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Galla Placidia

Galla Placidia
Empress-Mother of the Western Roman Empire
Galla Placidia on a coin ca. 430
Reign Regent for Emperor Valentinian III: 423 – 2 July 437 (14 years)
Spouse Ataulf, King of the Visigoths
Constantius III, Roman Emperor
Issue Theodosius
Flavius Placidius Valentinianus
Justa Grata Honoria
Full name
Aelia Galla Placidia
Dynasty Theodosian
Father Theodosius I
Mother Galla
Born 392
Died 27 November 450
Burial [Unknown. She died in Rome and is not buried in "Mausoleum of Galla Placidia" in Ravenna]

Aelia Galla Placidia (392 – 27 November 450), daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, was the Regent for Emperor Valentinian III from 423 until his majority in 437, and a major force in Roman politics for most of her life. She was consort to Ataulf, King of the Goths from 414 until his death in 415, and Empress consort to Constantius III from 417 until his death in 422.


  • Family 1
  • Early life 2
  • First marriage 3
  • Second marriage 4
  • Widow 5
  • Regent 6
    • Conflict between Bonifacius and Aetius 6.1
    • Rise of Aetius 6.2
  • Public works 7
  • In literature 8
  • In popular culture 9
  • Notes 10
  • References 11
  • Further reading 12
  • External links 13


Placidia was the daughter of Roman Emperor Theodosius I and his second wife Galla,[1] who was herself daughter of Emperor Valentinian I and his second wife Justina.[2] Her older brother Gratian died young. Her mother died in childbirth in 394, giving birth to John, who died with their mother.[3] Placidia was a younger, paternal half-sister of Emperors Arcadius and Honorius. Her older half-sister Pulcheria predeceased her parents as mentioned in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, placing the death of Pulcheria prior to the death of Aelia Flaccilla, first wife of Theodosius I, in 385.[4]

Early life

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.[5]

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.[5] 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.[6][7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[7] Their deaths left Placidia effectively unattached.

First marriage

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.[10] 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".[7] Her reasons for concurring to the execution of her cousin are not stated in the account.[5]

Prior to the fall of Rome, Placidia was captured by Alaric. Her captivity was recorded by both [11]

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.[1] 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.[5][12] 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.[12]

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." (the latter being Sigesar, Bishop of the Goths[12]). 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.[13]

Second marriage

According to the Chronicon Albeldense, included in the Roda Codex, 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.[14] Her brother Honorius forced her into marriage to Constantius III on January 1, 417.[5] 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.[15]

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.[16] Placidia and, presumably, Constantius petitioned the emperor in favor of Eulalius.[5] 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.[16] Placidia had personally written to the African bishops, summoning them to the second synod. Three of her letters are known to have survived.[5]

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.[17]


Medallions of Honorius and Galla Placidia, Ravenna, 425

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

  • Media related to at Wikimedia Commons
  • Pictures of the mausoleum of Galla Placidia
  • Entry of Aelia Flaccilla in the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology
  • Zosimus, New History. London: Green and Chaplin (1814). Book 5.

External links

  • Oost, Stewart Irwin (1967), Galla Placidia Augusta, A Biographical Essay  is a good, modern study of Placidia and the times in which she lived.

Further reading

  • Cawley, Charles, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy  ,
  • Gibbon, Edward, "chapter 33", History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 
  • Weigel, Richard D. (ed.), An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors 


