Saint Maurice was born roughly in the year AD 250 in the city of Thebes, an incredibly ancient city in Egypt (then under the Roman Empire). From an early age he professed the faith of Christ and through his military service was eventually placed in command of the Theban legion, an army unit consisting of roughly 6,000 men. In 284 AD, the Emperor Diocletian ruled in the East and Emperor Maximian from the west. Maximian began campaigning against various Germanic tribes that were rebelling against the empire and found himself besieged at Marigny.
After sending for aid, the Thebian legion was ordered to relieve the army with strict orders to pillage and burn their way across the countryside. The orders were to immediately clear the Saint Bernard Pass across the alps with sacrifices to the Roman gods before beginning the battle. Saint Maurice refused both orders - that the slaughter of innocents would be inconceivable to Christian soldiers and that there was no possible way they could make sacrifice to the Roman gods.
Emperor Maximian's reply and punishment was swift - he ordered the decimation of the unit and every tenth soldier of the legion was executed. Encouraged by the their leader, the men of the legion again refused further orders to sacrifice and so a second decimation was ordered by the emperor. When this second decimation failed to force the men and Saint Maurice from changing their positions on the sacrifices and slaughter of villagers, the entire legion was executed, Saint Maurice among them.
The site of this execution and martyrdom is now called Saint-Maurice Switzerland and is the site of the Abbey of Saint Maurice.
In 926 AD, Henry the Fowler ceded the Swiss canton of Aargau to the abbey in return for relics of Saint Maurice (his lance, sword and spurs). Until 1916, the sword and spurs were part of the the regalia used at the coronation of Austro-Hungarian Emperors. In Switzerland, there are 7 churches or altars dedicated to him and in Appenzell Innerrhoden his feast day is a cantonal holiday. A full 52 different towns and villages in France are named in his honor. There are many chivaldric orders named for Saint Maurice, one especially being the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus (formed 1572). Others include the Order of the Golden Fleece (1430) and the Order of Saint Maurice.
On July 19th, 1941, Pope Pius XII declared Saint Maurice to be the patron saint of the Italian Army's Alpini (mountain warfare infantry corps). Today, he is the patron saint of - among many others - infantry men, the army, the Carolingian dynasty, Austria, Lombards, Pontifical Swiss Guards, sword smiths and holy roman emperors.
Since at least the 12th century Saint Maurice has been portrayed as a dark-skinned African male, with the oldest surviving image being a sculpture depicting him as a black African in Knight's armor.