If today weren’t Sunday, we’d be celebrating the feast of Saints Nereus and Achilleus, two early Christian martyrs who are buried here in Rome. Depending on which story you read, you’ll discover all sorts of amazing–and contradictory–information about the life and death of these two men. What’s true and what’s not?
The tombs of Nereus and Achilleus were discovered in the oldest part of the Catacombs of Domitilla, near the Appian Way. Archaeologists have dated this section of that particular set of catacombs to the early 100’s A.D., which means that these two saints were among the earliest martyrs here in Rome. Their names are mentioned in several early Christian martyrologies, from the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., which adds to their authenticity; but nothing much is known about them besides the important fact that they gave their lives for Christ.
In the Middle Ages, however, someone with a pen and lots of imagination wrote an account of the martyrdom of these two saints. Since the catacombs where they were buried was named after Flavia Domitilla, who was the granddaughter of one Roman Emperor and the niece of two more, Nereus and Achilleus magically became her slaves (or in some versions, her servants). According to this spurious story, all three were exiled to an island off the coast of the Italian peninsula, and later martyred together during the Christian persecutions of the 4th century.
There is absolutely no evidence for any of the so-called “facts” contained in this medieval account. Nevertheless, in the late 1500’s a feast-day was established for all three martyr-saints, based on the story linking them all together. That’s why, a few decades later, the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens painted this lovely image of Saints Nereus, Achilleus, and Domitilla for a church here in Rome, where it still hangs today.
In reality, there was indeed a member of the Roman imperial family named Flavia Domitilla, and she actually did die a martyr. We know that her husband, Titus Flavius Clemens, was her cousin, and he became a Roman consul in the year 82 A.D. This helps a lot in pinpointing the era when Saint Flavia Domitilla lived and died; it appears that her life might have overlapped those of Nereus and Achilleus, but they could also have followed her by as much as a whole generation.
It’s kind of a mess! This is what happens when you rely on romantic fiction-writers from the Middle Ages for your hagiographical information. Today, the three martyr-saints are all buried in the Church of Santi Nereo e Achilleo, not far from the Baths of Caracalla here in Rome. The 5th-century church, which is filled with fabulous frescos, is only open for a few hours each week; but we know exactly when they are, and would be happy to take you for a visit! There you can see the resting-place of Saints Nereus, Achilleus, and Domitilla: even if they really didn’t know each other in this life, their mortal remains have been here together for centuries.