Saint NameNereus and Achilleus, eunuchs and martyrs of Rome, and companions : S00403
Saint Name in SourceNereus, Achilleus
Type of EvidenceInscriptions - Formal inscriptions (stone, mosaic, etc.)
Literary - Poems
Evidence not before366
Evidence not after384
Activity not before366
Activity not after384
Place of Evidence - RegionRome and region
Place of Evidence - City, village, etcSuburban catacombs and cemeteries
Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)Suburban catacombs and cemeteries
Major author/Major anonymous workDamasan and pseudo-Damasan poems
Cult activities - PlacesBurial site of a saint - tomb/grave
Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and CustomsConstruction of cult buildings
Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and NarrativesEcclesiastics - Popes
Cult Activities - Cult Related ObjectsInscription
SourceThe poems of Damasus
The surviving corpus of poetry by Damasus, pope from 366 to 384, comprises about sixty poems. Almost all are in honour of saints and martyrs, and were originally displayed at the tombs of martyrs in the cemeteries and catacombs that surrounded the city of Rome. They were inscribed on large marble plaques with distinctive lettering ('Philocalian script') by the calligrapher Furius Dionysius Filocalus (see Trout 2015, 47-52). The inscriptions were an important part of the programme of monumentalisation of the sites of saintly cult initiated by Damasus (see Trout 2015, 42-47).
The poems of Damasus are the first substantial corpus of texts devoted specifically to the cult of saints. They are of great importance for the history of saints' cult at Rome because, aside from what their content tells us, they can be dated so securely. If a martyr is the subject of a poem in the Damasan collection, this shows that their cult was established and formally recognised at Rome no later than the early 380s; the only comparable, but much briefer, material is that in the Chronography of 354 (E01052). By contrast, the surviving Roman saints' lives are of very uncertain date and almost certainly all later than Damasus' poems (which they sometimes used as a source: Lapidge 2018, 637-8).
Survival of the poems
Only a handful of Damasus' inscriptions survive intact; others partially survive in fragments, but the majority survive only through manuscript transmission, primarily via syllogae – collections of inscriptions from the martyr shrines and churches of Rome which were transcribed by pilgrims and then circulated in manuscript. The earliest of these seem to have been compiled in the 7th century, at the same time as the earliest pilgrim itineraries, and they were organised on the same basis, according to the location of inscriptions on the routes followed by pilgrims around the city. Unlike the itineraries, no sylloge survives in its original form: the extant syllogae were all compiled from earlier manuscript collections (whose traces are sometimes evident in the structure of the syllogae). The syllogae were edited by De Rossi in vol. 2.1 of the first edition of ICUR (1888), which remains the only modern edition of the syllogae as such (as opposed to the individual poems). On the syllogae containing Damasus’ poems, see Trout 2015, 63-65; Lapidge 2018, 638.
The most important syllogae for the transmission of Damasus' poems are the following:
The Sylloge Laureshamensis. A manuscript produced at the monastery of Lorsch in the 9th/10th century (Vatican, Pal. Lat. 833; digitised: digi.vatlib.it/view/bav_pal_lat_833). De Rossi (1888) believed that it contained material from four earlier collections, of which the one that he denoted Laureshamensis IV, dating from the 7th century, contained most of the Damasan material.
The Sylloge Centulensis. Produced in the monastery of St. Riquier in the 9th/10th century, held for most of its existence in Corbie, and now in the Russian National Library at St. Petersburg (Codex Petropolitanus F XIV 1).
The Sylloge Turonensis. Produced at Tours in the 7th century, but surviving only in two manuscripts from the 11th/12th century (Klosterneuburg Stiftsbibliothek Cod. 723; Göttweig Stiftsbibliothek Cod. 64 (78), digitised: manuscripta.at/diglit/AT2000-64).
