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The Tardent Family  from Ormont-Dessous, Vaud, Switzerland.

The Theban Legions

Agaunum is now called Saint Maurice after the legendary Theban legion commander who, according to the Catholic Church,  refused an order to kill local people who by this time had converted to Christianity. Mauritius and his men, being Coptic Christians would have no part of a massacre of local people on the grounds of religion.  The result, according to an account over one hundred years later by Eucherius, was that emperor Maximian ordered the legion to be decimated, twice, eventually killing all 6,600 men.  Near Agaunum, a place still identifiable as a former temple to Mercury, god of travellers, was excavated behind the abbey's present sanctuary. The site was the recorded discovery of martyrs' bones during the time of Theodore, Bishop of Octodurum, who was in office in the year 350. 

This was probably an authentic discovery of remains, and there is now no way of knowing whose remains they were. In all likelihood, particularly as there is a local name for the place where the skeletal remains were found, there is at least some truth to the legend of Saint Maurice. Another account has them as: ‘tertia Diocletiana Thebaeorum, the third Theban legion of Diocletia, the soldiers of this legion are from Egypt, allocated from around the ancient city of Thebes, but of Christian religion, who arrived in the country of the Veragri’ was written by Pietro Gioffredo, an historian from Nice, in 1671, after a visit to the Abbey at Saint Maurice.  While most accounts originate with Eucherius, the local name for the place where the bones were discovered is Verroliez from ‘vrai lieu’ or true place. There does not seem to be any other written account of the event, however there is no doubt it is based on an historical event.


At the zenith of the dynastic Egyptian civilization of antiquity, the archaeological remains of Thebes shows it to have been a shining jewel, an architectural, social and cultural light of the ancient world, with sophisticated astronomy, construction and civic systems. During the Bronze Age, great residences, brightly painted and surrounded with gardens,  were built on the banks of the river Nile.  This was the height of  palace culture, envied and emulated throughout the Fertile Plain of Asia Minor. Many wealthy families had large estates, and in the gracious public spaces, foreign traders and mercenaries mingled with the citizens.  The Thebans at this time were prosperous,  well recompensed for their labour in civic projects, such as building temples and tombs, public gardens and irrigation works.  As for every other civilization, the decline and fall of the age of the pharaohs was inevitable. Incursions by  people from the north, who envied Egypt’s climate stability and the annual flooding of the Nile destabilized Thebes. The Assyrians sacked Thebes in the 7th century BCE. Although it was later partly restored, the city declined steadily after the collapse of the 31st Dynasty. Thebes was sacked by the Romans late in the 1st century BCE.


According to tradition, Christianity was introduced to the Egyptians in the first century AD. From Alexandria, Christianity spread throughout Egypt. It spread to the rural areas, and scriptures, written in Coptic,  were translated into the local language, today known as the Coptic language.  By the beginning of the 3rd century AD,  Christians constituted the majority of Egypt’s population, and the Church of Alexandria was recognized as one of Christendom's four Apostolic Sees.  The Coptic Encyclopaedia finds that there were two legions bearing the name ‘Theban’,  both of them formed by Diocletian sometime after the Roman conquest. Diocletian rose through the ranks of the military to become cavalry commander, and successfully plotted to become an emperor.  He was responsible for raising legions of men for the army as part of the settlement at Alexandria. Rome often employed soldiers from the provinces, sparing Romans from engaging in the more difficult and dangerous work.  Men were co-opted into the Roman army from Thebes. Current Coptic tradition has it that there was a single cohort, a tenth of a legion, martyred at Agaunum. The remainder of the cohorts (battalion sized units of which there were ten to a legion) were either on the march or already stationed along the Roman road that ran from Liguria through Turin and Milan, then across Alps and down the Rhine to Colonia Agrippinensis (Cologne). 


Historical record indicates that in 286 Maximian recruited a legion of men from Thebes because of a Gallic revolt by people known as the Bagaudi.  Originally the term meant a group or a troop, and in Valais, would have comprised the local Celtic people  who were unhappy with Roman rule. They probably hid out in the less accessible parts of the surrounding Alps, rather than submit to Rome. The Thebans were recorded as having been stationed in north Italy just over the Great Saint Bernard Pass, and it is likely that they were despatched the short distance over the Alps to Octodurum  and Agaunum (Saint Maurice) to quell the troublesome locals,   to deal with the upstarts seen as setting bad examples to the rest of the population. The locals were no doubt safely ensconced in their well defended, largely inaccessible mountain fortress hideouts, high above the Rhone Plain.  By the third century, the legion was a much smaller unit of about 1,000 to 1,500 men, and there were more of them. It is more likely that the Thebans were a body of far fewer than 1,000 men, dispatched to deal with the Bagaudi around Agaunum and Octodurum, assembled ad hoc to meet a crisis situation in the Upper Rhone Valley. The monastic accounts themselves do not specifically state that all the soldiers were collectively executed.  An eleventh-century monk named Otto of Freising wrote that most of the legionaries escaped, and only some were executed.


