Seondeok – d.647 – Silla, Korea

Korea

 

Embroidered portrait of Seondeok dressed in traditional Korean robes and a tall golden grown.

Seondeok was the first woman to rule as queen of Silla (one of the three kingdoms of Korea) and her reign coincided with that of Empress Wu Zetian in China.

A precocious child, there is a story from her childhood in which Seondeok’s father, King Jinpyeong of Silla, received a box of peony seeds from China. This particular strain had not been seen before in Korea, and so the box of seeds was accompanied by a painting of the flower. The young princess observed that the flowers were very pretty, but did not have a scent. She’d come to this conclusion because the artist had not painted bees or butterflies around the illustration.

Painting of three peonies in pink, lilac and white with Chinese text

17th Century Chinese painting of a Peony (source)

Whether or not this story is true, it was used in later years to demonstrate Seondeok’s clever mind and aptitude for logic and reason which made her fit to rule. Jinpyeong had no sons, and named Seondeok as his heir – a highly unusual move.

Seondeok ascended to the throne of Silla in 632 and ruled for fourteen years. Her reign was largely focused on power struggles with neighbouring kingdom Baekje and strengthening political ties with China. She sent selected Korean subjects to China – scholars on diplomatic missions and soldiers to learn Chinese martial arts.

These actions paved the way towards the unification of Korea, which happened only two decades after her death, thanks to the alliance with China.

Photograph of the star gazing tower - a tall conical building made from large grey bricks with a large square window at the centre and a square platform at the top.

17th Century Chinese painting of a Peony (source)

The queen’s reign marked Korea’s movement towards Buddhism as a national religion, and several Buddhist temples were built in Seondeok’s name. She also oversaw the construction of one of the earliest known observatories in the Far East, called Cheomseongdae; the ‘Star-Gazing Tower’.

Though Seondeok’s reign is generally regarded as successful and beneficial for the kingdom of Silla, the queen was not without her critics. Early in 647 she was faced with an uprising and attempt to overthrow her. Aided by one of Korea’s finest military minds, Kim Yushin, the rebellion was defeated.

Unfortunately, Seondeok did not live to see her enemies quashed. She died in February 647 and left the throne to her cousin, Jindeok, who became Korea’s second reigning queen.


In Fiction:

  • Lee Yo-won and Nam Ji-hyun both portrayed the empress in the Korean TV series Queen Seondeok in 2009.
  • Park Joo-mi and Hong Eun-hee played her in The King’s Dream (or Dream of the Emperor) which aired on KBS1 in 2012-2013.

References:

On Wikipedia:

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Bathild – c.626 – 680 – Burgundy and Neustria

Britain, England, France

Bathild

Of uncertain origins, Bathild’s curious life appears to have begun in East Anglia, Britain, where she possibly born into a noble family. Whatever the circumstances of her upbringing, she was at some point uprooted and sold into slavery – possibly as a result of the war for the throne of East Anglia.

Still a little girl, Bathild now found herself a very long way from home, in Neustria (part of modern day France), where she entered service in the household of Erchinoald, a powerful Frankish nobleman.

The story goes that Bathild grew up into the ideal medieval woman – beautiful, modest, subservient and pious. When Erchinoald’s wife died, he was keen to make Bathild his wife. Unfortunately for him, Bathild was uninterested in the man who had bought her as a child, and hid herself away until he found someone else to marry.

Eventually (though the details are murky) Bathild got a much better offer of marriage – Clovis II, king of Burgundy and Neustria. This time, she said yes.

Like all good medieval Christian queens, Bathild engaged in public acts of charity. She donated enough money to the church to found two Abbeys, Corbie and Chelles – and possibly three others. She also had three sons, Clotaire, Childeric and Theuderic.

Their eldest son was only five years old when Clovis died, leaving little Clotaire on the throne, but Bathild in charge. As queen regent she really came into her own. She was an intelligent and capable politician, even handling an attempted coup.

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Bathild’s seal matrix (sourcesource)

Her greatest triumph was the abolition of Christian slavery – something which must have been very dear to her heart. Historical sources also write that she worked to free children who had been sold into slavery by paying for them herself and giving them their freedom.

