Flavia Domitilla’s children in Mark’s play

At the time of Mark’s play c. 95 CE, Flavia was in her late twenties or early thirties. She had borne seven children, with the maximum age of 16 (we don’t know if all survived infancy). Here, I identify the roles for children in Mark’s play, propose that Flavia Domitilla’s children did play those roles, and discuss the dramatic consequences.

The children’s ages

Flavia Domitilla was born between 61 and 66 CE, let us say 63. Flavia Domitilla was exiled in 95 or 96, and presumably died soon after. Let us assume that, like her mother, she was married at age 15. Therefore born 63, married 78 CE, died c. 96 at the age of 33.

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. In 95, at the latest time for the play, the children were ages 4-16.

Flavia’s oldest boy would have been in early adolescence (born at the earliest in 79 or 81). Suetonius says of their deaths: the two “sons [were] then of very tender age.” This suggests late childhood, perhaps ages 9-13. This is possible if the two or three oldest children were girls, or died in infancy. Let us assume that the boys were ages 9 and 12. The youngest children, born c. 89 and 91, would be aged 4 and 6.

Children’s roles in the play

There are three scenes in the Gospel of Mark that include children. First, at 5:38-43, is the healing of Jairus’s daughter, who is 12 years old and therefore cannot be played by an adult. Second, at 9:14-27, the healing of the epileptic boy, who is the focus of attention in the scene and therefore is at least age 10. Third, the blessing of the little children (Mark 10:13-16). This scene focuses attention on a small child who is seated on the Jesus actor’s knees, so that child must be tractable—aged 4-5 is perfect. But the scene includes multiple children, which allows for all of Flavia’s remaining small children to participate.

In addition, in the book The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, I proposed that children in the audience participated in the Temple Incident. In that scene, the Jesus actor theatrically overturns tables onstage that spill coins onto the orchestra. He interferes with “sellers of doves.” These doves would be pathetic if they were dead; therefore, they are alive. If they are alive, they fly away (but are attached to strings permitting the audience members or stagehands to catch them). We can infer that children in the (front rows) of the audience run forward to the orchestra to retrieve coins, and try to catch doves (a domesticated, miniaturized version of a wild beast hunt). In this way, children who haven’t been featured as actors “participate” in the play.

Flavia Domitilla’s children as actors

At the time of the performance, Flavia had children of the necessary ages, or very close to them. However, there is a problem. Two of Flavia’s sons were designated as future emperors, and were educated in Domitian’s palace. They were “of tender years,” i.e., 9-12 (or perhaps even younger). But in Mark’s play as we have it, there was only one role for such a child: the epileptic youth. I suggest that was played by the oldest boy. There was nothing for the second-oldest boy. I have to assume that he was included in the group of children who are brought up to the stage to be blessed (10:13-16). I infer that this unfairness was standard within the aristocracy. A gulf between the heir and the spare.

Were there child actors in the play?

The play explicitly requires child actors. If Flavia’s children aren’t used, but were present at the play while other child actors played these roles and received the audience’s attention and applause, I think that would insult Flavia’s family. Her children—reacting as children, not as aristocrats—would be envious of the child actors onstage. The three roles that Mark requires are simple, and within the capability of children ages 4-13.

I note that the Emperor Nero (ruled 54-68 CE) was above all a performing artist.* He sang, played music, and acted in plays onstage for the public. He encouraged the Roman aristocracy to also perform, which they did, many of them willingly [Epitome of Cassius Dio 61.17.3-4]:

For this festival [the Juvenalia] members of the noblest families as well as all others were bound to give exhibitions of some sort….All devoted themselves to practising any talent that they possessed as best they could, and all the most distinguished people, men and women, girls and lads, old women and old men, attended schools designated for the purpose.

Epitome of Cassius Dio 61.19.1–2

Therefore, 35 years before the performance of Mark’s play, the Greek acceptance of dramatic performance among the aristocracy had been established within much of the Roman aristocracy. I suggest that Flavia and her husband saw Mark’s play as an opportunity for their family members to scratch the itch to perform, privately, without impairing their social status.

How did child actors affect the play?

In the book, I proposed that Flavia came up on stage and anointed the Jesus actor in the dinner scene at Bethany (14:3-9). I also proposed in the book (and elaborated in a blog post) that her husband, Titus Flavius Clemens, played the role of the Blind Man of Bethsaida. Both roles inject “world of the audience reality” into the world of the play. Could the world of the play withstand three more scenes that featured members of that family?

I think that the dramatic hypnosis could be maintained if the audience had been requested to not applaud the children beyond their roles as actors. The same is true for Flavia Domitilla’s purchase of the jar of anointing oil, and her anointing of the Jesus actor in Bethany. (Applause for Clemens, however, is built into the play: he returns to the audience after leaving the theater and going “to his house” in 8:26). However, we don’t know if the audience restrained their applause.

I note that none of the five scenes that involve Flavia’s family members are integral to the plot or subplot of the play. I think—and may expand on this in a future blog post—that their superfluous nature suggests that Mark wrote (or at least started writing) his play before he decided to incorporate Flavia’s family in it. He could have been working on the play for a decade beforehand.

Personally, not having seen a performance of the play, I think that three scenes that involve children, plus the two scenes that involve the parents, deflate the dramatic hypnosis too frequently. But if Flavia requested that her children participate, Mark had to accommodate her. He couldn’t say, “No, sorry, the play is better without them.” I suspect, therefore, that the audience did not forget itself in the play for long stretches; it was repeatedly reminded that the play was a Flavian benefaction. Not unlike modern television shows that are interrupted repeatedly by advertisements…

*Once again I recommend the engaging history, Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome, by Richard Beacham (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) for a sympathetic discussion of Nero the performing artist.

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