O’Reilly, The Lost Legion Rediscovered

Donald O’Reilly’s The Lost Legion Rediscovered is a remarkable book. The author, a retired teacher of history, tries to describe the adventures of the Theban Legion, a Roman military unit that is mentioned for the first time in 383 by bishop Eucherius of Lyon, who tells that the Christian soldiers had refused to follow an order they considered immoral, and were consequently killed in a town now known as St Maurice-en-Valais in Switzerland.

The key detail is that this happened under orders of caesar Maximian. This is, at first sight, sufficient to discard the story. After all, Maximian ruled from 285 to 305, so there is a considerable gap between the legionaries’ martyrdom and the first source. However, if the story were invented, Eucherius would have given his villain the rank of augustus, not caesar, which he held in the winter of 285/286 only. For O’Reilly, this is the ‘smoking gun’ that proves that Eucherius had access to reliable information.

O’Reilly argues that the soldiers of the unit were recruited by the emperor Probus in southern Egypt and send to Italy, where they found themselves in a civil war. This was the confused age of the peasant insurrection of the Bagaudae in northwestern Gaul, of the usurpation of Carausius, and the clash between on the one hand the emperors Carinus and Numerian and on the other hand Diocletian and Maximian. O’Reilly argues that the Theban Legion, which was trained by an officer corps that consisted of veterans converted to Christianity, refused to massacre the Bagaudae, whose “chief offence … was not paying taxes. Killing them would not resolve it.” The refusal to follow an order they considered impractical and immoral, cost the legionaries of the rearguard their lives. Nevertheless, the unit was not disbanded, and it was the “mother” of the four Theban units that are mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum.

It’s a complex story. The late third century is difficult to study, and O’Reilly has to deal with subjects as varied as the demise of the pagan religions in the crisis of the third century, civil wars, slave revolts, and Christian values, and he has to use numismatics, papyri, little-known Coptic and Syriac texts, and damaged inscriptions. Nevertheless, he tells his story well and it is possible that the Christians in a recently created unit were indeed killed in the western Alps.

Possible. But there is little direct evidence that it actually happened. Worse, O’Reilly makes many mistakes that can easily be recognized by anyone interested in ancient warfare, and will leave him with the idea that the author was not up to his task. For example, he uses the Historia Augusta, which contains hardly any reliable information for this period, almost uncritically. A very substantial part of his reconstruction is built on very shaky foundations. O’Reilly only proves that the massacre of a Theban Legion is possible, not that it is likely.

However, a negative judgment would not do justice to the book. O’Reilly is, essentially, interested in something far more profound than the historical details. He is in fact arguing that

… to be intelligently honest, a person needs to be a cynic, but ultimately there is need to be cynical even of cynicism. That is where faith enters.

Everyone – Christian or not – has some basic believes about the value of human life, and any civilized person must try to deescalate violence. O’Reilly is not advocating pacifism, but a professional militarism. The best soldiers are not those who uncritically follow any order, but those who think. The soldiers of O’Reilly’s Theban Legion are the Roman equivalents of the German officers of the Von Stauffenberg conspiracy.

As a book about ancient military history, The Lost Legion Rediscovered is not good enough, but it addresses important questions about a warrior’s moral obligations.

[Originally published in Ancient Warfare magazine]


3 Responses to O’Reilly, The Lost Legion Rediscovered

  1. I would really like to read this. I’m not sure if there can be a ‘smoking gun’, as the identity of the unit itself has been under debate for very long, but the legend in itself is interesting enough. Not only St. maurice has his origin here, but the ‘legion’ itself travels upon legenadry roads to other parts of Switzerland and Germany, down to Cologne even, where they become mixed in other late Roman and early Medieval legends. One such is the legend of the ‘massacre of the 300 virgins’ at Cologne, originating from the burial sites there, but spawning an immense network of female saints all over Western Europe.

  2. From your description, I suspect we have yet another loathsome tome of ‘popular’ history, based upon half-baked theories and tendentious evidence.

    I stopped ordering ‘historical’ books to review for Amazon, because they are so often based on a dearth of primary sources as well as being thinly footnoted, if at all.

    Such historical spinning might be acceptable in the form of historical novels, which can be very enjoyable, and there is no attempt to disguise what is plainly fiction, as ‘history’.

  3. There’s indeed a lot of rubbish, and usually I am quite sceptical about it.

    What I detest most is people who have no proper training as historians but call themselves historians, call for large-scale analysis, and in fact cross into the territory of ideology. There are quite a lot classicists in this category (e.g., Tom Holland, who is apparently unaware that if you want to claim that, say, events in the distant past influence ourselves, you have to prove a continuity from then to now, which they invariably forget).

    Those people claim a certainty they cannot offer and claim to be something they are not. That’s what I do not like. O’Reilly, on the other hand, admits how preciously little we know. I find that honesty sympathetic.

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