All three of Bathild’s sons became kings – Clotaire of Neustria, Childeric of Austrasia and Theuderic of Burgundy. Satisfied that she had done her job, Bathild retired to the Abbey she had founded in Chelles, where she lived peacefully until the end of her life.

 

 

 


References:

Bathild Seal Matrix – Norfolk Museum

On Wikipedia:

Theodelinda – c.570 – 628 – Monza, Italy

Germany, Italy

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Theodelinda was a Baviarian princess who married Authuri, king of Lombardy (northwest Italy). Authuri died while Theodelinda was still young, and she selected Agilulf as her second husband and successor to the crown.

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Fresco despicting Theodelinda attending to the construction of the Cathedral of Monza (source)

As queen of the Lomboards, Theodelinda exerted a wide influence, particularly over religious matters. She was a follower of the Nicene creed – the doctrinal statement of belief in the divinity of god the father, son and holy spirt which is today followed by most mainstream Christian denominations. Theodelinda converted Agiluf, who was a pagan prior to their marriage, and as a result spread Christianity throughout Lombardy.

The queen was also responsible for the construction of a number of churches across Lombardy and Tuscany, including the Cathedral of Monza and the first Baptistery of Florence.

Theodelinda is also closely associated with the legend of the iron crown of Lombardy. The story went that the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine I, Helena, had found the ‘true cross’ – the cross which Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified upon. She took from it a number of nails, considered holy relics, and gave them to her son. Helena used one of the nails to calm the sea during a storm. Another was mounted on Constantine’s helmet, and a third made into a bit for his horse.

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The Iron Crown of Lombardy (source)

The remaining nails were used as diplomatic gifts, and one was sent to queen Theodelina. She had the iron relique set into a golden, jewelled diadem, which became known as ‘the iron crown’. The crown is still on display today in the Cathedral of Monza, alongside 15th century frescoes which narrate the story of Theodelinda.


References:

Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 9L Lombardy – Paolo Silva

History of the Langobards – Paul, the Deacon

On Wikipedia:

Bertha of Kent – c.565 – c.601 – Canterbury, England

Britain, England, France

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Bertha (sometimes Aldeberge) was a Frankish princess who became queen of Kent. Her influence contributed to the adoption of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England.

Born and raised in Tours, France, Bertha was raised a Christian. Her marriage to King Æthelberht of Kent, an English pagan, was conditional on her being permitted to continue to practice her faith.

Following her move to Canterbury, Kent, Bertha began work to restore a Christian church in the city. There had been a church in Canterbury during the Roman occupation of Britain, but it had been destroyed during the Saxon invasions and was in a state of ruin by the time Bertha arrived.

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Wooden statue of Bertha inside St Martin’s Church (source)

Bertha used the restored church as her private chapel and dedicated it to Saint Martin of Tours. St Martins is still standing today, and is the oldest church in the English-speaking world.

In 596 Canterbury was visited by Augustine, Gregorian monk sent by Pope Gregory I to convert the English. Bertha received Augustine warmly and encouraged him to settle in Canterbury, where he went on to found a monastery and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 567.

Thanks to Bertha’s early influence, Canterbury remains the seat of the Church of England.

King Æthelberht eventually converted to Christianity himself, and the couple had two children, Eabald and Æthelburg.

Bertha was canonised as a saint; her feast day is on 1st May.


References:

Ecclesiastical History of the English People: Book 1 – Bede

Queen Bertha: Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society

On Wikipedia:

 

Brunhilda – c.543 – 613 – Merovingian Austrasia

France, Germany, Spain

CW: Torture, extreme violence

Brunhilda

 

Brunhilda is a fascinating figure in European history – a Spanish princess who became a Frankish queen and ruled as regent no less than three times.

She was a vengeful woman who would not be crossed; Brunhilda’s forceful and unforgiving personality re-shaped the northern European political landscapes, leading to her being blamed for the deaths of ten (yes, TEN) Frankish kings.

Born in Toledo, the Visigothic capital (south of Madrid in modern day Spain), Brunhilda was a well-educated Christian princess from a noble house.

In 567 she was married to King Sigebert I of Austrasia – an area which was then comprised of parts of modern day France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Austrasia was one of four Frankish kingdoms which had been united by Sigebert’s father. Sigebert and his three brothers had divided the kingdom into four parts – Paris and western Gaul, Burgundy, Austrasia, and Neustria.

