On the Historical Context of Augusta

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An empire stirs upon the eastern steppe, and the sun sets over the West.  Image Source

Note: This reading is pulled from the in-text introduction to Augusta: The Lost Epic of Rome’s Last Days.  It will be accessible in any physical copies of the aforementioned volume.

As is typical of epics from Antiquity, Augusta begins in media res, meaning that much of the expositional backstory is only filled in much later.  The events leading up to the tale narrated in Augusta would surely have been known to most of its audience at the time it was written, and it is only in Book Three when we as the readers get much detail on it for ourselves.

While such historical context might have been basic knowledge for Augusta’s intended audience, it would be safe to assume that the average reader today knows little, if anything, concerning the history of the fifth century.  While the events critical to understand are indeed explained or hinted at throughout the text, it seems imperative that I briefly explain them anyway, lest some poor reader jump into the text and feel overwhelmed by obscure historical references.

The story opens up some time around 450/451, near the end of the Roman Empire as most people know it.  At this point the empire had been divided into two separate halves, one in the East that ruled from Constantinople and another in the West that ruled from Rome, Mediolanum, and then Ravenna.  The official date given for the collapse of the Western Roman Empire is placed at 476, whereas its eastern counterpart would last up until the fifteenth century, ending with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

In 450, the Western Roman Empire was ruled from Ravenna by Valentinian III, then thirty years of age.  His sister was Honoria, who long thought that her brother was a weak and indolent ruler.  It is said that she seduced her chamberlain Eugenius, perhaps in an attempt to overthrow her brother, but the affair was soon discovered and thwarted.  Afterwards, Honoria was sent away to Constantinople, though there is some disagreement as to whether or not the exile actually happened. 

Regardless of the controversy, it is clear that Valentinian wanted to marry off his sister to the senator Bassus Herculanus, a man who would have not likely used his position to supplant Valentinian.  Faced then with the advent of an unwanted marriage, Honoria tried to wiggle her way out of this union, sending a plea to none other than Attila the Hun, still on relatively decent terms with the Western Roman Empire.

With this message Honoria sent her ring, perhaps as a sign of authentication, though others would suggest that she proposed to Attila, asking to be married to him instead.  Whether one would agree with this latter hypothesis or not, history makes it clear that Attila chose to interpret her message as such, demanding half of the Western Empire from Valentinian in exchange for her hand in marriage.  Of course Valentinian denied the terms, and in his anger he nearly killed his sister.  Only because of the intervention of their mother Galla Placidia was she spared from his rage, though afterwards she disappears entirely from the historical record.  Honoria’s ultimate fate remains unknown.

But Valentinian’s rejection of this marriage offered Attila the pretext he had long desired to launch a campaign against the Western Roman Empire.  Gathering the nations subjugated by the Huns, he made his way into Roman Gaul, plunging the Roman Empire into its last great war and into some of the most famous events of Late Antiquity after the conversion of Constantine.  This would be the beginning of the ancient world’s last hurrah before the dawn of the Middle Ages.

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