Growing up in Rome, Marcella was influenced by her pious mother, Albina, an educated woman of wealth and benevolence. Childhood memories centered around piety, and one in particular related to the patriarch of Alexandria, Athanasius, who lodged in her home during one of his many exiles. He may have taken special interest in her, thinking back to his own youthful practice of playing church. Athanasius interacted with his hosts on theological matters and recounted anecdotes of his own monastic life. His most spellbinding stories, however, were the miraculous tales of the desert monks. As a parting gift he left behind the first copy of his biography, Life of St. Anthony.
Marcella's wealth and beauty placed her at the center of fashionable Roman society. She married young, to a wealthy aristocrat, but seven months later he died. After her husband's early death, Marcella decided to devote the rest of her life to charity, prayer, and mortification of the flesh and was convinced that God was directing her to a life of poverty and service. She left behind her fashionable dresses for a coarse brown garment and abandoned her usual extravagant hair styling and makeup. Along with other women, Marcella formed a community known as the brown dress society, spending their time praying, singing, reading the Bible, and serving the needy. Her palatial home was now a refuge for weary pilgrims and for the poor.
Summoned by Pope Damasus I (who arranged lodging at Marcella's hospitality house), Jerome arrived in Rome in 382. It was an exhilarating time for Marcella, a woman of letters who had immersed herself in both Greek and Hebrew, to be entertaining one of the great minds of the age. Jerome spent the next three years in what he called her "domestic church," translating the Bible into Latin. She learned under his teaching even as she critiqued his translation. He spoke and wrote of her Christian devotion and scholarship and commended her influence on Pope Anastasius I — particularly in his condemning Origen's doctrines, which Jerome declared a "glorious victory." Indeed, his admiration of Marcella was unbounded, not only for her intellectual acumen but also for her deference to men who might be threatened by her vast store of knowledge.
Most of what we know about Marcella is from the letters of Jerome, most famously his letter 127 to Principia. It was written on the occasion of Marcella's death, paying tribute to her life and consoling her beloved student. In it, he says the following about his relationship with Marcella:
As in those days my name was held in some renown as that of a student of the Scriptures, she never came to see me without asking me some questions about them, nor would she rest content at once, but on the contrary would dispute them; this, however, was not for the sake of argument, but to learn by questioning the answers to such objections might, as she saw, be raised. How much virtue and intellect, how much holiness and purity I found in her I am afraid to say, both lest I may exceed the bounds of men's belief and lest I may increase your sorrow by reminding you of the blessings you have lost. This only will I say, that whatever I had gathered together by long study, and by constant meditation made part of my nature, she tasted, she learned and made her own.
Marcella was also known for her efforts to restrain Jerome from quarrelling with his opponents — or at least helping him control his legendary temper. Eleven of his extant letters are addressed to her, and she is mentioned in many of his other writings. In one of his letters he responded to her query about the truth of Montanism. Someone was apparently attempting to convert her, and she was deeply interested in what she is hearing, though suspecting that the claim that they possess a more authentic spirituality might have been false. Jerome writes a lengthy point-by-point refutation of the movement.
It was at the home of Marcella that Jerome first met Paula, a devoted and scholarly woman who would become his long-time intellectual counterpart. When Jerome returned to the Holy Land, Paula relocated there as well. They invited Marcella to join them, but she remained in Rome to oversee her growing house of virgins, where she was addressed as Mother.
Marcella was in her late seventies in 410 when the Goths, led by Alaric, pillaged Rome. Soldiers stormed the residence, demanding she relinquish her hidden jewels and wealth, which long before had been sold to fund her charitable work. Marcella and her pupil, Principia, went to the church of St. Paul, which had been set up as a sanctuary by Alaric. She died the next day.
Her Aventine Hill palace became a center of Christian activity. She was an associate of Paula. Her feast day in the west is January 31. Jerome's To Principia is a biography of her life.
The artwork The Dinner Party features a place setting for Marcella.