Aelia Galla Placidia (388 – 27 November 450), daughter of the Roman emperor Theodosius I, was regent to Valentinian III from 423 until his majority in 437, and a major force in Roman politics for most of her life. She was queen consort to Ataulf, king of the Visigoths from 414 until his death in 415, and briefly empress consort to Constantius III in 421.
Placidia was the daughter of Theodosius I and his second wife, Galla, who was herself daughter of Valentinian I and his second wife, Justina. Her older brother Gratian died young. Her mother died in childbirth in 394, giving birth to John, who died with their mother. Placidia was a younger, paternal half-sister of emperors Arcadius and Honorius. Her older half-sister Pulcheria predeceased her parents according to Gregory of Nyssa, placing the death of Pulcheria prior to the death of Aelia Flaccilla, the first wife of Theodosius I, in 385.
Placidia was granted her own household by her father in the early 390s and was thus financially independent while underage. She was summoned to the court of her father in Mediolanum during 394. She was present at Theodosius' death on January 17, 395. She was granted the title of "Nobilissima Puella" ("Most Noble Girl") during her childhood.
Placidia spent most of her early years in the household of Stilicho the Vandal and his wife, Serena. She is presumed to have learned weaving and embroidery. She might have also been given a classical education, though no details are known. Serena was a first cousin of Arcadius, Honorius and Placidia. The poem "In Praise of Serena" by Claudian and the Historia Nova by Zosimus clarify that Serena's father was an elder Honorius, a brother to Theodosius I. According to "De Consulatu Stilichonis" by Claudian, Placidia was betrothed to Eucherius, only known son of Stilicho and Serena. Her scheduled marriage is mentioned in the text as the third union between Stilicho's family and the Theodosian dynasty, following those of Stilicho to Serena and Maria, their daughter, to Honorius.
Stilicho was the magister militum of the Western Roman Empire. He was the only known person to hold the rank of "magister militum in praesenti" from 394 to 408 in both the Western and the Eastern Roman Empire. He was also titled "magister equitum et peditum" ("Master of the Horse and of Foot"), placing him in charge of both the cavalry and infantry forces of the Western Roman Empire. In 408, Arcadius died and was succeeded by his son Theodosius II, only seven years old. Stilicho planned to proceed to Constantinople and "undertake the management of the affairs of Theodosius", convincing Honorius not to travel to the East himself. Shortly after, Olympius, "an officer of rank in the court-guards" attempted to convince Honorius that Stilicho was in fact conspiring to depose Theodosius II, to replace him with Eucherius. Olympius proceeded to lead a military coup d'état which left him in control of Honorius and his court. Stilicho was arrested and executed on August 22, 408. Eucherius sought refuge in Rome but was arrested there by Arsacius and Tarentius, two eunuchs following imperial command. They executed him not long after. Honorius appointed Tarentius imperial chamberlain, and gave the next post under him to Arsacius. Their deaths left Placidia effectively unattached.
In the disturbances that followed the fall of Stilicho, throughout the Italian Peninsula the wives and children of the foederati were slain. The foederati were considered loyalists of Stilicho and treated accordingly. The natural consequence of all this was that these men, to the number of 30,000, flocked to the camp of Alaric I, King of the Visigoths, clamouring to be led against their cowardly enemies. Alaric accordingly led them across the Julian Alps and, in September 408, stood before the Aurelian Walls and began a strict blockade. Rome was under siege, with minor interruptions, from 408 to August 24, 410. Zosimus records that Placidia was within the city during the siege. When Serena was accused of conspiring with Alaric, "the whole senate therefore, with Placidia, uterine sister to the emperor, thought it proper that she should suffer death". Her reasons for concurring to the execution of her cousin are not stated in the account.
Prior to the fall of Rome, Placidia was captured by Alaric. Her captivity was recorded by both Jordanes and Marcellinus Comes, though the exact circumstances are not mentioned. She followed the Visigoths in their move from the Italian Peninsula to Gaul in 412. Their ruler Ataulf, having succeeded Alaric, entered an alliance with Honorius against Jovinus and Sebastianus, rival Western Roman emperors located in Gaul. He managed to defeat and execute both Gallo-Roman emperors in 413.
