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 effect on the audience.
The ages of Flavia Domitilla’s children
Flavia Domitilla was born between 61 and 66 CE, let us say 63. She 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, my working dates are: 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 date when Flavia could sponsor Mark’s play, the children were ages 4-16.
Flavia’s oldest boy could have been in early adolescence (born at the earliest in 79 or 81). Suetonius says that at the time of their father’s death (and theirs?): 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. So let us assume that the two boys whom Suetonius mentions as future emperors, were ages 9 and 12. The youngest children, born c. 89 and 91, would be aged 4 and 6.
Children’s roles in Mark’s 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 not physically mature, therefore cannot be played by an adult. Second, at 9:14-27, is the healing of the epileptic boy, who is the focus of attention in the scene and therefore at least age 10. Third, is 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 at least. But the scene includes multiple children, which allows for all of Flavia’s remaining small children to participate. We can see that Mark has provided roles for all of Flavia Domitilla’s children.
There is a second way in which Mark’s play takes account of children. In my book The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, I proposed that the Temple Incident was written to allow audience participation, especially by children.
Let us imagine the performance of the Temple Incident (11:15-18). The Jesus actor theatrically overturns tables onstage. Coins on the tables spill onto the orchestra.
Jesus also interferes with “sellers of doves.” These doves would be pathetic if they were dead; therefore, they are alive. We can imagine that they are in flimsy cages stacked up next to another table. When the Jesus actor knocks one over, they all open. The live doves fly away (but are attached to strings permitting the audience members or stagehands to catch them and return them to the prop cabinet offstage). (Note: This “hunt” of leashed birds is a known contemporary theatrical effect.) Assuming there was a performance, the Temple Incident as written creates an irresistable situation inviting audience participation. Any children in the (front rows) of the audience will, unprompted, run forward to the orchestra to retrieve coins (loot!), and try to catch doves. In this way, any children present “participate” in the play.*
*Note: Really, can it be a coincidence that the activities of Jesus in the Temple are entirely stageable, and not only stageable, interactive, and not only interactive, but interactive using only contemporary theater technology??
Flavia Domitilla’s children as actors
I have stated that at the time of the performance, Flavia had children of the necessary ages, or very close to them. However, there is a problem. According to Suetonius, 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). How does Mark give appropriate respect to these future emperors (perforce, favorites of Domitian)? In the received text, there is only one role featuring a male child: the healing of the epileptic youth.
The epileptic youth really gets a star turn. He foams at the mouth and can overact to his heart’s content. I have to assume that this role was played by the oldest boy. There was nothing for the second-oldest boy. Perhaps 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 overt preference was standard within the aristocracy. (No wonder close relatives in ruling families routinely killed each other.)
Why I think Mark didn’t use ordinary child actors in the play
Mark’s 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 her children—reacting as children, not as aristocrats—would be envious of the child actors onstage.
Furthermore, in 9:36 Jesus takes a little child on his lap and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (9:37). If you read the staging of 9:36 carefully, you see that Jesus is creating a tableau, with himself and the child centered in the midst of the Chorus: If this was just a random child, would not a future emperor in the audience–and his parents–feel disrespected?
The three roles that Mark requires are simple, and within the capability of children ages 4-13.
At the time, aristocrats did perform on stage. The Emperor Nero (ruled 54-68 CE) had changed the Roman customs. Nero was above all a performing artist.* He sang, played music, and acted in plays onstage for the public. He had successfuly encouraged the Roman aristocracy to also perform:
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
How did child actors affect the dramatic hypnosis?
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 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. (Also, their superfluous nature meant that Mark could omit any of them at the performance if the family member was for some reason absent.)
Personally, I think that three scenes that involve children, plus the two scenes that involve the parents, break 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 prior to the Last Supper and Passion, the audience did not forget itself in the play for long stretches; it was repeatedly reminded that the play was a gift from Flavia’s family.
*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 as a performing artist.
minor changes v. July 4, 2021, revised December 25, 2022