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E02033: The Latin Martyrdom of *Nereus, Achilleus and Companions (martyrs of Rome and central Italy, S00403) is written, presumably in Rome, in Late Antiquity. It narrates the decision of the niece of the emperor Domitian, Domitilla to embrace virginity, her exile to the insula Pontiana with her eunuch slaves Nereus and Achilleus; the struggle of the Apostles *Peter (S00036) and *Paul (S00008) with Simon Magus; the martyrdom and burial of a number of saints: Felicula, Nicomedes, and Nereus and Achilleus in Rome; Eutyches, Victorinus and Maro on the via Numentana and via Salaria north-east of Rome; Sulpitius and Servilianus in Rome; Domitilla, with her companions, Euphrosyna and Theodora, in Terracina.

online resource
posted on 21.11.2016, 00:00 by mpignot
Martyrdom of Nereus and Achilleus (BHL 6058-6066)

Summary:

Prologue (§ 1): Following the vigilance of those who were orthodox (orthodoxi) before us, we have collected and translated martyrdom accounts (martyria) from our province, from Greek to Latin, in order to protect the Catholic flock from the impiety of the heretics (haeresei). This shall serve as an example to bring others in other provinces to write such accounts, so that the people might honour and venerate the martyrs.

§ 2: We start with Domitilla: she is the niece of the emperor Domitian. Nereus and Achilleus are Domitilla’s eunuch bedchamber attendants (cubicularii), who were made Christian by the apostle Peter. They question Domitilla as she prepares to marry the son of the consul Aurelianus, telling her that if she took more care of the beauty of her soul, she would gain the Son of God as husband and earn eternal life. Domitilla replies, wondering how there could be anything better than having a husband and bearing children, noting how harsh it would be not to enjoy the pleasures of this life.

§§ 3-5: Nereus and Achilleus describe the disadvantages of being married (§3), of bearing children (§4) and of losing the status of a virgin (§5).

§§ 6-8: Nereus and Achilleus praise the virtue of virginity, second only to martyrdom. They also discuss the holy union between Christ and virgins.

§ 9: Domitilla accepts their teaching. Nereus and Achilleus visit the bishop [of Rome] Clemens: his father was a relative of the consul Clemens, whose sister Plautilla [mother of Domitilla] had formerly had Nereus and Achilleus as servants. She was converted and baptised by the apostle Peter, together with Nereus and Achilleus and her daughter Domitilla, whom they have now convinced to embrace virginity. Bishop Clemens remarks that their martyrdom is nearing, and agrees to consecrate her.

§ 10: It would be too long to tell of Aurelianus’ reaction. It suffices to say that the emperor Domitian orders Domitilla to be sent into exile together with Nereus and Achilleus to the island of Pontiana, as she refuses to sacrifice. There, two magicians (malefici) named Furius and Priscus, disciples of Simon Magus, are also in exile. They claim Simon’s innocence in his dispute with Peter, gathering a huge crowd around them. Nereus and Achilleus convince the crowd that a letter should be sent to Marcellus, the son of the prefect Marcus, to ascertain the truth about Peter and Simon and settle the dispute.

§ 11: [The text of the letter is given] Nereus and Achilleus tell Marcus about Furius and Priscus’ claim and ask him to write back to let all know about Simon, since he had been one of his disciples.

§ 12: [The text of Marcellus’ reply is given] Marcellus writes that he was at first a disciple of Simon but then realised he was evil and followed Peter. He tells of Simon’s false powers, and how Peter was proved to be the true preacher of the word of Christ by bringing a widow’s son back to life. The crowd seized Simon, but Peter allowed him to go.

§ 13: Marcellus continues, telling that Simon then came to him and tied up a huge dog with iron chains across the entrance of his house to see how Peter, who used to come to visit Marcellus, would be able to enter. However Peter dissolved the chains with a sign of the cross. Marcellus received Peter in his home and threw Simon out. The dog chased Simon and tore his clothes, but, at Peter’s command, did not bite him. Both Simon and the dog were thrown outside the walls of the city.

