St. Nereus and St. Achilleus

St Domitilla with Sts Nereus and Achilleus
c. 1598-99

Of the Saints Nereus and Achilleus.

Having been baptized by St. Peter the Apostle, Nereus and Achilleus were eunuchs and served as house managers, or chamberlains, of the royal Domitilla, niece of Domitian the emperor. It was arranged that this Domitilla was to marry a man named Aurelian, who was son of one of the counselors of the emperor. Nereus and Achilleus one time found her curiously clad and arrayed in robes of purple and precious stones, and these two glorious saints preached to her the faith of Christ and the virtue of virginity; they praised it highly and explained that to become a Christian virgin was like being a very neighbor to God, or a sister to the angels, cousin to the saints, and that it did not go against human nature since, after all, she was born thus. They further explained that the woman who is married is subject to man. Often among pagan men women are beaten with staves and fists in such a way that they be delivered of their children before their time, or deformed or lame. Where in her youth she might have, with difficulty, suffered the teachings and admonishments of her mother, which were soft and amiable, she should now by the contrary suffer of her husband great shames, reproofs, and villainies. And she among all other things answered: I know well that my father was exceedingly jealous over my mother, and much sorrow did my mother suffer, and I know that my husband will be like him. To this they answered: When they be new wedded they seem very kindly disposed, but after, when they know they are married, they reign much cruelly, and sometimes they make their maiden’s mistresses greater than their wives, and thus all holiness may be lost. By penance a state of holiness may be recovered, yet virginity may not come again to its perfection…

And so after being persuaded, she believed in God and avowed to him her virginity, and received the veil at the hand of St. Clement. And when her fiancé Aurelian heard this he obtained licence from the emperor which allowed him to do whatever he wanted with his fiancé and those who converted her. And he exiled all three of them onto an island called Pontiana. He exhorted them that by doing this Nereus and Achilleus had an opportunity to turn the purpose of his future wife regarding the vow of the virginity that she had made. And after a little time, he returned to the three of them, to see if they had changed their purpose, but they had not changed their mind at all but yet more strongly than before were confirmed and comforted. Nereus and Achilleus said plainly they would never make sacrifice to the idols, for they had been baptized by St. Peter the apostle, who had so strongly confirmed in them the law and faith and taught them that they should make no sacrifice but to God alone.

Because of this obstinacy, their heads were smitten off, and so Sts. Nereus and Achilleus suffered martyrdom around the year of our Lord 80. Their bodies were buried by the sepulchre of St. Pernelle. There were other men who travelled with St. Nereus and St. Achilleus and who would also become saints: St. Victorine, St. Eutichius, and St. Maro. Because of their association with Nereus and Achileus, Aurelian made them labor all day in the gardens and in the evening gave them bran bread which was black and rough. After much labor and suffering, Aurelian caused St. Eutichius to die by starving him. He cast St. Victorine into foul and stinking water, where he was drowned. Lastly, he made St. Maro lay under a stone which not even seventy of his servants could move, yet the glorious saint cast the stone upon his shoulders as lightly as it had been a little straw, and bore it two miles farther from thence, for which cause many were converted and believed in God. Aurelian’s counselors were infuriated and they slew St. Maro.

After this Aurelian brought Domitilla from her place of exile, and sent to her two maidens named Euphrosyne and Theodora, who grew up with Domitilla, in the hope that they should turn and change her vow. Ironically, Domitilla converted these two betrothed maidens to the faith by her exhortation! Then Aurelian took the promised husbands of these two maidens and three enchanters with him, and came to Domitilla with the purpose of wedding her and accomplishing the marriage by force against her will. But, to Aurelian’s great dismay, Domitilla, as God allowed, converted to faith in Jesus Christ the two young men that were to marry the maidens! When Aurelian saw all this, he led her into his chamber and made the enchanters sing, and commanded others to dance with him as he intended to defoul her, but the jugglers stopped singing, and the others stopped dancing, but, under the spell of the enchanters, he himself could not stop dancing for two days continually at which time he expired and died in the sight of all! Then Luxurius, who was his brother, obtained leave to slay all them that believed in Jesus Christ. And he set a fire in the place where they all were, and they, being in their prayers, rendered their souls unto God, whose bodies St. Cæsarius, upon the morn finding no thing hurt, buried. Then let us pray to them that we may come to everlasting bliss in heaven. Amen.

This material is taken from the Lives of the Saints, compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, in 1275. The first edition was published in 1470 and was translated into an English dialect by WILLIAM CAXTON in 1483. I have made slight alterations to the text for ease in reading and understanding. Some sections have been omitted.

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