The words in this post's title are from an excellent book about the emperor Domitian by Brian W. Jones. He is talking about a woman possibly belonging to Domitian's circle, one of several women named Flavia Domitilla. Three women, Domitian's mother, sister, and niece, all bore this name. As Professor Jones writes, "Early Christian writers argued for a fourth, niece of Flavius Clemens (i.e. daughter of a supposed sister), and have won acceptance from some scholars. She can safely be discarded." (The Emperor Domitian, Brian W. Jones, Routledge, paperback 1993, p 48).
And these words triggered in me a desire to salvage her. This was one of many interconnected stimuli for my book Inscription. I started to explore the story of these women in Domitian's family, and to see why some scholars accepted the view of those early Christian writers about the existence of this fourth Domitilla. (Whom it's simpler to call the second Domitilla, because Domitian's mother and sister were dead before he became emperor). And the more I delved into this enticing gap in the historical record, where it's not even known whether the well-known historical person Flavius Clemens, a consul, had a sister or not, the more I found myself leaning to this minority view.
Professor Jones could be quite right that she never existed, but I read all I could find on the subject, and some respected scholars, for example the late Professor Marta Sordi, made a good case for the fact that she did. What fascinated me about this controversy was that the history of the Christian church and the history of the Roman empire became tangled together in it. Which one would expect, considering that the church was growing at exactly this time, the late first century AD; but these two fields of study are often treated separately, by different scholars, historians of the growth of Christianity and historians of the Roman Empire. I wanted, in my book, to make connections.
The island of Ponza has two patron saints; one, Saint Silverio, was an early pope who became a victim of politics and was exiled to a smaller island in the Pontine archipelago, Palmarola, where he died of starvation in AD 537. I was fascinated by the other patron saint of Ponza, Saint Domitilla, who lived in the first century AD, and about whom there are various fanciful stories. But there seems to be a kernel of historical truth at the heart of these hagiographical legends, because non-Christian writers also mention a woman, or women, exiled to either Ponza, or Palmarola. The problem is that the earliest records contradict each other; there is a confusion of women, and a confusion of islands.
In my earlier post about Ponza, I mentioned that this historical controversy of the two Domitillas, and whether or not the second one can be discarded, is a node at which Christian and secular history intersect. It's also a puzzle that has never been solved. I took the fiction writer's liberty of solving it, in a way that reconciled the conflicting historical accounts. I preferred the unfashionable opinion of the minority-view scholars to that of the mainstream ones. I probed the interstices of what we know, and found an answer that, while totally my invention, is the way it could, possibly, have happened...
From the gaps in the net of the distant past, a person emerged for me, a young woman, Tilla; and then her (eventual) friend Marina, a female scribe, originally from ancient Britain. All the delving into ancient volumes in library stacks and tracing of historical controversies—which I so much enjoyed!—finally yielded something that started to come alive.
And when I finally saw, in a Roman church, an ornate reliquary labelled caput flaviae domitillae, "the head of Flavia Domitilla," and stared at the skull behind the glass, my breath was taken away by the thought that perhaps, just perhaps, this was a remnant of someone who lived two thousand years ago and who had become, for me, a real person.
Many thanks to Professor Jones for his—entirely reasonable and authoritative opinion—that "she can safely be discarded."