restricted access VI: From Ravenna to Nola: Italy in Transition

From: 428 AD

Princeton University Press colophon
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From Ravenna to Nola    I   of power restored by Theodosius II, the Empire of the West was assigned to little Valentinian III. The emperor was still a child entrusted to the care of his tutor,one of those “child princes”that caused such outrage in senatorial circles.1 But the world had changed, and traditional Roman values had been replaced by the “medieval” principle of dynastic legitimacy, which was in fact of eastern origin. The new emperor , who was anointed in , was the grandson of Theodosius the Great on his mother’s side, and was therefore a first cousin of the emperor of the East. Officially Valentinian was the absolute lord of the Western Empire: he signed the laws and played out his role at official ceremonies, but political power was administered by court dignitaries and above all by his mother, the forty-year-old Aelia Galla Placidia.2 The unofficial involvement of a woman in political affairs was not unknown, but for traditionalists it was a sign of decadence. Modern historians have adhered to that enduring cliché of Otto Seeck’s, the great historian of the late Roman Empire. He defined this period as a second-rate epoch and a “regimen of women”: Placidia’s regency in Ravenna and Pulcheria’s in- fluence in Constantinople.3 Placidia’s power derived from her being the daughter of Theodosius I, but her real strength was her uncommon political experience.The queen mother knew the mechanisms of the western court, in which she had grown up and become empress, albeit for a brief period (). Moreover,  C H A P T E R V I her recent exile to Constantinople, where she had lived at the court for about four years, had enriched her political and diplomatic experience. But most importantly, Placidia could boast personal knowledge of the barbarian world. She was taken hostage after the sack of Rome in , and had to follow the Visigoths back to Gaul. Following various negotiations , she ended up marrying King Ataulf in a sumptuous ceremony. Shortly afterwards there was a successful plot to kill Ataulf, and Placidia returned to Ravenna after having lived among the barbarians for five years, one of which was as a queen. Clearly, her government was supervised by dignitaries loyal to Constantinople . The interests of the eastern court were safeguarded by the presence of Flavius Costantius Felix, a good military leader and a capable politician, who had just been promoted to the highly prestigious rank of patricius, and now, in the year , also held the coveted post of consul, a well-earned reward for having reconquered Pannonia. Felix’s reputation is clearly demonstrated in the ivory diptych commissioned for his consulship. The left-hand panel, the only one to survive, is now held at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. It is an extremely elegant artifact, but also a prestigious attribute of power. Felix is depicted frontally, dressed in the trabea (toga decorated with purple) of a victor, with his right hand on his heart, and his left hand holding a long scepter.4 Ravenna was a young capital. It had been the permanent seat of the western court since , and the principal base for the fleet. The city was well defended by a dense network of marshes and canals that made it less vulnerable to invasions, unlike the great cities of the Po Valley such as Milan or Verona, which were much more exposed if attacked by an army of horsemen.5 Moreover it was much easier to send reinforcements and provisions through the nearby military port of Classis,which was not an inconsiderable advantage for an empire whose principal strength in its struggle against the barbarians was its control of the seas.6 Ravenna had also been provided with new city walls, to a new design that signified important changes in the planning of a Roman city.7 The choice of a marshland city helped to diminish the negative image of the stagnant waters, typical of the classical view of such landscapes. In the past, there had been a tendency to exclude “marginal” scenery, such as forest or swampland, from literary descriptions.8 This does not F R O M R A V E N N A T O N O L A  mean that these landscapes lost their negative connotations inherited from the classical tradition, but it was no longer considered unseemly to portray them. Thus the most effective description of fifth...


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