|English name:||Santa Domitilla|
|Built:||395, rebuilt 1870|
|Address:||Via delle Sette Chiese 282|
Santa Domitilla is a historic underground basilica and dependent chapel of the parish of Santa Francesca Romana all’Ardeatino, and is located at Via delle Sette Chiese 282 just west of the Via Ardeatina.
It is better known as the Basilica dei Santi Nereo ed Achilleo, but its official name is Santa Domitilla. It is in the catacombs of the same name, and is the only underground catacomb basilica still fully functional as a church rather than simply having the status of an ancient monument.
The catacombs are among the oldest ones in Rome, and were early associated with the Flavian clan who were responsible for a pagan hypogeum built into the side of the hill in the late 2nd century. According to the revised Roman martyrology, the Flavia Domitilla who gave her name to the cemetery as it developed into a Christian burial ground was the niece of a senator named Flavius Clemens. He had been executed for “atheism and Jewish customs” in the year 96 on the order of the emperor Domitian, and this has been traditionally but unprovably been taken to refer to Christian conversion. (He could have been a Jewish proselyte instead.) She, in her turn, was exiled to the island of Ponza and then martyred about the year 100.
At the end of the 3rd century, two soldiers on service in the city named Nereus and Achilles converted to Christianity, discarded their insignia and were then executed for desertion and impiety. They were buried in this catacomb, where Pope Damasus composed an inscription for their tomb in the mid 4th century. Achilles was renamed "Achilleus" to avoid invoking the memory of the famous Greek hero.
A romantic and anachronistic legend later grew up associating these two with Flavia Domitilla, the emperor Domitian and several others including another genuine martyr called Petronilla buried nearby. The inscription was in the context of a vast expansion of the catacombs, making them some of the largest in Rome, and about the year 395 an aisled underground basilica was excavated over the tomb of Nereus and Achilles at the bottom of the main entrance stairway. This was known to St Gregory the Great, who wrote about it, but was then abandoned in the 9th century. Amazingly, the site was completely forgotten, and the church of Santi Nereo ed Achilleo near the Baths of Caracalla was mistakenly identified as the basilica for centuries. However, it was rediscovered in 1593 and eventually mostly rebuilt with a new roof in 1870.
The basilica and catacombs are now in the care of the Divine Word Missionaries .
DescriptionEditThe basilica has a narthex with two entrance stairways in the left hand side and two side entrances into the aisles (the right hand one was blocked, and this end of the narthex was later converted into a chapel by adding a wall). The main nave had three entrances, with a pair of columns flanking the central one. The main body of the ancient church was trapezoidal (getting wider towards the main altar), and there were four ancient columns in each of the two arcades. These survive. There is a semi-circular apse, and the remains of a “schola cantorum”. A small column by the altar has a relief depicting the martyrdom of the two saints.
After the basilica was rediscovered and excavated, it was later decided to convert it into a much higher building with a roof above ground so that it cound function as a working church. As a result, none of the ancient columns now support anything but stand isolated. There is a row of windows in the modern wall over the apse, which let in daylight.