The Thebans were not barbarians, and although mercenaries in the employ of Rome, the practice of employing Thebans as auxiliaries was originally part of the Egyptian’s surrender, and clearly continued as an occupation for young men from a state with a troubled economy.  They were ordinary men,  members of a civilized society, who according to historical account, were Coptic Christians,  being ordered to kill other men, women and children, something that was totally against their beliefs. How do you get people to kill other people?  That is part of the conditioning of the regular army.  Yet the Thebans would have had no love for the emperor, feeling no allegiance to Rome. This was clearly a crisis of conscience, Roman army or no Roman army.


The geographic features of the Alps meant that local knowledge would have allowed the Bagaudi to pursue their own destiny, safe from the Romans.  There are difficult steep tracks all over the mountains in this region, known only to mountain goats and locals.  The knowledge of these pathways would have been a saving grace for the local people, and it is no surprise, after Rome’s previous experience once the locals were dug into their strongholds, that a foreign source of troops was sought to once again rout the Celts from their traditional, strategic, natural citadels.  Over the two hundred years between the coming of the Romans, and Maximian’s deployment of the Theban legion to maintain the trade route over the Alps,  the local Celtic people had plenty of time to develop secret tracks through the highest, steepest and most inhospitable parts of the mountains and surrounding Alps. These trails  today are used by recreational hikers, well sign-posted and maintained by local authorities. In those days, the tracks would have been a complete mystery to the Romans, and because of the terrain, exploring them without local knowledge could have led to an impassable precipices, a cul-de-sac gorge,  and hence into an ambush at any time. Tracks that would have allowed the Veragri, Nantuaten and Seduni who did not live on the river plain, to resist Roman rule indefinitely, using local knowledge and advantage to ambush and trap the soldiers from Civitatis Rome.  No wonder the emperor wanted to use foreign troops, when trying to face down the alpinist Celtic people on their home territory.  It appears that the lighter hand of government exercised by previous Roman rulers, whereby the local people had a large degree of autonomy over their own affairs, came to an end with the bloody rise of  Diocletian, a man of peasant stock who took the title of emperor through aggression, treachery, and assassination.  


The story of the martyrdom of the Theban legion appears to have deep local roots. According to a letter from Eucherius, bishop of Lyon written about 450, bodies identified as the martyrs of Agaunum were discovered and identified by Theodore, the first historically identified Bishop of Octodurum, who was present at the Council of Aquileia in 381. There is a lot of scepticism about this legend from various sources, and it is highly likely that the account written by Eucherius had the usual distortions of a tale told after the fact.  And perhaps it was an exaggeration. That is not to say, however, that it was without foundation. There may be a number of facets to the  narrative explaining the cache of human remains that led to the sanctification of Mauritius and his men, who most probably did exist.


The Thebans were being asked to do what the Romans did not want to do, take on the Celts on their own ground. The Thebans, as mercenaries with no allegiance to Rome, could well have decided that to refuse to slaughter the local Bagaudi of Celtic origin. The Thebans homeland, too,  had been invaded by Rome.  The Thebans were poorly paid mercenaries who had not been brainwashed by extensive military training,  neither to owe allegiance to their conquerors, nor to regard the ‘Bagaudi’ as enemies. If the Thebans refused to kill them, and some were put to death as a consequence,  the local people could well have used emissaries to offer the Thebans guidance and shelter, and escape routes to various safe places, including a hidden valley where they would not be found,  when they chose to desert rather than face the despotic emperors wrath, and further executions. The account, deposited in the archives of Lausanne, written by Henri Tardent, a Swiss professor living and working in Nikolayev in Russia  in 1887 contains an anecdote handed down in the Ormonts Valley.  He records a story that was said to be as old as the families who were the earliest inhabitants of the Ormonts Valley, present at least since at least since 1398. Henri’s account asserts that the valley,  once an uninhabited wilderness,  was always said to have been founded by men who had run away from a Theban legion of the Roman army stationed at Saint Maurice.


