February is Black History month! While other, better-informed sources have covered the biographies and histories of recent African American luminaries, we are stepping far back in time (and far away on the map) to find a subject for this post. This (conveniently) spares us from looking into the nightmarish Atlantic slave trade and the centuries of associated injustices which have formed the foundation of Black history in the new world, but, it also means we must examine the mindsets and mentalities of Ancient Roman and Medieval societies. The prejudices and projections of those eras are…different from what we might expect, but writing about that time from a modern vantage poses all sorts of moral and epistemological quandaries. And that is before we even ask about whether any of this is real.

Saint Maurice (Lucas Cranach, ca. 1520) oil on panel

Alright…enough historicism. Above is Mauritius of Thebes AKA Saint Maurice, a third century Roman general who led the vaunted Theban Legion, an elite infantry squadron of a thousand Roman legionaries based in Egypt. Born around AD 250 in Thebes, Mauritius was a Coptic Christian, however he was also a Roman soldier who understood how to navigate the mélange of languages, cultures, and faiths at the borders of the vast empire. Or so it seemed–the third century was a time of profound crisis for the Roman Empire, and the Theban Legion was sent across the seas and high mountains to Alpine Gaul (modern Switzerland) to fight against rebels. These rebels were bagaudae, peasant insurgents who revolted against the mercurial rapacity of the Roman elites (who, in turn, found time and resources within the larger cycle of ruin, civil wars, and famine to crush the insurgents utterly). At a pass in the Alps (today known as the Great Saint Bernard Pass), Emperor Maximian ordered Mauritius’ legion to massacre some local Christians. When Mauritius refused to carry out the orders, the Theban legion was punished with decimation (every tenth man was executed), and when Mauritius refused Maximian’s order a second time, the Caesar ordered that Mauritius and all of his men be killed.

And that was it for Mauritius…or would have been except, as with Saint Nicholas, stories and legends began springing up around Mauritius after his death. As an Egyptian soldier in northern lands, Mauritius took on more and more fabulous trappings and appurtenances after his death. Maurice was said to have worn magnificent armor emblazoned with a red cross. He was reputed to have gone into battle bearing the holy lance, the spear which pierced Christ’s side. Otto I (here is his crown!) had Maurice’s sacred remains interred at the great cathedral of Magdeburg,

Soon Maurice was the patron saint of infantrymen, swordsmiths, weavers, alpine soldiers, gout sufferers, dyers, and (maybe best of all) Holy Roman Emperors! In the 12th century, as the German Empire entered a zenith, Maurice’s image was everywhere, and instead of being pictured as a stereotypical Roman, he was portrayed as an African dressed in armor. The rather splendid statue of Maurice at Magdeberg is a fine medieval example. Carved around 1250, the statue portrays Maurice in 13th century chainmail and with ebony skin and undisguised (and un-caricatured) Nubian features.

Saint Maurice (Anonymous sculptor, ca 1250) painted wood

The Cult of Maurice became more prominent up until the mid-16th century when suddenly everything changed (as the burgeoning African slave trade spread its racist lies and cruel stereotypes to Germany, Bohemia, Austria, and Switzerland). Suddenly Maurice turned white (and less important within his own story)!

So, uh, who was Maurice? Was he a Roman soldier or a holy man? Was he Black or a Roman or an Egyptian or what? Why is he dressed as a 15th century German courtier? Was he even a real person? Unfortunately none of the answers to those questions are straightforward or even satisfactory. Neither Romans (some of whom were Black) nor Medieval lords (some of whom were Black) thought of race in the same way as 18th century plantation owners (some of whom were Black). Maurice could have been Black and Egyptian and a Roman general. Saint Maurice is thought of as the first black Christian Saint except for maybe, uh, Jesus, who is equally ambiguous and hard to pin down (and also maybe not real). If I had to guess, I would say Maurice was not real–or rather he was real in the way that Jesus was real: which is to say that there were indeed military commanders and problematic street rabbis roaming around the Roman world and Christian writers used these figures to tell the story they wanted to tell.

Meeting of St Erasm and St Maurice (Mathias Grünewald,ca.1517-23) oil on panel

And what a story this is! At its heart, Saint Maurice’s story is a transcendent story of moral bravery and sacrifice. It is also a dangerous story capable of unending all social hierarchies. When the Emperor of known civilization gives one of his generals an order to kill innocent people, the soldier decides to give up his social standing, his men, and even his life rather than follow the unjust command. Such radical compassion is truly Christlike! It immediately illustrates that there are bigger things going on than rank, status, victory, empire..or even survival. Saint Maurice makes us think hard about human choices. It would be lovely to think that racial identity is likewise a fungible choice to be dispensed with in the face of larger moral imperatives, but, alas, in this world of continuing bigotry, such idealism is also apparently still a myth.