Introduction to Galla Placidia, Book One: The Sacred Mirror by Michael Hawley

Europe in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries CE was a place of deep and dramatic social change. The Roman emperors, already faced with porous borders, desperate neighbors, fiscal crises, an aging infrastructure and a government dependent on its military stars, had upended a millennium of Hellenic tradition by first embracing Christianity and then forbidding enactment of the ancient rites that had provided a large degree of cultural/psychological homogeneity to the various peoples of the empire.


Some years ago, I was reading a book on early Christianity that referred to the life of the Roman empress Galla Placidia as a microcosm of this extraordinary era. The more I read about her, the more interested I became not only in the dramatic events of her lifetime but the interior journey that she must have taken. That for much of her life she was a symbol of power while being completely captive to the interests of others was the thing I found most compelling about her story and that forms the main theme of my novel.


In writing this book, my greatest challenge has been to translate this time period in a way that does not impede access to the characters and events of a truly epic story. The results as you see them reflect one writer’s constant negotiation between historical accuracy and comprehensibility. I am striving to express the characters in their physical, historical and psychological milieu (insofar as I can approach these areas) and keep the ‘contemporary reader’ (whomever that might be) engaged without resorting to anachronisms of judgment or sentiment. For me, the best entrée to this world is through a sensory experience of it—how a room was lighted or a street smelled, what kind of music could be heard in the plazas, what kind of food she ate and with whom, etc. In so exploring, the rewards of this project have already been many.


With that, I part the curtains.




Michael Hawley’s short stories have been or will soon be published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Boston Review, Cimarron Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, The New Yorker, Post Road Magazine, Saint Ann’s Review and elsewhere. He lives in New York City. (Web page: