Placidia, Galla (c. 390–450)

views updated

Placidia, Galla (c. 390–450)

Roman empress who, as one of a triumvirate of remarkable women in the waning days of the Roman Empire, reached a position of power and influence. Name variations: (full name) Aelia Galla Placidia, sometimes called Placidia or Galla Placidia Augusta (though Augusta is only a title accorded to women of the Late Roman imperial family); born around 390 ce; died while on a visit to Rome in 450; daughter of Theodosius I, Roman emperor, and Galla (c. 365–394, daughter of Valentinian I); sister of Emperor Arcadius (r. 395–408) and Emperor Honorius (r. 395–423); married Athaulf (Adolf), chieftain of the Visigoths (West Goths), in 414 (assassinated 415); married Constantius III, in 417 (died 422); children: (first marriage) Theodosius (died in infancy); (second marriage) Valentinian III (b. around 419); Honoria (b. around 420).

Captured by the Goths and taken to Gaul (modern France); married to Athaulf (414); Athaulf assassinated (415); Placidia restored to the Romans (416); married Constantius (417); death of Constantius (422); ascended throne with Valentinian III (423); forced by general Aetius to utilize his services (425); appointed Boniface to be Master of Soldiers to counter growing power of Aetius (430); Boniface defeated Aetius in battle in Italy (432); Aetius fled to Huns, returned with an army; with Boniface dead, Placidia forced to rely upon Aetius once again (433); Honoria, daughter of Placidia, banished to Constantinople for misconduct (434).

At the time of Galla Placidia's birth at the close of the 4th century, the end of the Roman Empire was at hand. The final disasters that would lead to its total collapse in Western Europe would take place while she was still alive. Barely a few years before her birth, however, the Roman world, though badly battered, was still intact. From the lowlands of Scotland to the Syrian desert, from the banks of the Rhine and the Danube to the edge of the Sahara desert, from the Black Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, virtually the entire known civilized world lived under Roman sway. But the last vestiges of republican forms and traditional Roman freedoms had long disappeared. The emperor was no longer the chief magistrate of a government officially representing, at least in theory, the will of the Roman people, but an oriental despot isolated in his palace, surrounded by pomp, ritual, and Asiatic seclusion.

The economy, so fragile in a world with low technology and little control over the forces of nature, had dropped to bare subsistence level for great masses of the people. Sapped by a steady decline in the population, the reasons for which are still not entirely clear, and a concomitant loss of trade and commerce, the cities gradually shrank in size. The middle classes were ruined, and the wealthy more and more took refuge on their rural estates. There, the local country folk, increasingly reduced to serfdom, would shortly, under the pressure of the invasion of the German tribes, give up all they had left for the security and protection offered by the landlords. In the towns, the bishops would become the only remaining figures of authority; in the rural areas, power would revolve upon the local lords. In this way, the society of medieval Europe was beginning to take shape while Rome yet survived.

As wealth decreased, the scramble to obtain more than one's share became increasingly acute. Bribery and corruption became the norm in high places (the government and the bureaucracy); while banditry in low places (the ranks of the common people) now characterized the countryside, adding to the insecurity and contributing to the economic decline. Although the reforms of Diocletian had brought to a close the decades-long crisis of the 3rd century (of the 26 emperors who reigned during a 50-year period, only one died a natural death), the damage that was done to the delicate fabric of the social and economic structure of the Roman world was almost impossible to repair, and, save for the restoration of a sound currency, nothing was ever to be the same again. Yet, for all this, the fundamental strength and resiliency of the Roman world, so rightly regarded with awe by contemporaries and future ages alike, reveals itself in the very fact that the empire, however imperfectly restored by Diocletian and Constantine the Great (r. 307–337), lasted for 173 years in Western Europe after the abdication of the former, and for 11 centuries afterwards in the East. Compared with this tenacious vitality, the career of the Soviet Union is but an episode in Russian history and an ephemeral curiosity in the history of the world.

The history of Ammianus Marcellinus, the last great historian of the Roman Empire, in the late 4th century, ends the series of classical Roman historians whose works illuminate the history of the Roman world until his time. Not until the emergence of Procopius, court historian of Emperor Justinian (r. 527–565), do we have another historian of the first rank. The years from 395 till 527, therefore, the period including the final partition of the Roman Empire in 395, the fall of the Western Empire in 476, and the life of Empress Galla Placidia must be pieced together from a great variety of minor sources, many of them existing only as fragments quoted by later authors, leaving us at the mercy of the chance survival of the snippets passed down to us by such inferior chroniclers as Claudian, Olympiodorus, Zosimus, John of Antioch, John Malalas, Priscus, Cedrenus, Sozomenus, Eunapius, Theophanes, the Paschale Chronicle, Orosius and Arian Philostorgus.

