On this day: St. Marcella of Rome

On this day we celebrate the feast of St. Marcella of Rome.

What we know of her comes from the letters St. Jerome wrote to her from Bethlehem and the letter he wrote about her to her friend Principia after her death.

Marcella's palace on the Aventine Hill was a center where Roman matrons and widows met to discuss the bible. St. Jerome was their spiritual guide. When he moved to Bethlehem with St. Paula and St. Eustochium, they tried to convince Marcella to join them there, but she stayed in Rome.

Marcella died in 410, after having been brutalized by Visigoths. Two years later Jerome wrote:

"Her father’s death left her an orphan, and she had been married less than seven months when her husband was taken from her. Then as she was young, and highborn, as well as distinguished for her beauty—always an attraction to men—and her self-control, an illustrious consular named Cerealis paid court to her with great assiduity. Being an old man he offered to make over to her his fortune so that she might consider herself less his wife than his daughter. Her mother Albina went out of her way to secure for the young widow so exalted a protector. But Marcella answered: 'had I a wish to marry and not rather to dedicate myself to perpetual chastity, I should look for a husband and not for an inheritance;' and when her suitor argued that sometimes old men live long while young men die early, she cleverly retorted: 'a young man may indeed die early, but an old man cannot live long.' This decided rejection of Cerealis convinced others that they had no hope of winning her hand."

Jerome went on to describe the differences between Marcella and other widows at a time and place when widows had more freedom than other women:

"For women of the world are wont to paint their faces with rouge and white-lead, to wear robes of shining silk, to adorn themselves with jewels, to put gold chains round their necks, to pierce their ears and hang in them the costliest pearls of the Red Sea, and to scent themselves with musk. While they mourn for the husbands they have lost they rejoice at their own deliverance and freedom to choose fresh partners—not, as God wills, to obey these but to rule over them.

"With this object in view they select for their partners poor men who contented with the mere name of husbands are the more ready to put up with rivals as they know that, if they so much as murmur, they will be cast off at once. Our widow’s clothing was meant to keep out the cold and not to shew her figure. Of gold she would not wear so much as a seal-ring, choosing to store her money in the stomachs of the poor rather than to keep it at her own disposal."

Jerome explained how, when men, including priests, consulted the wise and learned Marcella "concerning obscure and doubtful points", she avoided transgressing the rule against women teaching by telling them her own opinion was really Jerome's.

He described some of the horrors, including cannibalism, that came with the third siege of Rome. Marcella was scourged and beaten with cudgels when the house where she was living with Principia was invaded by Visigoths. They tortured her, demanding her riches, but more soldiers came, who had "some reverence for holy things. They escorted the two women to the church of St. Paul,--one of those which had been named by Alaric as a sanctuary for all who chose to take advantage of it. Here the venerable Marcella, exhausted with her fatigues and wounds, died the next day."

--A Dictionary of Saintly Women, Vol. 2, by Agnes B. C. Dunbar, London, 1905.

The site of St. Marcella's palace on the Aventine Hill is believed to have been near Santa Sabina. Click here for more about the church. "The columns are ancient, and may have been taken from one of the many buildings on the Aventine that were destroyed by the Goths in 410." (Maybe some came from Marcella's palace.)

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