As the Roman Empire buckled and fell around her, Galla Placidia remained stalwart and dedicated to ruling by any means.
The daughter of an emperor, Theodosius I, Placidia was an extremely precocious child. She was given her own household to manage and granted financial independence before she was even in her teens. She was given the title Noblissima Puella (most noble girl).
In 394 she moved to the royal court in Mediolanum (ancient Milan, northern Italy), where her father died early the following year. Theodosius was succeeded by Placidia’s half-brother Arcadius. Arcadius was considered a weak ruler, too much under the control of his domineering wife, Aelia Eudoxia and the General Rufinus.
Meanwhile, Galla Placidia spent much of her time in the care of her cousin, Serena, and her husband Stilicho the Vandal – a man of ambition.
Arcadius died in 408, leaving behind his seven year old son, Theodosius II as the Eastern Roman Emperor. Stilicho saw his chance and began preparing to head for Constantinople to act as the little emperor’s regent. He told the emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Honorius, Placidia’s other half-brother, not to join him. Honorius became suspicious when an officer called Olympius suggested that Stilicho might be planning to usurp the imperial throne.
Olympius and Honorius acted quickly, leading a military coup and having Stilicho executed. His death left Placidia (who was in Rome at the time) unattached to any household.
Rome under siege:
Stilicho’s death caused problems elsewhere. The foederati was a part of the Roman army made up of northern European tribes, including the Franks, Vandals, Alans and the Visigoths. Following Stilicho’s fall, the foederati (who were seen as loyal to him) were targeted throughout Italy, their wives and children murdered en masse.
The foederati were understandably furious and baying for Roman blood. 30,000 men joined the army of Alaric I, King of the Visigoths, who led them across the Alps and attacked the city of Rome in the September of 408. The city would remain under siege for two years.
In 410, Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. Buildings were burned, statues torn down, palaces looted and captives taken. Among the prisoners of war was Galla Placidia herself.
Life with the Visigoths:
The circumstances around Placidia’s capture are unknown, but the historians Jordanes and Marcellinus Comes both mention that she was taken out of Italy to Gaul by the Visigoths in 412. Alaric I died and was succeeded as Visigothic king by Ataulf, who formed an alliance with Honorius.
Ataulf had executed two usurpers of the Roman imperial throne in 413, sending their heads directly to Honorius. The emperor was so pleased that he cemented the alliance with Ataulf by giving his consent to the Visigothic king marrying Galla Placidia.
Placidia and Ataulf were married in a roman ceremony in 414 and the couple travelled to Hispania (Spain) later that year. They had one child together, Theodosius, who sadly died in infancy.
Fall of Ataulf:
Ataulf was assassinated while in Barcelona in 415. A rival faction within the Visigoths proclaimed Sigeric, Ataulf’s enemy, as the new king. Sigeric lost no time in asserting his authority, murdering all six of Ataulf’s children (from a previous marriage). Placidia was once again a prisoner of war.
Historical accounts say that she was treated very poorly, forced to walk for miles on foot among Sigeric’s captives. This was shocking to the Visigoths, who eventually assassinated Sigeric himself and had him replaced with a relative of Ataulf. As the old king’s widow, a foreigner and with no children, Placidia was still in a precarious situation.
Fortunately, so was the new king of the Visigoths. Running out of food and getting desperate, he appealed to Honorius’ magister militum (master of soldiers), Constantius. The peace treaty included renewing the foederati status of the Visigoths and returning Galla Placidia to her brother.
No sooner than Galla Placidia had returned to Rome, Honorius forced her into marriage with Constantius. They had two children together, a daughter, Justa Grata Honoria, and a son, future emperor Valentinian III.
After everything she had been through, Placidia refused to retire quietly into domesticity. She expanded her influence at her brother’s court, involving herself in both court and church politics.
In 418, Placidia found herself on the losing side of a power struggle within the Church of Rome. Following the death of Pope Zosimus, two rival factions in the clergy elected their own popes, Eulalius and Boniface. The two popes threw Rome into religious and political turmoil.
Placidia was in favour of Eualius and petitioned the emperor on his behalf, personally writing letters summoning the African bishops to a synod in Italy. At first, Honorius did as his sister suggested and confirmed Eulalius as the legitimate pope. However, this did not stop the infighting in Rome, and while further synods were called in order to reach an agreement, Honorius demanded that both Boniface and Eulalius stay away from the city.
At Easter in 419, Eulalius went against the emperor’s orders and returned to Rome, attempting to sieze the papacy by force. He was repelled by the imperial army, and lost favour with Honorius. Boniface was proclaimed pope by April.
By 421, Honorius was thirty seven years old, unmarried and still without an heir. Constantius was proclaimed co-ruler of the Western Roman Empire – and Galla Placidia became the only Augusta (empress).
Constantius died in 421, leaving Galla Placidia widowed a second time.
Shortly after her second husband’s death, something happened which forced Placidia out of the west. Her reasons for leaving are unclear, some sources say that she argued with Honorius, others that she was in fact too close to her brother, and accused of scandalous behaviour with him which required her to create some distance.
Whatever the reason, Placidia and her children arrived at the court of her nephew, Theodosius II, in 421, shortly after his marriage to Aelia Eudocia. In Constantinople, Galla Placidia’s title of Augusta was not officially recognised.
Two years after her arrival in the east, Honorius dropped dead, leaving a power vacuum in the western empire. In the scramble to find a suitable heir, Joannes, the head of civil service in Rome was proclaimed emperor by Castinus the Patrician.
Theodosius had other ideas, and began preparing Galla Placidia’s son, Valentinian (aged four at the time) for the imperial office. Joannes was overthrown in 425 and Valentinian proclaimed Augustus of the Western Roman Empire. Placidia would be his regent.
Beginning by pacifying her family’s enemies with a peace treaty, Galla Placidia’s twelve year regency over her son began to return stability to the western empire.
Upon Valentinian’s eighteenth birthday in 437, Placidia’s regency ended, though she continued to exercise political influence up until her death in 450 at the age of 62. Having lived through a siege, twice survived enemy capture, been a queen of the Visigoths, a prisoner of war and an empress of Rome, Galla Placidia had faced enough adventure and intrigue for ten lifetimes.
A pious Christian, Placidia built and restored many churches during her time in power. These included the Basilica of Saint Paul and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna is a UNESCO world heritage site.
- Two stanzas in Alexander Blok‘s poem Ravenna focus on Galla Placidia’s tomb.
- Louis Zukofsky refers to the mausoleum in his poem 4 Other Countries:
“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.
- 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.
Galla Placidia on romanemperors.org
Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress – Hagith Sivan
Galla Placidia Augusta: a biographical essay – Stewart Irvin Oost