Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Joyce E. Salisbury, Rome's Christian Empress: Galla Placidia Rules at the Twilight of the Empire. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. Pp. ix, 236. ISBN 9781421417004. $34.95.

Reviewed by Jeroen W.P. Wijnendaele, Ghent University (

Version at BMCR home site


In her introduction, Joyce Salisbury presents Galla Placidia, western Roman empress (421–450 CE), as a "forgotten empress." This may come as surprise to scholars of the Late Roman Empire, since we have the foundational studies by Stewart Oost (acknowledged) and Vito Antonio Sirago (printed in 1961 and revised in 1996, but surprisingly omitted), and more recently Hagith Sivan's study (acknowledged). Likewise, Meaghan McEvoy's work on the western child-emperors devotes considerable space to the empress but was perhaps published too recently to incorporate.1

Salisbury aims to demonstrate that Placidia was a powerful empress, narrating her life among familiar paths such as the reign of her father Theodosius I (chapter 1), her upbringing at the western court during the supremacy of the magister utriusque militiae Stilicho (chapter 2), and the struggles of the Gothic commander Alaric against Placidia's half-brother Honorius (chapter 3). In the next chapters, Placidia emerges from the shadows after her abduction by the Goths during Alaric's sack of Rome in 410. Salisbury follows Placidia to Gaul where she marries Alaric's successor Athaulf (chapter 4). In the early 410s, this union formed a significant challenge to the floundering regime of Honorius. The unforeseen deaths of Athaulf and their infant son in Spain meant that Placidia was cast aside by the Goths and handed over to Constantius in 416. Next, we see Placidia being reluctantly married to Constantius—a union from which the future emperor Valentinian III and princess Honoria were born. The unexpected demise of Constantius in 421 meant that Placidia had to manoeuvre to ensure the welfare of her children and their right to rule (chapter 5). After a brief exile in Constantinople, she was eventually able to enlist eastern support to establish herself as western Augusta (chapter 6). While she tried to steer western imperial policies as best as she could, she was unable to prevent commanders such as Aëtius and Bonifatius turning arms against one another, thereby facilitating the intervention of Vandals and Huns. Her last years were devoted to the promotion of church building and care for her children (chapters 7-9).

Crediting the influence of Fernand Braudel on her work (p. 205, n. 4), Salisbury is at her finest when she goes beyond political and military struggles in the upper echelons of society and looks at wider social and cultural phenomena. We come across interesting sections on the "making" of eunuchs (pp. 19–20), childhood education (pp. 41–43), ancient sexuality (pp. 46–47), child mortality and the importance of midwives during childbirth (pp. 104–108), or the celebration of Easter and other Christian holidays (pp. 153–156). Equally, there are good descriptions of cities that played an important role in in Placidia's life, such as Narbonne (pp. 93–95), Barcelona (pp. 100–102) and Ravenna (pp. 112–115). Last but not least, she provides with efficiency and clarity explanations for the many religious disputes in this era, such as the Donatist controversy (pp. 79–80), Pelagianism (pp. 122–124), Nestorianism (pp. 156–162) and the council of Chalcedon (pp. 190–192).

Throughout her work Salisbury makes intellectual choices that are defensible, but unlikely to align with current strands of scholarship. The challenges presented by non-Roman groups, and their interaction with the empire, are painted with thick black and white brushes. Thus one reads that "[Theodosius I's] job was to push back the violent tide of barbarians and save the empire" (p. 6), or how Rome struggled against "the barbarians at the gate" (p. 7), "barbarian hordes" (p. 55), "the storm of barbarians that swept into the Roman Empire" (p. 141) or "the waves of Germanic tribes that swept into the empire" (p. 203). Vast debates concerning the impact of empire on barbaricum, complexities of ethnic identity and the nature of group-structures are marginalized in favour of a more traditional dichotomy of Romans failing to resist barbarian invasions that eventually brought down the (western) Empire.2 While this catastrophist approach has become popular again in recent years, even scholars who are in the vanguard of this counter-reformist movement show more nuance when dealing with these so-called barbarians.3

Similarly, Salisbury adopts a positivist approach to her sources and often cites them as factually representing events, even when we are dealing with tendentious genres such as panegyric or polemic. Their rhetorical nature should urge caution before they are read at face value, especially in cases such as Claudian's panegyrics for Honorius's interaction with the army as a child (p. 17), Tacitus' Germania as a source for Gothic kingship in the fifth century (pp. 77–78), Hydatius' apocalyptic chronicle entry on the barbarian incursions in Spain (pp. 97–98), Quodvultdeus' description of Geiseric's capture of Carthage in 439 (pp. 179– 180), or Jordanes' picture of blood–filled streams during the battle of Châlons (p. 195). Like anyone dealing with fifth century western history, Salisbury is often forced to fill in the gaps in Placidia's life when there is very little or no source material available. It takes a keen eye to notice these speculations, since they are not always acknowledged as such (a sharp contrast with Sivan's work, who consistently flags such attempts of her own). Salisbury tells Placidia's story with panache, but one is occasionally left wondering whether events ever materialized the way she envisions. This reviewer at least is not sure if Placidia ever found herself sitting with Athaulf's Goths at a campfire, inhaling its cannabis-infused smoke (p. 76).

