In an earlier post, I identified the Judean princess Berenice as the original of Saint Veronica. “Veronica” was early and firmly identified with Roman Christianity, that is, the Roman congregation of Mark and Flavia Domitilla. It is logical that Berenice, a Judean princess living in Rome and former lover of the emperor Titus, had participated in the same congregation as Titus’s niece Flavia Domitilla and Mark (rather than a different Roman congregation of Judeans—there is no evidence for another contemporary Roman congregation of the Jesus movement).
In that earlier post, I suggested that it was Berenice who had introduced Flavia Domitilla to Mark’s congregation. Berenice remained a client of the Flavian family after Titus’s death. We can assume that she remained in Rome. There, she was perfectly positioned to be a mother figure/mentor to the orphaned Flavia. (Flavia’s mother had died when the girl was under 10 years old; her father was a general who was always off campaigning.) Berenice was some 25 years older than Flavia, and had had two sons in her youth. Flavia needed advice, as she had two boys whom her uncle Domitian had identified as his successors, and who, though young, were being raised in his palace.
In this post, I present a historical fact that strengthens my suggestion that Berenice was a mother figure/mentor to Flavia. A memorial plaque exists, on the grounds of Flavia Domitilla’s property, to Tatia Baucyl, the (wet?)nurse of seven children of Flavia Domitilla. (Although two other women had that name, there is no question that the Flavia Domitilla on the plaque is Mark’s Flavia Domitilla, the donor of catacombs to a proto-Christian congregation.) If we now see Flavia Domitilla as the mother of seven children, rather than just two, we can imagine that she needed parenting advice and was grateful for the presence in her life of the older and experienced Berenice. Even if the children were largely raised by nurses and tutors, Flavia still needed advice on how to behave as an aristocrat and mother of emperors, and how to prepare her children for their lives as aristocrats (and for the select two, as emperors). Berenice was a princess who appears to have had a significant role in the administration of Judea. Now, however, her family had lost the throne. Her role as a princess was obsolete and there was no popular movement to reinstate her. Therefore, we can assume that Domitian’s staff saw the relationship between Flavia Domitilla and Berenice as innocuous.
Flavia Domitilla’s biography
Suetonius’s Life of Domitian is our main source for the life of Flavia Domitilla, granddaughter of the emperor Vespasian and niece of the emperors Titus and Domitian. Suetonius states that Flavia Domitilla had two sons whom Domitian designated as his successors. The reader infers that Flavia had only these two children.
Flavia Domitilla was born between 61 and 66 CE. (Her mother was born c. 45, married c. 60, and died c. 66). Let us use 63 CE as Flavia Domitilla’s birth year. Flavia Domitilla was exiled in 95 or 96 CE, and presumably died soon after. Let us assume that she too was married at age 15: therefore born 63, married 78 CE, died 95.
Let us assume that Flavia Domitilla had a child every 2 years beginning in 79 CE. That means 79, 81, 83, 85, 87, 89, 91. We cannot assume all survived infancy or childhood. But clearly, even with the presence of a wet nurse and tutors, she had a busy family life. And she had small children when she died. Tatia Baucyl was still in her household (if Tatia was alive) at the time.
Note for French-readers
French-readers can find a comprehensive and judicious biography of Flavia Domitilla—minus her religious life, which he ignores—by Jean Eracle, “Une grande dame de l’ancienne Rome : Flavia Domitilla, petite fille de Vespasien” Echos de Saint-Maurice, 1964, tome 62, p. 109-134. Eracle takes account of the Catholic, textual and archeological sources. He discusses the memorial plaque that states that Flavia Domitilla had seven children.
Tatia Baucyl, nutrix
This plaque was found in the cemetery area on the Via Ardeatine in Rome, in the 18th century. The plaque is CIL 6.8942, online at http://arachne.uni-koeln.de/item/buchseite/952757 :
Eracle writes, p. 115 (my translation) “This inscription, unfortunately damaged, tells us that Tatia Baucylla, (wet-)nurse of seven grandchildren of the divine Vespasian, children of Flavia Domitilla, niece of the divine Vespasian, received this plot by the generosity of Domitilla, and here erected a sepulcher for herself, her freedmen, her freedwomen, and their posterity.” (The second “divine Vespasian” clearly means “Domitian.”)
