This review contains spoilers.
I have just finished listening to Mike Duncan’s very lengthy podcast series on A History of Rome. The last decades of the Empire were such a mess, but my attention was arrested by the prominence of two women, Placidia and Pulcheria, who despite their differences, became powerful in their own right in the Western and Eastern Roman Empires around the turn of the 5th century C.E. In his podcast, Mike Duncan suggested that someone should write a joint biography of these two contemporaneous women. I’m not sure if anyone has written a biography as such, but Faith L. Justice has embarked upon a fictional telling of the lives of three Theodosian Women – Placidia, Pulcheria and Athenais.
I’m a historian of Australian history, but I don’t often read historical fiction based on real, historical figures. Histories from the viewpoint of an invented character, yes; invented characters based on real ones, yes; histories told from the viewpoint on an onlooker, yes; but less often fiction focussing on and fleshing out real characters, using real events and timelines. In fact, I just abandoned reading Annie Garthwaite’s Cecily, about Cecily Neville, the wife of Richard, Duke of York and the mother of Edward IV and Richard III because I just didn’t know enough Plantagenet history to make sense of it, and I wasn’t prepared to put in the hard yards. One notable exception to this is Hilary Mantel’s work, especially her Wolf Hall Trilogy, and her excellent A Place of Greater Safety about the French Revolution, which no-one ever seems to mention. But even with Mantel’s work, I started each book feeling paralysed by my lack of knowledge until I took a deep breath and trusted that, with her emphasis on character, the events would fall into place.
This is the dilemma for a historical novelist, I suppose: knowing the context and events backwards as author, but writing in such a way that you bring a reader who does not know them along with you. In this, Faith L. Justice (surely not her real name!) gives as much support as she can, with a family tree and a list of characters as they appear chronologically in the book, with helpful italicizing of the names of those she invented.
So who was Galla Placidia? This entry from Justice’s blog gives the background to Placidia’s childhood and upbringing. Born in 388-89 or 392–93 CE (how wonderful that she has a 5 year age range!), she was the daughter of the Roman emperor Theodosius I and the paternal half-sister of emperors Arcadius and Honorius. She became empress consort to emperor Constantius II and was the mother and powerful advisor of emperor Valentinian III. So, definitely, completely entwined in imperial politics.
But the book Twilight Empress starts with her being taken hostage by Alaric, the king of the Goths, prior to the fall of Rome. She was taken to Gaul, where after 5 years she married Alaric’s son Ataulf, with whom she had genuinely fallen in love. However, her half-brother Honorius rebuffed their appeals to recognize the marriage, and sent his trusted general, Constantius to bring her home. He did so, and married her himself, having been in love with her for many years, although she did not reciprocate. She had two surviving children to Constantius (having lost her earlier child that she had with Ataulf) before Constantius died. She then threw herself into the lives of her children, forming a separate power base behind her rather insipid son Valentinian, and acting as an intermediary between the Eastern and Western Emperors. The author did well here, showing her as an active and intelligent political operator, but always within circumscribed limits. Meanwhile, her daughter Justa Grata Honoria (known as Honoria – one of the many Honorias) was misbehaving, much to her mother and brother’s embarrassment. The author has fun with Honoria, inventing an ending for her in the vacuum of information about what really happened to her.
I wonder if I would have gleaned all this from the book alone, had I not known some of it from other sources? I’m not sure. My awareness of the emotional resonances of Placidia’s story came solely from this book because the other sources do not provide them, and because there is space for a fictional author to explore the emotional realm. But I don’t think that I would have detected the broader factual events of her life from this book alone, something that could have been remedied with a timeline of major events, perhaps, and a few maps.
Of course, the emotional realm is where an author can exercise their imagination, but the historiographical field of ‘History of the Emotions’ signals to us that emotions are not constant across time and societies. Some emotional responses will always be impenetrable to us as 21st century readers and this would be even more true of classical times. So the ‘romantic’ scenes in the book, which had a decidedly modern tenor, did not sit well with me, veering at times into Mills and Boon territory.
However, one of my motivations for reading this book was to reinforce what I have learned about Ancient Rome recently in a less weighty form, and in that, the book succeeded well. Faith L. Justice gave Placidia agency, -albeit limited- both in her emotional life and in her political behaviour, providing a good counter to all those histories of battles and betrayals amongst the men of Rome.
My rating: 6.5
Sourced from: purchased e-book