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Galla Placidia

(388/392 - 450 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Possible image of Gallia Placidia on a glass medallion. Currently, scientists dispute that it is the image of the empress.

Aelia Galla Placydia (born around 388/392 – died 450) – daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I the Great and his second wife, Flavia Galli.


She was born between 388 and 392, probably in Constantinople or Thessaloniki as the daughter of Emperor Theodosius the Great and his second wife, the daughter of Emperor Valentinian I. She was the younger half-sister of Emperors Honorius and Arcadius. After her birth, her father determined her income and her own court, and the emperor’s niece, Serena, was appointed guardian. In 394, Empress Gaul died in childbirth, and a year later, Theodosius the Great, who in his will granted his elder son Arcadius the Eastern throne, and the younger Honorius, the throne of the Western Empire. The protector of Honorius and Galla was appointed a general and trusted deceased emperor, and at the same time Serena’s husband – Stilicho. Sources do not agree on the upbringing Galla received as a child – perhaps as an imperial daughter and sister she received a classical upbringing. In the years 395 – 408, the real power in the Western Empire belonged to Stilicho and Serena. In 398, Honorius married their daughter Maria, thereby cementing their position at the court.

Sacking Rome and first marriage

In 408, as a result of a palace conspiracy, Stilicho was murdered, and in the riots caused after his death, tens of thousands of families of Gothic soldiers remaining in the service of the Empire died. As a consequence of the above slaughter, the Goths, led by King Alaric, decided to open conflict with Rome. In the years 408 – 410 (with some breaks), Gallus Placidia was in Rome, besieged by the Goths. At that time, the Roman Senate recognized that the former protector of Gaul – Serena, conspired with the enemies and helped them reach the city walls. Serena was sentenced to death by strangulation. Consensus sources indicate that the death of the still-influential former caregiver was politically in Galli’s interest. In 410 Rome was conquered, and Gaul herself was treated as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Honorius and abducted to Barcelona by the retreating Goths. In the same year, Alaric died, and Ataulf became the new king. The invaders withdrew to southern Gaul, and the protracted negotiations between the Goths and Rome led to a compromise that resulted in the wedding of Ataulf and Galli Placidia in 413. Thus, Galla became Queen of the Visigoths, but in early 415 the only son of Gaul and Ataulf, Theodosius, died, and Ataulf was murdered a few months later. The situation of the widow at the Visigothic court deteriorated significantly. Ultimately, under the agreement of the new king with Emperor Honorius, Gaul was allowed to leave Barcelona in exchange for the Romans supplying the Visigoths with food. As the widow of the Gothic king, she was also granted the personal guard of the Goths.

Second marriage and exile

Upon his return to Ravenna, Honorius decided that Gaul would marry one of his notable generals – Consul Flavius ​​Constantius. Due to her relationship with Konstantjus Galla, she gave birth to a daughter – Justa Honoria (418) and a son – the future Emperor Valentinian III (419). In February 421, childless Honorius raised his brother-in-law to the rank of co-emperor (Constantius III) and heir to the throne, but a few months later Constantius died. In the period after her husband’s death, a dispute arose between Honorius and Gaul, which was probably based on the attitude to the issue of the so-called allies – Germanic tribes that inhabited areas of the empire. Honorius represented the then widely shared position of the Roman elite on the need to subjugate the Germanic tribes, while Placidia probably supported the position of power-sharing and inclusion of German in the power structure of a weakening Empire. The result of this conflict was that Gaara left the Western Empire and went to Constantinople, to the court of her nephew Theodosius II.

Return from exile and regency

On August 15, 423, Emperor Honorius died childless and his secretary, John, took control of the court in Ravenna. In such a situation, in exchange for the Western Empire relinquishing Dalmatia, Theodosius II supported his aunt’s efforts to obtain the throne for her minor son. In May 425, Byzantine troops captured Ravenna, the usurper John was executed, and the six-year-old son of Gaul Placidia was proclaimed Emperor Valentinian III.

Mosaics inside the Mausoleum of Gallia Placidia in Ravenna.

From 425 to 437, Galla exercised regency on behalf of her son. She was unable to prevent the further collapse of imperial authority. At that time, the Visigoths and Suebi exercised independent authority over the Iberian Peninsula. In 429, the consul of Africa, Boniface, announced the independence of this province from Rome. In 431, the Vandals destroyed Hippo, the city where St. Augustine, and in 439 the capital of Roman Africa – Carthage fell. At the same time, her power weakened with the passage of time. In 433 – the commander of the Roman army in Gaul – Flavius ​​Aetius was appointed a patrician and soon took control of the remnants of the Roman army. In 437 CE, Valentinian III reached the age of majority, which in fact meant the end of the regency and the seizure of power in the Empire by Aetius.

Recent years

After the end of the regency, Gaul Placidia moved to Rome for good. She was a very religious person and founded many churches. In the last years of her life, she struggled with the consequences of an intrigue that became the pretext for the invasion of the Huns into the Empire. After a moral scandal that resulted in Justa Honoria’s extra-marital pregnancy, Valentinian III ordered her to marry one of the senators. Probably for this reason Justa Honoria sent an engagement ring and a letter to the Hun chieftain Attila. Attila used this incident to make territorial demands against Valentinian and began preparations for an invasion of the Empire. Ultimately, the combined Roman and Visigothic forces defeated the Huns in the Battle of Catalaunian in 451. Galla Placidia died on November 27, 450 in Rome and was buried there too. A mausoleum was erected for her in Ravenna, which never became her burial place. Her son Valentinian III, the last male representative of the Theodosian dynasty, was murdered in 455.

Author: Piotr Baran (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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