I begin in Flavia Domitilla’s world. In my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, I proposed that Flavia Domitilla produced a play that was privately performed for Mark’s Roman congregation. Flavia and her husband Titus Flavius Clemens were honored during the performance of the play. It was likely followed by a grand dinner. The audience for the performance was Mark’s congregants. I did not speculate about why Flavia produced the play.
Here I propose that that performance and dinner celebrated Flavia Domitilla’s donation of the use of catacombs on her suburban property to Mark’s congregation. (explained below)
Did Flavia Domitilla Judaize, that is, participate in the congregation’s worship, or identify as a sympathetic believer? No. Flavia Domitilla was a niece of the current Emperor Domitian and the mother of young sons whom Domitian had designated (or would designate soon) as his successors. Flavia had to be as circumspect as “Caesar’s wife.” I see her donation of catacombs as much like the patronage of respectable social organizations by members of the British royal family. Flavia approved of but did not participate in (decorous) Judean worship.
Mark’s anointing woman led me to Flavia Domitilla
In my book I asserted that Mark wrote a play that was performed. I analyzed the play, and reconstructed some of the performance.
Flavia Domitilla entered my thoughts when I thought about the staging of the anointing at Bethany. Jesus’s promise of eternal fame to the anointing woman did not make dramatic sense if the role was played by an ordinary (probably slave) actress. (The promise to the woman is not fulfilled within the world of the play.) The promise only made sense if it was meaningful in the world of the audience. Which implied that the recipient of the promise was a prominent person. Could that be the historical person Flavia Domitilla the Younger? And if it was, she must have been in a patron-client relationship to the congregation.
If Flavia Domitilla was the patron of the congregation, then the play was presented with her knowledge. She knew about its rehearsals. It was very likely performed on her property. (Her uncle, the emperor Domitian, had banned public performances of plays, but private performances were allowed.) Flavia had hired Mark, who wrote and directed the play, and played the role of Jesus. She was the producer. I did not speculate on why she produced the play for to the congregation.
Recently I have been thinking about Flavia Domitilla’s life. Perhaps her biography would suggest why she produced it. This post approaches the play from her point of view.
Biography of Flavia Domitilla
Flavia Domitilla the Younger was a granddaughter of Vespasian and a niece of Titus and Domitian. She was born approximately 63 CE to their sister (who died soon after). Flavia Domitilla was an only child. When she married in the late 70s to her cousin Titus Flavius Clemens, they probably lived in his home, i.e., not the imperial palace nearby. We can assume that they lived grandly.
Many close family members died during Flavia’s youth. Before the age of 30, by 90 CE, she had lost her mother, her father, her grandfather Vespasian and grandmother, her uncle Titus, one of Titus’s two daughters, Domitian’s son, and her husband’s brother and father. By 90, only her uncle Domitian and his current wife Domitia Longina (and perhaps a former wife) remained of his generation. Flavia’s generation was represented only by her and her husband, and her only surviving cousin, Titus’s second daughter Julia Flavia (who died childless in 91). Flavia’s children were the only Flavian representatives of their generation.
In short, Flavia Domitilla was emotionally vulnerable, and in an inherently precarious position, as Domitian had shown he was not adverse to killing family members. (He had he killed her brother-in-law and his first cousin once removed, Titus Flavius Sabinus, on a frivolous pretext.) The mature Judean princess Berenice, who lived in or near the imperial palace, was perfectly placed to be a friend and mentor to this young orphan. Berenice was a mother whose children had long since started their own lives in the east. She had experience as a ruler. She had nothing to do in Rome. It is plausible that she took Flavia Domitilla under her wing.
In the late 80s and 90s, Flavia was having children (eventually, seven). Two sons were designated by Domitian as his successors. Evidently, Domitian trusted Flavia and Clemens to remain socially respectable. We can infer that Flavia did not worship foreign gods. At most, if she visited a temple or a synagogue or an association of foreigners, she made the purely symbolic gestures of respect that we associate with heads of state today who visit the religious buildings of their hosts.
Suetonius and Cassius Dio don’t say that Flavia Judaized
History from Suetonius
The Life of Domitian by Suetonius supports my assertion that Flavia Domitilla was not a congregant in Mark’s congregation or, personally, a Judaizer. Suetonius (born c. 69 CE) was a close friend of Pliny the Younger, a Senator from the late 80s onward. Pliny had known Flavia’s husband Clemens. (Clemens had been consul in 95 and presided over the Senate.) Later in 95, Clemens was killed by Domitian’s agents. Domitian, in turn, was assassinated in 96. The Senate had to replace him. Suetonius would have been able to interview multiple people who had lived through these crises.
