Flaccilla (c. 355–386)

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Flaccilla (c. 355–386)

Roman empress. Name variations: Aelia Flavia Flaccilla; Flacilla; named "Augusta" (empress), probably around 383. Born around 355; died in 386 or 387 in Thrace at a spa where she had retired to take the medicinal waters; daughter of aristocratic parents whose families had long held Roman citizenship; aunt of Nebridius; became first wife of Theodosius I the Great, emperor of Rome (r. 379-395), between 376 and 378; children: Pulcheria (c. 376–385); Arcadius, emperor of Rome (r. in the East, 395–408); Honorius emperor of Rome (r. in the West, 395-423). Following the death of Flaccilla, Theodosius I married Galla .

Flaccilla was born and bred in Spain of aristocratic parents whose families had long held Roman citizenship. Flaccilla probably met and married her husband, Theodosius (I), between 376 and 378 when he went into temporary Spanish exile as a result of the political fall of his father, also named Theodosius. The years of Flaccilla's youth were troubled times for Rome, with sustained frontier pressures being exacerbated by civil and religious rivalries within the empire itself. Men of ambition, standing, and occasionally of conscience all too frequently saw in themselves the solution to the manifold problems of the age.

The elder Theodosius had been a good general who had restored Roman authority in Britain after an invasion of Saxons, Picts and Scots. Subsequently, he was assigned to the Continent where he served with distinction against the Alans and the Alamanni. Success in these theaters warranted the confidence of Valentinian I, who trusted Theodosius to suppress a revolt in the province of Mauritania (in Africa) led by one Firmus. There Theodosius was also victorious, but his rapidly rising star engendered jealousies in court circles and capital charges were laid against him. Whether Theodosius harbored imperial ambitions after his string of successes is not known, but it mattered little once those in the emperor's confidence suspected disloyalty: he was executed in 376. This fall from grace threatened to engulf all near him, especially his son, who was only able to escape the father's fate by "retiring" to family estates in Spain, where, as noted, he probably met and married Flaccilla, a marriage that appears to have consolidated the interests of an influential political faction with a Spanish base.

Flaccilla's husband did not languish long in disgrace, having already demonstrated military promise before his father's fall. When disaster struck the empire in the form of the Visigoths' victory at Adrianople in 378 (made a double catastrophe when the Emperor Valens died on the field), the contemporary emperor of the West, Gratian, promoted Theodosius I to the position of "Master of the Military" in the hopes that the latter could restore Rome's authority along the mid and lower Danubian frontier and throughout the northern Balkans. By early 379, Theodosius I had at least enough success against the Goths to save these regions from being completely overrun. As a result, given the magnitude of the crisis, Gratian promoted him to the status of emperor. After checking the Goths' advance, Theodosius' first order of business as an Augustus was to consolidate his control over the vast area that they imperiled. In order to do so, he established his initial base at Thessaloniki in northern Greece. After 380, however, he relocated the seat of his authority to Constantinople, thus laying personal claim to the city that Constantine had developed earlier in the century as the "New Rome" of the East.

Although Theodosius I struggled mightily against the Visigoths, he never succeeded in expelling them from the empire. Making a virtue out of a necessity, in 382 he officially recognized by way of a treaty their status as legal inhabitants of the empire. Some four years later, Theodosius also concluded a peace with Persia, Rome's ever-pesky rival along the Euphrates frontier. These only partial successes permitted Theodosius to concentrate on the empire's domestic political, military, and religious affairs. The biggest threats to the domestic peace lay in the political and military threats posed to those in power by would-be usurpers—a threat made all the more palpable because of the questionable legitimacy (in the eyes of many) of such emperors as Theodosius, who had been elevated to imperial authority neither through an ancestral claim nor through some universally recognized constitutional process, but only because of expediency. As such, those who considered themselves Theodosius' equals in terms of breeding and talent felt few qualms about putting his legitimacy to the test. A second problem facing Theodosius I was a religious one. A Christian who devoutly embraced the Nicene Creed, Theodosius faced a host of contemporaries who followed alternative theological creeds, especially the Arians, who, as a result, thought that Theodosius' authority was illegitimate on religious grounds alone.