Sigebert’s youngest brother, Chilperic, had inherited Neustria (Soissons). Chilperic was impressed with his brother’s educated high-born wife and – not to be outdone – sent to Toledo for Brunhilda’s younger sister, Galswintha.

Galswintha’s marriage to Chilperic was deeply unhappy. The young woman arrived in the foreign court to find that her husband already had a number of mistresses – mostly low born Franks. Insulted, Galswintha refused to put up with Chilperic’s courtesans and demanded that he banish every one of them from his court.

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Chilperic strangling Galswintha (source)

These demands made Galswintha a very unstable enemy in Fredegund, a servant girl who had become the king’s mistress. When Galswintha was found strangled in her bed, Brunhilda blamed Fredegund and Chilperic – who were married only three days later.

Brunhilda was furious. For the next forty or so years, she dedicated her life to destroying Fredegund and Chilperic for what they did to her sister.

Fredegund was more than a match for her, and soon the family was at war.

Though several external parties attempted to broker peace between the warring in-laws, including Siegbert and Chilperic’s brother, Guntram of Burgundy, and the Bishop of Paris, the opposing sides were single-minded in their hatred for each other.

Matters came to a head when Sigebert defeated Chilperic in battle, taking Poitiers and Touraine and forcing the younger brother to flee to Tournai. Sigebert pursued his brother and attempted to conquer Tournai as well – but his winning streak was cut short when he was assassinated in 573.

The assassins had been sent by Fredegund.

With her sister and husband now murdered at the hands of the same woman, Brunhilda refused to back down. Her next move was to marry Merovech, Chilperic’s own son and Fredegund’s stepson. This was a powerful alliance. Panicking, Chilperic hurriedly made peace with Brunhilda and Merovech, before sending his son to a monastery to become a priest, attempting to annul the marriage.

Merovech escaped a number of times before killing himself in 578.

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Chilperic strangling Galswintha (source)

Down two husbands and still nowhere, Brunhilda now took matters into her own hands and consolidated her power. She claimed regency over her eldest son, Childebert II, and ruled Austrasia as queen. Though she was disliked and generally opposed by the noblemen of Austrasia, Brunhilda did manage to push through a number of administrative reforms; repairing roads and infrastructure, building churches, monasteries and abbeys, and restructuring the royal finances.

In 584, Chilperic was killed. Fredegund had taken his money and sought refuge in Notre Dame Cathedral.

By this time, young Childebert had turned thirteen – the age of majority – and taken the throne under the watchful eyes of his mother. Brunhilda was still so prominent at court that there were several plots to assassinate both mother and son.

Still, the queen proved herself indomitable. When Guntram of Burgundy died, Childebert inherited his kingdom too – and immediately went to war with his cousin Clotaire II of Neustria – Fredegund’s son.

Childebert himself died at only twenty-six years old – leaving Brunhilda to take the reins once more, this time claiming regency of Austrasia and Burgundy in the name of her two young grandsons, splitting the kingdoms between them.

In 597, Brunhilda’s greatest nemesis, Fredegund died – but the feud between them did not.

Apparently unable to stop making enemies, in 599 Brunhilda’s elder grandson Theudebert tired of her scheming and exiled her from his court. She headed straight for the court of her other grandson, Theuderic, and quickly persuaded him to declare war on his brother.  In 612, Theudebert was defeated and placed in a monastery, where he died (possibly assassinated).

Theuderic died shortly thereafter from an illness – leaving yet another power vacuum in the Frankish kingdoms. He had left only a small illegitimate son, Sigebert – so for the third time in her life Brunhilda claimed regency of the kingdom, this time for her great-grandson.

But the ghost of Fredegund would not rest. Her son, Clotaire II of Neustria raised an army against Brunhilda, forcing her to flee with Sigebert into Orbe (French Switzerland), where they were captured.

Sigebert was put to death at once, along with his young brother’s Corbo and Childebert – immediately ending the feud between Austrasia and Neustria.

Brunhilda was brutally tortured by Clotaire, who accused her of causing the deaths of ten Frankish kings:

  1. Sigebert I – Brunhilda’s first husband, assassinated by Fredegund due to the feud
  2. Chilperic I – Fredegund’s husband, assassinated (possibly by Fredegund)
  3. Theudebert II – Brunhilda’s grandson, defeated by his brother on Brunhilda’s orders
  4. Theuderic II – Brunhilda’s grandson, died from dysentery after war with his brother
  5. Sigebert II – Theuderic’s illegitimate son, Brunhilda’s great-grandson
  6. Merovech – Chilperic’s son, Brunhilda’s second husband, committed suicide
  7. Merovech – Theuderic’s son
  8. Corbo – Theuderic’s son, Brunhilda’s great-grandson, killed along with young Sigebert
  9. Childebert – Theuderic’s son, Brunhilda’s great-grandson
  10.  The sons of Theudebert II – Brunhilda’s great-grandsons

For these crimes, Clotaire put Brunhilda to death in the most unpleasant way he could think of – following her torture on the rack, the queen (now in her seventies) was tied to four horses, who were set to bolt in different directions, tearing her body apart.

She was then burned until nothing was left. Another story has the elderly woman being dragged by a wild horse until she died – either way, Brunhilda’s controversial life came to an extremely bloody end.

Brunhilda was buried in the Abbay de St Martin at Autun, which she had founded.


References:

The History of the Medieval World – Susan Wise Bauer

History of the Franks: Books I-X Gregory of Tours

On Wikipedia:

Radegund – c.520 – 587 – Poitiers, France

France, Germany

Radegund

Radegund (also Rhadegund, Radegonde or Radigund) was a German princess and a Frankish queen who founded the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Poitiers. She was also the granddaughter of Basina through her father.

At the time Radegund was born, the kingdom of Thuringia was ruled by three men; her father Bertachar and his brothers, Baderic and Hermanfrid.

In 529, Hermanfrid killed Bertachar in battle, leaving nine-year-old Radegund an orphan. She was taken into Hermanfrid’s household while he continued his campaign for sole kingship, killing Baderic shortly afterwards.

Hermanfrid’s victory had come at a cost – he had sought the help of Theuderic, king of the Franks, agreeing that they would share sovereignty of Thuringia. However, you can’t trust a man who will kills his own brothers in the pursuit of power, and Hermanfrid did not make good on his promise.

Furious at the betrayal, Theuderic and his own brother, Clotaire I marched into Thuringia in 531, defeating Hermanfrid and claiming his kingdom. When the victorious brothers returned to Gaul (France), they took twelve-year-old Radegund with them.

She was raised in Clotaire’s villa in Picardy, and in 540 Radegund became one of his six wives. Little is known about her life as Clotaire’s concubine, other than that they had no children.

In 550, Radegund’s family was in peril again when Clotaire had her brother, the last surviving male, murdered. With her own life potentially in danger, Radegund left the Frankish court and sought shelter within the church. She pleaded her case to the Bishop of Noyon, who agreed to make her a deaconess.

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Radegund retiring to the monastery (source)

While living in the Frankish court Radegund had been noted for her charitable giving, but once she joined the church she really came into her own, founding the monastery of Cainte-Croix in Poitiers.

As a deaconess, Radegund’s life was governed by a very strict set of instructions, known as the Rule for Virgins. This required nuns to live cloistered lives, away from the public. They were expected to devote much of their time to reading the Bible and copying out manuscripts, and had a restrictive vegetarian diet of legumes and green vegetables.

As well as founding the monastery, Radegund personally tended to the sick, gaining a reputation as a gifted healer. In addition, Radegund wrote poetry (likely with a religious theme) which has sadly been lost.

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Radegund retiring to the monastery (source)

Through her writing, Radegund corresponded with a number of very learned men of her generation, including Gregory of Tours, who attended her funeral, and the hermit Junian of Mairé, who was said to have died on the same day as Radegund.

Radegund died in 587 in her late seventies, and was buried in Poitiers in a church which later became the Church of St Radegonde. Due to the strict Rule for Virgins the nuns of Radegund’s abbey were not permitted to attend the funeral.

Radegund is venerated as a saint in the catholic church, her feast day is celebrated on 13th August each year. She is also the patron saint of Cambridge University’s Jesus College. A number of churches and building across Britain and France are named in Radegund’s honour.


