During the Dominate era, in the Late Roman Empire, there lived a woman who has gone down in history for having been the one to open the doors of Rome to Alaric’s Visigoths in the year 410 AD. We are referring to Anicia Faltonia Proba, famous not only for her great culture but also for being a poetess and maintaining friendships with some of the great religious thinkers of her time, such as Augustine of Hippo (the future Saint Augustine) and John Chrysostom.
In all this, it can be said that she came from a distinguished lineage, as her grandmother, Faltonia Betitia Proba, had also gained fame for the verses she wrote. In fact, Saint Isidore referred to her as Proba, wife of Adelfius the Proconsul, and Proba, wife of Adolphus, mother of Olibrius and Aliepius, who wrote about Constantius’ war against Magnentius in 393 AD, although unfortunately, only a cento in hexameters addressed to Emperor Honorius in 393 AD titled “Cento Virgilianus de laudibus Christi” has survived.
In reality, despite the biblical theme of the text, the grandmother’s work clearly imitated Virgil, and later, in the Middle Ages, despite gaining great popularity, it did not receive approval from Saint Jerome and some popes, perhaps because she was a converted pagan. Nevertheless, her book was printed in Venice in 1472. She preceded Eudoxia, the wife of Theodosius II and author of Homerocentones, in being the first Christian poetess whose work is partly preserved.
The question arises regarding the authorship of Faltonia Betitia Proba’s works. Thus, both the “Cento Virgilianus de laudibus Christi” (“Virgilian cento on the praises of Christ”) and another lost poem of hers, “Constantini bellum adversus Magnentium” (“The war of Constantine against Magnentius”), could be the work of her granddaughter, according to one hypothesis. In the absence of conclusive evidence, let’s explore who this granddaughter was.
She was none other than the mentioned Anicia Faltonia Proba, whose connection to her predecessor was her father, Quintus Clodius Hermogenianus Olybrius, the son the previous one had with Clodius Celsinus Adelfius. They belonged to the senatorial class, to the Petronia gens, which had Sabine origins and would later, in 455 AD, reach the imperial throne through Petronius Maximus. However, Quintus married Turrania Anicia Juliana from the Anicia gens, who, unlike the former, had plebeian origins and probably came from Latium.
According to Edward Gibbon, the Anicii began to shine in the 4th century AD, during the reign of Diocletian, thanks to marital alliances with illustrious families such as the Anii, Olibrii, or Petronii. This allowed their members to often access the consulate and grow in wealth and power. It also favored them being the first Senate lineage to convert to Christianity, according to rumors, to atone for supporting Majencius, the loser in the struggle for the throne against Constantine.
Anicia Faltonia Proba, as evident in her name (in that era, Roman women usually received the name of their gens at birth), was affiliated with the rising Anicii. This tradition passed from generation to generation. Quintus Clodius Hermogenianus Olybrius, like his father and brother, held the position of praefectus urbi—his brother also held it. In addition, he achieved other positions; the first in 361, as the proconsul of Africa, a province of the Roman Empire at that time.
He was born in Africa, and it was there that Anicia was born on an unspecified date. She married Sextus Claudius Petronius Probus, whom she met because he had been proconsul three years before her father. He belonged to the Veronese branch of the Anicia gens, which, as mentioned earlier, had embraced the new Christian faith. He was the son of Petronius Probinus, the brother of the mentioned Faltonia Betitia Proba, Anicia’s grandmother. In other words, the two spouses were cousins.
Probus could boast of a solid cursus honorum: proconsul of Africa in 358 and praetorian prefect on four occasions—Illyricum in 364, Gaul in 366, Italy from 368 to 375, and again from 383 to 384. Additionally, he reached the consulate in 371, with Gracian, the future emperor, as his companion. He became so important that, according to Edward Gibbon, his two elder sons were associated with consular dignity from childhood at the Senate’s request, something unprecedented.
It is not surprising that his wealth increased in proportion to his prestige. The saying “The marbles of the Anicii palace” became popular as a synonym for opulence and splendor concerning his possessions. His prestige was also extolled with praises such as “Aniciae domus culmen” (“summit of the house of the Anicii”), “omnibus rebus eruditissimus” (“the most versed in all things”), or “nobilitatis culmen, litterarum et eloquentiae lumen” (“summit of nobility, luminary of literature and eloquence”). These last two phrases allude to his culture and patronage of the arts.
Sponsoring literati was a custom continued by two of his male children with his wife, the firstborn Flavius Anicius Probinus (who was consul and proconsul of Africa, likely the father of the mentioned Emperor Petronius Maximus) and the second, Flavius Anicius Hermogenianus (consul alongside his brother in 395 and father of the Emperor Olybrius). In addition, Probus and Anicia had a third male child, Flavius Anicius Petronius Probus (consul in 406 with the Eastern Emperor Arcadius), and a daughter, Anicia Proba.
Probus must have been quite a character, with both strengths and weaknesses, as reflected by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus in his work “Res Gestae Libri XXXI”:
“He had possessions in almost every part of the Empire, some acquired well and others ill. There were two men in him, one a loyal and sincere friend, the other a dangerous and vengeful enemy. Despite the composure and confidence that his immense generosity and the habit of power should have given him, Probus lowered his tone as soon as he was raised with him, being a great man only with the humble. Just as a fish cannot live outside the liquid element, Probus did not breathe from the moment he did not hold some office or sinecure. Furthermore, he was always driven to power, willingly or unwillingly, by the interest of some important family, which, not aligning the rule of duty with the intemperance of desires, wanted to secure impunity by obtaining high protection. Because we must record that, if personally he was incapable of demanding anything unlawful from a client or subordinate, he did not, however, when some suspicion weighed on one of his own, refrain from defending him rightly or wrongly, even against justice.”
He died around the year 388, leaving a widow, Anicia, who, following the family atmosphere, maintained a dynamic cultural life with the most prominent intellectual figures of her time. For example, with Augustine of Hippo, who was also African, from Numidia; a pagan who converted in 385 to receive the bishopric of the colony of Calama (in present-day Algeria) a decade later. His incessant struggle against heresies, as well as the fundamental theology he expressed in “The City of God,” earned him canonization in 1298.
Another illustrious thinker who had a good relationship with Anicia was John Chrysostom, also known as John of Antioch for his place of birth. Alongside Augustine, Ambrose of Milan, and Jerome of Stridon, he is one of the Four Fathers of the Church. As the Bishop of Constantinople, he denounced the excesses and extravagances of Emperor Arcadius and his wife Eudoxia, leading to his exile to Armenia, where he died.
The summer of 410 AD was a special date in Anicia’s life. She was in Rome when Alaric’s Visigoths, who had taken advantage of the death of the general Stilicho two years earlier to enter the Italian peninsula, assaulted Rome, unable to resist due to the scarcity of provisions caused by the blockade, and looted it. Emperor Honorius, who had just repelled another attack on Ravenna, could not come to the aid of the ancient capital. Its prefect, Priscus Attalus, joined the enemy with the aim of usurping the throne.
On August 24, someone opened the Salaria Gate from the inside, allowing the barbarians to enter the city. Some say it was Gothic slaves that Alaric had given to several patricians some time ago, intending that, once inside, they would facilitate his entry if he ever wanted to capture the city. Others, like Procopius of Caesarea, blamed Anicia, suggesting that she did it to alleviate the people’s suffering. It should be noted that historians tend to think this was spread by her enemies to discredit her, but there is nothing conclusive, and this is how she has passed into history.
In any case, Anicia fled from Rome to her native Africa. She was accompanied by her daughter-in-law, Anicia Juliana, and her granddaughter, Demetria, the daughter of her second son, Anicius Hermogenianus Olybrius, and sister of the future Emperor Olybrius. However, they jumped from the frying pan into the fire: the comes Africae, Heraclianus, who had remained loyal to Honorius against the rebellion of Priscus Attalus, considered those women suspicious of supporting the insurrection and ordered their imprisonment.
In his Epistolary, Jerome of Stridon (a close friend of Demetria and another future Father of the Church and saint) recounts that the solution came in the form of a bribe: they obtained freedom thanks to the proverbial fortune of the Anicii, which served to pay Heraclianus a fabulous sum. It suited him very well, as in 413, with the advantage of having been appointed consul, he broke his loyalty to the emperor and rose against him (he ended up defeated and killed, by the way).
However, Anicia was already a full-fledged Christian, and being a widow—thus partially marginalized in society due to turpitudo—she sought to lead a life dedicated to God. Therefore, she sold many of the properties she had inherited, especially in the Middle East, donating the money to the Roman bishop and the Church in general to be distributed among the poor. She died in 432, and her body was transferred from Africa to Rome to be buried alongside that of Probus in the ancient Basilica of St. Peter; it is said that she had written her husband’s funeral epitaph herself.
This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 1, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Anicia Faltonia Proba, la mujer que abrió las puertas de Roma a los visigodos en el año 410
Amiano Marcelino, Historia del Imperio Romano | Procopio de Cesarea, Historia de las guerras. Guerra vándala | San Jerónimo, Epistolario | Rosalía Rodríguez López, Mujeres en los difíciles tiempos del Imperio Romano de Occidente. Nov. Mai. 5,6,7 y 9 (458-459 d.C.) | Edward Gibbon, Historia de la decadencia y caída del Imperio Romano | Ian Michael Plant, Women writers of Ancient Greece and Rome. An anthology | Adrian Goldsworthy, La caída del Imperio Romano. El ocaso de Occidente | Peter Heather, La caída del imperio romano | Wikipedia
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