Flavia Domitilla and Berenice: Another reason to connect them

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, which means the Roman congregation of Mark and Flavia Domitilla. It is logical that Berenice, a Judean princess living in Rome and former lover of Flavia Domitilla’s uncle Titus, had participated in the same congregation as Flavia Domitilla and Mark (that is, rather than a different Roman congregation of Judeans—as we have no evidence for another Roman congregation of the Jesus movement). Strengthening the identification of Berenice and Veronica, “Berenice” (“Berenike” in Greek) and “Veronica” have the same sequence of consonants: R-N-K.

In that post, I suggested that it was Berenice who introduced Flavia Domitilla to the Roman congregation of Mark. After Titus’s death, Berenice had remained a client of the Flavian family and remained in Rome. She was perfectly positioned to serve as a mother figure/mentor to Flavia. (Flavia’s mother had died while the girl was less than 10 years old, and 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 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 served as 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, experienced—and at leisure—Berenice. Even if we assume that 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 not just an experienced mother but a princess who appears to have had a significant role in the administration of Judea. Yet her role was obsolete; her presence in Flavia’s life and any advice she gave did not threaten Roman power in Judea. I am sure 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—and, I believe, the benefactor of Mark’s Roman congregation. 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.

Flavian Family Tree
Flavian Family Tree

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 VespasienEchos 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 the 18th century. The plaque is CIL 6.8942, online at http://arachne.uni-koeln.de/item/buchseite/952757 :

Inscription on Tatia Baucyl's memorial plaque (CIL)
CIL (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum)
Inscription on Tatia Baucyl's memorial plaque (Eracle)
Eracle’s reconstruction

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.”)

Tatia Baucyl's memorial plaque
Photograph of the plaque of Tatia Baucyl, from Eracle’s article, p. 116.

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?

Probably, those children that survived infancy 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, 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. It is natural for Berenice to have invited Flavia Domitilla to the Judean congregation that Berenice attended. And it is unnatural for Flavia (and later her husband) to 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 we have Berenice and Flavia attending the congregation for some period of time in the 80s/90s.

Flavia’s presence 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 honor Berenice.

In the next post, I will discuss some possible roles for Flavia’s children, in Mark’s play.

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