Sunday, September 1

Nobilissima: A Novel of Imperial Rome (2012)

By Carrie Bedford

This has been my (mainly) bedtime reading for the past several weeks. A little about my reading pattern: Typically, I have several things going at once, besides some kind of professional reading and spending too much time browsing the Internet for current news, commentary, and random whim-driven “research” – some main “real” book that I lug around during the evening and end up reading in bed before turning out the light (currently I have just started what will probably take me through the next several months, Shelby Foote's monumental three-volume history of The Civil War: A Narrative); something in the nature of a graphic novel that I will dip into every couple of days (currently the second volume of Fantagraphics' wonderfully restored representation of Hal Foster's Prince Valiant Sunday comic strips, two years per volume, the second comprising 1939-1940, reproduced from the artist-author's own colored proofs); an issue or two of the box of comics I received near the beginning of the month from my mail-order comics source, therefore the comics that actually hit the stores during the previous month (e.g., currently I'm working my way through the comics that went on sale on Wednesday, 24 July; i.e., I'm always well behind comics fandom at large in my reading – and blogging), usually when I first head for bed; and, once I turn out the light, something on one of my iPhone e-reader apps. It's also handy to have during odd times of the day when I have a few unexpected moments to read. That's what Nobilissima was, read via the Kindle app. I think it appeared as one of the daily bargains offered via the BookBub mailing list, to which I subscribe. I don't remember if it was free, or a couple of bucks – the BookBub bargains are never more than that. Whatever, the short description provided in that email intrigued me enough to download it.

Nobilissima is a well-researched account of a fascinating and momentous time in history, the period when the Roman Empire was teetering on the verge of collapse before the invading Germanic barbarians. AD 410: The Goths sack the city of Rome, inflicting what I consider in historical retrospect to have been the real death blow to the Roman Empire in the West, with the ousting of the last western Roman Emperor in 476 being a mere afterthought. Written in the first person from the perspective of a little known but very important player in that former event and its aftermath, Galla Placidia, the daughter of Emperor Theodosius the Great, sister of Emperor Honorius (the not-so-Great), and mother of and regent for Emperor Valentian III (ditto), the narrative begins when Placidia is a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old trapped within the city of Rome during the siege that culminated in the fall of the city; it continues with her captivity among the Visigoths, her eventual first marriage to the Visigothic King Ataulf, who led the tribe in its long trek from Italy to Spain until his murder, and her subsequent return to Italy to the court in Ravenna of her mercurial and politically ineffectual brother Honorius (who had refused to ransom her earlier); Placidia's and Honorius' further deteriorating relationship as she attempts to restore some modicum of effective government to the western Empire along with an unlikely ally, her former antagonist but now second husband, Honorius' co-Emperor Constantius III, until his early death made her very presence at her brother's court untenable; her self-exile in the court of her nephew, the eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II; through her eventual return to Rome following the death of Honorius to wrest the western throne from the short-lived usurper Joannes for her and Constanius' young son Valentinian, with herself as regent for the next dozen years, essentially the ruler of the western Empire. That later regency is not recounted here, however, the narrative ending with the accession of Valentinian. Although one minor criticism I have of this novel is a lack of a firm sense of the passage of time, by this point in Placidia's life fifteen years have passed since we first met her as a teenager making an unauthorized foray out of the palace into the streets of the suffering city to see the reality of the siege for herself. Her life would go on for another 25 years, first as de facto ruler, then as a power behind Valentinian's throne until her death in 450. She would never remarry, but the court intrigues of the regency years and after, in the context of the further deteriorating state of the western Empire in the face of further invasions, spiced up no little bit by her tumultuous relationship with her latter-day antagonist, Flavius Aetius, the emerging military supremo of the western Empire who is seen here at the very beginning of his rise to power, would seem to me to demand a sequel.

Bedford does a number of things very well. One is her portrayal of the Visigoths very unlike our popular conception of what a “barbarian” was during these latter days of the Roman Empire. The Germanic tribes had been in contact with Rome, living just beyond the northern frontiers of the Empire, for centuries before the formal beginning of the Tribal Migrations during the last quarter of the preceding century. Many individual Germans – and sometimes whole tribes – had served in the Roman military in one capacity or another, increasingly through that fourth century AD. The “Roman” military itself was mostly manned by barbarians, and was indeed under the command of the half-German General Stilicho (Placidia's guardian, remembered with respect and love) until the eve of the siege of Rome, his betrayal and execution on trumped-up charges being the most proximate cause – along with Honorius' perfidy and ineptitude – of that calamity. From the beginning Placidia views (i.e., Bedford portrays) the Visigoths as noble and cultured; indeed she falls deeply in love with Ataulf and forever mourns his death as well as the earlier death of their son Theodosius, whom she had envisioned as uniting Roman and Goth in a new hope for the Empire. Such a positive view of the barbarians could well be dismissed as the modern romantic notion of the “noble savage,” especially given the pervasive sense of decadence and treachery that fills the courts of both Ravenna and Constantinople, but it likely reflects the reality of the age. And in the case of both peoples, broadly defined, there are counterexamples. There are brutes among the Goths – such as Sigeric, Ataulf's rival, successor, and the likely instigator of his murder, who had earlier attempted to rape Placidia and subsequent to Ataulf's death subjected her to humiliations so cruel as to incense the Visigoths to rise up and oust him after a reign of a mere seven days – and there is nobility among the Romans – such as Placidia's lifelong friends Aurelia and Marcus, the latter a probably fictional high-ranking military officer (I can find no listing of a magister militum “Marcus Gaius Albinus”).

I also liked overall the portrayal of the religious issues of the day – orthodox, trinitarian, Roman Christianity, i.e., what we would consider Roman Catholicism, versus the heterodox, non-trinitarian, Arian Christianity of the Goths, without forgetting that there would have been, this early, some survival of traditional Roman paganism, embodied here in Placidia's handmaid Sylvia, in some degree of fear but largely protected from the consequences of her unbelief by Placidia although Placidia's own father was the Emperor who had finally mandated trinitarianism as the official religion of state. I thought the interplay between the three was more or less realistic, the relative intolerance of some partisans of the first listed of these more apparent mainly because trinitarian orthodoxy had lately achieved its ascendancy and was now the dominant force. I would have expected some expression of anti-trinitarian prejudice on the part of the Goths, however.

I have only one real quibble with the book overall. Despite the smooth construction of a fictional account on obviously thorough research into the fascinating historical events and characters of the period, as well as a technically near flawless prose, there was something missing. Ultimately – and paradoxically – even though the narrative was told in the first-person from the perspective of Placidia, I never felt as if I got to know this fascinating woman as a character, and I never really felt drawn in to her story. I didn't feel her emotions even as she was describing them, such as the bleak depression she endured after the death of her first born son Theodosius, followed so quickly by the murder of her husband and her own torture and humiliation. Nor the joy she felt in her love for Ataulf, nor the satisfaction that is described once she has secured the western imperial title for her son under her own regency. The events are narrated, yes; the feelings are described, yes; and I was obviously meant to empathize with her – but I just did not. There is instead an odd sense of detachment throughout that ultimately, I think, detracts from the effectiveness of the potentially compelling story being told. I'm not a literary critic, of course, and can only describe my own reaction, but this is what keeps me from wholeheartedly endorsing this book. 

I do, nevertheless, look forward to a follow-up completing the story of Placidia, with hope that Bedford will develop that aspect of her writing style. And I do believe that those with an interest in the transitional period between classical civilization and the Middle Ages such as I myself have will find this book as enjoyable as I did, based on the strengths it does contain, which do outweigh the weakness.

Cheers, and Thanks for reading!

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