Flavia Domitilla (saint)

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Roman imperial dynasties
Flavian dynasty
Umbria Saint Domitilla.jpg
Saint Domitilla
Vespasian 69 AD – 79 AD
Titus 79 AD – 81 AD
Domitian 81 AD – 96 AD
Gens Flavia
Flavian tree
Category:Flavian dynasty
Preceded by
Year of the Four Emperors
Followed by
Nerva–Antonine dynasty

Flavia Domitilla, daughter of Domitilla the Younger by an unknown father, perhaps Quintus Petillius Cerialis, had the same name as her mother and her grandmother Domitilla the Elder. She was thus a granddaughter of Emperor Vespasian and a niece of Emperors Titus and Domitian. She married her cousin, the consul Titus Flavius Clemens, a grand-nephew of Vespasian, through his father Titus Flavius Sabinus (consul AD 69).

Classical Roman writers[edit]

A contemporary inscription indicates that Flavia Domitilla had seven children,[1] who were thus grandnephews and grandnieces of Domitian.

Suetonius, who was born in 94 and was thus a contemporary, states that Domitian designated as the emperor's successors two very young sons of Flavius Clemens, and changed their names to Domitian and Vespasian.[2]

Quintilian (c. 35 – c. 100) mentions that Domitian had entrusted to Titus Flavius Clemens him the tutelage of two grandsons of Domitian's sister, presumably the two boys designated by the emperor as his successors.[3]

In spite of having shown them such favour, Domitian had Flavius Clemens executed and Flavia Domitilla banished to an island.

Suetonius writes: "Finally he 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, changing their former names and calling the one Vespasian and the other Domitian. And it was by this deed in particular that he hastened his own destruction."[2]

Suetonius says that one of those involved in the assassination of Domitian on 18 September 96 was Domitilla's steward Stephanus.[4]

Cassius Dio (c. 155–235) reports in his Roman History: "Domitian slew, along with many others, Flavius Clemens the consul, although he was a cousin and married to Flavia Domitilla, who was also a relative of the emperor's. The charge brought against them both was that of atheism (ἀθεότης), 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."[5]

Jewish tradition[edit]

Some scholars connect Domitilla with a character in Jewish tradition, a Roman matron in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 10b) and Deuteronomy Rabbah 2.25. When the emperor had decreed that in 30 days, the Senate would confirm an edict to kill all Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire, the Roman matron convinced her husband to stand up for the Jews. In that tradition, Flavius Clemens converted to Judaism after having contact with the great sage Rabbi Akiva.[6][7]

Christian tradition[edit]

Saint Flavia Domitilla
Andrea di Bonaiuto. St. Agnes and St. Domitilla. 1365. Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence..jpg
Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze. St. Agnes and St. Domitilla. 1365. Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence.
Born 1st century
Died 96?
Ponza or Ventotene
Venerated in Greek Orthodox Church
Catholic Church
Feast 7 May (Catholic), 12 May (Orthodox)

Both the Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church celebrate a Flavia Domitilla as a saint.

The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Saint Flavia Domitilla on 12 May and a publication of the Apostolic Service of the Church of Greece states that she lived in Rome in the first century, that she was the wife of the Roman official Titus Flavius Clemens and a daughter of Emperor Domitian's sister, and that she died a martyr for refusing to sacrifice to idols.[8] This description identifies her with the Flavia Domitilla described above.

The identity of the saint honoured in the Catholic Church, whose feast is now on 7 May, is less clear.

Christian writers[edit]

In his Church History, written at the end of 323 or 324, Eusebius, speaking of "writers who were far from our religion", says that "they recorded that in the fifteenth year of Domitian Flavia Domitilla, daughter of a sister of Flavius Clement, who at that time was one of the consuls of Rome, was exiled with many others to the island of Pontia in consequence of testimony borne to Christ."[9]

In his Chronicon, which survives in a translation by Jerome (c. 340–420), Eusebius quotes an earlier writer who gives similar information. Under Year 16 of Domitian in the 218th Olympiad (96 AD, the year of Domitian's assassination), he states: "Brutius writes that there were very many Christian martyrs under Domitian, among whom were Flavia Domitilla, niece (on his sister's side) of Flavius Clemens the consul; she was exiled to the island of Pontia, because she bore witness that she was a Christian."[10]

