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Rome's Christian Empress: Galla Placidia Rules at the Twilight of the Empire by Joyce E. Salisbury: A Book Review

Rome's Christian Empress: Galla Placidia Rules at the Twilight of the Empire
Author:  Joyce E. Salisbury
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography
Publisher:  Johns Hopkins University Press
Release Date: 2015
Pages: 249
Source: My School Library
Synopsis: In Rome’s Christian Empress, Joyce E. Salisbury brings the captivating story of Rome’s Christian empress to life. The daughter of Roman emperor Theodosius I, Galla Placidia lived at the center of imperial Roman power during the first half of the fifth century. Taken hostage after the fall of Rome to the Goths, she was married to the king and, upon his death, to a Roman general. The rare woman who traveled throughout Italy, Gaul, and Spain, she eventually returned to Rome, where her young son was crowned as the emperor of the western Roman provinces. Placidia served as his regent, ruling the Roman Empire and the provinces for twenty years.

     Salisbury restores this influential, too-often forgotten woman to the center stage of this crucial period. Describing Galla Placidia’s life from childhood to death while detailing the political and military developments that influenced her—and that she influenced in turn—the book relies on religious and political sources to weave together a narrative that combines social, cultural, political, and theological history.

     The Roman world changed dramatically during Placidia’s rule: the Empire became Christian, barbarian tribes settled throughout the West, and Rome began its unmistakable decline. But during her long reign, Placidia wielded formidable power. She fended off violent invaders and usurpers who challenged her Theodosian dynasty; presided over the dawn of the Catholic Church as theological controversies split the faithful and church practices and holidays were established; and spent fortunes building churches and mosaics that incorporated prominent images of herself and her family. Compulsively readable, Rome’s Christian Empress is the first full-length work to give this fascinating and complex ruler her due.

     My Review: Galla Placidia was one of the last Roman Empresses of the Western Empire. During the waning years of the decline of the Roman Empire, she was one of the most influential figures. In this biography of Galla Placidia, she is portrayed as an empress who witnessed and helped change the Roman empire. The Roman empire became Christian, the barbarian tribes conquered most of the west, and Rome itself began to fall. However, it shows Galla Placidia as a strong ruler. She fearlessly challenged many of her usurpers and invaders. She presided over many Christian issues that the empire faced, and she helped build many churches. Therefore, Rome’s Christian Empress shows Galla Placidia as a champion of Christianity. 

     Galla Placidia was the daughter of Theodosius I and his second wife Galla. He made his older son, Arcadius, the Emperor of the East, and his second son Honorius, the Emperor of the West. Thus, securing his dynasty. He also founded a Council in Nicea, which created the Nicean Creed and forbade the pagan religion in favor of Christianity. The author states that through her father’s efforts for Christianity, Galla Placidia would follow in her father’s footsteps.

     After her father’s death, Galla Placidia and Honorius left Constantinople to live with the military governor, Stilicho, in Rome. Under Stilicho’s household, Galla Placidia was given a good education. She was a strong-minded person, whereas her brother was weak. Honorius and Galla Placidia did not get along.

     When Alaric, king of the Visigoths, sacked Rome, he abducted Galla Placidia as a way to bargain with Emperor Honorius. However, Honorius did not care about his sister, and Galla Placidia remained with the Visigoths. When Alaric died, Galla Placidia married his successor, Altauf. She became queen of the Visigoths and settled in Spain. She gave birth to a son, whose life was short-lived. A year later, her husband Altauf was assassinated.

     Now that Galla Placidia was a widow, Honorius became interested in her. He forced her to marry Constantius, his military general. She made the best of her marriage, where she gave birth to two children. Honorius then promoted Constantius to Emperor and Galla Placidia to Empress. When Constantius died, Galla Placidia went to Constantinople. When her brother, Honorius, died and a usurper claimed himself emperor of the Western Empire, Galla Placidia, with the help of the Eastern empire, was proclaimed Empress Regent and her son, Valentinian as emperor. Galla Placida ruled for eight years on her own as she worked to make Rome a Christian empire.

     Overall, this biography shows Galla Placidia’s influence in the Roman Empire. She helped establish Church rituals and holidays. She promoted churches and mosaics throughout her realm. While this book is comprehensive for the general reader, it is a bit dry. There is very little focus on Galla Placidia herself and mostly focuses on the religious and political aspects of the time. Still, from what little Galla Placidia is mentioned in this book, it shows that she was a strong and formidable woman. She was at the center of Rome’s transformation. She worked hard to promote her dream to make her empire Christian. Her influence stills lasts today, for she helped Christian scholars discuss many religious issues that are now prominent in the Catholic Church. One of them was the idea of the Virgin Mary. Thus, the medieval concept of Christianity was started because of her and other Theodosians. Therefore, Rome’s Christian Empress is a thorough history of the religious and political climate of the latter days of the Roman Empire. Galla Placidia led such an interesting and varied life, becoming queen of the Visigoths and Empress of Rome, that I wish she had been more the central focus. Still, it is worth a read, and I give it my recommendation if the early days of Christianity is a subject of interest.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars



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