§ 14: Then, a year later, Nero and Simon plotted together, but Peter was warned of this by the Lord in a vision telling him that Paul would arrive the next day in Rome. Peter was also promised eventual victory in a contest together with Paul against Simon, to take place seven months later. Things happened exactly as foretold: Paul arrived the next day and seven months later the contest took place. This, however, Nereus and Achilleus know already because they witnessed the contest with their own eyes. Linus wrote in Greek the text about Peter and Paul’s martyrdom (passio) to the churches of the East (ecclesiae orientales).

§ 15: [The narrative continues, as if Marcellus’ letter went on to tell Nereus and Achilleus about other saints and martyrs] You also asked about Petronilla. She was paralysed following the will of Peter. I remember that you were there when disciples of Peter were gathered and Titus asked, if all can be healed, why Petronilla was paralysed. Peter only temporarily healed Petronilla, bringing her to fear God and be eventually healed through her own prayers. Then the Count (comes) Flaccus came with soldiers to force Petronilla to marry him, as she was most beautiful. Petronilla promised to come to his house in three days’ time. Fasting and praying together with a virgin named Felicula, her foster sister, on the third day the priest (presbyter) Nicomedes came to her and celebrated the mysteries of Christ. After receiving the sacrament of Christ, she died.

§ 16: [Still from Marcellus' letter] Flaccus demanded that Felicula either become his wife or sacrifice to the Gods. Felicula refused, was handed to his deputy (vicarius), shut up in a dark prison without food for seven days. Then she was kept for another seven days by the Vestal Virgins, refusing to take any food from them. Then she was tortured on a rack, refusing to abandon Christianity. Then she was thrown into a drain (cloaca).

§ 17. [Still from Marcellus' letter] Nicomedes, who was hiding, took Felicula’s body, carried it at night in a two-wheeled vehicle (birotum) to his small dwelling (cassella) at the seventh mile of the via Ardeatina and buried it there. In that place, prayers are fulfilled up to this day. Nicomedes was arrested by Flaccus and ordered to sacrifice; he refused and was martyred and his body thrown in the river Tiber. A priest (presbyter) named Iustus took Nicomedes’ body, placed it in his two-wheeled vehicle and brought it to his small garden (horticellum) next to the walls on the via Numentana and buried it there. Those who pray to the Lord have their prayers fulfilled through the intervention (interventus) of the martyr who died for our Lord Jesus Christ. This is how the letter of Marcellus sent to Nereus and Achilleus ends. Now start the replies concerning their martyrdom (passio).

§ 18: Eutyches, Victorinus and Maro reply to Marcellus, recounting the following: your letter arrived thirty days after Nereus and Achilleus’ death. Flavia Domitilla, a Christian virgin was exiled to the island with them after refusing to marry Aurelianus. He came trying to convince Nereus and Achilleus [to help him marry Domitilla], but they refused. They were severely beaten and sent to Terracina, to the proconsul Memmius Rufus. They were tortured on a rack with flames to bring them to sacrifice, but refused. Then they were beheaded. Their bodies were stolen by Auspicius, one of their disciples, who had brought up Domitilla, who put them on a small boat and brought them to the estate of Domitilla, where he buried them in a sandstone crypt (crypta arenaria) on the via Ardeatina, a mile and a half from the walls of the city [of Rome], next to the tomb (sepulcrum) of Petronilla. Auspicius told us about this. Their feast day is the fourth of the Ides of May [= 12 May].

§ 19: Marcellus, having received the above letter, sent his brother to the island. He who spent a year there with the confessors of Christ (confessores Christi) and then came back to tell him what happened: as Aurelianus tried to convince Domitilla to marry him, he learned that she was fond of Eutyches, Victorinus and Maro and had obtained from the emperor Nerva permission to receive them as slaves if they refused to sacrifice. As they resisted [all pressure to sacrifice], Aurelianus took them from the island and distributed them across his estates (praedia), Eutyches at the sixteenth milestone from Rome on the via Numentana, Victorinus at the sixtieth and Maro at the one-hundred and thirtieth on the via Salaria. He made them dig (fodere) all day and eat bran (cantabrum) in the evening. God gave them grace in these foreign places. Eutyches freed the daughter of a farmer (loci conductor) from the Devil; Victorinus healed a paralytic steward (vicedominus) with a prayer; Maro healed the procurator of the city of Septempeda from dropsy.

§ 20: They also preached to the people, bringing many to believe. Aurelianus, angry, gave orders for them to be killed. Eutyches was beaten to death in the middle of the via, his body is stolen by the Christian people, who, after having buried the body with great honours, built a basilica over it. Victorinus was brought to the place called cotilias where stinking sulphurous waters are found, and forced him to stay over the water; after three days he died. Aurelianus ordered his body not to be buried. As it was lying in Cotylas, Christians from Amiternum stole it and buried it in their territory (territorium). A huge stone that only seventy men could lift with the help of a pulley (trochlea) was cast at Maro, who however easily lifted it and carried it for two miles, before depositing it in the place where he used to pray. All the people of the province were amazed, believed, and were baptised. Aurelianus then killed him. The people carved the stone that he had lifted and buried him in it, and built a church (ecclesia) in his name, where many favours are bestowed by the Lord up to this day.

§ 21: Aurelianus sends Domitilla from the island to Terracina in Campania, to stay with Euphrosyna and Theodora, foster sisters of Domitilla and fiancees of Sulpitius and Servilianus, hoping that they will convince her to marry. Her arrival is met with great joy by Euphrosyna and Theodora. While they eat, she fasts and prays. Domitilla explains to them the rewards of dedicating one’s li

History

Evidence ID

E02033

Saint Name

Nereus and Achilleus, 1st-century martyrs at Rome : S00403 Peter the Apostle : S00036 Paul, the Apostle : S00008

Saint Name in Source

Nereus et Achilleus Petrus Paulus

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom

Language

Latin

Evidence not before

400

Evidence not after

800

Activity not before

54

Activity not after

117

Place of Evidence - Region

Rome and region

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Rome

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Rome Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - independent (church)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle during lifetime Miracle after death Miraculous power through intermediary Punishing miracle Saint denying or suspending miracles Miracle with animals and plants Healing diseases and disabilities Power over life and death Miracles causing conversion Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Other miracles with demons and demonic creatures Power over objects

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy Eunuchs Angels Unbaptized Christians Children Heretics Pagans Relatives of the saint Monarchs and their family Aristocrats Officials Soldiers Ecclesiastics - bishops Crowds Other lay individuals/ people Slaves/ servants

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body Construction of cult building to contain relics

