Flavia and Clemens: Victims of the “living like Jews” prosecutions?

Is it likely that Domitian’s niece, Flavia Domitilla; her husband, Titus Flavius Clemens; and their sons were executed/wiped out in 95 CE because Flavia and Clemens were “Judaizing” (participating in Judean religion)?

1 And the same year Domitian slew, along with many others, Flavius Clemens the consul, although he was a cousin and had to wife Flavia Domitilla, who was also a relative of the emperor’s. 2 The charge brought against them both was that of atheism, a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned. (Cassius Dio 67.14)

We must remember that Domitian had known for years that Flavia and Clemens were participating in a Judean sect. Their sons were being educated in Domitian’s palace! Furthermore, during her lifetime, Flavia had donated catacombs to her sect/congregation (these catacombs later held the earliest Christian catacomb burials in Rome). If I am correct that her congregation was the same as Mark’s, we can infer from the Gospel of Mark that she did not observe kosher laws (“all foods are clean”), and she did not follow strict Sabbath rules.  And the congregation had long since replaced a concern for the earthly Temple in Jerusalem with a focus on Jesus as a heavenly intermediary to God. We can also assume that as a niece of the emperor, Flavia would not neglect the appropriate emperor worship or payment of taxes.

So on what grounds could Domitian complain about Flavia’s or Clemens’s religious beliefs or practice? Domitian was preparing their sons to succeed him! The offense committed by Flavia and her family must have been so great that Domitian was willing to kill his closest relatives, and let the imperium pass out of his biological family!

It is possible that someone misrepresented Flavia’s actual religious activities. But Domitian would have been able to get accurate information about Flavia’s religious activities from her household staff. Did anything change over time such that what she had been doing was now no longer acceptable? If Domitian had told Flavia to stop attending Mark’s church, or he would name someone other than her sons as emperor, would she have drawn a line in the sand and refused to leave?

More likely, I think, for some reason Domitian felt that Flavia and/or her immediate family were a political threat. The charge of “atheism” was a convenient smoke screen for his real reason. It was only later that the fact that Flavia and Clemens had “Judaized” was taken to be the reason they had been killed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *