A collection of poems, some previously published, tells the story of Galla Placidia, regent of the Western Roman Empire from 425 to 437.
Aelia Galla Placidia (circa 388-450) was both a pawn and player in the Roman Empire. The daughter of Roman Emperor Theodosius I, she was captured by Goths in the fall of Rome, married to a chieftain, Athaulf, and restored to Rome after his assassination. She married Constantius III and, after his death, served for 14 years as regent for their son, who became Emperor Valentinian III. In her eighth book of poetry, Chase (Anonymous Fox, 2009, etc.) presents her “translation” of Galla Placidia’s life, based on her imagined journals, which begin in 410 with Goths outside the gates of Rome. Each poem is followed by comments or glosses from Lepida, a Goth captured as a child by Romans; she became Galla’s nurse and substitute mother. The book’s five sections cover Galla’s imprisonment, marriages, and regency, with reflections on family, childhood, politics, and personalities. The final lines note that “Barbarians are at the Gate again,” as if nothing has changed: “The end mocks / The beginning.” Bitterness and irony run through these pared-down, minimalist poems, leavened somewhat by Lepida’s loyal sympathy. Galla’s voice is stark, observant, dignified, and pulls no punches, as in “At the River Busento,” about Alaric the Goth’s funeral: “Fifty slaves divert the River / For his grave. They bury him / With jeweled daggers, his wives’ braids // And the fifty slaves.” Lepida (herself a slave) doesn’t note the slaves’ deaths; her concern is always for Galla: “My Mistress found [river burial] strange. Her people were put to rest in marble.” The poems tend to be elliptical, and Lepida’s gloss often provides essential context. For example, “Company” reads in full: “King Athaulf visits often.” Lepida explains enough for the reader to understand that Galla is beginning to welcome Athaulf’s courtship, which the next poems confirm. This slender volume isn’t much like a novel, and not all of these pieces work independently, but they do work together.
Allusive, spare poems whose twin voices enrich each other as they relate the life of an empress.