Well, no, Flavia Domitilla isn’t missing completely. She comes to life in the pages of Rubies of the Viper.
It’s only in history that she goes missing.
And that was the fate of the vast majority of women throughout history, including first-century Roman women. It wasn’t that they didn’t live good, satisfying lives. We have to hope they did. But they left no record that endured beyond their deaths… which unfortunately came very early to most of them. (See What Theodosia Never Learned for more on the lives of upper-class Roman women.)
The best proof is the illustration on this page. Do a Google search on any of the three emperors in the famous Flavian dynasty—Vespasian, Titus, Domitian—and you’ll turn up plenty of contemporary sculptures showing their strong, masculine faces. But search for Vespasian’s daughter/Titus and Domitian’s sister and you get what you see here: a single coin. That’s it. And we only have that because, after her death, Emperor Domitian declared her a goddess and punched out a series of coins with her image. Luckily, at least one of those coins survived.
I find the profile portrait on this coin fascinating. With her classic Roman nose and jutting chin, Flavia Domitilla looks exactly as I picture the entire clan, based on those busts of the three Flavian emperors.
Even Flavia Domitilla’s name betrays the anonymity of her life. This particular woman’s mother was named Flavia Domitilla, and her daughter was named Flavia Domitilla. Typical for the time. Women took feminine versions of their fathers’ and husbands’ names. If there was more than one daughter in the family, they were all named the same… set apart from each another only as prima (first), secunda (second), tertia (third), and so on. Emperor Vespasian’s wife and daughter were distinguished from one another as Flavia Domitilla Major (elder) and Flavia Domitilla Minor (younger).
Flavia Domitilla Minor was born around A.D. 45 and died around A.D. 66. Specific dates aren’t known. Both mother and daughter died before Vespasian became emperor in A.D. 69. The younger Flavia’s husband was a military man; her daughter, Flavia Domitilla, is revered as a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. That’s just about all we know about Vespasian’s daughter.
So… I had a true tabula rasa to play with in portraying Flavia Domitilla (the middle one) in Rubies of the Viper.
As revealed in the Historical Note at the end of my novel, for story purposes I made her a few years older than she was in real life in A.D. 53-56 and invented a non-military husband for her. In the book, she’s a girl in her early teens, with an impish, vibrant personality. Here are two snippets of dialogue from Chapter Three that I believe capture the essence of such a girl and her relationship with her father, brother and new friend, Theodosia:
A year or so younger than her brother and pretty in an immature way, Flavia exuded warmth and self-assurance.
“I’ve been dying to meet you, Theodosia. Actually, everyone’s been curious, even Father.”
“But we really didn’t come just to gawk,” Vespasian said, “despite what Flavia says. So… just ignore her.”
“That’s all he ever does,” Flavia said. “Ignore me.”
“We came to invite you to dinner—”
“See? Ignoring me!”
“To meet the neighboring landowners. Important folk, all of them. Interested?”
Theodosia laughed at this example of resolute ignoring.
“Yes, but… only if you’ll stay and have lunch with me today. Eating alone is going to get old fast. I can see that already.”
* * *
Titus sat down next to Theodosia and laid his hand on her arm.
“How is it that you’re not married yet?”
“Never found anyone I wanted to marry who wanted to marry me. And at this point, I’m probably too old.”
“Not a chance!” said Vespasian.
Flavia had pulled a roll apart and was stuffing it with cheese. Now she stared into Theodosia’s face.
“That’s unbelievable. Someone as beautiful as you had no suitors?”
“Nobody I’d consider. A couple of greasy freedmen. What Roman nobleman wants an orphaned, half-Greek girl with no dowry?”
Flavia shook her head in mock sympathy, her eyes agleam.
“Oooooh, well… I guess that’s one thing you needn’t worry about any more!”
Theodosia felt a blush creep into her cheeks. Titus’ hand on her arm suddenly felt very warm; she slipped out from under it on the pretense of reaching for a roll.
—text copyright © Martha Marks—