The Sylloge Virdunensis. Produced at Verdun in the 10th century (Bibliothèque de Verdun, ms. 45, digitised: www1.arkhenum.fr/bm_verdun_ms/_app/index.php?type_recherche=cote&choix_secondaire=Ms. 45).
The Sylloge Einsidelnensis. Produced at the monastery of Einsiedeln in the 9th century (Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek 326, digitised: www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/sbe/0326).
It is certain that most poems in the corpus are by Damasus, either because they survive, wholly or partly, in their inscribed form or because Damasus refers to himself in the text (which he does frequently). In other cases his authorship has been assigned to poems on stylistic grounds. Since Damasus' style is quite distinctive (see Trout 2015, 16-26), this can usually be done reasonably securely, but there are instances where there is disagreement among editors as to whether poems are genuinely by Damasus.
DiscussionThis poem is in hexameters. The full text survives in the Syllogae Laureshamensis, Turonensis, and Einsidelnensis. Two substantial fragments of the original inscription were discovered in the 1870s, during the excavation of the apse area of the basilica built around the tomb of Nereus and Achilleus in the cemetery of Domitilla: for photographs, see the inscription's EDB entry.
The shrine of Nereus and Achilleus was in the catacomb of Domitilla on the via Ardeatina, one of the oldest and largest of the cemetery complexes around Rome. They seem originally to have been buried in individual tombs in an ordinary hypogeum in the catacomb, but by the 6th century a large semi-subterranean basilica had been constructed around their tombs, which were incorporated into its apse area. Whether Damasus was responsible for the construction of this basilica, or merely for an earlier expansion of the shrine which the basilica replaced, remains uncertain: for a summary, with references to the substantial literature on the topic, see Trout 2015, 99-100. The basilica was a popular pilgrimage site until the 9th century, but was then abandoned; by the 19th century all trace of it above ground had disappeared (Lapidge 2018, 204). It was excavated by de Rossi in the 1870s, and subsequently reconstructed; the two fragments of Damasus' inscription were found during this excavation and are currently displayed in the reconstructed basilica. De Rossi's excavation also found a pillar, perhaps from a ciborium, with a carving of the beheading of Achilleus and the name ACILLEVS, which may be from the reconstruction of the shrine by Damasus (EDB24865, E###). For overviews of the archaeology of the site, see Fasola 2002 and Pergola 2004.
Damasus' poem is the earliest surviving evidence for Nereus and Achilleus. In the poem they are portrayed – with considerable emphasis – as soldiers. This is in stark contrast to the later tradition, represented by the Martyrdom of Nereus and Achilleus (E02033, of uncertain date but probably no earlier than the mid 5th century), according to which they were eunuchs, and domestic servants in the household of the Roman noblewoman Domitilla.
BibliographyEditions and translations:
Trout, D., Damasus of Rome: The Epigraphic Poetry: Introduction, Texts, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), no. 8, 98-100.
Epigraphic Database Bari, EDB24864, see http://www.edb.uniba.it/epigraph/24864
de Rossi, G.B., and Ferrua, A. (eds.) Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae Septimo Saeculo Antiquiores, n.s., vol. 3: Coemeteria in via Ardeatina cum duabus appendicibus (Vatican: Pont. Institutum Archaeologiae Christianae, 1956), no. 8132.
Ferrua, A., Epigramata damasiana (Rome: Pontificio Istituto di archeologia cristiana, 1942), no. 8.
Ihm, M., Damasi epigrammata (Anthologiae Latinae Supplementa 1, Leipzig: Teubner, 1895), no. 8.
Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 639-640 (English translation).
Fasola, U.M., The Catacombs of Domitilla and the Basilica of the Martyrs Nereus and Achilleus, 3rd ed., trans. C.S. Houston and F. Barbarito (Rome, 2002).
Lapidge, M., The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 201-210, 639.
Pergola, P., "Domitillae coemeterium," "Domitillae praedium," in: A. La Regina (ed.), Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae. Suburbium, vol. 2 (Rome: Quasar, 2004) 203-207.