What does Suetonius say? Domitian “put to death his own cousin Flavius Clemens, suddenly and on a very slight suspicion, almost before the end of his consulship; and yet Flavius was a man of most contemptible laziness and Domitian had besides openly named his sons, who were then very young, as his successors…” Suetonius dismisses the validity of Domitian’s suspicion, and does not mention the official charge against Clemens.
Suetonius does not mention Flavia’s fate. I think that Suetonius would have mentioned if she had behaved inappropriately, and was therefore partly responsible for the fate of her family.
History from Cassius Dio
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. The charge brought against them both was that of atheism, a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned. Some of these were put to death, and the rest were at least deprived of their property. Domitilla was merely banished to Pandateria. (Cassius Dio 67.14)
Dio wrote about 100 years after Suetonius. Dio gives the charge against Flavia and Clemens, but does not say that it was valid. Suetonius and Dio are our only sources, and neither provides evidence that Flavia or Clemens Judaized.
History doesn’t show that Clemens Judaized
Some 80 years after Clemens’s death, a convert to Christianity adopted the name “Titus Flavius Clemens”. Evidently, the original Clemens was now considered to be a hero of the Roman church, worthy for a convert to emulate. That, however, does not mean that Clemens was a convert. Rather, it is quite natural if, over the intervening decades, the Roman church had allowed the original Clemens’s identity to slide from patron to (secret) convert to convert. The leaders wouldn’t argue with congregants who misidentified Clemens. They weren’t historians. Clemens as a convert was a useful storyline. And no one was around to contest the story.*
*Note: We see that slippage from history to fiction as well in the second-century use of the name “Pope Clement” for a (real?) congregational leader of the time.
The patron’s event
The purpose of the performance of Mark’s play
I propose that Flavia Domitilla donated the use of catacombs on her suburban property to a socially prominent Judean congregation. Her donation was a small version of the massive building projects carried out by her uncles, the emperors. She could not build, but she could improve the infrastructure of Rome for the public.
A donation of catacombs was a significant action. Catacombs would be used for the foreseeable future. Thousands of people would benefit. Every time someone visited or even mentioned “The Catacombs of Flavia Domitilla” she would have the eternal fame that Jesus promised the anointing woman in Mark 14.9 “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
I suggest that Flavia celebrated the donation of catacombs to the congregation, with a dinner and an entertainment. The entertainment, the play, must have been performed during the late afternoon (I explain why at length in the book.) Dinner–at another location on the property–must have followed.
The entertainment was a new play. It was the original version of the narrative text we know as the Gospel of Mark. The location was very likely her husband’s property just east of the Palatine Hill, a few blocks from Domitian’s palace.
A new, privately performed play was a luxury good, worthy of a Flavian. Why was it special? First, there were many other types of dinner-party entertainments, as shown at Trimalchio’s dinner in Satyricon. But plays were unusual. Second, at the time, Domitian had barred actors and mimes (comic actors) from public performances, but private performances were allowed. So the congregants were receiving a rare treat. Third, Mark’s play was, I believe, written for a Greek-style theater (I discuss the staging thoroughly in my book.) Flavia had the resources and space to build a wooden theater on her property for the occasion. Fourth, the play was about Judean characters and set in Judea. In this way Flavia demonstrated her patronage by giving the congregation an entertainment that was meaningful to them and only them. And fifth, like other spectacular entertainments of the time, the play would be performed only once. The set, the costumes, the dialogue, the acting, all made meaning on one afternoon, and then disappeared forever.
The play: an entertainment
Even assuming that Berenice had mentored her, Flavia Domitilla knew little about Judean texts and beliefs other than basic facts (e.g., that “Moses” was the Judean lawgiver, or perhaps, the identity of John the Baptist). Therefore, the writer of the play–’Mark’–could not expect her to appreciate any references he made to his sources (even such an obvious one as the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers in the Red Sea). And therefore, the play had to be entertaining on its own, superficially.
(Mark, a genius, built the play out of topical and Scriptural references. Most of these references would have bypassed even knowledgeable Judeans at the performance. Only readers of his narrative text could have appreciated them.)