Source

Epic martyrdoms The Martyrdom of Nereus and Achilleus is an anonymous literary account of martyrdom written long after the great persecutions of Christians that provide the background of the narrative. It is part of a widely spread literary genre, that scholars often designate as "epic" Martyrdoms (or Passiones), to be distinguished from earlier, short and more plausible accounts, apparently based on the genuine transcripts of the judicial proceedings against the martyrs. These texts narrate the martyrdom of local saints, either to promote a new cult or to give further impulse to existing devotion. They follow widespread stereotypes mirroring the early authentic trials of martyrs, but with a much greater degree of detail and in a novel-like style. Thus they narrate how the protagonists are repeatedly questioned and tortured under the order of officials or monarchs, because they refuse to sacrifice to pagan gods but profess the Christian faith. They frequently refer to miracles performed by the martyrs and recreate dialogues between the protagonists. The narrative generally ends with the death of the martyrs (often by beheading) and their burial. These texts are literary creations bearing a degree of freedom in the narration of supposedly historical events, often displaying clear signs of anachronism. For these reasons, they have been generally dismissed as historical evidence and often remain little known. However, since most certainly date from within the period circa 400-800, often providing unique references to cult, they are an essential source to shed new light on the rise of the cult of saints. The Martyrdom of Nereus, Achilleus and Companions It is generally accepted that the Martyrdom of Nereus and Achilleus in its earliest form assembled a number of martyrdom accounts later fragmented in legendaries (BHL 6058-6066; BHL 6065 being an extract of BHL 6064, and BHL 6067 omitting the beginning of the prologue). There is a Greek version of the Martyrdom, BHG 1327, which, according to most scholars (see particularly Schaefer and Lanéry 2010, against Achelis), was translated from the Latin, despite the Latin hagiographer’s claim of translating an original Greek text. This claim may perhaps relate to the practice found in a number of prologues of Latin martyrdom accounts, presenting them as translations from Eusebius of Caesearea’s collection of martyrdom accounts (see for instance our discussion at E02483). Another possibility is that the author wanted to emphasise his borrowing of apocryphal acts for his presentation of the fight between Peter and Simon the Magician, originally written in Greek. The Martyrdom notably refers to the writings of Linus (on all this evidence see the survey in Lanéry 2008, 125-131). There are more than 200 manuscripts of BHL 6058-6067, in their various recensions, starting from the late 8th century. See the database Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina Manuscripta (bhlms.fltr.ucl.ac.be) and an additional list in Lanéry 2010, 118-119 n. 243. The earliest containing the full cycle, or only parts of it, are: Bruxelles, Bibliothèque des Bollandistes 14, f. 10v-12r (9th or 10th c.) Graz, Universitätsbibliothek, 412, f. 164v-157r (9th c.) London, British Library, Add. 11880, f. 160r-176v (9th c.) Munich, BSB, Clm. 14704, f. 2r-20r (9th c.) St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, 548, p. 14-43 (late 8th or early 9th c.) Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, HB XIV.13, f. 184r-189v (9th c.) Trier, Stadtbibliothek, 55/1000, fragm. (9th c.) Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 482, f. 34v-36v (9th c.) Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 516, f. 96v-103v (9th c.) Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. lat. 5771 (9th or 10th c.) Vienna, ÖNB, lat. 357, f. 132r-140v (9th or 10th c.) Ilaria Ponti is currently preparing the first critical edition of the Martyrdom as her doctoral thesis at the Université de Strasbourg.

Discussion

The Martyrdom spans from the reign of Nero to that of Trajan (58-117). It is centred around Rome, with the narrative expanding to other regions nearby, in the south to Terracina and the insula Pontiana and in the East towards Picenum. The Martyrdom corroborates evidence about the main protagonists, Nereus and Achilleus (see S00403), who were celebrated on 12 May, and buried on the via Ardeatina in a crypt (later basilica) in the catacomb of Domitilla, notably as evidenced by an inscription of pope Damasus. The Martyrdom cannot be easily dated with precision. It is found in manuscripts starting from the late 8th century, and it is used by Florus in his 9th century martyrology (Quentin, H., Les martyrologes historiques du Moyen Âge. Etude sur la formation du martyrologe romain (Paris, 1908), 362-365). The use of apocryphal acts about Peter and Simon Magus in the Martyrdom is a noteworthy feature (see in particular §§ 12-14 borrowing from BHL 6656, and for bibliography Lanéry 2010, 119-122, and Lapidge, 216-217 n. 45), but it offers only few clues to narrow the date of the Martyrdom, since these texts are uncertainly dated. A composition of the Martyrdom from the 5th century onwards seems most likely however, particularly knowing of the development of cult of Nereus and Achilleus in Rome starting from the second half of the 4th century (see S00403). Further studies on the links with the Greek version might help to narrow the date of composition. It has been suggested by Follieri that the Greek version (which would derive from the Latin) may date from the 6th or 7th century. Repertories generally date the Martyrdom with uncertainty to the 6th century (Gryson, R., Répertoire général des auteurs ecclésiastiques Latins de l’Antiquité et du Haut moyen âge, 2 vols. (Freiburg, 2007), I, 79; Clavis Patrum Latinorum 2214). As noted by C. Pilsworth in the Roman Martyrs Project, University of Manchester, who called for more research on the term, the Martyrdom contains the technical term vicedominus ('steward'). It seems that it does not appear in Latin sources before the 6th century (see its use in Cassiodorus, Variae 5.14; Gregory the Great, Register 1.11; 6.56; 9.84; 11.53; Regula Magistri 11). Lanéry 2010 (followed by Lapidge) has offered a number of hypotheses to narrow the dating of the Martyrdom. She first suggests that the text would be best situated in the 5th century, because of its focus on polemics over marriage and virginity (thus following up on arguments already developed by Schaefer). Then she also notes that our Martyrdom has a number of features in common with other late antique martyrdom accounts, although it is difficult to say whether it influenced them or borrowed from them. Nevertheless, according to Lanéry, our Martyrdom borrowed the names and characters of Caesarius and Luxurius from the Martyrdom of Caesarius (E02089) which she situates in the 5th century, while the Martyrdom of Eugenia (E02490) in its earliest form, which she situates in the second half of the 5th century, would have borrowed from our Martyrdom the story of eunuch mentors of the niece of the emperor. Lanéry further argues that our Martyrdom would have been used by later martyrdom accounts such as the Martyrdom of Pancratius (E02502), which she dates to the 6th or 7th century. However, the dating of each of these other martyrdom accounts remains uncertain, and only provides a weak basis to date the Martyrdom of Nereus and Achilleus. It can only be said to securely date before the late 8th century, perhaps from the 5th or 6th century.

