Monday, May 14, 2012


Hagith Sivan, Galla Placidia: the Last Roman Empress. Women in antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. x, 224. ISBN 9780195379136. $27.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Robert Chenault, Willamette University (

Version at BMCR home site


Hagith Sivan's biography of Galla Placidia presents an innovative and, inevitably, somewhat speculative portrait of the fifth-century empress. Sivan begins by acknowledging a long-standing personal fascination with her subject; in the past this has even extended to the composition of fictional diaries in Galla's name (1), a curious disclosure with which to begin a non-fictional biography. Sivan's evident desire for a more satisfying picture of Galla explains the most distinctive feature of her study, the liberal use of "comparative material" (2) to lend additional texture to the meager historical record. Thus she seeks to combat the "aridity" of the ancient sources by "bringing to life occurrences modalized by participation of women, and situations that molded women of Galla's class and upbringing" (3). Essentially this involves using parallels from better attested episodes to discuss possibilities. For example, Sivan draws on contemporary panegyrics and funeral orations to discuss the kinds of themes that would have been aired at occasions such as the wedding of Galla and the Visigothic king Athaulf (21-36) and the funeral of the couple's infant son Theodosius (48-59). This contextualized approach helps to give a sense of Galla's life and experiences. Sivan portrays a Galla who successfully negotiated a changing world in which elite women had new options available for attaining public status, no longer solely by marriage and childbearing, but through upholding the "new orthodoxy of demonstrable religious piety" (4). While Sivan succeeds in painting a plausible portrait, her approach also calls for caution on the part of readers, who must pay careful attention in order to distinguish where the ancient sources stop and Sivan's speculative reconstructions begin.

The book is organized into six main chapters covering the principal episodes or periods of Galla's life. Surprisingly, Sivan devotes two chapters to Galla's life among the Visigoths in Gaul and Spain (410-16), despite the nearly complete lack of source material. In Chapter One, "A Wedding in Gaul," Sivan discusses Galla's marriage to Athaulf in the context of other imperial marriages from the period. Noting her relatively late age at marriage (she was about 24 in 414), the number of consecrated virgins in her own family, and the rise of asceticism among upper-class women at Rome, Sivan suggests that Galla, too, might have been planning to follow this path (14). She then passes on to the wedding ceremony itself, which provides a good example of her use of comparative material to illustrate how the wedding participants might have represented the event: "To bridge the blatant gaps between the backgrounds of bride and groom, Attalus would have resorted to the Aeneid, rather than the Song of Songs, to conjure a wandering warrior who won the heart of a princess" (33). For some readers this may verge uncomfortably close to historical fiction; all Olympiodorus says is that Attalus led the singing of an epithalamium. Moreover, the unprecedented nature of this wedding—a Roman princess marrying a Gothic king in a ceremony taking place at a Gothic court—might raise doubts about the straightforward use of parallels necessarily drawn from wholly Roman contexts.

Chapter Two, "Funerals in Barcelona," treats the deaths and funerals of Athaulf and their infant son Theodosius (415- 16). Sivan uses the funeral orations of Ambrose and the Cappadocian fathers to illustrate some possibilities for the orations that might have accompanied the funerals of her husband and child. The chapter also includes a brief summary of recent archaeological work in Barcelona.

In Chapter Three, "The Making of an Empress," the focus is on Galla's marriage to Flavius Constantius (417) and her eventual acquisition of the title Augusta. Drawing on Olympiodorus' statement that Galla was very much opposed to marrying Flavius Constantius, Sivan discusses the legal, social, and religious context from which Galla may have drawn support for her resistance, including the example of Melania the Younger. She interprets Galla's long residence in Rome (c. 395-410) as evidence of estrangement from the court at Ravenna (69), although it could also be seen as part of a larger pattern of imperial women taking up residence at Rome in the fourth century. We catch a rare glimpse of Galla in action during the disputed papal election of 418-19. The Collectio Avellana preserves two letters of Galla (27-8), one addressed to the bishop of Carthage, the other to a group of seven other African bishops (including Augustine). Sivan evidently also regards CA 25, a letter to Paulinus of Nola, as emanating from Galla's court (77-8), although there is nothing to indicate this in the text of the letter itself. Unfortunately, these formal letters, very much in the style of the late imperial chancellery, do not shed much light on Galla herself; indeed, they are indistinguishable from the letters Honorius was writing at the same time, apart from the appearance of a phrase in each letter referring to the emperor as "my blood brother." As Sivan judiciously concludes, the letters show Galla supporting the authority of Honorius (79), but they also underscore just how difficult it is to recover any sense of Galla's individuality, even when we are fortunate enough to have her own writings.