Galla Placidia was born at Constantinople around 390, daughter of Galla and Emperor Theodosius I (r. 379–395), and sister of his successor Arcadius. When Theodosius died in 395, he partitioned the empire into two halves, his son Honorius (r. 395–423) receiving the West and his son Arcadius (r. 395–408) the East, both of them proving to be equally worthless as rulers but both of whom were gifted with highly intelligent advisors. Arcadius' advisor was the general Flavius Stilicho, a partly romanized German of the Vandal tribe, who died in 408. Placidia was raised in Constantinople until the age of six, when, upon the death of her father, she was taken to Rome by Stilicho and his wife, her cousin Serena . There, in the year 410, at the age of scarcely 20, she found herself trapped when the city was suddenly besieged by a horde of Visigoths, i.e. an East Gothic German clan who had crossed into the empire on the frozen waters of the River Rhine on New Year's Eve, 408. Gibbon has described most vividly the Gothic siege of Rome, the first that the imperial capital had had to endure in some eight centuries: the growing famine, the rise of pestilence, the increasing despair, the riots, starvation and cannibalism, and the cowardly execution of Stilicho's widow Serena, an act of despair by a Senate that had to do something and could think of nothing better than to accuse an innocent woman of treason. To give an odor of legality to this affair, the Senate obtained the consent of Galla Placidia. This first official act of the young princess may have been a painful one for her, for she appears to have been raised by Serena, but we know nothing of whatever emotions she may have felt at the time. At length, wearying of death and despairing of any help from Ravenna, the gates of Rome were opened by a slave, and the city was delivered to a three-day sack. Only the great basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul were spared, together with those fortunate citizens who were able to take refuge there. For the rest, thousands of Romans were slaughtered and thousands more carried off as prisoners while the destruction of priceless works of art robbed the world of countless irreplaceable treasures.

Captured at the fall of the city, Placidia, though treated with the respect appropriate to her rank, was taken from place to place by the Gothic armies as they wended their way on a destructive looting expedition through Italy. Athaulf (Adolf) agreed to leave Italy if Honorius would guarantee the Goths lands in Gaul (modern France) with the status of foederati (allies) of Rome, and grant him Galla Placidia as his bride. The emperor—or at least his advisors—flatly refused to consent to such a marriage, but Placidia, who had once refused an offer of marriage from Stilicho, appears to have fallen in love with the young German prince, and she agreed to marry him.

In the beginning of 414, the wedding took place at Narbo where it was celebrated with great splendor by the Goths, rich with the spoils of Italy. For the occasion, Athaulf agreed to wear Roman garb, taking second place to his bride Placidia who was dressed in the clothes of a Roman empress. Fifty youths presented the couple with basins each filled with either golden coins or precious jewels. Athaulf then established himself as king of the Goths under some vague Roman suzerainty, ruling a state stretching from Burdigala (Bordeaux) in the West to the frontiers of Italy and encompassing the whole of southern Gaul and northern Spain.

Settling with her husband in Barcelona, Placidia soon gave birth to a son named Theodosius after his illustrious grandfather, a child whom the Goths intended to be both future emperor of Rome as well as their own king. Unfortunately, however, this child died while still an infant. He was buried in a silver coffin in a church near Barcelona until years later when his still-grieving mother had his remains transferred to the imperial mausoleum next to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Soon after his death, in the late summer of 415, Athaulf was assassinated in his palace at Barcelona and was succeeded by Singeric, brother of Athaulf's old enemy, Sarus, whom he had slain. Singeric now slew Athaulf's six children by an earlier marriage and humbled his widow Placidia by making her walk 12 miles, with other far less exalted prisoners, in front of his chariot. One week later, however, Singeric was slain by his own people, who then elected Wallia to be their chieftain on the basis of his anti-Roman policies. Upon trying to reenter Gaul after a failed expedition, the Goths were attacked by Constantius, the Master of Soldiers (Magister Militum). The Goths found themselves in a desperate situation and had to accept the status of Roman allies and return Placidia to her brother Honorius in order to receive grain.

Galla Placidia, we are told, would have preferred to remain a widow. But Honorius would not hear of it and had her married to the victorious Constantius, Master of Soldiers. A Roman from Naissus (now Nish) in the Balkan Peninsula, Constantius was the leader of the pro-Roman, anti-Barbarian faction at the Roman court. As Honorius had no children, Constantius, having been made a patrician as a result of his successes in Gaul and having been appointed consul, had ambitions to succeed him. Constantius' marriage to Placidia in January 417, which he had long desired, was a major step towards this goal. Two children were born to this union, a son, the future emperor Valentinian III, and a daughter named Honoria after her uncle.

In 421, Constantius, who had been virtual ruler of the Western Empire since 411, was granted the imperial title of augustus, normally borne only by men of the imperial family, probably through the machinations of Placidia. Constantius was now declared co-ruler with Honorius with the title Constantius III, but Theodosius II, emperor of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, refused to recognize this condominium and war may possibly have broken out over the issue had not Constantius died suddenly on September 2, 422. At first, Placidia's position vis à vis her brother was high, and for a time she was all-powerful at his court. In short order, however, her relations with Honorius began to deteriorate, possibly as the result of the growing friction between the German entourage she had acquired when she was married to Athaulf, and the clique gathered around Honorius, i.e., the "pro-Barbarian" versus the "pro-Roman" factions at the court. The issue was, most likely, who would inherit the position and authority of Constantius. General Castinus was the probable candidate of Honorius; Count Boniface of Galla Placidia. The emperor's faction naturally won, and Castinus was made Master of Soldiers and immediately set off to lead an expedition against the Vandals in Spain. Boniface, for his part, fled to Africa (Tunisia and Libya), where he officiated as semi-independent governor of the province. Placidia now found herself accused of treason, but fortunately all that she endured was exile to Constantinople with her two children.

Serena (d. 410)

Roman woman. Executed in 410; niece of Theodosius I, Roman emperor, and Galla (c. 365–394); cousin of Galla Placidia (c. 390–450); married Flavius Stilicho (Master of Soldiers), around 384 (died 408); children: daughter who married Honorius.

En route, via Rome, her ship almost foundered in a storm, during which Placidia vowed to erect a church to St. John the Evangelist if she and her children were saved. Arriving in Constantinople in the spring of 423, she lived as the guest of her nephew Theodosius II and of his sister, Pulcheria , who, less than ten years younger than her aunt, dominated the court. An intelligent woman and a fine scholar, Pulcheria was devoted both to her church and to the welfare of her people. Characterized by extreme piety and chastity, she was instrumental in the calling of the third and fourth ecumenical councils of the church (those of Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon 20 years later) and was canonized after her death, her feast still celebrated in the Orthodox Church.

Unlike her half brothers Arcadius and Honorius, she was a worthy child of the most Christian and Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great.

—Stewart Irwin Oost

Under the protection of her close relatives, Placidia probably lived on the income from lands in the East that she had inherited from her father, Theodosius I, but certainly from a stipend sent to her by Count Boniface. Honorius, however, died of dropsy in the summer of 423, at age 38, shortly after Placidia had settled down in a palace she owned in Constantinople. In 425, having obtained from her a promise of the cession of the disputed province of Illyria and the eastern part of Pannonia to his half of the empire, Theodosius, fearful of seeing the Western Empire fall into unknown and possibly hostile hands, sent his aunt overland to Italy, via Aquileia. An armed force was simultaneously dispatched to establish her six-year-old son on the throne at Ravenna as Valentinian III, with his mother as regent. All opposition in both Rome and Ravenna was speedily crushed. Valentinian was crowned at Ravenna in 425 and his sister Honoria made an augusta shortly thereafter.

For the first 12 years of Valentinian's reign, Placidia was the actual ruler of the West. She had given Valentinian, eventually detested for his weakness and treacherousness, a very poor education and had thereby kept him under her thumb. She governed well considering the dire circumstances in which the Western half of the empire now found itself. She stayed on good terms with Pulcheria and her nephew Theodosius II, ruler of the East, and in this way maintained her hold. When her daughter Honoria fell in love with a courtier, Eugenius, in 434, Placidia sent her to Pulcheria who circumvented the romance by clapping Honoria into a convent. In time, Valentinian journeyed to Constantinople where, in 437, he married Licinia Eudoxia , his first cousin once removed, the daughter of Theodosius II and Eudocia (c. 400–460).

As a result of this matrimonial alliance, not only were his ties with the Eastern Empire strengthened, but the Western Empire agreed to relinquish its claims to Dalmatia (western Yugoslavia), a frontier province hitherto disputed by the two empires. The Theodosian Code, a codification of Roman law compiled by a legislative committee under the emperor's name and promulgated in the East on February 15, 438, was accepted by the Senate at Rome on December 23rd of the same year. The Code of Theodosius recognized the independence of the Western Roman Empire. The long reign of Valentinian and his secure position, however, was only partly the result of his close relations with his mother's relatives in the East but rather was largely due to the military prowess of the general Aetius in whose hands real power lay during the second half of his reign, and to the latter's close relations with the Huns, whose hostage he had once been and whose language he had learned. Unfortunately for all concerned, Placidia harbored ill-will toward this able if overly ambitious general, never having forgiven him for supporting the opposition to the accession of her son Valentinian when Honorius died in 423.

