Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress by Hagith Sivan

Book Review by Ian Hughes

In the long history of the Roman Empire there are few, if any, women whose lives can compare with the drama, intrigue, romance and success of Galla Placidia (GP). Daughter of Theodosius I and sister of the Western emperor Honorius, she spent most of her early years in the household of her sister-by-adoption Serena and Serena’s husband Stilicho. After Stilicho’s death she allegedly supported the Senate’s decision to execute Serena, before being captured by Alaric and becoming a hostage with the Goths following the sack of Rome in 410. Married to the Gothic leader Athaulf in 414, she bore Athaulf a son, named Theodosius, who died in infancy. Following Athaulf’s death, she was returned to the empire and married Constantius III in 417, giving birth to a son, Valentinian, in 419. Not long after Constantius’ death in 421 she was forced to flee to Constantinople with Valentinian. After Honorius’ death in 423 she gained the support of the Eastern emperor Theodosius II and returned to Italy with Valentinian, overthrowing the usurper John in 425. She was the regent for Valentinian until his coming of age in 437. She died in 450.

In her book Galla Placidia, Sivan has opted not to write a "biography" of GP. Her reasons for the decision are explained in the Introduction (p.xi): “No sooner had I reread … Oost’s book [a biography of GP] than I knew that I had no interest in producing an updated life and times along the same laudable lines”. Instead, Sivan has written a book which contextualizes Galla’s life by focusing on the life cycle of women: upbringing, marriage, and motherhood.

The concept of concentrating solely on these neglected aspects of ancient history is highly laudable. Too often the focus of books on the Late Empire is on "high politics", the collapse and death of the Western Empire, the rise of the barbarian kingdoms of the Early Middle Ages, and the question of continuity or collapse. The lives of individuals are usually ignored in the need to analyse the maelstrom of political and religious developments.

The book is divided into seven chapters. Six of these focus on different aspects of GP’s life: A Wedding in Gaul (414); Funerals in Barcelona (414-416); The Making of an Empress (417-425); Restoration and Rehabilitation (425-431); A Bride, a Book, and a Pope (437-438), and Between Rome and Ravenna (438-450). The final chapter is the Conclusion.

Anybody who has delved into the period of Late Antiquity will recognize that there are problems with studying this period, not least the dearth of reliable, in-depth sources. By focusing solely upon the feminine aspects of GP’s life, it quickly becomes clear that Sivan is often forced to switch attention away from GP herself, and to include details given by sources from both earlier in the fourth century and later in the fifth, if not from more remote periods. This highlights the difficulty faced by Sivan: there is simply not enough information on GP to produce a stand-alone volume focused solely on the ‘feminine’ aspects of GP’s life. The result is that Sivan is forced to use comparative material, and obviously this can lead to weak points in the book, as evidenced by the repeated use of phrases such as "would have" and "could have". Sivan is also forced to postulate on the hypothetical nature of panegyrics and funerary sermons. Although interesting, these discourses highlight the lack of primary source material and may tell the reader more about what Sivan believes may have happened than about the reality of life in fifth-century Rome.

Despite these caveats, the book contains much that is useful and interesting about the life of women in the Late Empire. The picture of GP that emerges is of a strong, determined and formidable woman who was able to survive her ordeals and maintain her focus upon ensuring the right of her son to become western Emperor. At the same time it demonstrates the political weaknesses of women in Late Antiquity, no matter how high-born, and the difficulties women faced in a male-dominated society. The fact that GP had to marry both a barbarian (Athaulf) and a man she allegedly abhorred (Constantius III) clearly show that for the majority of her life she may not have been master of her own destiny. Even when she became guardian of Valentinian III as emperor of Rome she may have had to balance the political strengths of her ministers and generals against each other in order to maintain effective control of the government. The fact that she managed to survive and retain at least some control of her life after the death of Constantius III informs the reader that here was a woman of strength and character whose wishes it was not wise to cross.

In conclusion, this is an interesting book focusing upon an aspect of ancient history that is all-too-often ignored. It reads well, and manages to make the reader aware of the strengths and weaknesses of GP’s position as a female at a male-dominated court. It also reminds the reader that GP was a living, breathing human being who had to cope with both success and failure during the course of her long life. On the negative side, the title of the book is a little misleading, implying that the book is a standard biography of GP. Even though a close reading of the description of the book tells the reader that this is not the case, the fact that the book of necessity has to discuss GP’s life through cross reference and analogy sometimes means that GP herself is lost in the process. However, for anybody wishing to delve deeper into the life of women in Late Antiquity this is compulsory reading, and even for the general reader contains much that is rarely highlighted, if not completely ignored.

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