« Marana and Cyra Marcella, friend of Jerome Marcellina, a sister of St. Ambrose »

Marcella, friend of Jerome

Marcella, the friend of Jerome, from whose writings and memoir of her (Ep. cxxvii. ed. Vall.) she is chiefly known. She was descended from the illustrious Roman family of the Marcelli, and had great wealth. Her mother Albina was a widow when Athanasius came as an exile to Rome in 340. From Athanasius and his companions she heard of Anthony and the monasteries of the Thebaid, and received her first impulse towards the ascetic life. She married, but her husband died after seven months, and she refused a second marriage offered her by the wealthy Cerealis, a man of consular rank but advanced in years. Her ascetic tendency was confirmed by the coming to Rome of the Egyptian monk Peter in 374. She was the first in the city to make the monastic profession. She continued to live with her mother in their palatial residence on the Aventine, but with the utmost simplicity. She was not immoderate in her asceticism, and followed the counsels of her mother, from whose society she never departed.

When Jerome came to Rome in 382, she sought him out because of his repute for Biblical learning, and made him, at first against his will, her constant companion. A circle of ladies gathered round her, and her house became a kind of convent dedicated to the study of the Scriptures, and to psalmody and prayer. Marcella was eager for information, and would not accept any doubtful explanation, so that Jerome found himself in the presence of a judge rather than a disciple. At times she took her teacher to task for his severity and quarrelsomeness (Ep. xxvii. 2, ed. Vall.). He wrote for her some 15 different treatises—on difficult passages of Scripture and church history; and on his departure in 385 hoped that she might have accompanied her intimate friends Paula and Eustochium to Palestine. A letter written by those two ladies on their settlement at Bethlehem (in Jerome, Ep. xliv. ed. Vall.) invites her in glowing terms to come and enjoy with them the Holy Land; but she remained at Rome. After her mother's death in 387 she retired to a little house outside the city with her young friend Principia and devoted her whole time to good works. She still had a keen interest in Jerome's theological pursuits, and when Rufinus came to Rome and disputes arose as to his translation of Origen's περὶ Ἀρχῶν, she threw herself eagerly into the controversy. Having, in conjunction with Pammachius and Oceanus, ascertained Jerome's view of the matter, she urged the pope Anastasius (400–403) to condemn Origen and his defenders; and, when he hesitated, went to him and pointed out the passages which, she contended, though veiled in Rufinus's translation, demanded the pope's condemnation. Anastasius completely yielded, and like Theophilus of Alexandria condemned Origen and his upholders. "of this glorious victory," says Jerome, "Marcella was the origin."

She lived till the sack of Rome by Alaric. The Goths, supposing her to be affecting poverty to conceal her wealth, used personal violence, but at her entreaty spared Principia, and at last allowed them to take sanctuary in St. Paul's church. Her faith made her seem hardly sensible of her sufferings, but she only survived a few days and died in the arms of Principia, leaving all she had to the poor. Jerome, ed. Vall. Epp. 23–29, 32, 34, 37–44, 46, 97, 127.

[W.H.F.]

« Marana and Cyra Marcella, friend of Jerome Marcellina, a sister of St. Ambrose »





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