I just finished reading Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress by Hagith Sivan. I ran the gamut with this book – started reading just to read, decided partway through I was going to review it and changed my note-taking accordingly, then reversed myself and decided not to. As a compromise with myself I decided to comment briefly.
First, any book which mentions the Pseudo Society at Kalamazoo can’t be all bad. Sivan detailed the contents of GP’s secret diary at the 2002 International Congress on Medieval Studies. Unfortunately that was one I did not attend. 1
Sivan takes an interesting approach in this book, one which grew on me as I went along. While she provides some details of GP’s life, what she uses are events from her life to illustrate the life of aristocratic women. For example, she and Athaulf had a young son, Theodosius III who died in infancy. Other than the fact that the child’s body was placed in a small, silver reliquary, almost no details have survived about his initial burial in 415 (as opposed to the translation of his body to the family mausoleum in 450). Sivan uses other examples from Late Antiquity such as late 4th century letters from Ambrose, homilies from Gregory Naziansus and Gregory of Nyssa, poems from Paulinus of Nola and accounts of funerals to describe what likely happened. She provides similar examples for GP’s weddings, her son’s accession as Emperor and other key moments in her life. Where they exist she uses surviving evidence such as texts and inscriptions.
In essence, this is much more a book on aristocratic women in the later Empire than a biography of Galla Placidia. There are biographical elements but in many ways, this is the weakest part of the book. It is more valuable as a study of the status of women. My two main criticisms of the book are how it serves as a biography and with how Sivan approaches some of the more controversial modern interpretations of some of the evidence.
The book offers a fair amount of detail of GP’s life, or at least the progression of the later Western Empire, through 425 when she becomes regent for her son, Valentinian III. A fairly detailed account of the Goths, their movements through Gaul and settlement in Spain and various conflicts and power struggles are provided. The death of Constantius III, GP’s exile during the brief – 423-425 – reign of John, a Notary, and her and her son returning to Ravenna in 425 receive substantial attention. This drops off for the years 425- 437, the period of her regency, and even less is given for 438-450. Some details of the conflict between Aetius and Boniface are provided however little is spoken of the erosion of the Empire’s territory, the impact of the Vandal conquest of North Africa or how the Empire struggled to respond to these threats. This was disappointing to me, largely because those kinds of details are given through 425 and honestly, if the book’s about Galla Placidia, wouldn’t an account of when she was the ruler of the Empire, and her son’s rule (at least through 450 and if you’re going to do that you might as well get to 455) be included?
My other issue is when Sivan discusses events which have been interpreted in contrasting ways by modern historians. This may be more of a personal peeve. This book is what I would consider a fairly light read and does not engage in the dense, technical examinations of evidence that more academic books contain. However when Sivan mentions that she has chosen one source interpretation over another, I believe she should at least summarize the two arguments. One of these is for the dating of the Ashburnham Pentateuch to the fifth rather than sixth or seventh century. (129) Her selection of the earlier date may be perfectly valid – it likely is – however a brief foray into the arguments would be appropriate. Likewise, she provides an interpretation of Merobaudes’ Carmen I which portrays the child Valentinian III as a weeping exile in search of assistance before the Eastern Emperor, Theodosius II, while in the translation I have this is depicted as the joyful betrothal of Licinia Eudoxia and the then (in 423) exiled young emperor. (122-3) Sivan does footnote that her interpretation differs from others (I have the Clover translation) but she goes into no detail regarding how or why she reached this conclusion, or even what the Clover translation describes.
By necessity I have spent considerable time detailing a couple of criticisms. However I do not want this to give the impression that this book is not useful. It is geared more toward the beginner than the historian. In particular, I believe a specialist in this period and region will find little of value. I do think it will make a very nice introduction to the early fifth century of the Western Empire, though I will need to consider a more narrative type of book to suggest as a companion.
In the end, this is a good book, though with a few holes. The status of aristocratic women in the later Empire is explored through an interesting examination of source material and in using Galla Placidia as something of a case study. It is not a straightforward biographical account and some of the details of the fifth century, particularly from 438-450, are unfortunately absent. However if someone is interested in learning more about medieval women; their roles, challenges, and ability to influence events, this book would make a good starting point.
1 The Pseudo Society presentations at Kalamazoo are purely humorous depictions of the Middle Ages.
Clover, Frank, trans. Flavius Merobaudes: A translation and Historical Commentary, Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society (1971).
Sivan, Hagith, Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010).