16.05.21, Salisbury, Rome's Christian Empress

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Nikolas O. Hoel

The Medieval Review 16.05.21

Salisbury, Joyce E. Rome's Christian Empress: Galla Placidia at the Twilight of the Empire. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. pp. xii, 236. ISBN: 978-1-4214-1700-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Nikolas O. Hoel
Northeastern Illinois University
n-hoel@neiu.edu

Joyce E. Salisbury begins her study of Galla Placidia by almost waxing philosophically in stating that "I often look back with wonder at women who managed to come to power against all the weight of tradition and society's expectations of their inadequacy" (1). The statement seems to apply as much to the empress at the heart of the book as it does to anyone else. Placidia certainly witnessed and influenced great changes in the Roman world in the late fourth and fifth centuries. It is clear in the introduction that Salisbury plans to examine two threads that explain Placidia's influence in both politics and religion, namely her family connections and her involvement in the Roman Catholic Church. These two aspects of her life are intertwined throughout the book in such a way as to prove Salisbury's argument as to the importance of Galla Placidia at the twilight of empire.

In chapter 1, Salisbury begins as promised before the birth of Placidia. She combines the themes of family ties, military expenditure, and Christianity already present in the introduction of the book as she describes the elevation in 379 and early imperial exploits of Placidia's father Theodosius. Salisbury is able to outline the tenuous political situation that provides the background to Placidia's birth in 388 or 389. The future empress was not a porphyrogenita, having been born in Greece, but she still held as much claim to the throne as her stepbrothers, Arcadius and Honorius. It seems that Theodosius in many ways favored her, awarding her the title "most noble girl." Salisbury gives clues as to why Theodosius may have preferred Placidia; the author claims that the boys were lazy and spoiled while the princess was ambitious and intelligent. This collection of talents and opposing weaknesses, in Salisbury's eyes, allowed for Placidia's rise to power. Much of the rest of the chapter is a reconstruction of Placidia's childhood. Large parts of this discussion come not from sources directly related to Placidia, but from those that address the experience of children in general at the time. The theme of Christianity arises at the end of the chapter with a discussion of Theodosius' decision to make it the one faith of the empire and of Ambrose's influence on the emperor and on Augustine. By the end of chapter 1, the belief that the Christian God favored the House of Theodosius is firmly entrenched and the emperor is dead in 395, leaving Placidia orphaned and in the care of her cousin and companion, Serena, but in a powerful position.

Although there is a short section on Placidia's supposed education in the chapter 2, she fades from view for most of the chapter. The book turns to a discussion predominantly of the political and military events from the death of Theodosius to that of Stilicho. The primary concern is the struggle between Alaric and Stilicho as each vie for power at the expense of Theodosius' sons. The theme of religion is not lost in this chapter, as Salisbury examines the movements in the faith following the death of Ambrose. The section title "Placidia Emerges from the Shadows" fits very well with the structure of both the chapter and the book in general. In the final three paragraphs of the chapter, Placidia again takes center stage as she influences Zosimus, disposes of Serena, and stands primed to be the focal point of the political and religious developments in Rome that are about to take shape in the rest of the book.

Chapter 3 begins with a power vacuum at Ravenna and continues to tell the story of how Alaric walked right into it. Salisbury notes that many wealthy Romans fled in the wake of Alaric's first attack on Rome in 408 and his eventual return in 410. The notable exception was Placidia, who remained in the city and became the center of the action. Salisbury highlights the importance of food with regard to the movements of both the Goths and the Romans. This factor cannot be underestimated in the decision Alaric made to sack Rome. In describing this event, the author draws the sharp contrast between Honorius remaining safely in Ravenna as his sister, Placidia, was taken as the most important hostage of the Goths. The emperor seemed to care little about Rome or the fate of his sister, again reflecting Salisbury's theme of the importance of family in the shaping of Placidia's life. Much of the rest of the chapter traces the movements of the Goths as they searched for food and land after their sack of Rome. Placidia unwillingly accompanied them on this journey and as a result witnessed the death of Alaric and the ascension of Athaulf. The account of the sack of Rome rightfully includes a discussion of The City of God, but Salisbury concludes that Athaulf and Placidia probably had no clue about the intellectual exchanges concerning the sack of Rome that were occurring; instead they were focused on conversation that would change the nature of the relationship between Romans and barbarians.