After the heads of Sebastianus and Jovinus arrived at Honorius' court in Ravenna in late August, to be forwarded for display among other usurpers on the walls of Carthage, relations between Ataulf and Honorius improved sufficiently for Ataulf to cement them by marrying Galla Placidia at Narbonne on January 1, 414. The nuptials were celebrated with high Roman festivities and magnificent gifts from the Gothic booty. Priscus Attalus gave the wedding speech, a classical epithalamium. The marriage was recorded by Hydatius. The historian Jordanes states that they married earlier, in 411 at Forum Livii (Forlì). Jordanes's date may actually be when she and the Gothic king first became more than captor and captive.
Placidia and Ataulf had a single known son, Theodosius. He was born in Barcelona by the end of 414. Theodosius died early in the following year, thus eliminating an opportunity for a Romano-Visigothic line. Years later the corpse was exhumed and reburied in the imperial mausoleum in Old St. Peter's Basilica, Rome. In Hispania, Ataulf imprudently accepted into his service a man identified as "Dubius" or "Eberwolf", a former follower of Sarus. Sarus was a Germanic chieftain who was killed while fighting under Jovinus and Sebastianus. His follower harbored a secret desire to avenge the death of his beloved patron. And so, in the palace at Barcelona, the man brought Ataulf's reign to a sudden end by killing him while he bathed in August/September, 415.
The Amali faction proceeded to proclaim Sigeric, a brother of Sarus, as the next king of the Visigoths. According to The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, the first act of Sigeric's reign "was the inhuman murder" of Ataulf's six children from a former marriage "whom he tore, without pity, from the feeble arms of a venerable bishop" (Sigesar, bishop of the Goths). As for Galla Placidia, as Ataulf's widow, she was "treated with cruel and wanton insult" by being forced to walk more than twelve miles on foot among the crowd of captives driven ahead of the mounted Sigeric. Seeing the noble widow's sufferings, however, became one of the factors that roused indignant opponents of the usurper, who quickly assassinated Sigeric and replaced him with Wallia, Ataulf's relative.
According to the Chronicon Albeldense, included in the Códice de Roda, Wallia was desperate for food supplies. He surrendered to Constantius III, at the time magister militum of Honorius, negotiating terms giving foederati status for the Visigoths. Placidia was returned to Honorius as part of the peace treaty. Her brother Honorius forced her into marriage to Constantius III on January 1, 417. Their daughter Justa Grata Honoria was probably born in 417 or 418. The history of Paul the Deacon mentions her first among the children of the marriage, suggesting that she was the eldest. Their son Valentinian III was born July 2, 419.
Placidia intervened in the succession crisis following the death of Pope Zosimus on December 26, 418. Two factions of the Roman clergy had proceeded to elect their own popes, the first electing Eulalius (27 December) and the other electing Boniface I (28 December). They acted as rival popes, both in Rome, and their factions plunged the city into tumult. Symmachus, Prefect of Rome, sent his report to the imperial court at Ravenna, requesting an imperial decision on the matter. Placidia and, presumably, Constantius petitioned the emperor in favor of Eulalius. This was arguably the first intervention by an Emperor in the Papal election.
Honorius initially confirmed Eulalius as the legitimate pope. As this failed to put an end to the controversy, Honorius called a synod of Italian bishops at Ravenna to decide the matter. The synod met from February to March 419 but failed to reach a conclusion. Honorius called a second synod in May, this time including Gaulish and African bishops. In the meantime, the two rival popes were ordered to leave Rome. As Easter approached, however, Eulalius returned to the city and attempted to seize the Basilica of St. John Lateran in order to "preside at the paschal ceremonies". Imperial troops managed to repel him, and on Easter (March 30, 419) the ceremonies were led by Achilleus, Bishop of Spoleto. The conflict cost Eulalius the imperial favor, and Boniface was proclaimed the legitimate pope as of April 3, 419, returning to Rome a week later. Placidia had personally written to the African bishops, summoning them to the second synod. Three of her letters are known to have survived.