To create an entertaining play, Mark wrote in the genre of mime, where the actors were not masked, the overall theme was “daily life,” and improvisation by the actors was encouraged. Mark uses many theatrical elements to hold the audience’s interest. The disciples ask stupid questions. They don’t understand Jesus’s identity despite the many hints he drops. Jesus performs miracles (stage magic). Jesus teaches wisdom through parables. Satanic spirits provide grotesquerie. Satan tests Jesus and enchants Peter. Acrobats dive into the ‘sea.’ Jesus spars intellectually with the scribes and Pharisees. Judas sneaks off to betray him. The Council of Judea conspires. The Passion, a miniature tragedy, is full of theatricality: an arrest, a sword slash, a stacked trial, a theatrical ‘choice,’ mocking, a crucifixion offstage, a cock crow, and (I argue in the book) a glorious ascension scene that ended the play. All of this is entertaining on its own. Most of it is humorous until the Last Supper.
Overlaying this theatricality is a simple, generic plot: a demi-god or angel comes to earth on a mission to die and rise. He is opposed by representatives of the Establishment who fear his popularity with the people. But they are wrong, as he never actually poses an earthly challenge to them; he only wants to provoke them into killing him so that he can rise and resume his heavenly activities. He succeeds, and his followers celebrate.
Mark added elements specific to the event. Some dialogue was meaningful in both the world of the play and the world of the audience. (I present a new discovery at the end of this post.) The audience would savor the double meanings. In addition, Mark wrote scenes that involved Flavia (the anointing woman at Bethany) and Clemens (the blind man of Bethsaida). I have suggested that the healing of the epileptic boy and the presentation of the little child were roles played by their children. During the First Feeding Miracle, I believe, gifts were distributed to the guests. And the Temple Incident allowed for children in the audience to rush the stage. (I discuss these elements in the book.)
Flavia and Mark
From the fact that he was chosen to write this play, Mark must have been a highly skilled and well-known writer of mime plays. Not only that, he must have been known for his command of Judean subjects. But since Mark had worked for elite Judeans, Flavia may not have experienced his work personally. He must have been recommended to her by someone in the Roman congregation.
Mark could have had a career of writing mimes for private performance. Mime performances required small casts, minimal sets, and no masks. Judean tradition offers many stories suitable for mime performances. We can easily imagine private performances, at dinner parties, of the stories of Esther, Judith, Jezebel, Jonah and Job. There were more stories in the extra-canonical literature, and in Judean history.
Berenice introduced Flavia to the congregation
Now I return to the event in the context of Flavia’s life. Why did Flavia donate the use of catacombs on her property to Mark’s Roman congregation? How was she introduced to them?
In another blog post, I proposed that Saint Veronica of Rome was a transformation of the historic Judean princess, Berenice, who had lived in Rome in the 70s and 80s CE. I suggested that Berenice attended services in Mark’s congregation. I also suggested that Berenice was perfectly positioned to be a mentor to Flavia Domitilla, and may have introduced her to the congregation.
Here I build on those proposals. It is certain that Berenice and Flavia Domitilla spent time together. Berenice lived in the Flavian palace, first as the lover of the emperor (or future emperor) Titus in the 70s. Flavia Domitilla was Titus’s young niece. When she married in the late 70s, she lived several blocks away.
If Berenice in Rome wanted to attend religious services of her Judean ethnos—an activity that I think the Flavians would have seen as normal—she would have chosen a genteel and nonPharisaic congregation (after all, as a client of the emperor, she was going to dine with him, impossible under the Pharisees’ purity laws). Mark’s congregation of, I believe, Alexandrian-heritage Judeans was available as an alternative. I note that Berenice had an Alexandrian connection: her sister, Mariamne, had married Demetrius, the alabarch (chief magistrate for the Judeans) of Alexandria, around 65 CE.
Berenice could have taken Flavia Domitilla to visit the Roman congregation. Alternatively, Flavia knew about the congregation because Berenice attended. Berenice could have mentioned their need for their own dedicated catacombs/cemetery.
Theoretically, it is possible that Flavia Domitilla learned about the Roman congregation in some other way. For example, Josephus was a client of the emperors Vespasian and Titus, and possibly Domitian as well. There must have been other elite Judeans in Rome after the Jewish War who interacted with the Flavian family. But given the Flavia-Berenice connection that I outlined above, that seems almost certainly the way Flavia was introduced to Mark’s congregation.