Salisbury traces the movements of the new Roman general Constantius at the beginning of chapter 4. Athaulf and Placidia arrived at Narbonne in fall of 413. Salisbury seems to indicate that this is a defining moment in the story as she contends that Placidia influenced Athaulf's decision to reshape the empire. At this date, the barbarian and the princess became engaged and "their wedding embodied the combining of Visigothic arms with the blood of the House of Theodosius" (93-94). The wedding ritual seems to have been very Roman in nature, but Roman and Visigoth came together to celebrate, again illustrating Salisbury's argument that Placidia helped reshape the relationship between the two peoples. Shortly after the wedding, the couple was forced from Gaul into Spain, where Placidia soon became pregnant. The boy would not survive his first year. The chapter ends with the assassination of Athaulf and the return of Placidia to Ravenna. Again family would take a central role in her ability to shape the world, as her status changed greatly when she moved from the Visigothic camp to her brother's court.

The themes of family and religion become intrinsically interwoven in the fifth chapter. First, the wedding of Placidia and Constantius is outlined, followed by the birth of her two children by him. Next, Salisbury moves on to a thorough discussion of the religious controversies that would occupy Placidia's attention while she stayed at Ravenna and lived under the rule of her brother. The themes come together in the claim that she "created a new model of a Christian ruler and of a woman in charge" (119). In Salisbury's eyes religion and family were virtually inseparable in the House of Theodosius, as its members saw the family as blessed by God. As such Placidia saw it as her job to intervene in the Pelagian controversy, which she successfully did. Yet, her role was still that of "a married woman in the shadow of her brother" (128). The chapter ends as Placidia rises up against her brother, is exiled from Ravenna and flees to Constantinople, only to eventually be named empress of the western empire by Theodosius II and serve as regent for her son, the young Valentinian III. This elevation was only possible because of her membership in the House of Theodosius, again showing the importance of family in her political life.

Chapter 6 highlights Placidia's reign as regent in the West. By summer of 425, John, a usurper to the western throne, had been defeated. Further, Valentinian, along with his mother and sister were settled back into Ravenna. At this point the Huns join the narrative, although only briefly for the time being, as Salisbury moves on to a discussion of the political and religious life of the empress during this phase of her life in Ravenna. Much of the rest of the chapter describes the maneuvering that Placidia completed in order to protect the empire from the Vandals and to secure the succession of her son. Salisbury claims that in 438 Placidia had what she wanted: a grown son on the throne; a daughter with the title of empress; and her daughter-in-law carrying an heir (173).

The last chapter deals with the last years of Placidia's life. In terms of the themes of the book, the highlight of that time was the betrothal of Placidia's granddaughter, Eudocia, to the son of the Vandal king. The action again demonstrates the way family and politics were linked in the life of Placidia. The Hunnish and Vandal threats raged as the empress's mother died. Salisbury does not complete the story with Placidia's death, but concludes with an epilogue that details the events of 476. By that time the stage was firmly set for the transformation of the Roman Empire. In the end, Salisbury is able to conclude that Galla Placidia was significant in that she witnessed and greatly shaped two major changes that the Roman world experienced as it fell: the barbarian dismemberment of the empire and the shift to a Christian Europe.

Salisbury's work is certainly not the first monograph to consider Placidia in detail. In fact, the author acknowledges the work of Steward Irvin Oost, Kenneth G. Holum, and Hagith Sivan in her introduction (4-5). Yet, the value of the book as a whole lies in the approach she takes to remove Placidia from the footnotes and to place her at the center of the narrative of the great changes in the Roman world in the fifth century. This book is of great value to students and scholars alike who seek greater insight into the world of the late empire. Salisbury became convinced that Placidia's story was worth telling and her work does a masterful job of doing so.

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