In the 18th century, this plaque was found in the cemetery area on the Via Ardeatine,This plaque is one of two inscriptions that mention they were given by the generosity of Flavia Domitilla, and are on the grounds of her property. Nearby there is an epitaph of a dwarf, Hector, that mentions “Domitilla.” Eracle writes “On peut donc être certain que Flavia Domitilla prit une part active à la destination cimétériale de sa propriété de la voie Ardéatine.” p. 114, or “We can therefore be certain that Flavia Domitilla took an active part in the cemetery on her property on the Via Ardeatine.”
Tatia Baucyl’s name
Note that there is a space between “Baucyl” and “nu.” There must have been several letters there, enough to require a hyphen in the word “nutrix.” The three names suggest a freedwoman. Her birth name was “Baucylla” or “Baucylia.” “Tatia” is the feminine of “Tatius,” the family name of the owner who freed her. The third name on the plaque (if there was a name and not some other word between “Baucyl” and “nu”) also came from her previous owner.
It is interesting that Tatia joined Flavia’s household after being freed by the Tatius family. “Tatius” was an old Roman senatorial name. Flavia needed someone with experience with upper-class children.
A hint at children from Suetonius
Suetonius reports that Flavia had two sons whom Domitian designated as his heirs. Given that Roman upper-class families were small, seven children was notable. Even if some of the children died young, more than two must have survived infancy. Why didn’t Suetonius mention the others?
Some must have been girls. Other children were too small to have had any independent life before they disappeared from history. And therefore they were not significant within his storyline.
But perhaps Suetonius does hint at a large family when he calls Clemens “a man below contempt for his want of energy” (Life of Domitian 15). This is a strange insult: Clemens’s want of energy was politically prudent. Suetonius knew that Clemens had everything to lose and nothing to gain by participating “energetically,” i.e., conspicuously or assertively, in public life.
I suggest that Suetonius’s insult “contemptibly lazy” had a different meaning: it referred to private life, rather than public life. Perhaps Suetonius meant that Clemens (contemptibly) did not practice the Roman virtue of (self-)discipline, i.e. he spent too much time dallying with his wife.
Implications of the Flavia Domitilla and Berenice connection
Let us assume that Berenice acted as a mother figure/mentor to Flavia Domitilla. Perhaps Berenice invited Flavia Domitilla to the Judean congregation that Berenice attended. Flavia (and later her husband) would not have just shown up, out of the blue, at the services of a congregation of the Judean ethnos. How would they have learned about its beliefs? Were its beliefs so attractive that it magnetically compelled them to seek it out? Impossible. So I think it is likely that Berenice and Flavia attended the congregation together at least once in the 80s/90s.
Flavia’s patronage undoubtedly affected the congregation’s public face, as a client of the imperial family. Their presence also undoubtedly affected the congregation’s official doctrine, in favor of a symbolic interpretation of the Law, and a welcome to Gentile members. As I have said many times, official doctrine is not the same as individual doctrine, and the congregation included members with a variety of positions. Mark’s play, which includes honor to Flavia and to her husband Clemens within the story line, cannot be treated as evidence of the mainstream of the congregation’s doctrine. At most the play is evidence of an acceptable expression of the congregation’s doctrine within the medium of an entertaining play.
I think that Berenice died before the performance of Mark’s play, c. 95. There is no scene in the play that conceivably could be interpreted as acknowledging Berenice’s presence at the play.
I cannot overstress the importance of Flavia’s patronage for the status of the congregation. For hundreds of years, people around the empire would know about a congregation of Judeans in Rome that had been favored by the imperial family.
In the next post, I will discuss some possible roles for Flavia’s children, in Mark’s play.
Minor revisions September 20, 2021, October 30, 2021.