On February 8, 421, Constantius was proclaimed an Augustus, becoming co-ruler with the childless Honorius. Placidia was proclaimed an Augusta. She was the only Empress in the West, since Honorius had divorced his second wife Thermantia in 408 and had never remarried. Neither title was recognised by Theodosius II, the Eastern Roman Emperor. Constantius reportedly complained about the loss of personal freedom and privacy that came with the imperial office. He died of an illness on September 2, 421.
Galla Placidia herself was now forced from the Western Empire. Though the motivation for this remains unclear, the public issue was the increasingly scandalous public caresses she received from her own brother Honorius—this at least was the interpretation of Olympiodorus of Thebes, a historian used as a source by Zosimus, Sozomen and probably Philostorgius, as J.F. Matthews has postulated. Gibbon had a different opinion: "The power of Placidia; and the indecent familiarity of her brother, which might be no more than the symptoms of a childish affection, were universally attributed to incestuous love."
According to Gibbon, "On a sudden, by some base intrigues of a steward and a nurse, this excessive fondness was converted into an irreconcilable quarrel: the debates of the emperor and his sister were not long confined within the walls of the palace; and as the Gothic soldiers adhered to their queen, the city of Ravenna was agitated with bloody and dangerous tumults, which could only be appeased by the forced or voluntary retreat of Placidia and her children. The royal exiles landed at Constantinople, soon after the marriage of Theodosius, during the festival of the Persian victories. They were treated with kindness and magnificence; but as the statues of the emperor Constantius had been rejected by the Eastern court, the title of Augusta could not decently be allowed to his widow." The passage places the arrival of Placidia and her children after the marriage of Theodosius II to Aelia Eudocia, known to have occurred on June 7, 421. The "Persian victories" mentioned were probably victory celebrations over the brief Roman–Sasanian War (421–422) under the respective leadership of Theodosius II and Bahram V of the Sasanian Empire.
The general Ardaburius operated in Arzanene and gained a victory, autumn 421, which forced the Persians to retreat to Nisibis, which Ardaburius then besieged. He raised the siege on the arrival of an army under Bahram V, who proceeded to attack Resaina. Meanwhile the Saracens of Hira, under Al‑Mundhir, were sent to invade Syria, and were defeated by Vitianus. During the peace negotiations the Persians attacked the Romans and were defeated by Procopius, son-in‑law of Anthemius (Socrates, VII.18, 20). The Empress Eudocia celebrated the war in a poem in heroic metre (ib. 21)."
The "Saracens of Hira" were the Lakhmids of al-Hirah, a pre-Islamic Arab state that was located in what is now Iraq.
On August 15, 423, Honorius died of edema, perhaps pulmonary edema. With no member of the Theodosian dynasty present at Ravenna to claim the throne, Theodosius II was expected to nominate a Western co-emperor. However, Theodosius hesitated and the decision was delayed. Taking advantage of the power vacuum, Castinus the Patrician proceeded to become a kingmaker. He declared Joannes, the primicerius notariorum "chief notary" (the head of the civil service), to be the new Western Roman Emperor. Among their supporters was Flavius Aetius. Aetius was a son of Flavius Gaudentius, magister militum, and Aurelia. Joannes' rule was accepted in the provinces of Italia, Gaul and Hispania, but not in the province of Africa.
Theodosius II reacted by preparing Valentinian III for eventual promotion to the imperial office. In 423/424, Valentinian was named nobilissimus. In 424, Valentinian was betrothed to Licinia Eudoxia, his first cousin once removed. She was a daughter of Theodosius II and Aelia Eudocia. The year of their betrothal was recorded by Marcellinus Comes. At the time of their betrothal, Valentinian was approximately four years old, Licinia only two. Gibbon attributes the betrothal to "the agreement of the three females who governed the Roman world", meaning Placidia and her nieces Eudocia and Pulcheria. In the same year, Valentinian was proclaimed a Caesar in the Eastern court.
