Catholics and the Military in the Age of Catholic Martyrs

On my website I am trying to start a series on Catholics and the Military in each age of Church History. The second installment is up, and is called “Catholics and the Military in the Age of Catholic Martyrs”. I thought you guys might be interested in this series, so I’ll post the links here as I complete them. I hope you enjoy!

Catholics and the Military in the Age of Catholic Martyrs (100 - 300 A.D.)


The Thundering Legion
The Theban Legion

The Fathers Under Pagan Rome on Just War
—St. Irenaeus on the Military
—St. Clement of Alexandria on Just War
—Tertullian on Just War
—Origen on Just War

The Thundering Legion

~160 A.D. - “[The Christians] began the battle, not by preparing weapons, nor arms, nor bugles; for such preparation is hateful to them, on account of the God they bear about in their conscience…[but] they prayed not only for me, but also for the whole army…[and] upon the enemies of Rome [God poured] a withering hail.” (Marcus Aurelius, Letter to the Senate on the campaign in Germany)

The Thundering Legion was a military company with at least some Catholic soldiers in its ranks. In this passage Emperor Marcus Aurelius remarks that at least some of the Catholic soldiers had conscientious objections to bearing arms. Some use this as evidence that the early Christians were pacifists, but the passage doesn’t say that. The soldiers were not pacifists because they prayed for God to help the Roman combatants and defeat their opponents. A pacifist would only pray that both sides lay down their weapons. These Christians seem to have believed that the Roman armies were justified in using weapons against the enemy, but some of the Christians wouldn’t bear those arms themselves.

The Theban Legion

286 A.D. - St. Maurice - “We are your soldiers, but are servants of the true God. We owe you military service and obedience; but we cannot renounce Him who is our Creator and Master, and also yours, even whilst you reject him. In all things which are not against his law we most willingly obey you, as we have done hitherto. We readily oppose all your enemies, whoever they are; but we cannot dip our hands in the blood of innocent persons. … You command us to punish the Christians: behold we are all such.” (Speech of St. Maurice to Emperor Maximian, in St. Eucherius’s Passio Acaunensium Martyrum, excerpted and translated in Butler’s Lives of the Saints)

The Theban Legion was a military company in which a large number of Catholic soldiers were martyred during the persecution by Emperor Maximian. Its leader was St. Maurice. The story of the legion’s martyrdom was written by St. Eucherius of Lyon in his Passio Acaunensium Martyrum. I am not aware of a complete English translation of this work, but extracts from it appear to have been included in the Golden Legend’s account of the life of St. Maurice, and that work has been translated.

Eusebius of Caesarea, though he does not mention this company specifically, reports that Christian soldiers were the first to die in the persecution begun by Diocletian, who was Maximian’s co-emperor. This report also confirms the presence of Christians in the army.

~324 A.D. - Eusebius of Caesarea - “[Diocletian] did not wage war against all of us at once, but made trial at first only of those in the army. For he supposed that the others could be taken easily if he should first attack and subdue these. Thereupon many of the soldiers were seen most cheerfully embracing private life, so that they might not deny their piety toward the Creator of the universe. … For when the commander, whoever he was, began to persecute the soldiers, separating into tribes and purging those who were enrolled in the army, giving them the choice either by obeying to receive the honor which belonged to them, or on the other hand to be deprived of it if they disobeyed the command, a great many soldiers of Christ’s kingdom, without hesitation, instantly preferred the confession of him to the seeming glory and prosperity which they were enjoying.” (Eusebius Church History Book 8 Chapter 3 Paragraphs 2-3)

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