Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress

Judith Weingarten is fascinated by the woman who, amid decline and fall, ruled an empire for 12 years

February 16, 2012




The story of Galla Placidia (c.AD390-450) certainly starts with a bang: a young princess - granddaughter and daughter of Roman emperors, sister of the Western emperor then ruling at Ravenna, and aunt of the reigning emperor at Constantinople - is living in Rome at the time of its siege and sack by the Goths in 410. Galla is taken hostage, wanders with the Goths for three years, marries the Gothic king Athaulf in Narbonne and moves with the barbarians to Barcelona. When Athaulf is murdered, the next elected king trades her back to the Romans in exchange for grain; she marries (perhaps unwillingly) Constantius, the Roman general who had been clamouring for her release. And she isn't yet 25 years old.

It isn't Hagith Sivan's fault that this marvellous story is known only in sketchiest form and from meagre sources. She does her best to flesh it out by borrowing texts from 100 years earlier or later on the reasonable assumption that a woman of Galla's class and upbringing would receive praise or condemnation within the invariable limits of a woman's life: virginity, marriage, childbearing and - if she survived - blameless widowhood. The coming of Christianity (and Galla was strictly orthodox in her Christian faith) changed the words but not the metaphors used for women. I wonder who Sivan is writing for. It's hard to imagine anyone picking up this book who needs Gaul to be glossed as "(now France)", "the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar)" or "Ostia (port of Rome)" while leaving terms such as aedicule and epithalamium unexplained. If you don't understand the gloss "Arian (or homoian)", this may not be the book for you.

The chapters are often oddly disorganised. Stories are begun and left hanging. For example, it is implied that Galla's husband Constantius became co-emperor with Honorius, her brother, long before this is made explicit - and only then because they jointly proclaimed Galla as Augusta in 421. Poor Constantius died a few months later "in the midst of preparing an expedition against his new relatives in the east" - a campaign that bobs up out of nowhere. Earlier, when Galla had intervened in a disputed papal election (419-20), synods were convoked to decide between the claimants, Eulalius and Boniface. Two letters sent to bishops are attributed to Galla's hand, a rare case where we hear a woman's voice, however stereotyped the language. Although footnotes tell us that she supported Boniface, her letters are guardedly neutral. We never directly learn who won the holy office (I guessed Boniface, since later popes have that name, whereas there were no popes named Eulalius). The author's other habit is that of dropping a name into an event before the person is introduced. Soon after the papal schism, for example, we find Boniface fighting the Vandals in Libya. What? The pope leading a Roman army? The index reveals another Boniface entirely, a Roman general.

This general, as it happens, was one of Galla's champions. When Honorius died suddenly in 423, John, a notary (of whom we've previously heard nothing) was raised to the throne. Galla fled with her two children to Constantinople, returning two years later with an Eastern army, and her son, the six-year-old Valentinian, was proclaimed emperor. Galla, as regent, was now de facto ruler of the Western empire. Her 12-year regency was remembered as a period of peace, although it is a judgement hard to square with fairly continuous wars and civil mayhem. Britain was lost, as was most of Libya (to the Vandals), southwest Gaul (Goths) and northwest Spain (the Sueves). Self-inflicted damage included Boniface, now commander of the Western armies, who fought a battle near Rimini in 432 against his chief rival, the Roman general Aetius, winning the battle but losing his life. Mortally wounded, Boniface inexplicably urged his wife (Pelagia, a Gothic princess) to marry Aetius. Aetius enjoyed Boniface's wife and property until 454, when Valentinian III threw a spear at him; frustratingly, we're not told if it hit the target, but Valentinian certainly murdered him that year, whether having personally skewered him or otherwise. A year later, Valentinian was slain by Petronius Maximus, a senator who seized both the throne and the emperor's wife, Augusta Licinia Eudoxia, daughter of Theodosius II, the senior (Eastern) emperor. After two months, Licinia revenged herself by inviting Geiseric the Vandal from Libya to sack Rome - "a perfect literary paradigm", as Sivan says, "to account for the end of an era". Licinia outlived Galla by at least five years so she, not Galla, is "The Last Roman Empress". Still, Galla has the splendid mausoleum in Ravenna to her eternal credit. If I were Galla, I wouldn't complain. The end was already nigh.

Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress

By Hagith Sivan

Oxford University Press 256pp, £65.00 and £17.99

ISBN 9780195379129 and 9136

Published 15 September 2011

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