References:

Information on St Radegund – Jesus College Cambridge

St. Radegund from Sainted Women of the Dark Ages.-  Jo Ann McNamara, John E. Halborg, with E. Gordon Whatley

On Wikipedia:

Basina – c. 438 – 477 – Thuringia, Germany

France, Germany

Basina

Basina of Thuringia was a woman who knew what she wanted. A Saxon princess, she became queen of Thuringia (in Germany) when she married King Bisinus.

She first met Childeric I, king of the Franks while he was in exile. Bisinus gave Childeric shelter and protection for eight years before the Frankish king was able to return to Roman Gaul (modern day France).

Clearly Basina had enjoyed Childeric’s company, as shortly after he had left she packed her bags and headed to Gaul. When she arrived at the royal court Childeric asked why she had come. She responded:

“I know your worth. I will have the most powerful man in the world, even if I must cross an ocean for him.”

Childeric and Basina were married and their son Chlodovech (better known as Clovis I) went on to unite all of the Frankish tribes and became the first king of the Franks.

It is worth noting that Basina herself named her son, which in itself is very unusual in a time when sons were typically named after a male ancestor. These two scant facts we have about Basina describe a remarkable woman who clearly took charge of her own life and decisions.


References:

History of the FranksGregory of Tours

Biography of BasineKoren Whipp for Project Continua

Galla Placidia – 388 – 450 – Ravenna, Italy

Ancient Rome, Constantinople, Italy

Galla Placidia

As the Roman Empire buckled and fell around her, Galla Placidia remained stalwart and dedicated to ruling by any means.

Early years:

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.

Stilicho

Stilicho, Serena and their son (source)

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.

Second marriage:

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Stilicho, Serena and their son (source)

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).

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Stilicho, Serena and their son (source)

Constantius died in 421, leaving Galla Placidia widowed a second time.

Move East:

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.

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The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius, by John William Waterhouse, 1883 (source)

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.

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Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (source)


In literature:

  • 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.

In music:

  • Spanish musician Jaume Pahissa wrote the opera Galla Placídia in 1913.

On television:

  • Galla Placidia is played by Alice Krige in the 2001 American TV Miniseries Attila.

 


References:

Galla Placidia on romanemperors.org

Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress – Hagith Sivan

Galla Placidia Augusta: a biographical essayStewart Irvin Oost

On Wikipedia:

Mavia ماوية – Reigned 375 – 425 – Syria

Ancient Syria, Syria

Mavia

A century after Zenobia set her sights on taking Egypt from the Roman Empire, another Arab queen attempted the same thing. Where Zenobia had failed, Mavia not only succeeded – but also made Rome sign a treaty in her favour.

Also known as Māwiyya, this fierce warrior queen ruled a confederation of Arab tribes (known as the Tanukhids) from her seat in southern Syria. Her husband had been king of the Tanukhids and once he died his power passed to Mavia.

She proved herself equal to the task, leading her army in open rebellion against Roman rule in the Middle East. Mavia rode at the head of her cavalry, leading troops into Phoenica (modern day Israel, Lebanon and Syria) and Palestine before finally reaching Egypt.

In Egypt Mavia met the Roman army in battle again and again, defeating them each time. Eventually, Rome consented to a truce – but Mavia set the conditions.

Mavia was a successful general and ruler largely because of her use of guerrilla tactics. Rather than fight from Aleppo, which would have given the Romans a target, she retreated with her troops into the desert, drawing on the nomadic tribe’s knowledge of the terrain. As a result, the Tanukhids were better prepared than the Romans and able to keep them guessing.

As for her conditions for peace, Mavia requested that a monk named Moses be made bishop over her people. Moses was supposedly a desert dwelling Christian Arab who impressed Mavia – and who possibly convinced her to convert to Christianity. To prove that she honoured the truce, Mavia married her daughter Chasidat to a Roman commander.

Peace was temporary.

Rome was soon at war with the Goths (in Eastern Germany) and called upon Mavia’s formidable forces for assistance. She provided cavalry, but her Arab army was not prepared for the environment of northern Europe and the Goths won, killing Roman emperor Valens.

The new emperor Theodosius I gave the Gothic kings and nobles a number of high profile positions within the Roman Empire at the expense of the Arabs. Furious at the lack of respect shown for their loyalty, the Tanukhids revolted a second time in 383. It is not clear whether or not Mavia led this revolt, but it was certainly the end of the Tanukh-Roman alliance.