Bibliography

Edition (BHL 6058-6066): Acta Sanctorum, Mai. III, 6-13. Translation: Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford, 2018), 211-227. Further reading: Achellis, H., Acta SS. Nerei et Achillei. Text und Untersuchung (Leipzig, 1893). Follieri, S., “I rapporti fra Bisanzio e l’Occidente nel campo dell’agiografia,” Proceedings of the XIIIth International Congress of Byzantine Studies. Oxford, 5-10 September 1966 (London, 1967), 355-362. Lanéry, C., Ambroise de Milan hagiographe (Paris, 2008), 125-131. Lanéry, C., "Hagiographie d'Italie (300-550). I. Les Passions latines composées en Italie,” in: Philippart, G. (ed.), Hagiographies. Histoire internationale de la littérature hagiographique latine et vernaculaire en Occident des origines à 1550, vol. V (Turnhout, 2010), 15-369, at 113-125. Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford, 2018), 201-210. Schaefer, F., “Die Akten der heiligen Nereus und Achilleus. Untersuchung über den Originaltext und die Zeit seiner Entstehung,” Römische Quartalschrift 8 (1894), 89-119.

Continued Description

fe to Christ as a virgin. § 22: Domitilla, with a prayer and a sign of the cross over her mouth, heals the dumb little daughter of Euphrosyna’s nurse (nutrix). The child proclaims that Domitilla’s god is the true God. The two women believe and are consecrated as virgins. Then Domitilla heals Theodora’s blind brother Herodes. Many pagans (pagani) from Rome believe and are baptised. The house where they stay becomes almost a church (ecclesia).§ 23: Aurelianus, Sulpitius and Servilianus arrive at the house, with musicians, ready to marry their fiancees. On discovering the healing miracles performed, Sulpitius and Servilianus believe. They try to convince Aurelianus but he refuses and shuts up Domitilla in a room, planning to assault her. After dinner, he starts dancing with music, as is usual at weddings. But as all the others tire of dancing, he continues to dance for two days and two nights and eventually dies. All those who see this believe.§ 24: Luxurius, the brother of Aurelianus, asks the emperor Trajan to compel all to sacrifice and kill those who refuse. Sulpitius and Servilianus are handed over to the prefect of Rome who orders them to be beheaded, as they refuse to sacrifice. Christians bury their bodies on their estate (praedium) at the second milestone on the via Latina, where their miracles abound up to this day. § 25: After that, Luxurius goes to Terracina, and as the virgins (Domitilla, Euphrosyna and Theodora) refuse to sacrifice, he burns them to death. The next day, a deacon named Caesarius finds the bodies and buries them in a new sarcophagus (sarcophagus), placed deep in the ground.Text: Acta Sanctorum, Mai. III, 6-13. Summary: C. Pilsworth, The Roman Martyrs Project, University of Manchester;modified and expanded by M. Pignot.

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Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity

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