives watch with great concern, I hold out hope that within the ranks of an overly politicized FBI, a double-standard promoting DOJ, a negligent DHS, an emboldened IRS, and the strange party-line water-toters in the Pentagon, there have to be men and women who are willing to look their leadership in the eye and say “That is not my mission, and that is a violation of my conscience.”
I once heard a major tell a very subordinate captain that he needed to get his head on straight and remember that an otherwise lawful order did not have to be heeded if in fact it was illegal, immoral, or unethical, but that being unpopular was not one of the criteria. He was right. But too many sheep in high places these days refuse to question a leadership that tells them to act in a manner that flies in the face of their charter. You may not like the orders you are given, they may be unpopular, and yet necessary. But the orders that require an individual to violate their mission to provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and ensure domestic tranquility by voiding the actual liberties of those they are sworn to defend must be balanced against that standard of “illegal, immoral, and unethical.”
We need more folks right now to heed the example of Saint Maurice, Commander of the Theban Legion. Doing the right thing for him and his men came at a great cost, to be sure. But doin’ right ain’t hard when you are a principled individual. History does not canonize sheep who go along to get along. Cowards do not become saints. Doin’ right ain’t hard.
By: Phil Williams