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Domitilla, Achilleus and Nereus

Catacombs of Domitilla History of Burial Practices in Rome Iconography of the Catacombs

Flavia Domitilla with
Nereus and Achilleus on her sides

In Christianity it used to be common, and still is, to name places or buildings after significant people of christian faith, commonly saints and martyrs. The catacombs of Domitilla did not break with this tradition.

The land on which the catacombs are situated originally belonged to a woman named Flavia Domitilla[1]. There are limited original sources on her life, however, it is known that she was the niece of a Roman emperor Domitian. There are indications of her possibly being a former slave (delicata) of the Roman knight Statilius Capella from Sabrata in Africa, but later received the status of roman citizen due to her father Flavius Liberalis[2]. More importantly, she was known to be Christian, for which she was exiled and probably executed at a young age[3].

Also in line with the Christian martyr cult was the naming of the abovementioned basilica attached to the catacombs. Its patrons Nereus and Achilleus were two brothers who lived in the first century[4]. They served as soldiers in the Roman army, persecuting Christians. Later they, however, converted to Christianity, which came to be known as a 'miracle of faith',. After their conversion to Christianity, the two brothers were serving Flavia Domitilla and subsequently shared her fate of an early death, eventually leading to them being canonised by the church. Their bodies were supposedly buried on the grounds of the basilica, the relicts were however relocated in the 7th century[5].


  1. Domitilla (2017), retrieved from: http://www.domitilla.info/
  2. Ritter, H. (1972). Zur lebensgeschichte der flavia domitilla, der frau vespasians. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 21(4), 759-761.
  3. La Monaca, V. (2013) “Flavia Domitilla As Delicata: A New Interpretation of Suetonius, Vesp. 3,” Ancient Society, 43, pp. 191–212. doi: 10.2143/AS.43.0.2992609.
  4. de Voragine, J., Duffy, E. (2012). The golden legend: readings on the saints. 2012 Edition. Translated by W. G. Ryan. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  5. Scheiblauer, C., Zimmermann, N., & Wimmer, M. (2009) Interactive Domitilla catacomb exploration. In Proceedings of the 10th International conference on Virtual Reality, Archaeology and Cultural Heritage (VAST'09), Kurt Debattista, Cinzia Perlingieri, Denis Pitzalis, and Sandro Spina (Eds.). Eurographics Association, Aire-la-Ville, Switzerland, Switzerland, 65-72. DOI= http://dx.doi.org/10.2312/VAST/VAST09/065-072

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