Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Galla Placidia, "the Last Roman Empress"

Galla Placidia, queen of the Visigoths, empress of Rome, regent of the empire (died 27 November 450)


Galla Placida, the woman who would become queen of the Goths, then empress of the western Roman empire, and ultimately regent of the empire, was the granddaughter, daughter, sister, and mother of a emperors of Rome.

Her father was Theodosius I, "the Great," a Roman soldier who rose through the ranks and eventually became emperor, ruling from 379 to his death in 395. 

A gold tremissis, 5th century,
Galla Placidia
Placidia's mother was Emperor Theodosius's second wife, Galla, the daughter of Valentinian I, who had become emperor in 364--Valentinian had split the Roman empire, ruling the western part himself until his death in 375, and appointing his brother, Valens, as emperor in the east. So, Placida is also the great niece of an emperor.

Placidia's half brothers, born to Flavia Flacilla, the first wife of Theodosius, were Arcadius and Honorius. After the death of Theodosius in 395, both men became emperor, Arcadius in the East, Honorius in the West. 

Placidia was born during the last decade of the fourth century, her life and career spanning what her biographer Joyce Salisbury calls "the twilight of the empire." (While we have come to think that the "fall of the Roman Empire" occurred in the fifth century, what "fell" then was the western part of the empire--in the east, the empire persisted until 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Turks.) 

Although the year of her birth is not known, Theodosius and Galla were married in 386 or 387, and a son, Gratian, was born in 388. Galla died giving birth to a son in 394, thus providing the few years between 388 and 394 as the time for Placidia's birth. (Theodosius was campaigning in Italia between 388 and 391, while Galla remained in Constantinople--their separation may indicate more about the possible year of Placidia's birth.)

After the death of her mother in Constantinople, Placidia may have been summoned to Milan, but whether she was there at the death of her father in 395 isn't certain. But she seems to have spent some time in Ravenna, at the court of her half-brother Honorius. The military commander Stilicho was guardian of the underage Honorius, while Placidia was in the care of Stilicho's wife, Serena, who was Placidia's cousin. Placidia seems also to have been supposed to marry Eucherius, the son of Stilicho and Serena.

Under Serena's guardianship, Placidia resided in Rome while Stilicho campaigned against the Franks, Vandals, and Goths, among other would-be invaders, but he was ultimately brought down by his own troops, who mutinied in 408. Suspicious of Stilicho's intentions, Honorius ordered his execution. 

Meanwhile, under Alaric, the Goths invaded the Italian peninsula and began a siege of Rome, which was sacked in August 410. During the siege, Serena was accused of conspiring with Alaric and, with Placidia's consent, Serena was executed in 409. The exact circumstances surrounding Placidia's "consent" to Serena's execution are not clear, and contemporary accounts differ.

Equally unclear is what happens next: Placidia is married to Alaric's successor, Athaulf, now king of the Visigoths. Well, the marriage itself is clear enough--Placidia was taken to Gaul, and in 414, she was married "in a Roman wedding ceremony" to Athaulf in Narbonne. 

What is not clear is, once again, the context of Placidia's situation--Placidia was variously said to have been "captured" or "abducted" or taken hostage by Alaric in 410, but then again she may have been traded to Alaric by Honorius as part of some kind of deal. In any case, Alaric died in Italy not long after the sack of Rome, and by 412, Placidia was in Gaul.

As for the marriage. According to some sources, Honorius refused to consent to any marriage between Placidia and Athaulf, but Placidia herself "fell in love" with Athaulf and married him. Other sources attribute the match not to love but to power and politics: the marriage took place only after Athaulf captured and killed two rivals claiming Honorius's title as emperor, who then rewarded Athaulf with the alliance. Or maybe it was Placida herself who negotiated the treaty between the two men.
Gold solidus,
Constantinople, 423-29, 
Galla Placida

Whether Placidia is the reason for Athaulf's alliance with Honorius or a prize for Athaulf's dispensing of the rivals to Honorius's imperial title, the marriage did not last long. By 415, Athaulf was assassinated. Athaulf's six children by his first wife were killed, but Placidia, once more a captive, survived. (Placidia was childless. She had given birth to a son, named Theodosius after her father, shortly after her marriage, but the boy had died a few months later.) 

By 416, Placidia was returned to Honorius by Athaulf's successor, Wallia, as part of a peace negotiation. (According to at least one account, the desperate Goths exchanged their imperial "hostage" for food, but another claims that the Goths held onto Placidia until they received a sizeable payment for their hostage in grain.) 

Although she seems to have wished to remain a widow, Placidia was soon compelled by her brother to marry Constantius, the Roman general to whom Wallia had surrendered in 417. She gave birth to two children, a daughter, Justa Grata Honoria (b. c. 418), and a son, Valentinian (b. 2 July 419). 

On 2 September 421, the childless Honorius named Constantius co-ruler of Rome, but he died just months later, on 2 September. The widowed Galla Placidia, who had been proclaimed augusta when her husband had been given the title augustus, was at first criticized for being scandalously close to her brother. But however close their relationship, scandalous or not, might have been, by 422 Placidia and her children were in Constantinople with her nephew, Theodosius II, in Constantinople. Honorius may have been fearful of Placidia's influence with the Goths and sent her to Constantinople or, fearful of her half-brother, Placidia may have fled, finding safety with her nephew. Accounts differ.

Galla Placidia Augusta remained in Constantinople with her two children until the death of Honorius in 423. Before Theodosius could name a successor emperor in the west, a usurper had claimed the title. After the usurping Joannes was defeated in 425, Placidia's six-year-old son, Valentinian, was proclaimed augustus, with Placidia serving as his regent.

Despite the rivalries among the influential generals Flavius Aetius and Bonifacius, Placidia's regency lasted for twelve years, until Valentinian reached his age of majority in 437. Although her power had been diminished by Aetius's military and political success and her son's independence, she remained an influential figure in imperial politics until her death. 

Galla Placidia is buried in Rome, where she died on on 27 November 450. 

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia,
Ravenna

Beyond her political role, Placidia was devoted to her faith. She and Constantius played an active role in the papal succession crisis of 418, and she called together a synod of African bishops. (Two of her letters about this synod survive; for analysis of them, click here.) An orthodox Catholic, she was "vigorous in opposition" to the heresies of Pelagianism and Manicheism. She was also involved in the building of several churches in Rome and Ravenna, including the so-called Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, notable for its incredible mosaics. (I've linked here to the Wikipedia entry--it is the best overview available online.) 

There are two excellent recent biographies, Joyce Salisbury's Rome's Christian Empress: Galla Placidia Rules at the Twilight of the Empire and Hagith Sivan's Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress--I've used Sivan's subtitle here in the title of my post.

But there are also some excellent online sources. I particularly recommend the entry in Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia (available here) and the entry from Roman Emperors: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Rulers and their Families (available here).

And, given my on-going bitching about the Encyclopedia Britannica and its lack of women, I should note that there is at least a teeny tiny entry for Aelia Galla Placida. It mentions nothing at all about her role as regent.