Comments to: David Woods
Last Updated: April 2004

The Origin of the Cult of St. Maximilian of Tebessa

According to the surviving account of St. Maximilian, he was a military recruit who was executed on 12 March 295 for his refusal to accept military service. This text is commonly accepted as an early account of a genuine martyr, probably based on the official record of the trial itself, and may be found in all the standard collections of the acts of the early martyrs. As a result it has been widely used as an important historical source, by ecclesiastical historians and moral theologians in their discussions concerning the attitude of the early church to war and military service, and by ancient historians in their discussions concerning the functioning of the recruitment process into the late Roman army.1 Unfortunately, this conclusion has been reached as a result of ignorance of the wider hagiographical tradition concerning military martyrs, of the passion of St. Theagenes of Parium in particular, and because of a simplistic tendency to elevate those texts which do not contain any miracles while severely denigrating those that do. The arguments against the authenticity of the passion may be summarized as follows:

(1) There is no early evidence for the cult of St. Maximilian. Despite the fact that a large number of inscriptions have survived to provide us with a detailed insight into the cult of martyrs in northern Africa, none mention St. Maximilian.2 It is not particularly surprising, therefore, that bishop Augustine of Hippo does not mention him in one of his sermons in honour of various martyrs. 3 More importantly, neither the mid 5th century Hieronymian Martyrology nor the early 6th century Calendar of Carthage mention him, despite the fact that he was supposed to have been buried at Carthage itself, near the grave of St. Cyprian even. The earliest mention of St. Maximilian occurs in the martyrology composed by the deacon Florus of Lyons in the early 9th century.

(2) The passion contains internal contradictions. A recent study has concluded that "the text combines and confuses two distinct recruitment procedures", and that the depiction of Victor as a temonarius forcing an unwilling recruit, his son, into service best fits the practice of the late 4th and early 5th century.4

(3) The passion contains unhistorical nonsense. Despite the tens of thousands of lead objects that have survived from the ancient world, including several thousand lead seals of various types, nothing has yet been found which can be identified with the lead seal (signaculum) which Maximilian allegedly threatened to break if it were set about his neck.5

(4) There is no evidence for the existence of a proconsul of Africa by the name of Cassius Dion. Despite the fact that the name of Cassius Dion is regularly inserted among the lists of proconsuls of Africa, there is no evidence for his existence as such other than this passion. While a certain Cassius Dion was consul in 291 and prefect of Rome by February 296, it is by no means certain either that he is identifiable with the Cassius Dion of our passion,6 or that he must have been proconsul of Africa sometime during the intermediate period 292-95 rather than proconsul of Achaea or of Asia even. It is possible to squeeze Dion's name in among the list of known proconsuls of Africa, but this proves nothing in itself. On the contrary, the addition of his name to the list of proconsuls requires us to believe that the 4-year tenures of Aristobulus (290-94) and Dionysius (296-300) were separated by two short periods of tenure by Cassius Dion (294-95) and Titianus (295-96), while it remains equally possible, and more consistent with the pattern of tenure at this period, that Titianus held this office for the whole of the period 294-96. The most probable explanation for the occurrence of the name of Cassius Dio in our passion is that its author chose it at random from the same consular list which he used to ensure that he picked genuinely Diocletianic consuls when creating the official-reading opening for his text.

(5) The passion "borrows" wholesale from the late passion of St. Theagenes of Parium. The verbal similarities between the Latin passion of St. Theagenes, which survives in several slightly different recensions, and the passion of St. Maximilian prove that the author of one text must have plagiarized the other. Given that (1) the author of the original Greek passion of St. Theagenes had already used a passion of St. Theodore of Euchaita as his main source and did not need another source, therefore, and that (2) the original Greek passion of St. Theagenes was translated into Latin while there is no evidence that the passion of St. Maximilian was ever translated into Greek, it is clear that the author of the passion of St. Maximilian plagiarized the Latin passion of St. Theagenes of Parium rather than vice versa.