The center of Placidia's administration remained at Ravenna on the Adriatic coast at the mouth of the River Padus (Po), rather than at Rome which had proven itself indefensible. Ravenna was walled and was surrounded by a moat created by diverting the Padus, but the city lacked for sufficient drinking water, never having been supplied with an aqueduct. Ravenna was the capital of Italy for some 400 years, during which time many monuments were built there, some of which have survived the centuries although many more have unfortunately been lost, including the cathedral known as the Basilica Ursiana to which Placidia had made rich gifts, and the imperial palace called Laurelwood. Of the surviving monuments, the Oratory of St. Peter, the Baptistry, and the Church of Sts. Nazarius and Celsus (the so-called "tomb of Galla Placidia"), where the imperial tombs were located (those of Honorius, Valentinian III and Placidia's husband, Constantius), all date from her time. Structurally, these buildings are in the Roman tradition; it is the decoration that shows the influence of the East. Ravenna was not only prosperous under the administration of Placidia, but through its close association with Constantinople it became a center for the entry of the slowly evolving "Byzantine" style that was emerging in the Eastern half of the old Roman Empire. Many artists from Constantinople arrived at the Ravennese court where their influences blended with the arts of Italy. The typical oriental dome, mounted on pendentives over the transept of a cruciform ground plan, first appears in the Church of Sts. Nazarius and Celsus built around 450. Galla Placidia also erected a portico bearing her name at Portus, the port of Rome.

Despite the glitter of the court at Ravenna and the success of Aetius in reconquering most of Gaul, the reign of Valentinian and his mother was marked by irrecoverable losses of territory, with concomitant losses in taxes and military force. The era marked the death knell of the Roman Empire in Western Europe. Fearing the growing power of Aetius, whose victories against the German invaders on the Rhine and Danube came close to saving the empire, Placidia summoned Boniface to Italy in 430, probably planning to use him as a counterpoise. Aetius was now not only commander in chief of the whole Roman army but virtual prime minister of the empire as well. Boniface and Aetius thus found themselves engaged in a civil war with one another, and it was Boniface who appears to have won in the decisive battle that took place at Ariminium (Rimini) in 432. Aetius, having fallen, now took refuge with his old friends among the Huns. Boniface died soon afterwards, and, although Placidia gave his position to his son-in-law Sebastian, Aetius returned with a force of Huns in 433. Aetius forced her to banish Sebastian, to restore him to his former offices, and to grant him the title of patrician. Thereafter, it was Aetius who was virtual ruler of the empire for Valentinian III rather than Placidia.

Devoted to the recovery of Gaul, Aetius ceded all of Northwest Africa—the provinces of Mauritania Tingitana (western Morocco), Mauritania Caesariensis (eastern Morocco), Numidia (Algeria), and Africa (Tunisia and Libya)—to the Vandals, and lost the whole of Spain, Lusitania (Portugal) and Britain. Worse was to follow. In 450, Galla Placidia died on a visit to Rome, and her power over her son passed to her eunuch Heraclius. Heraclius feared the ambitions of Aetius, and it was he, in association with an ambitious senator named Petronius Maximus, who induced the emperor to slay the general with his own hand (September 22, 454) rather than allow him to marry one of Valentinian's two daughters and thus aspire to the throne after the emperor's death. Valentinian III was assassinated together with Heraclius by two of Aetius' aides on March 15, 455. Because the emperor had no son, the throne passed to Petronius Maximus, whose reign, however, was very brief. Twenty-one years later, the Western Roman Empire came to an end.

Like Pulcheria who guided the Eastern Roman Empire during much of the reign of her brother, Placidia had far more character than the emperor whom she served. The Roman world, disastrous as this period was for it, turned out to have been blessed that the women of the imperial family were both willing and able to assert some sort of direction in the affairs of state. The role of Galla Placidia in guiding the Western Roman Empire through so many of its most perilous later years assures her a permanent place as one of the more important women in history.


The Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. I: The Christian Roman Empire. Cambridge, 1967.

Oost, Stewart Irwin. Galla Placidia Augusta. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1968.

suggested reading:

Bury, J.B. History of the Later Roman Empire from the death of Theodosius I to the death of Justinian. Volume I. NY: Dover, 1958.

Gorden, C.D. The Age of Attila. Ann Arbor, MI, 1960.

Ostrogorsky, G. The History of the Byzantine State. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1957.

Robert H. H. , Professor of History, Rowan University of New Jersey, and author of a book and several articles relevant to Late Roman and Byzantine history