The identity and religion of this Brutius or Bruttius are uncertain.[11]

George Syncellus, who died after 810, repeats the statement by Eusebius in his Chronicon and adds that Flavius Clemens died for Christ. He is the first to speak of this first-century Roman consul as a Christian.[12][13] In quoting Eusebius, Syncellus describes Domitilla as Clement's ἐξαδελφή (exadelphe), a term that can mean "cousin" and not only, as Jerome understood it, "niece".[14]

Writing of the death in 404 of Saint Paula, Jerome says that, on her way to the Holy Land, "the vessel touched at the island of Pontia ennobled long since as the place of exile of the illustrious lady Flavia Domitilla who under the Emperor Domitian was banished because she confessed herself a Christian; and Paula, when she saw the cells in which this lady passed the period of her long martyrdom, taking to herself the wings of faith, more than ever desired to see Jerusalem and the holy places".[15]

One person or two?[edit]

The information that Eusebius attributes to Brutius about Flavia Domitilla does not agree with what Cassius Dio says of the Flavia Domitilla exiled by Domitian. The Domitilla of Cassius Dio was the wife of Flavius Clemens and was exiled to the island of Pandateria in the context of persons who "drifted into Jewish ways". The Domitilla of Eusebius was the niece of Flavius Clemens and was banished to the island of Pontia for declaring herself a Christian.

The Acts of Saints Nereus and Achilleus, a legend of no historical value[16] composed in the fifth or sixth century, begins by stating that Domitilla was Domitian's niece,[17][18] but then goes on the speak of her as the consul's niece.[19][20][21] Furthermore it presents Domitilla, not as a wife and mother of seven children, but as a formally consecrated Christian virgin, a description absent also from the writings of Eusebius and Jerome.

Some modern scholars posit the existence of two distinct victims of Domitian, each called Flavia Domitilla, both belonging to the same senatorial family.[22] The first to propound this view was Caesar Baronius:[23][24] no ancient author speaks of two and Suetonius was able to speak of Stephanus, the assassin of Domitian, simply as "the steward of Domitilla" without having to indicate which Domitilla he served.[25]

Others consider it more likely that Domitian banished only one Flavia Domitilla and that there are errors in the texts of either Cassius Dio or Eusebius or of both.[26][27] They instance the possibility of confusion between the geographically close islands of Pontia and Pandataria.[28][29]

Catholic liturgy[edit]

Flavia Domitilla is for the first time included in a list of saints in the ninth-century martyrology of Florus of Lyon, in which there is in her regard a long entry based on the Acts of Saints Nereus and Achilleus and which puts her feast on 7 May, perhaps because the Martyrologium Hieronymianum had on that date a mention of a Saint Flavius.[30][31] The same martyrology mentions her also on 12 May, the feast of Saints Nereus and Achilleus, saying (again on the basis of these Acts) that these were her eunuchs.[32] The martyrology of Ado of Vienne, in the same century, did the same, but more briefly.[31][33] The ninth-century Martyrology of Usuard copied that of Ado and was in turn copied by the Roman Martyrology of Caesar Baronius, who gave credence to the legendary Acts of Saints Nereus and Achilleus[34] and in 1595 succeeded in having Domitilla's name added in the General Roman Calendar to those of Nereus and Achilleus on their feast, 12 May.

Until the Roman Martyrology was completely revised in 2001, it had the following entry under 7 May: "At Terracina, in Campania, the birthday of blessed Flavia Domitilla, virgin and martyr, niece of the Consul Flavius Clemens. She received the religious veil at the hands of St Clement, and in the persecution of Domitian was exiled with many others to the island of Pontia, where she endured a long martyrdom for Christ. Taken afterwards to Terracina, she converted many to the faith of Christ by her teaching and miracles. The judge ordered the chamber in which she was with the virgins Euphrosyna and Theodora, to be set on fire, and she thus consummated her glorious martyrdom. She is also mentioned with the holy martyrs Nereus and Achilleus, on the 12th of this month."[35]

The Roman Breviary presented her as the niece, not of the Consul Clemens, but of the Emperors Titus and Domitian, and as a virgin, not a wife. Based closely on the Acts of Saints Nereus and Achilleus, it said under the date of 12 May: "The Roman virgin Flavia Domitilla, niece of Emperors Titus and Domitian, after receiving the religious veil of virginity at the hands of blessed Pope Clement, was accused by her fiancé Aurelianus, son of Consul Titus Aurelius, of being a Christian and was banished by Emperor Domitian to the island of Pontia, where she underwent a long martyrdom in prison. Finally she was taken to Terracina and again confessed to being a Christian. She was always shown to be more and more constant and, under the Emperor Trajan, fire was set, by order of the judge, to her room and, together with her foster sisters Theodora and Euphrosyna, she consummated her glorious martyrdom on 7 May. Their bodies were found intact and were buried by the deacon Caesarius. On this day [12 May] the bodies of the two brothers [Nereus and Achilleus] and Domitilla were brought back from the cardinal-deaconry of Saint Adrian to the basilica of these martyrs, the Titulus Fasciolae."[36]

The translation of relics in question was arranged with the greatest solemnity by Cardinal Baronius in 1597.[37][38]

The 2001 decree of promulgation of the revised Roman Martyrology declared: "In accordance with the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council on the Sacred Liturgy, 'the accounts of martyrdom or the lives of the saints are to accord with the facts of history' (art. 92 c), the names of saints included in the Martyrology and their notices have to be subjected more carefully than before to the judgment of historical study."[39]

The Roman Martyrology now states under 7 May: "At Rome, commemoration of Saint Domitilla, martyr, daughter of the sister of Consul Flavius Clemens, who, being accused during the persecution of Emperor Domitian of denying the pagan gods, was because of her witness to Christ banished with others to the island of Pontia and there underwent a long martyrdom."[40]

Earlier than that, the name of Domitilla was in 1969 removed from the General Roman Calendar (into which it was inserted only in 1595), because her liturgical cult has no basis in [Roman] tradition.[41] Accordingly, Domitilla is no longer mentioned on 12 May, feast of the soldier martyrs Nereus and Achilleus.


  1. ^ John Granger Cook, Roman Attitudes Toward the Christians: From Claudius to Hadrian (Mohr Siebeck 2011, pp. 128–129) ISBN 978-3-16150954-4
  2. ^ a b Suetonius, Life of Domitian, 15; English translation
  3. ^ Quintilian, "Institutio Oratoria", Book 4, Introduction, 2; English translation
  4. ^ Domitian, 17
  5. ^ Epitome of Cassius Dio, Book 67, chapter 14; Original text
  6. ^ Richard Gottheil, Samuel Krauss, "Flavia Domitilla" in Jewish Encyclopedia"
  7. ^ Lawrence J. Epstein, Converts to Judaism: Stories from Biblical Times to Today (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), p. 41
  8. ^ (in Greek) Ἡ Ἁγία Δομιτίλλα ἡ Μάρτυς . 12 Μαΐου. ΜΕΓΑΣ ΣΥΝΑΞΑΡΙΣΤΗΣ.
  9. ^ Eusebius, Church History, III, 18; English translation
  10. ^ Latin text; English version, which mistranslates ex sorore neptem as "granddaughter of the sister" instead of "niece on his sister's side", making this Flavia Domitilla a grandniece, not a niece of the consul.
  11. ^ T.J. Cornell, The Fragments of the Roman Historians, Oxford University Press 2013, vol. 1, pp. 593–595 ISBN 978-0-19927705-6
  12. ^ Peter Lampe, Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries: From Paul to Valentinus (A&C Black 2006, p. 200 ISBN 978-1-44111004-6)
  13. ^ T.J. Cornell, The Fragments of the Roman Historians (Oxford University Press 2013),, vol. 1, p. 631
  14. ^ John Granger Cook, Roman Attitudes Toward the Christians: From Claudius to Hadrian (Mohr Siebeck 2011, p. 130 ISBN 978-3-16150954-4)
  15. ^ Jerome, Letter 108, 7; English translation
  16. ^ F.J.A. Hort, The Apocalypse of St. John I - III (Wipf and Stock, reprint 2005), p. xxii
  17. ^ Edition by Surius
  18. ^ Edition by the Bollandists
  19. ^ Edition of Surius, chapter 5
  20. ^ Edition of the Bollandists, chapters II-III
  21. ^ Edition by Achelis of the Greek text, p. 8, l. 12 – p. 9, l. 18
  22. ^ Andrew Cain, Jerome's Epitaph on Paula: A Commentary on the Epitaphium Sanctae Paulae with an Introduction, Text, and Translation (Oxford University Press 2013, p. 196 ISBN 978-0-19967260-8)
  23. ^ John Granger Cook, Roman Attitudes Toward the Christians: From Claudius to Hadrian (Mohr Siebeck 2011, p. 129 ISBN 978-3-16150954-4)
  24. ^ Brian Jones, The Emperor Domitian (Routledge 2002, p. 116 ISBN 978-1-13485313-7)
  25. ^ Leo H. Canfield, The Early Persecutions of the Christians (reprint: The Lawbook Exchange 2005 ISBN 978-1-58477481-5), pp. 82–83]
  26. ^ John Granger Cook, Roman Attitudes Toward the Christians: From Claudius to Hadrian (Mohr Siebeck 2011, p. 130 ISBN 978-3-16150954-4)
  27. ^ Cilliers Breytenbach, Laurence L. Welborn, Encounters with Hellenism (BRILL 2004, p. 208 ISBN 978-9-00412526-1)
  28. ^ Stephen Spence, The Parting of the Ways: The Roman Church as a Case Study (Peeters 2004, p. 167 ISBN 978-9-04291336-3)
  29. ^ Peter Lampe, Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries: From Paul to Valentinus (A&C Black 2006, p. 200 ISBN 978-0-82648102-3)
  30. ^ Henri Quentin, Les martyrologes historiques du Moyen-Âge (Paris 1908), pp. 364–366
  31. ^ a b Jean Éracle, Une grande dame de l'ancienne Rome: Flavia Domitilla, petite fille de Vespasien in Échos de Saint-Maurice, 1964, vol. 62, p. 130
  32. ^ Quentin (1908), p. 362
  33. ^ Martyrologe d'Adon, 18 verso e 19 recto
  34. ^ Tina Saji, Christian Social Reformers (Mittal 2005, p. 41 ISBN 978-81-8324008-6)
  35. ^ Martyrologium Romanum 1585, p. 192; [English translation, Baltimore 1916, pp. 130–131]
  36. ^ Flavia Domitilla, virgo Romana, Titi et Domitiani Imperatorum neptis, cum sacrum virginitatis velamen a beato Clemente Papa accepisset, ab Aureliano sponso, Titi Aurelii Consulis filio, delata, quod christiana esset, a Domitiano Imperatore in insulam Pontiam est deportata, ubi in carcere longum martyrium duxit. Demum Tarracinam deducta, iterum Christum confessa, cum semper constantior appareret, sub Traiano Imperatore, iudicis iussu incenso eius cubiculo, una cum Theodora et Euphrosyna virginibus et collactaneis suis, gloriosi martyrii cursum confecit, nonis maii: quarum corpora integra inventa, a Caesario Diacono sepulta sunt. Hac vero die duorum fratrum ac Domitillae corpora ex Diaconia sancti Adriani simul translata, in ipsorum Martyrum Basilicam, tituli Fasciolae, restituta sunt: Breviarium Romanum, pars vernalis (Paris and Lyon 1828), p. 636).
  37. ^ Jetze Touber, Law, Medicine and Engineering in the Cult of the Saints in Counter-Reformation Rome: The Hagiographical Works of Antonio Gallonio, 1556-1605, BRILL 2014, pp. 89–93 ISBN 978-9-00426514-1
  38. ^ Pio Franchi de' Cavalieri, "Nereo e Achilleo, santi" in Enciclopedia Italiana (1934)
  39. ^ Decree Victoriam paschalem Christi of 29 June 2001, pp. 5–6 of Martyrologium Romanum 2004
  40. ^ Romae, commemoratio sanctae Domitillae, martyris, quae, filia sororis Flavii Clementis consulis, cum in persecutione Domitiani imperatoris accusata esset deos alienos negandi, ob testimonium Christi cum aliis in insulam Pontiam deportata, longum ibi martyrium duxit: Martyrologium Romanum (Typis Vaticanis 2004 ISBN 978-88-209-7210-3), p. 274
  41. ^ Memoria vero S. Domitillae, anno 1595 in Calendario romano adscripta, expungitur, cum eius cultus nullum habeat fundamentum in traditione: Calendarium Romanum (Typis Vaticanis 1969), p. 123