If they had made contact with the local Bagaudi, then desertion would have  become a viable option. Both the people of Thebes, and the original inhabitants of the Upper Rhone Valley had no love for Rome, particularly with the tyrants on the emperor’s throne at the time.   It is very possible that the locals offered shelter in the remotest location known in the region that was habitable at the time. In which case, it really begs the question of exactly when the Ormonts Valley was originally settled.  Perhaps at least some of the ancestors originally found their way to this challenging environment earlier than the twelfth century, as the history books have it. The local Celtic people perhaps had already established a couple of settlements in the hidden valley that they offered as sanctuary to the Thebans. They would have had to lead them there, as they would not have found it alone. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the earliest settlement in the Ormonts Valley was at Vers l’Eglise. If it was a place that sheltered both Bagaudi and Thebans, it would explain why it is one of the coldest spots in the valley. It is hidden under the lee of the mountain, impossible to see even the smoke from their fires from any vantage point taken by soldiers hiking into the valley, and wild enough to deter an army.  


The Bagaudi and others who lived high in the mountains overlooking the Upper Rhone Valley had kept at least part of their culture despite Roman law, systems of  cultivation, cities and large mansions. Their lifestyle had evolved into that of seasonal pastoralists, in a large part of the high alpine country. It is not clear if they were Christians or that this was the basis for dissent against Roman rule, or whether they were simply protesting as people do who have been dispossessed of their lands and heritage, against tyranny by an occupying force. Whatever the reason, this was a latent philosophy of a revolution against an imposed hegemony, emerging when conditions became too onerous.  The Bagaudi did claim their ethnic and cultural differences, and their right to improving their social conditions.  It appears that once again, climate variability also played a part.  The dendrochronology data evidence indicates a cooling period beginning around 200 and lasting until around 315 AD.  Rainfall in north-eastern France and central Europe became exceptionally variable from 250 until  650 AD, and a marked dry spell peaked around the year 300. The scientific data is in accord with written reports that there had been a worsening climate that had led to lower crop yields.


The name ‘Bagaudi’ appeared for the first time during the riots against Emperor Marcus Aurelius Carino around 282. Their first rebellion was quelled by the general Maximian, however the Bagaudi merely went underground,  as dissent was recorded as returning several times up till around  460 AD.  There is an account that during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire,  the Bagaudi, in 407 forced general Saro to pay them all the booty collected in the countryside of Gaul in exchange for a safe passage through the Alpine passes. This indicates that the Bagaudi in Valais and the Chablais never lost the command of their own territory, simply migrated upwards to maintain their autonomy. It was a movement that spread throughout the formerly Celtic territories, and may indicate that the old allegiances were not dead. It is probable that there was ongoing communication between local people from Upper Rhone Valley at least with people in Gaul and possibly as distant as Iberia.


Roman control of most of Switzerland ceased in 401 AD. It may well be that in the wake of  the departing Romans, the  people sought to re-establish the old alliances of language and culture. However the tide of history was against them. After the crossing of the Rhine in 406,  Switzerland began to be occupied by an organized invasion of the Burgundians, a Germanic people originating in Scandinavia, while the people, originally from the Helvetic and Rhone Valley tribes retreated further into the mountains.  This period in history is often portrayed as a Germanic migration.  However to the locals it was just one more territorial incursion, an invasion imposed upon people who had not recovered their cultural identity after the Roman conquest. The Germanic tribes had after all aligned themselves with Rome to conquer the Gauls.  And once again the next wave of incomers succeeded after aligning themselves again with Rome. The Burgundians engaged in many wars, and in 443 AD were given the territory of  Savoie around Lyon by the Romans in the latter stages of the Roman Empire. The Burgundians of course proved to be treacherous to Rome in the dying stages of the empire, and through murderous plots and counterplots, the center of power moved to Burgundy, where they managed for a time to take over most of  modern Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland. 


Live by the sword, die by the sword, they were superseded by the Franks, a subsequent  alliance of Germanic tribes.  Following the collapse of Rome in the West,  the power vacuum was filled by the Frankish tribes united under the Merovingians. They succeeded in conquering most of Gaul in the 6th century. The Franks became very powerful. The Merovingian dynasty,  descendants of the Salians, founded one of the Germanic monarchies that replaced the Western Roman Empire. The Frankish state consolidated its hold over large parts of Western Europe by the end of the eighth century, developing into the Carolingian Empire. Under the Carolingian kings, the feudal system proliferated. Monasteries and bishoprics became important bases for maintaining power and exploiting the local people.  This empire would gradually evolve into the state of France and the Holy Roman Empire.