Chapter Four, "Restoration and Rehabilitation," covers the years of Galla's regency for her young son Valentinian III. Galla is especially elusive in this period; the tendency is to attribute any imperial decision in the years 425-37 to Galla, but since Roman law and government did not acknowledge the concept of "regency," Galla's name scarcely appears on any official document. To take an example, Sivan interprets the restoration of the elder Flavianus' memory in 431 as a magnanimous gesture on Galla's part (99), an attractive suggestion, but despite Sivan's conviction that the initiative "undoubtedly" (125) lay with Galla, she has left no verifiable fingerprints; we see Flavianus' son and grandson, the senate, and (formally, at least) the emperor Valentinian in action, but Galla is never actually mentioned anywhere. There follows an intriguing discussion of possible allusions to Galla in the character of Augustus' daughter Julia as portrayed in Macrobius' Saturnalia (100-2). Sivan is especially sensitive to the possible models and strategies of self-representation available to Galla. While official coinage assimilated Galla to the images used for Pulcheria and Eudocia, the sister and wife of Theodosius II, Galla had other models available. Sivan notes the parallels between Galla and Justina, her maternal grandmother and regent for Valentinian II, and proposes that Galla skillfully blended these models in order to "construct a new personality of a queenly regent" (113); later on, however, at least in an ecclesiastical context, we see Galla excluding the heterodox Justina from the ranks of approved family members (165).

Chapter 5, "A Bride, a Book, and a Pope," is an innovative reading of the journey of Valentinian and Galla to Constantinople in 437-8. The primary purpose of this journey was to celebrate the wedding of Valentinian to Licinia Eudoxia, daughter of Theodosius II, a moment in which the unity of the eastern and western regimes was very much on display. Sivan extends the metaphor of marriage to connect the visit with the exchange of two magnificent volumes as "wedding presents": in response to Theodosius' gift of a monumental codification of Roman law, Sivan proposes that Galla gave a book of her own, the magnificent illuminated manuscript known as the Ashburnham Pentateuch. Women figure prominently in the manuscript's miniatures, and Sivan proposes that the volume was commissioned by Galla as a present for her new daughter-in-law (133). The hypothesis is intriguing, but as Sivan is well aware, nothing can be proved, and the date of this manuscript is not certain. Moreover, the quite detailed official records of the Code's promulgation specify that it was the praetorian prefects, not Galla, who received the Code "from Theodosius' divine hand." The chapter then skips ahead to 450 and Galla's support of Pope Leo's effort to pressure Theodosius into reversing the decisions of the Second Council of Ephesus. The transition is abrupt, as the narrative moves directly from triumphant scenes of imperial unity to Galla challenging the authority of the eastern court twelve years later. Otherwise Sivan's discussion here is quite persuasive. She argues that the two letters written by Galla to Theodosius and Pulcheria, in which she echoes Leo's advocacy of the primacy of the see of Peter, are evidence of Galla's reinvention of herself "as guardian of imperial morality and universal orthodoxy" (135), and evidence of an emerging community of interests between popes and emperors in the west (140).

The theme of Chapter Six, "Between Rome and Ravenna," is Galla's self-presentation at Rome and Ravenna. Galla's last appearance on the public stage was at the funeral procession accompanying the reburial of her infant son by Athaulf in the imperial mausoleum attached to St. Peter's in 450. Sivan shows that this grand ceremony was a powerful enactment of the unity of Rome in its confrontation with Constantinople; Galla was able to promote her dynastic claims, while Leo placed himself at the intersection between imperial and apostolic authority (145-6). There follow two brief sections in which Sivan assesses Galla's relations with the senate (as measured by her appointments to high office) and the allegations that wayward empresses at the western court were responsible for the invasions of Attila and Geiseric. Against the tendency for other historians to accept these charges uncritically, Sivan emphasizes the literary quality of these stories, and suggests that they reflect both a critique of Galla and the influence of the ascetic ideal as practiced by the ladies of the eastern court (154). The final section of this chapter contains a discussion of Galla's building projects in Rome and Ravenna. Sivan characterizes Galla's monumental footprint in Rome as limited, being most apparent in the repairs and completion of the work at St Paul's Outside the Walls, which had been started by her father Theodosius I. Perhaps the clearest expression of Galla's self-representation, however, is to be sought in Ravenna, where her foundation of St. John the Evangelist eloquently expressed simultaneously both her imperial ancestry and her impeccable orthodoxy (164-5).

Following a brief conclusion are four helpful Appendices, containing maps, a timeline of events in the Valentinian- Theodosian dynasty (364-455), a family tree, and fourteen pages of coin images. These images are of exceptionally high quality, and each is accompanied by a paragraph of explanation. Surprisingly, however, there are no references to this Appendix in the book chapters, even when Sivan is specifically discussing coins (e.g. 112), so many readers may miss them entirely.

Errors are few and relatively minor: e.g. the date of Damasus' accession twice given as 364 instead of 366 (74), repeated misuse of "internment" for "interment" (7, 49, 146, 150-1). Sivan often uses or adapts the translations of others, and occasionally complains of their opacity. Sivan's attempts to improve them are not always successful. Her translation of CA 27 (75) is especially problematic, omitting several words and phrases altogether and obscuring the rhetorical symmetry between the greeting and the closing, both of which express Galla's desire for the bishop's "benediction."

For English readers, Sivan's book is likely to evoke comparisons with two previous books in particular, Stewart Oost's Galla Placidia Augusta (1968), and Kenneth Holum's Theodosian Empresses (1982). While Oost covers the history of the western empire in the fifth century far more comprehensively, Sivan's narrative is focused more precisely through the lens of Galla's experiences. The influence of Holum's work on the empresses of the eastern court is evident in Sivan's focus on Galla's public image, but Sivan has a tougher task in filling out a whole book on Galla. Ultimately, she succeeds in producing a distinct, plausible, and thought-provoking portrait of a woman who remains frustratingly beyond our reach.

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