The only reason that the passion of St. Maximilian has been accepted as a genuine passion is that it looks good, i.e. it begins in an official manner with proper consular dating and contains no miracles. The official-reading opening of the passion proves little other than that the author of this text was familiar with such works as the passion of the famous St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (249-58), which opens in exactly such a manner. As for the lack of miracles, the fact that St. Maximilian does not raise the dead or slay a dragon, this is consistent with other fictitious texts of the late Roman period which are equally sober and restrained in their claims concerning the merits of the martyrs whose sufferings they describe. One only has to read bishop Eucherius of Lyons (c.430-50) account of St. Maurice and the Theban legion, for example, to appreciate that Latin hagiographers were capable of such restraint well into the 5th century.

In summary, the evidence proves that the passion of St. Maximilian is a late antique forgery. To be more precise, since the original Greek passion of St. Theagenes of Parium was composed sometime after the creation of the eastern province of Honorias c.384, the passion of St. Maximilian cannot have been written before c.384.7 If one may assume an African, perhaps even a Carthaginian origin for this text, since it was about a martyr who was supposed to have been buried at Carthage, then the Vandal invasion of Africa which culminated in the capture of Carthage in 439 and resulted in the destruction of the Roman system of recruitment there must provide the terminus ante quem. Hence one may date the composition of the passion of St. Maximilian to sometime during the period c.384-439, probably during the later years of this period. Indeed, one wonders whether it was not the disturbance concomitant upon the Vandal invasion and occupation which prevented the cult of the newly invented martyr St. Maximilian from establishing itself in a way that it might otherwise have done.


1     Recent authors to accept the authenticity of the passion include, e.g. T.D. Barnes, The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine (Cambridge, MA, 1982), 177-83; B. Campbell, The Roman Army 31BC-AD337: A Sourcebook (London, 1994), 12, 237-38. H. Elton, Warfare in Roman Europe AD350-425 (Oxford, 1996), 90, n.6, refers to the passion in support of his claim that Roman soldiers wore "dogtags (bullae)", despite the fact that it does not even use this term.

Return to text

2     Y.Duval, Loca Sanctorum Africae: Le Culte des Martyrs en Afrique du IVe au VIIe Siècle (Rome, 1982), 2 vols., catalogues 195 inscriptions.

Return to text

3     In general, see C. Lambot, "Les sermons de Saint Augustin pour les fetes de martyrs", Revue Benedictine 79 (1969), 82-97.

Return to text

4     C. Zuckerman, "Two Reforms of the 370s: Recruiting Soldiers and Senators in the Divided Empire", Revue des Etudes Byzantines 56 (1998), 79-139, at 136-39. Unfortunately, Zuckerman does not realise the wider problems with the passion so he concludes that the contradictions arise as a result of the revision of an original and genuine passion in the late 4th or early 5th century.

Return to text

5     M.C.W. Still, Roman Lead Sealings (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of London, 1995: British Library No. DX201717) catalogues 1,810 different sealings, multiple copies of which exist in many cases. He also discusses, pp. 112-13, the interpretation of the "seal" (signaculum) described by the passion of St. Maximilian only to conclude that, "If this practice really did take place, then we do not seem to have any recognized examples of these identity discs".

Return to text

6     This is the common assumption, e.g., by A.H.M. Jones, J.R. Martindale, and J. Morris (eds.), The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire I: AD260-395 (Cambridge, 1971), 253, who do not blush even to claim further that this man was "probably grandson or great-grandson of of the historian M. Cassius Dion Cocceianus who died c.230".

Return to text

7     See D. Woods, "The Origin of the Cult of St. Theagenes of Parium", Greek Orthodox Theological Review (1998), forthcoming.

Return to text

Return to Top of Page
Return to St. Maximilian Title Page
Copyright © 1999, David Woods. This file may be copied for the purpose of private research only.