Christian devotion to Nereus & Achilleus goes back to the earliest years of the Church, though almost nothing is known of their lives. They were praetorian soldiers of the Roman army, possibly ordered to persecute Christians, they became Christians and were banished to the island of Terracina, where they were martyred by beheading in 98 AD by order of the Emperor Domitian. Beheading was befitting Roman citizens, similar to St Paul, as opposed to crucifixion – a much longer suffering death reserved for non-Roman citizens. The bodies of Nereus & Achilleus were buried in a family vault, later known as the cemetery of Domitilla. Excavations by De Rossi in 1896 resulted in the discovery of their empty tomb in the underground church built by Pope Siricius in 390 AD.
Everyday, especially twenty-first century, Christians would first be introduced to Nereus by reading St Paul’s Letter to the Romans 16:15, “Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the holy ones who are with them…”. It is believed Nereus, Achilleus, and Domitilla, along with other early Christians in Rome were all baptized by St Peter before his crucifixion in ~64 AD.
Domitilla was a Roman noble woman. Grand-daughter of Emperor Vespasian; niece of Emperors Titus and Domitian. Married to Titus Flavius Clemens, a Roman consul, nephew of Emperor Vespasian, and first cousin of Emperors Titus and Domitian. Banished to the island of Pandataria in the Tyrrhenian Sea, her husband was martyred in 96 AD.
For Nereus, Achilleus, and Domitilla, they were all martyred together. Their empty tombs were located and identified in the catacomb of Domitilla, part of her former estate near the Via Ardeatina.
Two hundred years after their death, Pope Gregory the Great delivered his 28th homily on the occasion of their feast. “These saints, before whom we are assembled, despised the world and trampled it under their feet when peace, riches and health gave it charms.”
Pope Damasus wrote an epitaph for Nereus and Achilleus in the fourth century. The text is known from travelers who read it while the slab was still entire, but the broken fragments found by De Rossi are sufficient to identify it: “The martyrs Nereus and Achilleus had enrolled themselves in the army and exercised the cruel office of carrying out the orders of the tyrant, being ever ready, through the constraint of fear, to obey his will. O miracle of faith! Suddenly they cease from their fury, they become converted, they fly from the camp of their wicked leader; they throw away their shields, their armor and their blood-stained javelins. Confessing the faith of Christ, they rejoice to bear testimony to its triumph. Learn now from the words of Damasus what great things the glory of Christ can accomplish.”
-(please click on the image for greater detail), Basilica Catacombs of St Domitilla, part of her former estate, on the outskirts of Rome, the Eternal City.
The church marks the spot where tradition says Sts Nereus & Achilleus were executed for converting to Christianity. And beneath the altar, and extending through more than 10 miles of tunnels, were the tombs of more than 100,000 Christians from the earliest centuries of the church.
The present church is the result of a restoration by Cesare Cardinal Baronio – historian and titular priest of the church – in 1596-1597/8. The work was done carefully in order to preserve as much as possible of the ancient church and to restore ancient elements that had been lost. Some of the decorations that were added were taken from San Paolo fuori le mura. Sts Nereus and Achilleus are buried beneath the high altar, together with St Flavia Domitilla. Their remains were brought here from the Catacombi di Domitilla, where they had been placed in the underground basilica. The floor in the choir was raised by Baronio in the late 16th century, to create a proper confessio beneath the high altar. The baldachino is from the 16th century, and has columns of African marble.
Cardinal Baronio asked Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) to entrust the church to his order, the Oratorians. They still serve the church.