Galla (c. 365–394)

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Galla (c. 365–394)

Empress of Rome. Born around 365; died in childbirth in 394; daughter of Valentinian I, Roman emperor(r. 364–375), and Justina (fl. 350–370); sister of Justa and Grata and emperor Valentinian II; half-sister of Gratian; became second wife of Theodosius I, Roman emperor (r. 379-395), around 387; children: three but only a daughter, Galla Placidia (c. 390–450), survived infancy.

A military officer of standing, Valentinian I was elevated to imperial status in 364 after the death of Jovian. Within a month of his elevation, Valentinian raised his brother Valens to co-imperial status in order to cover as many of the empire's hot-spots as possible. Their division of labor generally recognized Valentinian's authority in the West and Valens in the East, but in 367 Valentinian named his eight-year-old son Gratian (with his first wife Marina Severa ) an Augustus, so as to make manifest his choice of successors. Valentinian upheld his responsibilities admirably (if with choler or anger) until his death by stroke in 375. Gratian was then 16 and Valentinian II, another of Theodosius' sons (with second wife Justina ), was four. The latter's age did not prevent the troops around him from proclaiming him emperor upon the death of his father, but this status immediately came into question since neither Valens nor Gratian officially supported Valentinian II's imperial acknowledgment. Nevertheless, Gratian tolerated the elevation of his half-brother and granted him technical sovereignty over Italy, Africa, and Illyricum, although Gratian (with his handlers) maintained his real authority within these provinces. Then, in 383, a usurper named Magnus Maximus crossed to Gaul from Britain where his army had hailed him emperor.

Maximus was a Spaniard who, in an age of Christian theological controversies, followed the Nicene Creed. He had begun his career under the command of Theodosius, the father of the emperor Theodosius I. Maximus advanced his career in Britain, where he won victories over the Picts and Scots, and his army recognized his success by proclaiming him an emperor. His elevation put Maximus at odds with the established imperial hierarchy, which in turn prompted him to act decisively or perish. As a result, Maximus invaded Gaul, defeated Gratian, and put him to death. By defeating Gratian, Maximus became the de facto emperor of the West, although Valentinian II still lived in Italy with his mother Justina and sisters Justa, Grata , and Galla who was born around 365. For several years, Maximus controlled Gaul and Britain, his position apparently validated by the youth of Valentinian II and the inaction of Theodosius I, who himself had been elevated to the purple in 379 after the death of Valens in the East. Theodosius I did not take immediate steps to check Maximus because the two had ties which went back years: both came from Spain and were perhaps distantly related (although if so, Maximus appears to have been born to the humbler part of the family), and Maximus had served in the army of Theodosius I's father both in Britain and north Africa. Maximus probably also suspected that he had Theodosius' at least tacit support, because Maximus' usurpation of imperial authority had come at the expense of Gratian, whose house had been responsible for the political execution of Theodosius I's father. An open breach occurred between Theodosius and Maximus, however, when the latter attacked Italy in 387, probably because Valentinian II was nearing the age when he would begin to act more vigorously in his own interests. Before Maximus could capture them, Valentinian II and his entourage fled Italy to take refuge with the recently widowed Theodosius I, whom they convinced to intervene on their behalf against Maximus.

Theodosius' reason for supporting the remaining family of Valentinian I over a man who was once a member of his own political faction was alleged to have been Galla, whose beauty some suggested intoxicated Theodosius. Theodosius' primary reason for opposing Maximus, however, was probably more Machiavellian (although he may not have discounted Galla's reported comeliness), for the careers of both Maximus and his father should have forewarned Theodosius I against the unbridled ambitions of a political and military usurper—even one of past acquaintance. Who knew where such a man might stop? In addition, Theodosius I knew that by marrying Galla he could lay claim to the loyalties of a still significant political faction, a notable gain with all of the domestic and foreign troubles Theodosius still faced. Regardless of his reasons, Theodosius acted decisively after Maximus invaded Italy, defeating Maximus in battle several times during 387 and executing him in 388.

Before his campaign against Maximus, Theodosius had married Galla. Thereafter, Galla's public persona was fastidiously modeled after that of Theodosius' first wife, Flaccilla (c. 355–386): that is, Galla was promoted as the emperor's devoted wife and as a Christian whose social activism helped those in society who otherwise could not help themselves. In terms of her political activities, Galla assiduously worked to promote her brother Valentinian II's imperial interests, and as such was an important liaison between the houses of Theodosius and Valentinian. Nevertheless, her work along these lines came to naught when Valentinian II died in 392, the victim of either suicide or murder. The latter is suspected because with Valentinian gone, another usurper, Eugenius, quickly seized power in the West, where he ruled until Theodosius exterminated him in 394. Thereafter, Theodosius elevated Honorius, the younger of his two sons with his first wife, Flaccilla, to the western post once held by Galla's brothers.

Galla was greatly distressed at the news of Valentinian II's death, both because she loved him and because his death marked the end of her father's dynasty. In fact, her loyalty to the house of Valentinian created difficulties between herself and Flaccilla's sons, Arcadius and Honorius. In 390, their relationship was so strained that when Theodosius was away from Constantinople on business, Arcadius even expelled her from the palace. Despite such animosities, Galla apparently got on well with Theodosius. Together they produced three children, although only a daughter, Galla Placidia, survived infancy. Galla did not live long enough to produce male rivals for Arcadius and Honorius, for she died during childbirth in 394, a year before Theodosius himself would expire. Galla Placidia matured to play a lengthy and influential role in the politics of the 5th century. She would long outlive her largely incompetent half-brothers, and among her accomplishments would be her rule as an Augusta from 421 until her death in 450.

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