Galla Placidia, Empress of Rome

Galla Placidia is one of the most fascinating historic figures I know, partly because so much about her life is shrouded in mystery, starting with the date of her birth, sometime around 390. What is known has all the makings of an epic novel.

 

She was the daughter of Theodosius the Great, the last Roman emperor to rule both the Eastern and Western halves of the empire. The term “rule” should be considered rather loosely here, because by the end of the fourth century, Rome was pretty much descending into chaos, and things did not improve after the death of Theodosius in 395.

Placidia’s brothers became emperors at that point, Honorius in the West and Arcadius in the East. Both of them were busy fighting off the numerous pretenders to the throne, and Placidia was left to grow up in Rome, more or less ignored.

Then in 410, Alaric and the Visigoths sacked Rome. Along with everything else they could carry off, they carried off Placidia. Alaric himself did not live long after that. Once he was buried (along with his treasure—http://www.lillianmarek.com/blog/buried-treasure-alarics-gold), the Goths retreated to Gaul. There Placidia married Ataulf, Alaric’s successor. It does sound like a romance, doesn't it? The Roman princess and the barbarian chieftan. And it's even a true story.

At the wedding, Ataulf announced that Placidia’s tales about Rome’s past and its heroes had so inspired him that he intended to restore Rome to its ancient glory. If this were a romance novel, this would be a good place to end—Ataulf and Placidia going off hand in hand to rescue Rome.

However, not all the Goths thought this was a good idea. Shortly thereafter, in 414, Ataulf was stabbed in the back by a rival chieftan. When his and Placidia's son died, life among the Goths became difficult for her.

Now the Romans—or rather, a particular Roman, the ambitious Constantius—wanted Placidia back, and back she went. Constantius promptly married her, against her will, but she was given little choice. The marriage gave Constantius the leverage he needed to be named co-emperor with Honorius.

She bore Constantius a couple of children, and these survived, but it was not a lengthy marriage, By 421, Constantius was dead.

Placidia ruled alongside her brother Honorius for a while, but that grew uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. Aside from the fact that Honorius was more interested in his pet chickens than in affairs of state, his affections were a bit too ardent to be considered fraternal. She took her children and fled to Constantinople, where her nephew Theodosius II was now ruling. With his support, her son Valentinian was proclaimed emperor on the death of Honorius. Valentinian was six years old at the time, so Placidia was proclaimed regent.

Her regency was probably the most stable period the western empire had known in quite a while, but when Valentinian took over in 437, chaos returned. No historians, ancient or modern, seem to have anything good to say about him, and he was eventually assassinated by a senator taking revenge for the rape of his wife.

By that time Placidia was dead, having lived out the last years of her life peacefully in Ravenna, noted for her piety.

There is a building there called the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, but it was built a century after her death, so she may be buried elsewhere. Still, the mosaics in the mausoleum are magnificent. I like to think she enjoys them.

The miniature above was traditionally considered a portrait of Galla Placidia and her two children. Modern scholars think this identification unlikely.

 

Comments

Wow! What an incredible

Wow! What an incredible story! How fascinating to think, after the turmoil of her life, her regency would be so stable. It sounds like she was a remarkable woman. If the men of the times - at least those around her - had half her poise, history might have taken a different course. Maybe you can write her story - or a fictionalized version of it. I would read it. :-)

Fantasy

One of my fantasies was to perch on a hillside and write historical epics about obscure historical periods. Galla Placidia figured large in those fantasies!

Galla Placidia, Empress of Rome | Lillian Marek

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Interesting that I hadn't really heard of her.

With all the documentaries my sons watch about the Roman Empire I am amazed I hadn't heard of Placidia. The relationship between her and her bother reminds me of the one between Commodus and Lucilla in the movie Gladiator. Coincidence?

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