The volume could have profited from more rigorous review before publication. One repeated error regularly creeping up is to style virtually all Late Antique authors as 'chroniclers', even when we are dealing with an eclectic body of authorship, including polemical writers such as Orosius (pp. 53, 95) or Victor of Vita (p. 166), classicizing historiographers such as Ammianus Marcellinus (p. 25), Zosimus (pp. 12, 61, 67), Procopius (p. 70) or Olympiodorus (pp. 73, 95, 106, 127, 129, 132), writers of 'barbarian history' such as Jordanes (pp. 77, 183), or church historians such as Sozomen (p. 83) and Socrates (p. 140). Those familiar with the debate on Late Antique historiography will realize that none of these were chroniclers and that the label should be reserved in this work for very specific historiographers, such as Prosper or Hydatius.4 There is also a tendency to style a very heterogeneous collection of individuals and groups as 'Gothic', even when the sources clearly establish different ethnic heritages, such as the Frankish magister militum Arbogastes (p. 13), the Germanic clients near the Rhine in 396 (p. 43), the half-Vandal Stilicho (p. 44), or the Vandals and Alans near the Danube (p. 49) who later fought Constantine III (p. 59).

Besides these dubious tendencies, one stumbles upon a plethora of minor errors or questionable statements: the stemma of the house of Theodosius I in the west lists Valentinian I's offspring but omits Gratian (p. 4). Magnus Maximus was not killed by his own soldiers, but executed by Theodosius I's army (p. 13). Constantine I did not build the great palace of Constantinople in 313, given that construction of the city only began in 326 (p. 14). Late Roman soldiers used long swords (spathae), not "the lethal short sword" (gladius) (p. 20). Even during Theodosius' reign, the Imperial West was anything but "a polytheistic bloc" (p. 22). The Battle of the Frigidus in 394 was not a "holy war" between a pagan west and Christian east, since both courts were staffed with officials of diverse religious beliefs and even the western usurper Eugenius was a Christian (p. 32). Epirus was not a Greek city but a province (p. 44). There is no evidence that Alaric bought ships at Naples to ship his followers to Sicily in 410 (p. 75). The labels 'Visigoths' and 'Ostrogoths' do not refer to geographical divisions between 'West Goths' and 'East Goths', but simply denote ethnic qualities ascribed to them (pp. 87, 204). The Alans, Sueves and Vandals did not enter Spain in 406/7 but 409 (p. 97). Vallia did not try to have his Visigoths cross into Africa in 416—this was a minor Gothic group that had split off (p. 110). In the Late Roman Empire, Flavius was not just a common name but also a title for imperial officials. (p. 117). There is no evidence that the magister militum Felix had ever commanded an army in Gaul (p. 146). CTh. 9.40.24 has little bearing on the betrayal of shipbuilding knowledge to barbarian groups near the Mediterranean, since this law was directed to the Crimean city of Cherson (p. 164). Pope Leo did not settle a dispute in 440 between Aëtius and "another general", but the praetorian prefect Albinus (a civil official) (p. 177). The eastern army sent to Sicily in 441 was led by three commanders, not five (p. 182). Zeno did not grant Odoacer the title of patrician, but urged him to request it from the exiled Julius Nepos (p. 202).

The bibliography also suffers. One looks in vain for consistency in the listing of ancient authors, the titles of their works, or their (sometimes out-dated) translators (pp. 219–221). While references to websites and kindle editions will be welcome to a lay audience, more conventional scholars may raise an eyebrow to their inclusion. On the plus side, typographical errors are rare, among which: 'Coemperor' instead of 'co-emperor' (p. 6), ', But' instead of ', but' (p. 37), 'the Chapel of 'St.nt Petronilla' instead of 'Saint Petronilla' (p. 194), and 'Allan Cameron' instead of 'Alan' (p. 225). Also positive is a good collection of illustrations and maps to guide the reader through Placidia's world.

In the end, Salisbury's Galla Placidia appears as a veritable mover and shaker and "the changed empire that emerged in the fifth century was shaped by Placidia's guiding hand" (p. 2). She is credited, among other things, with having influenced battles and theology (p. 2), guiding the Visigoths across the western Alps and introducing them to the use of Roman law (p. 81–82), and enhancing the supremacy of the papacy in the 440s (p. 177). This reviewer still finds himself inclined to follow the verdict of Oost—rightly called "a cautious historian" by Salisbury (p. 5)—that "there was no real departure of policy, no novelties or signs of original statesmanship; the Empress participated actively, and frequently decisively ... but one can hardly state that she decisively altered, or affected, the fate of the Roman state or society. It seems not unfair to conclude that she tried mainly to conserve; to conserve both imperial power and Empire for her son."5

To conclude, Salisbury has written a lively and comprehensible biography of a remarkable woman who deserves closer attention. While scholars will find few innovations, and students are advised to consider more careful accounts, this affordable book will undoubtedly find its way to many aficionados of Late Antiquity who have yet to discover the gripping vicissitudes in the life of one of its most accomplished empresses.


1.   See: Oost, S.I. (1968), Galla Placidia Augusta: A Biographical Essay, Chicago; Sirago, V.A. (1996),Galla Placidia e la trasformazione politica dell' Occidente, Milan; Sivan, H.S. (2011), Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress, Oxford; McEvoy, M.A. (2013), Child-emperor rule in the late imperial west, AD 367–455, Oxford.
2.   Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West is listed in the, admittedly slim, bibliography but nowhere cited in the endnotes. Goffart's Barbarian Tides is also listed but only cited in relation to the settlements of Vandals, Alans and Sueves in Spain (210, n. 28, 32).
3.   See, for instance, Peter Heather's measured response to such critics as Guy Halsall and Michael Kulikowski in: "The Huns and Barbarian Europe", in: Maas, M. (2014), The Age of Attila, Cambridge, pp. 209–229.
4.   Woods, D. (2009), "Late Antique Historiography: A Brief History of Time", in: Rousseau, P. (ed.), A Companion to Late Antiquity, Chichester, 357–71; Burgess, R.W. & Kulikowski, M. (2011), Mosaics of Time: The Latin Chronicle Traditions from the First Century BC to the Sixth Century AD, Turnhout.
5.   Oost (1968) 209.

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