References:

God’s Self-confident Daughters: Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women – Anne Jensen

Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs – Irfan Shahîd

Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth CenturyIrfan Shahîd

On Wikipedia:

Zenobia – 240 – c.274 – Palmyrene Empire

Ancient Syria

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Syrian warrior queen Zenobia was another in a long line of women to cause trouble for the Roman Empire.

Born in Palmyra, her origins are mysterious – the Greeks called her Zenobia, her Roman name was Julia Aurelia Zenobia and in Arabic she is called al-Zabba (الزباء‎). Some historians describe her as having Jewish heritage, others that she was the daughter of a sheikh, or that her father was the Roman Governor of Palmyra.

Wherever she came from, Zenobia had no problem coming up with her own family history. She claimed to be a descendant of the Ptolemies – related to queen Cleopatra herself, as well as Dido, the legendary goddess-queen of Carthage.

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Coin featuring Zenobia (Source)

Her lineage is uncertain, but Zenobia definitely did speak the ancient Egyptian language, and may have learnt from her mother who is thought to have been part-Egyptian. Zenobia was also described as very beautiful and highly intelligent, just like Cleopatra. She was well educated and spoke Latin, Greek and Aramaic fluently. In addition, Zenobia was physically strong, being an accomplished horsewoman and huntress.

She was married to the king of Palmyra, Septimus Odaenathus when she was about eighteen. He already had a son from a previous marriage, and in 266 Zenobia gave birth to her own son, Vaballathus.

When Varballathus was only a year old, the king and his eldest son were assassinated. Zenobia became the sole ruler of Palmyra until her son came of age.

She lost no time in securing her power, and immediately began planning conquests to expand the limits of her empire. At this time, Zenobia had the full backing of Rome as a client queen. She was expected to protect her borders and the eastern empire from the neighbouring Sassanid Empire – so it was within her remit to attack on these fronts.

In 269, she went too far.

Queen Zenobia of Palmyra and her General Zabdas marched their army into Egypt, violently defeating the Roman forces. They captured the Roman Prefect in charge of the region and beheaded him, proclaiming Zenobia queen of Egypt.

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Zenobia’s empire shown in yellow (Source)

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Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra by Herbert Schmalz (Source)

From there, she pressed on into Anatolia, then Palestine and Lebanon. These were all hugely important trade routes in the classical world, which the Roman Empire depended upon. Zenobia claimed them for herself and for her son.

Emperor Aurelian had finally had enough in 272. His forces clashed with Zenobia’s army in Antioch and defeated the Palmyrenes, who retreated to Emesa, where Zenobia had a treasury. Aurelian was hot on her heals and besieged the city, forcing Zenobia to escape with Varballathus on the back of a camel.

This last desperate attempt at escape failed, and Aurelian’s cavalry captured the Queen before she could get home to Palmyra. Zenobia’s Empire came to an end. She was taken back to Rome in chains and eight year old Varballathus is presumed to have died on the voyage.

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The Triumph of Aurelian or Queen Zenobia in front of Aurelian by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1717 (Source)

It’s not clear what happened next for this fierce ruler. One version of her story claims that she either committed suicide or was excecuted in Rome. Another that she happily married a Roman senator and became a prominent philosopher and socialite.


In fiction:

Geoffrey Chaucer gives a short version of the story of Zenobia in The Monk’s Tale.

A number of operas have been written about the life and exploits of queen Zenobia by various authors including: Tomaso Albinoni (1694), Leonardo Leo (1725), Johann Adolph Hasse (1761), Pasquale Anfossi (1789), Giovanni Paisiello (1790), Gioachino Rossini (1819) and Mansour Rahbani (2007).

Lebanese singer Fairuz performed a song called Zenobia in 1977.

Daughter of Sand and Stone by Libbie Hawker is a historical romance novel fictionalising the life of Zenobia.


 

References:

BBC’s In Our Time featuring a discussion on Zenobia.

Zenobia, Queen of the East, Or, Letters from Palmyra, Volume 2 – William Ware

Empress Zenobia: Palmyra s Rebel Queen – Pat Southern

On Wikipedia: