Marcella of Rome – The Woman Who Tamed Jerome’s Temper

Marcella of Rome – The Woman Who Tamed Jerome’s Temper

            Marcella became a widow after only seven months of marriage. Being a young and pretty noblewoman, she had no shortage of suitors. Even a consul, Neratius Cerealis (in office from 328 to 358 AD) asked insistently for her hand. He was much older than her, but promised her riches and guidance. Marcella’s mother, Albina (also a widow), saw it as a golden opportunity.

            Marcella was not interested. Those were the days of the great hermits and early monastic communities. Athanasius’s Life of Anthony was a bestseller, especially among young believers who thought Constantine’s edict of toleration of Christians had made life too easy and convenient for followers of Christ.

            These extreme life choices made exasperated parents sigh in frustration. “Incomprehensible!” an upstanding citizen of Antioch said about one of these young and restless people. “How could the son of respectable middle-class parents with a good education and excellent prospects for a steading comfortable life leave his home to go off and join a company of dirty vagrants!”[1]

            And yet, this was the type of life Marcella wanted for herself. She had heard Athanasius talk about Anthony and the monasteries Pachomius had established in Egypt. She was enticed, but the choice she made was not as drastic. She didn’t travel to the deserts, but chose to live an ascetic life at home.

            She refused every other suitor, rich or poor. “If I wanted to remarry, and didn’t wish to consecrate myself to perpetual chastity,” she told her mother, “then I would look for a husband – not for an inheritance.”

            In fact, she readily renounced her own fancy clothes, jewelry, and riches, in order to devote her money to the poor. Albina could only persuade her to compromise a little. If she had to give her wealth away, she should at least keep it in the family and give it to some cousins who could use it. Marcella complied. Gradually, Albina accepted and adopted her daugther’s lifestyle.

            Soon, other women joined them: first Paola and her daughters Eustochium and Blesilla, and then Sofronia, Asella, Principia, Leah, Feliciana, and Marcellina. Marcella’s large domus was just outside of Rome, in a quiet, country area known as Aventino. Some women lived with Marcella and some, like Paola, stayed in their homes, but met together to pray, sing Psalms, read Scriptures, and perform charitable work.

Marcella and Jerome

            After Athanasius, Rome welcomed another famous Christian author: Jerome (today best-known for his Latin translation of the Bible). Jerome’s fame had preceded him both as ascetic and as exegete, and Marcella had many questions to ask him.

            At first, he shunned her. He was a firm believer in celibacy for the clergy and in chastity as a holier form of life, so he avoided, “out of modesty,” any eye-contact with Marcella and her friends.

            But she didn’t give up, insisting until she gained his attention. Her questions were specific and thorough. “She didn’t quit after my first explanation,” Jerome said, “but persisted with other questions, not to dispute, but to learn, through her inquiries, what might be the answer to possible objections.”

            Most of her questions regarded the interpretation of some Hebrew words, particularly the names of God in the Old Testament. Besides seeking Jerome’s answers, she worked hard to learn the language, until she was able not only to interpret it, but to sing the Hebrew Psaltery without a trace of foreign accent.

            This was not virtuosism or a desire to excel. The church in her day was still elaborating much of its doctrine, and many interpretations were still dubious, leaving Christians the choice to believe what they were told or to investigate. Marcella’s position of influence over the women in her circle, who considered her a “teacher” and a “mother hen,” compelled her to make the second choice.

            Jerome’s interaction with Marcella didn’t escape the disapproval of those who thought he was wasting his time with insignificant women, but he reminded them of the women who assisted Jesus in the gospels and who had the privilege of seeing Christ’s resurrected body sooner than the male disciples. Besides, he recognized Marcella’s high education, so much that in a letter to her he apologized that his Latin was not up to her standards.

            Jerome stayed in Rome from 382 to 385 at the service of pope Damasus I. For a while, there were high expectations that he would become his successor, but when Damasus died, the choice fell on another man, the deacon Siricius. One substantial reason for this change of plans was Jerome’s encouragement of extreme forms of asceticism. He was particularly accused of having exercised undue influence on the young Blesilla, who died from excessive fasting.

            Jerome had a fiery personality and didn’t take criticism well. He also thought Siricius was too naïve and incapable of fending off the heretical groups that were taking foot in the city. “He fancied others as guileless as he was himself,” Jerome wrote of the pope later.

            He was particularly furious with those who criticized his translation of the gospels as inconsistent with the original Greek. Where could he vent his resentment? In a letter to Marcella, of course – even if he stopped midway to explain he could easily imagine her reaction. “I know that as you read these words you will knit your brows,” he wrote, “and fear that my freedom of speech is sowing the seeds of fresh quarrels; and that, if you could, you would gladly put your finger on my mouth to prevent me from even speaking of things which others do not blush to do.”

            This certainty suggests he had seen Marcella react the same way before. Who knows? Maybe she had really put her finger on his mouth on other occasions. Given Jerome’s short temper, there were probably plenty of those occurrences.

Marcella’s Last Years

            By the time Jerome left Rome, Marcella had acquired such a wealth of biblical knowledge that many would seek her advice, which she gave freely, without taking any credit – partially out of social correctness, partially out of respect for 1 Timothy 2:12, and partially (according to Jerome) to avoid embarrassing the men who had not solved those issues on their own.

            Jerome convinced Paola and Eustochio to leave Rome with him and pursue the ascetic life in the deserts of Palestine. They invited Marcella to go along, even pleading with her in a long letter full of biblical references, but she refused. There was plenty to do in Rome.

            No one expected what happened next. In 408, Alaric, king of the Goths, besieged the “eternal city,” leaving only after receiving large quantities of precious goods from the Roman government. Emperor Honorius, however, refused to meet the full conditions laid by Alaric, who attacked the city again in 410, this time thoroughly sacking it and destroying large parts of it. By that time, the Romans had been starved for so long that they could offer little resistance.

            The Goths invaded Marcella’s property. According to witnesses’ accounts, she didn’t show any fear. We don’t know exactly how old she was but if she had been a young woman during the consulate of Cerealis, she might have been in her seventies or early eighties by this time.

            The Goths couldn’t believe that Marcella had chosen a life of poverty. Normally, large properties like hers belonged to the wealthy, so they asked where she had hidden her goods. They were also after Marcella’s young disciple Principia, but Marcella defended her with her life. They could take all the goods they could find, she said, but not the girl. The frustrated soldiers beat them both, but let them go. Marcella died a few months later, maybe as a result of the strain.

 



[1] John Chrysostom, Against Those Who Oppose the Monastic Life, quoted in Robert Wilken, The First Thousand Years, Yale University Press, 2012, p. 108.