The campaign against Joannes also started in the same year. Forces of the Eastern Roman army gathered at Thessaloniki, and were placed under the general command of Ardaburius, the victorious general of the Roman-Persian War. The invasion force was to cross the Adriatic Sea by two routes. Aspar, son of Ardaburius, led the cavalry by land, following the coast of the Adriatic from the Western Balkans to Northern Italy. Placidia and Valentinian joined this force. Ardaburius and the infantry boarded ships of the Eastern Roman navy in an attempt to reach Ravenna by sea. Aspar marched his forces to Aquileia, taking the city by surprise and with virtually no resistance. The fleet, on the other hand, was dispersed by a storm. Ardaburius and two of his galleys were captured by forces loyal to Joannes and were held prisoners in Ravenna.
Ardaburius was treated well by Joannes, who probably intended to negotiate with Theodosius for an end to the hostilities. The prisoner was allowed the "courteous freedom" of walking the court and streets of Ravenna during his captivity. He took advantage of this privilege to come into contact with the forces of Joannes and convinced some of them to defect to Theodosius' side. The conspirators contacted Aspar and beckoned him to Ravenna. A shepherd led Aspar's cavalry force through the marshes of the Po to the gates of Ravenna; with the besiegers outside the walls and the defectors within, the city was quickly captured. Joannes was taken and his right hand cut off; he was then mounted on a donkey and paraded through the streets, and finally beheaded in the hippodrome of Aquileia.
With Joannes dead, Valentinian was officially proclaimed the new Augustus of the Western Roman Empire on October 23, 425, in the presence of the Roman Senate. Three days following Joannes' death, Aetius brought reinforcements for his army, a reported number of sixty thousand Huns from across the Danube. After some skirmishing, Placidia and Aetius came to an agreement that established the political landscape of the Western Roman Empire for the next thirty years. The Huns were paid off and sent home, while Aetius received the position of magister militum per Gallias (commander-in-chief of the Roman army in Gaul).
Galla Placidia was regent of the Western Roman Empire from 425 to 437, her regency ending when Valentinian reached his eighteenth birthday on July 2, 437. Among her early supporters was Bonifacius, governor of the Diocese of Africa. Aetius, his rival for influence, managed to secure Arles against Theodoric I of the Visigoths. The Visigoths concluded a treaty and were given Gallic noblemen as hostages. The later Emperor Avitus visited Theodoric, lived at his court and taught his sons.
Conflict between Bonifacius and Aetius
Conflict between Placidia and Bonifacius started in 429. Placidia appointed Bonifacius general of Libya. Procopius records that Aetius played the two against each other, warning Placidia against Bonifacius and advising her to recall him to Rome; simultaneously writing to Bonifacius, warning him that Placidia was about to summon him for no good reason in order to put him away.
Bonifacius, trusting the warning from Aetius, refused the summons; and, thinking his position untenable, sought an alliance with the Vandals in Spain. The Vandals subsequently crossed from Spain into Libya to join him. To friends of Bonifacius in Rome, this apparent act of hostility toward the Empire seemed entirely out of character for Bonifacius. They traveled to Carthage at Placidia's behest to intercede with him, and he showed them the letter from Aetius. The plot now revealed, his friends returned to Rome to apprise Placidia of the true situation. She did not move against Aetius, as he wielded great influence, and as the Empire was already in danger; but she urged Bonifacius to return to Rome "and not to permit the empire of the Romans to lie under the hand of barbarians."
Bonifacius now regretted his alliance with the Vandals and tried to persuade them to return to Spain. Genseric offered battle instead, and Bonifacius was besieged at Hippo Regius in Numidia by the sea. (Augustine of Hippo was its bishop and died in this siege.) Unable to take the city, the Vandals eventually raised the siege. The Romans, with reinforcements under Aspar, renewed the struggle but were routed and lost Africa to the Vandals.
Bonifacius had meanwhile returned to Rome, where Placidia raised him to the rank of patrician and made him "master-general of the Roman armies". Aetius returned from Gaul with an army of "barbarians", and was met by Bonifacius in the bloody Battle of Ravenna (432). Bonifacius won the battle, but was mortally wounded and died a few days later. Aetius was compelled to retire to Pannonia.