  1. ^ a b c Cawley, Charles, Galla Placidia, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, retrieved July 2012 ,
  2. ^ Cawley, Charles, Profile of Theodosius I, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, retrieved July 2012 ,
  3. ^ Woods, David, Theodosius I (379-395 A.D.) 
  4. ^ Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Mathisen, Ralph W., "Galla Placidia", in Weigel, Richard D., An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors 
  6. ^ Claudian (1922), In Praise of Serena (Loeb Classical Library ed.) 
  7. ^ a b c Zosimus, "Historia Nova, Book five, 1814 translation by Green and Chaplin
  8. ^ Claudian (1922), On the Consulship of Stilicho (Loeb Classical Library ed.) 
  9. ^ Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 1 , p. 1114
  10. ^  
  11. ^ a b c d e Elton, Hugh, Western Roman Emperors of the First Quarter of the Fifth Century 
  12. ^ a b c Cawley, Charles, Profile of Ataulf, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, retrieved July 2012 ,
  13. ^ Gibbon, Edward, "chapter 31", History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 
  14. ^ Cawley, Charles, Profile of Wallia, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, retrieved July 2012 ,
  15. ^ Cawley, Charles, Profile of Constantius III, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, retrieved July 2012 ,
  16. ^ a b  
  17. ^ Elton, Hugh, Western Roman Emperors of the First Quarter of the Fifth Century 
  18. ^ J. F. Matthews, "Olympiodorus of Thebes and the History of the West (A.D. 407-425)" The Journal of Roman Studies; 60 (1970:79-97)
  19. ^ Gibbon, Edward, "chapter 33.2", History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 
  20. ^ a b c d e Gibbon, Edward, "chapter 33", History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 
  21. ^ Cawley, Charles, Profile of Arcadius and his children, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, retrieved July 2012 ,
  22. ^ Bury, J. B., "Chapter 14", History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian 2 
  23. ^ Mathisen, Ralph W., "Honorius (395-423 A.D.)", in Weigel, Richard D., An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors 
  24. ^ a b c Mathisen, Ralph W., "Valentinian III (425-455 A.D.)", in Weigel, Richard D., An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors 
  25. ^ Cawley, Charles, Profile of Licinia Eudoxia, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, retrieved July 2012 ,
  26. ^ Prosper, Epitoma chronicon 1290, in: MGH Auctores antiquissimi (AA) 9, p. 471; Chronica Gallica of 452, 102, in: MGH AA 9, p. 658; Sidonius Apollinaris, letters 7. 12. 3
  27. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, carmen 7. 215sqq.; 7. 495sqq.
  28. ^ a b c d Procopius, "History of the Wars", Book 3, chapter 3
  29. ^ Mathisen, Ralph W., "Justa Grata Honoria", in Weigel, Richard D., An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors 
  30. ^ Olga Matich, Erotic Utopia: The Decadent Imagination in Russia's Fin de Siècle (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2007: ISBN 0299208842), p. 300.


Royal titles
Preceded by
Western Roman Empress consort
Succeeded by
Licinia Eudoxia
Preceded by
Empress-Mother of the Western Roman Empire
September 2, 421 – November 27, 450
Succeeded by
Ino Anastasia

In popular culture

  • 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 her 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".
  • 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..."
  • 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..."
  • 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."[30]

In literature

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.[5]

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."[5]

Public works

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.

Aetius later played a pivotal role in the defense of the Western Empire against Attila the Hun. 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.[29]

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.[5]

Rise of Aetius

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 [28]

Bonifacius now regretted his alliance with the Vandals and tried to persuade them to return to Spain. [28]

Bonifacius, trusting the warning from Aetius, refused the summons; and, thinking his position untenable, sought an alliance with the [28]

Conflict between Placidia and Bonifacius started in 429. Placidia appointed Bonifacius general of Libya. [28]

Conflict between Bonifacius and Aetius

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.[5][24] Aetius, his rival for influence, managed to secure Arles against Theodoric I of the Visigoths.[26] 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.[27]


With Joannes dead, Valentinian was officially proclaimed the new Augustus of the Western Roman Empire on October 23, 425, in the presence of the [11][20]

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 [11][20]

The campaign against Joannes also started in the same year. Forces of the [11][20]

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.[24][25] Gibbon attributes the betrothal to "the agreement of the three females who governed the Roman world", meaning Placidia and her nieces Eudocia and Pulcheria.[20] In the same year, Valentinian was proclaimed a Caesar in the Eastern court.[24]

On August 15, 423, Honorius died of [11]

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."[20] 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.[21] The "Persian victories" mentioned were probably victory celebrations over a brief Roman–Sassanid War of 421-22, under the respective leadership of Theodosius II and Bahram V of the Sassanid 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 Varahran, 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)."[22] The "Saracens of Hira" were the Lakhmids of Al-Hirah.

[19] 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."[18]

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