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

By the time Jerome left Rome, Marcella had acquired a wealth of biblical knowledge.

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. 

 

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.

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