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Galla Placidia, A Storybook Princess

Daughter of an emperor, wife of a king and an emperor, and mother of an emperor

Galla Placidia was the daughter of an emperor, half sister of two emperors, the wife of another emperor and the mother of yet another emperor. She was married first to a king of the Visigoths who carried her away as a captive, just another item of stolen plunder from the sack of Rome. She fell deeply in love with her barbarian king and only condescended to marry her second husband, a Roman emperor whom she merely tolerated after her one and only true love had died. She ruled as a regent, as a queen mother in fact if not in name and held the reins of empire in her strong hand, fulfilling the responsibilities of her throne better than any man alive at the time. She had the body of her infant son brought back home from far-off barbarian Spain in a little silver casket to be buried next to her in her mausoleum. Galla Placidia even betrayed her own flesh and blood, joining in and encouraging the clamor of the citizens of Rome for the death of Serena, widow of the loyal and faithful Roman master general Stilicho. This kind and gentle woman was her aunt who had opened her home to the young princess while she was yet a very young girl, raising her as one of her own children. In her later years, Galla Placidia was held in high esteem and affection by the people of the Italian city of Ravenna. The Roman Empire was in a state of sad decline by then and Placidia had used her great wealth to build many churches in Ravenna and perform many charitable works to benefit the poor.

Placidia was born in the year A. D. 388, the only daughter of Emperor Theodosius I and the Empress Galla. Her mother died when she was a young girl and she was sent to the court of the emperor Honorius in the West to be raised after the death of Theodosius in 395. It was there that she was taken in and raised by Serena, the woman whose murder Placidia would so heartily encourage fifteen years later.

Placidia was in Rome at the time of its sack by Alaric and the Visigoths. She was carried off as part of the plunder but later married Alaric’s brother Athaulf in 414 after Alaric had died and Athaulf had become King of the Visigothic nation. The Roman princess and the barbarian king soon had a family. Galla Placidia gave birth to baby boy whom she named Theodosius after her father. The infant died after a few weeks and was buried in Barcelona, Spain where Athaulf had settled his people after much wandering about Europe. After Athaulf was murdered in 416, Galla Placidia was treated shamefully by Singeric, the new Visigothic king. Instead of treating the widow of his predecessor with tenderness and compassion, Singeric forced her to walk twelve miles on foot ahead of his horse in the company of common prisoners. Placidia did not have long to wait for justice, though. Singeric was not well liked by the Visigothic warrior elite and was mordered after a reign of only seven days by Wallia, a Visigothic warrior who won popularity by announcing his intention of making war on the Roman Empire. Wallia ended up selling Placidia back to her brother Honorius for 600,000 measures of grain. Placidia returned home in 416 to marry Constantius, a general of Honorius’a short time later. Constantius was made co-augustus in the West in A. D. 421 and became the Roman emperor Constantius III. He died of pleurisy after a reign of only seven months. From this marriage, Galla Placidia had two children, Valentinian, who later became Emperor Valentinian III and Justa Grata Honoria, who is only remembered in history from a few coins bearing her portrait and a strange tale of forbidden love and treachery.

Honorius and Placidia soon quarreled and Placidia fled to Constantinople. The story is told that Honorius was very fond of his sister, often kissing her on the mouth in public. Tongues began wagging at court, telling tales of incest but in fact Honorius was probably only displaying immature and inappropriate brotherly affection. Soon, the affection turned into hatred as the result of stories told by two palace servants. The supporters of Placidia and those of Honorius even took the quarrel to the streets of Ravenna where they did battle with each other over the honor of their patrons. At this point, Galla Placidia decided that the wise course of action would be to flee to Constantinople and seek asylum at the court of Theodosius II.

In 423, Honorius died and Galla Placidia was made Augusta, or empress in the West. She was to rule in the name of her six - year old son Valentinian III.. Placidia soon proved to be a hard-nosed ruler who knew how to manage a declining economy and rebellious subjects. After the death of Honorius, Johannes, who had been Honorius’imperial secretary led a rebellion in Northern Italy. Johannes was soon captured and Placidia had him mounted backwards on a mule and paraded in front of the citizens of the city of Ravenna, where the Western capital had been established since A. D. 402. Johannes had his hand cut off before being led into the arena and executed before the six - year old emperor and the people of the city.

Later, Galla Placidia became the most powerful figures in the government of the West. She clashed with Aetius, the military genius who defended the West from barbarian invasions throughout the first half of the Fifth Century. She even went so far as to have Count Boniface of Africa elevated to the post of Master General and then sent him out after Aetius to arrest him. Aetius was not captured or killed and spent many years fighting for Galla Placidia’s cause once she decided to put her trust in him.

The art of holding onto political power has always been a very delicate one, mastered only by by those few individuals who posessed the particular kind of genius that allows them to see connections that are hidden from most normal minds and to assess the importance or potential threat of people and situations. Galla Placidia had such a mind and ran the Roman government in the West for twenty years during one of the most perilous periods of its existence. She was able to make the most of Aetius’ military abilities and yet keep him from seizing the throne. It is unlikely that any man during this period could have done any better than she did, and it is certain that the two men who were on the throne in the East and the West could hot have remained on the throne if they hadn’t each had the help of an exceptional woman. Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II in the East played much the same role there that Galla Placidia played in the West. The role of women was bedginning to change, though. Throughout the period of the Roman Empire, women of senatorial rank were expected to learn the skills of administering large estates and were often responsible for governing hundreds of slaves and dealing with supply merchants, contractors, and government officials. They were thus often ready to step into the role of governing the empire for a weak husband or son who was the nominal emperor. The mid Fifth Century saw the beginnings of medieval society in Europe,. a period during which women lost much of their status in society and became almost as property. Historians of a later age often showed their strong disapproval of women in positions of power.

In the East, a trend of just the opposite nature was unfolding. The palace at Constantinople was to see strong women of the imperial family taking the reins of power in their hands starting with the Empress Eudoxia and continuing throughout the Fifth and first half of the Sixth Century. Empresses Ariadne and Theodora held enormous power in the government of the early Byzantine Empire and Pulcheria was the capable regent for her brother Theodosius II during his minority. Indeed, the precedent set by Julia Domna and Julia Maesa, the powerful women of the Severan period who kept court at the Syrian city of Antioch seems to have been a feature of the Eastern empire through the reign of Irene in the Eleventh Century.

The later years of Galla Placidia’s life were uneventful, or at least did not capture the attention of an ancient chronicler and thus get written down. She mellowed somewhat in her old age and spent her fortune putting up public buildings and performing charitable works. She died in the year A. D. 450, fondly loved and missed by the citizens of Ravenna where she had spent the later years of her life.


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