In order for Rome to be legitimately considered to be the center of Christianity, the city needed to be Christianized. This was an aim of Pope St. Damasus I in composing his epigrams which are riddled with allusions to and lines taken from classical authors, most notably Virgil. In some cases, Damasus appropriated classical themes for Christ and the martyrs, as he did by comparing Peter and Paul to Romulus and Remus or Castor and Pollux. In others, he uses classical allusions to subtly subvert Roman cultural values and replace them with Christian ideals.
Nereus and Achilleus were soldiers, most likely Praetorian Guards, in the reign of either Nero or Domitian. The epigraph written in their honor by Pope Damasus is translated by Dennis Trout as follows
They had enlisted for military service and were performing their
cruel duty, in like manner attentive to the tyrant’s commands,
ready to obey orders, compelled by fear.
Marvelous yet true! Suddenly they laid aside their fury;
converted they fled; they abandoned the commander’s wicked camp.
They flung away their shields, their decorations and their bloody weapons.
Having confessed, they rejoiced to carry the triumphs of Christ.
Believe through Damasus what the glory of Christ can achieve.
Nereus and Achilleus are buried in the Catacomb of Domatilla. This Domatilla is usually identified with Flavia Domatilla, the wife of the consul Titus Flavius Clemens (who is often associated with St. Clement I, the fourth Pope) Clemens was executed for the charge of “atheism” which was usually the charge laid against those who converted to Christianity. Domatilla, despite being a niece of the emperor Domitian, was apparently banished for a similar offense and is venerated as a saint. Nereus and Achilleus being buried in her catacomb lends itself to the conclusion that they were martyred during the persecution of Domitian, rather than that of Nero. Nevertheless, they remain the earliest martyrs recognized by Damasus, besides Sts. Peter and Paul. Their location deep within the catacomb also supports the conclusion that they were early martyrs.
Damasus describes their military service as a “savage office” and stated that they were “looking equally to the commands of the tyrant.” Damasus often refers to persecutions as the “commands of tyrants.” It is a direct challenge to Romans who embraced traditional republican values which were often defined as opposition to tyranny. Once the saints convert, they flee the camp and cast down their arms.
Contrast with Roman Society
Traditional Roman values would see these actions as cowardice in battle but the pair is allowed “to bear the triumphs of Christ,” signifying that they have won victory in battle. The Latin word that Damasus uses is tropaeum, which is used for the “trophies” taken by victorious troops from the conquered and paraded through the streets of Rome in triumph. This is not a fate that would usually await soldiers who have flung away their swords or their shields (Shields were heavy so flinging them away made it easier to retreat quickly. Hence, the Spartan saying “With your shield, or upon it” meaning to come back either victorious or dead.)
Thus, Damasus is subverting Roman societal conventions with his epigram. He uses the story of Nereus and Achilleus to demonstrate that faith has the ability “to put aside furor.” Lafferty points out that in the Aeneid, Virgil uses the word furor to describe “the forces that resist the efforts of both Aeneas and the foundation of Rome.” Thus, Damasus argued that in casting down their arms, Nereus and Achilleus actually cast aside what prevented them from becoming truly Christian. The epigrams of Damasus reveal his belief not only that to be Christian is to be Roman but that to be genuinely Roman is to be Christian.
Achilleus vs. Achilles
Furthermore, the use of the word furor is meant to play off of the name of Achilleus. Achilleus is the Latin form of Achilles, the Greek hero most famous for his rage. Homer’s epic Iliad begins with a furious Achilles quitting the battlefield in response to an insult by Agamemnon, leader of the Greek force. It is only when he is consumed by a greater fury upon the death of his beloved Patroculus, that Achilles returns to the war, defeats the Trojan prince Hektor and wins glory for himself. In contrast, Achilleus and Nereus set aside their furor to gain glory. With these classical references, Damasus is trying to show that one can be a Christian but still know, appreciate and make reference to earlier classical literature. Yet, the Faith shines a new light upon and brings new meaning to these stories.
Christians and Military Service
The story of Nereus and Achilleus brings up an interesting point. The epigraph of Damasus makes it explicitly that when the two convert, they abandon their military service. The Church honors many warrior saints. We all know the stories of men like Sts. Sebastian, George, Maurice and many others, who faithfully served their nation but were killed for not putting that duty before their duty to God. Less well known are the stories of saints who were martyred because they believed their Faith required that them to refuse to serve in the military.
Today, of course, we understand about the virtue of patriotism and that military service is a noble calling in which, if pursued in accordance with the holy will of God, a person can attain true holiness. It’s important to note, however, that the Church was still figuring things out in regards to the relationship between Christians and the society around them. They were living in a pagan culture. This was a society that was actively persecuting them. How far could one go before what he was doing became collaboration with paganism?
As early as A.D. 50, in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the Pope (St. Peter) is gathering the bishops (the Apostles) together in council (at Jerusalem) to determine the answers to some of these questions. However, the first ecumenical (worldwide) council with not take place until the persecutions are over, in A.D. 325. Even then, the authority of the Pope was not well defined, so during the second and third centuries, it was more or less up to the local churches to figure things out as best they could with it sometimes coming down to individual Christians themselves.
As for Nereus and Achilleus, while it is clear that their new Faith compelled them abandon their military service, it is not entirely clear why. Damasus describes their duty as “cruel,” the weapons as “bloody” and their emperor as a “tyrant.” This would certainly be an apt description of either Domitian or Nero. Damasus also writes that they were compelled to obey orders “out of fear.”
This is a common reasons why atrocities are carried out. Soldiers are afraid to disobey orders they know to be immoral. This is usually the case with tyrants, such as Hitler and Stalin. It is not at all unlikely that as soldiers serving under an emperor as bad as Domitian or Nero, that Nereus and Achilleus would have been ordered to carry out some atrocities, perhaps even the martyrdom of Christians. Perhaps, being honorable men, this was starting to wear on their consciences. After the conversion, the grace of their baptism grants them the courage to refuse to obey orders and cast down their arms, which leads to their martyrdom. If this is the case, they would be good patrons for servicemen and women who could ask their intercession to never give into fear that would cause them to carry out an immoral order.
Sts. Nereus and Achilleus, glorious martyrs, ora pro nobis!