Thus, the importance of Flaccilla. By the time she had made her way with her husband to Constantinople, she had already given birth to two children: a daughter Pulcheria (c. 376–385) and a son Arcadius. As a result, although the process was only in its initial phase, a dynasty was beginning to take form thanks to Flaccilla's fertility: Pulcheria would one day be used to secure political alliances for her father, while Arcadius would be deemed Theodosius' political heir. In addition to these two children, in 384 at Constantinople's imperial palace another son, Honorius, was born to the imperial couple. Theodosius' line therefore seemed assured.

Flaccilla, however, was more than an imperial brood-mare. She too was a rabid follower of the Nicene Creed whose faith reinforced that of her husband in his war to keep the forces supporting the Arian interpretation of Christianity at bay. These were especially legion in the eastern empire. Moreover, Flaccilla provided more than just moral support, for she actively, and very publicly, cared for the sick, the orphaned (especially virgin girls), the widowed, the poor, and the hungry. The social manifestations of her faith were not lost on her contemporaries, and it is clear that her Christian actions helped to legitimize her husband's authority in the eyes of those he would have follow him willingly. In addition, she was especially praised for her philandria (wifely love) and thus became a kind of model for the age's "ideal woman." Although not as vaunted as her husband's military or political successes, Flaccilla's services went at least as far as anything Theodosius did to win over the hearts of his subjects, and to insure that her two sons would succeed their father with a minimum of fuss.

In short, Flaccilla was so popular that Theodosius consciously brought her image more into the limelight. This is especially seen through her elevation to the status of "Augusta" ("Empress"), probably at the same time (383) that Arcadius was officially proclaimed an Augustus, and thus his father's heir. Flaccilla's new status brought no real political authority, but the influence it implied far exceeded its constitutional perquisites. In fact, Flaccilla was the first woman to hold this title since the time of Constantine the Great, whose wife Fausta (d. 324) had last been so honored over a half-century before. Thus, not only did Theodosius' bestowal of this status affirm his commitment to the life of Christian service Flaccilla embodied, but it also worked as propaganda, for it confirmed a tangible link between his reign and that of the hugely popular Constantine, who was both the first Christian emperor and the refounder of the city Theodosius had adopted as his imperial capital. As an Augusta, Flaccilla's visage appeared, in imperial regalia, on all denominations of Roman coinage. Her numismatic portraits especially associated her with fertility as if to say, just as she had produced the beginnings of a dynasty for Theodosius, so would she help bear the fruits of peaceful prosperity for the entire empire. So much was her image used to promote the achievements of the new era that her full title, liberally broadcast throughout the realm was, "The Eternal and God-Loving Augusta Aelia Flavia Flaccilla, Mistress of the Inhabited World."

Flaccilla's kinship connections should not be overlooked as Theodosius struggled to become the sole master of the Roman world. Among the influential in her family was her nephew, Nebridius, the son of Flaccilla's sister (name un-known). After Theodosius' reign, Nebridius would be executed for favoring the interests of Arcadius and the eastern empire over those of Honorius and the west, but before this unfortunate end, Nebridius loyally and competently served both the elder and younger Theodosius. As a result, he was one of the more celebrated imperial servants of his day. Undoubtedly, more of Flaccilla's kin and their connections served her husband in this fashion, making her a vital linchpin in the faction that saw Theodosius triumphant over his rivals.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Flaccilla died in 386 in Thrace at a spa where she had retired to take the medicinal waters (a death that came no more than two years after the death of Pulcheria, and thus a double-blow to the new "dynasty"), the news of her demise created shock-waves. In fact, Gregory of Nyssa in his consolation address at the time of her funeral compared her loss to the effects of earthquakes and disastrous floods. Gregory also painstakingly cataloged the virtues that enshrined Flaccilla as the ideal Christian empress and wife—a model which was revisited many times in subsequent generations. Hyperbole, perhaps, but clearly those Flaccilla left behind strongly felt the pain of her premature passing.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California