Rise of Aetius
With the generals loyal to her having either died or defected to Aetius, Placidia acknowledged the inevitable: Aetius was recalled from exile in 433 and given the titles "magister militum" and "Patrician". The appointments effectively left Aetius in control of the entire Western Roman Army and gave him considerable influence over imperial policy. Placidia continued to act as regent until 437, though her direct influence over decisions was diminished. She would continue to exercise political influence until her death in 450—no longer, however, the only power at court.
Aetius later played a pivotal role in the defense of the Western Empire against Attila. Attila was diverted from Constantinople towards Italy by a letter from Placidia's own daughter Justa Grata Honoria in the spring of 450, asking him to rescue her from an unwanted marriage to a Roman senator that the Imperial family, including Placidia, was trying to force upon her. Honoria included her engagement ring with the letter. Though Honoria may not have intended a proposal of marriage, Attila chose to interpret her message as such. He accepted, asking for half of the western Empire as dowry. When Valentinian discovered the plan, only the influence of Placidia persuaded him not to kill Honoria. Valentinian wrote to Attila denying the legitimacy of the supposed marriage proposal. Attila, unconvinced, sent an emissary to Ravenna to proclaim that Honoria was innocent, that the proposal had been legitimate, and that he would come to claim what was rightfully his. Honoria was quickly married to Flavius Bassus Herculanus, though this did not prevent Attila from pressing his claim.
Placidia died shortly afterwards at Rome in November 450, and did not live to see Attila ravage Italy in 451–453, in a much more brutal campaign than the Goths had waged, using Justa's letter as his sole "legitimate" excuse.
Placidia was a devout Chalcedonian Christian. She was involved in the building and restoration of various churches throughout her period of influence. She restored and expanded the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. She built San Giovanni Evangelista, Ravenna in thanks for the sparing of her life and those of her children in a storm while crossing the Adriatic Sea. The dedicatory inscription reads "Galla Placidia, along with her son Placidus Valentinian Augustus and her daughter Justa Grata Honoria Augusta, paid off their vow for their liberation from the danger of the sea."
Her Mausoleum in Ravenna was one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites inscribed in 1996. However, there is some doubt whether the building served as her tomb. The building was initially erected as a chapel dedicated to Lawrence of Rome. It is unknown whether the sarcophagi therein contained the bodies of the members of the Theodosian dynasty, or when they were placed in the building.
- Two stanzas in Alexander Blok's poem "Ravenna" (May–June 1909) focus on her tomb; Olga Matich writes: "For Blok, Galla Placidia represented a synthetic historical figure that linked different cultural histories."
- Ezra Pound uses her tomb as an exemplar of the "gold" remaining from the past, for example in Canto XXI: "Gold fades in the gloom,/ Under the blue-black roof, Placidia's..."
- Louis Zukofsky refers to it in his poem "4 Other Countries," reproduced in "A" 17: "The gold that shines/ in the dark/ of Galla Placidia,/ the gold in the// Round vault rug of stone/ that shows its pattern as well as the stars/ my love might want on her floor..."
- Carl Jung refers to Galla Placidia in his autobiography "Memories, Dreams, Reflections", (Chapter IX, Section 'Ravenna and Rome'). He reports a vision of "four great mosaic frescoes of incredible beauty" he experienced in the Neonian Bapistery right after visiting Galla's tomb at Ravenna. He had been, he says, "personally affected by the figure of Galla Placidia" and goes on to say: "Her tomb seemed to me a final legacy through which I might reach her personality. Her fate and her whole being were vivid presences to me". Jung was later surprised to discover that the mosaics he and an acquaintance remembered had actually never existed.
- Galla Placidia is a major supporting character in R.A. Lafferty's semi-historical work, "The Fall of Rome," which introduces her as "the goblin child and sister of the two young emperors who, at the age of seventeen, and when all the rest of them were cowed, seized control of the Roman Senate and the City and represented the defiance in the last one hundred days of the world."
In popular culture
- Galla Placidia is represented in the BBC's Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire by Natasha Barrero
- Spanish musician Jaume Pahissa wrote the opera Galla Placídia in 1913.
- Galla Placidia is played by Alice Krige in the 2001 American TV Miniseries Attila
|Preceded by |
| Western Roman empress consort |
|Preceded by |
| Empress-Mother of the Western Roman Empire |
September 2, 421 – November 27, 450