Why Flavia donated catacombs
Why did Flavia donate catacombs to the Roman congregation? My assumption–and I think the assumption of almost everyone who has considered the question–is that she was sympathetic to (proto-)Christianity. What other explanation could there be?
I think that assumption is incorrect. There’s no reason to think that Flavia was personally impressed with (proto-)Christianity. And as I said, the fact that Domitian planned to have her sons succeed him indicates that she had every reason to stick to traditional religion.
But when Berenice enters the picture, another scenario becomes possible. Berenice needed a place to be buried in Rome. The logical location was, on the grounds of her patrons, the Flavians. I suggest that Flavia decided to allow Berenice to be buried in Flavia’s family catacombs. And somehow, that permission was extended to other members of Berenice’s (proto-Christian) Roman congregation.
The date of the performance
Initially I thought that Flavia decided to donate the catacombs after Berenice died. But the performance of Mark’s play had to be planned well in advance. Mark could not have written it in a week while Berenice was waiting to be interred. Therefore, I see Flavia’s donation as an event before Berenice’s death.
Berenice was born c. 28 CE. She came to Rome in 70 and lived, along with her brother, Herod Agrippa II (both friends of Titus) in the imperial palace. Josephus insults her in Antiquities of the Jews, which was published in 93/94. “[Drusilla] longed to avoid her sister Berenice’s envy (for Drusilla was very ill-treated by Berenice because of Drusilla’s beauty)” Antiquities 20 7.2 ) This would seem to imply that Berenice had already passed away.
Beyond that, we know that Titus had an affair with Berenice, then sent her away. She returned to Rome after his death (81). Flavia Domitilla was born in the early 60s, married young, and had children. She must have needed time to mature, before she felt that granting access to catacombs on her property was an appropriate public action.
Our extant sources tell us nothing about her life, except that she had two young sons who were publicly designated by Domitian as his inheritors. If she was born 63, married at 15 in 78, had children starting in 79, then her oldest child would have been aged 8 in 87. So that gives us a window of 88-93 for the donation of the catacombs and the play. Given that she needed time to plan the event, choose the playwright, have the theater constructed, and have the play written, I suggest 90-93 for the event.
The reader might wonder if Flavia’s display of patronage was intended to bolster her husband’s public profile during his consulship in 95. That is possible if she knew in advance that he would be appointed consul. Perhaps the members of the Roman congregation had some ability to support him. They would be, publically, his clients.
Berenice was not honored at the performance
The reader may note that (I claim) both Flavia Domitilla and Clemens were honored during the performance of the play. Flavia was the anointing woman at Bethany, and Clemens was the Blind Man of Bethsaida. But there are no characters in the play that can be linked to Berenice. If she was alive when the play was performed, why wasn’t she honored too?
I respond: There are several possible explanations. First, the play was a gift, a cherry on the top of the real occasion for celebration: Flavia’s donation of catacombs. Mark honored Flavia during the play as a public acknowledgment of her gift. He honored Clemens during the play because the play was staged on his property. (See the book, Chapter 4, concerning the Bethsaida section.) Most likely, Mark did not honor Berenice because she was not a patron and that honor would take attention away from the patrons.
The first result of this scenario
In the book, I identify a number of statements in the dialogue of the Gospel of Mark, that make sense simultaneously in the world of the play and the world of the audience. One example is Jesus’s promise of eternal fame to the anointing woman at Bethany. “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Here’s a new one. It derives from the scenario I’ve presented in this post. Just before the promise of eternal fame, the woman has anointed the Jesus actor with nard. He says to the disciples (overheard by the audience), “You will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” (Mk 14:7b-8)
This statement is true within the world of the play. Now imagine that the actor who played Jesus–I think it was the author, “Mark”–was a Judean who expected to be buried in Flavia’s newly donated catacombs. Flavia’s anointing applied to the actor too. Flavia had anointed Mark for his final resting place in the newly donated catacombs. The statement was now also true in the world of the audience.
And that statement was supremely appropriate to the occasion. What a brilliant theatrical effect. It was the kind of multilayered experience that Flavia had the right to expect–and got–for her production of an evening-to-remember.
Original November 1, 2021, expanded December 21, 2022