· The saint of the month ·
“The pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue”.
It was Tacitus who wrote these words (Annals, 15, 44) and he is speaking of the first dissemination of Christianity in the Empire, between the reigns of Tiberius and of Nero. The Romans were usually very tolerant with regard to religion: their pantheon tended to inclusion rather than to prohibition. However, there had already been for some time something that repelled and disturbed them in the fervid intransigence of Judaic monotheism (a substantial community of Jews was present in Rome until the Late Republic). Many circles in the capital looked with growing concern at the fascination which this cult seemed to inspire in the most disparate social milieux. And the presence of the new religion of Christ put to death by Pontius Pilate (rightly so for Tacitus who recalls it), made the picture even gloomier, while gossip spread about the dissemination of obscure practices which would incite people to insubordination and to excessive customs, especially feminine ones.
Not even the great aristocratic families appeared to be immune to this attraction: Flavius Josephus refers (Antiquities of the Jews, 18, 81-83) to a Fulvia, the wife of a figure very much in the public eye, who is supposed to have been among the first proselytizers of Judaism and was to end by provoking the reaction of Tiberius himself, to the point that he promulgated drastic repressive measures that culminated in the exile of thousands of Jews from Rome.
But it was all in vain and a few decades later the Christian religion succeeded in touching the imperial family itself, the gens Flavia: the need for new inner experiences – which Tacitus did not manage to realize – was clearly breaking down every cultural and social barrier. And once again, as in the account of Flavius Josephus, at the heart of it was a woman.
Indeed Dio Cassius recounts (Roman History, 67, 14), that “in that same year – the year 95 – Domitian had many men killed and with them the Consul, Flavius Clemens, although he was his cousin and had married Flavia Domitilla, a relative of the Emperor himself. Both Clemens and Domitilla were accused of impiety which resulted in many who had deviated from Judaism being condemned and some died, while others had their property confiscated; Domitilla instead was only banished to Ventotene” (an episode recalled by Suetonius in his Life of Domitian, 15 and 17).
We are certain that the indication of Judaism must in this context be understood as a reference to Christianity. As for Flavia Domitilla, we can identify her as a granddaughter of Vespasian (born from one of his daughters, all three with the same name), mother in her turn of seven children by her husband Flavius Clemens, as we learn from an epigraph which today is kept in the Church of Saints Nereus and Achilleus on Mount Caelium, and which we read in a now classic rendering by Mommsen.
Is this the same figure venerated as a martyr by Christian memory, and included since the ninth century in a list of saints?
We cannot say so with any certainty.
In his Church History 3, 18), Eusebius speaks in fact of a niece (and not wife) of Flavius Clemens, the daughter of a sister of his, exiled “in consequence of testimony borne to Christ” and thus banished, to the island of Ponza (and not Ventotene): and it is clearly to the latter saint that the Roman Martyrology refers in its brief description of the saint’s life.
Might a fourth Flavia Domitilla exist, ostensibly younger than the wife of Flavius Clemens, also converted to the Christian faith and exiled to Ponza instead of to Ventotene? Or should we think of a duplication, the result of an error by Eusebius (less probably by Cassius Dio)?
It is hard to give a conclusive answer. Yet early Christianity was certainly full of female figures exalted by later memory as authentic heroines of the faith: the presence of women in the great transformations is always a proclamation of new times. However, we know that a property of the Flavi – the praedium Domitillae – had belonged to a certain Domitilla, in all likelihood the wife of Flavius Clemens, in whose basement one of the first and most important Christian cemeteries in the capital was built, the Catacombs of Domitilla on the Via Ardeatina, where the martyrs Nereus and Achilleus are supposed to have been buried. This is a plausible proof of the continuity of the Christian commitment of a family (or at least of a significant part of it) at the heart of the Empire, already in the first century.
St. Peter’s Square
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