Galla Placidia and her eventful life perfectly showcased the hectic state of affairs that the Western Roman Empire found itself enduring (and eventually collapsing from) during the 5th century. She was a daughter of Emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395) and Empress Galla. Upon Theodosius’ death, two of Galla Placidia’s brothers were crowned as emperors, one to rule the East and another to control the West. Galla Placidia, herself, was left to the care of the powerful general Stilicho (or more specifically, his wife, Serena), under whose direction she learned Latin and Greek, as well as other subjects that women of the time were expected to be know, such as sewing and weaving.
The young princess stayed in the Western Empire during the reign of her brother, Emperor Honorius (r. 393-423), mostly residing in the city of Rome. Yet times were not easy—for various reasons (but mostly because of pressure from the Huns) a large coalition of peoples, including the Vandals, Suevi and Alans, crossed the Rhine into Roman Gaul in 406, throwing the empire into chaos. A former Roman mercenary named Alaric brought the havoc straight to the heart of the Western Empire. After becoming king of the Visigoths, Alaric eventually led his people to besiege Rome. He arrived at the city walls first in 408, but was paid off by the Roman Senate. He attacked again in 409, but was once more convinced to withdraw from the city. Finally, in 410, King Alaric and the Visigoths besieged Rome for one last time, with no intention of withdrawing from the city. Instead, they looted the city for three days, stealing wealth and harassing the locals, but keeping most of the city remarkably intact. Around this time, or perhaps during the earlier sieges, the Visigoths captured Galla Placidia. King Alaric hoped he could use the princess as leverage in his negotiations with Emperor Honorius. Alaric, however, had miscalculated—Honorius and Galla Placidia were not friendly siblings.
Instead, when King Alaric died of an illness later in 410, Galla Placidia was still being hauled around by the Visigoths as an unusable bargaining chip. Alaric’s successor, Ataulf (also spelled Athaulf), realigned the Visigoths as an ally of Rome and moved his people to Gaul and Spain to help defend the empire against the Vandals, Suevi and Alans, as well as to gain land for his own people in that region. Ataulf evidently took an interest in his captive, Galla Placidia (or at least her potential power as royalty), and married her around 414. Yet, the princess’ time as Queen of the Visigoths was short lived—Ataulf was assassinated in 415 and her only son with the Visigoth king died in infancy.
By 416, the Visigoths had shipped Galla Placidia back to her estranged brother, Emperor Honorius. He quickly married her off, in 417, to one of his generals by the name of Constantius. Many historians doubt that Galla Placidia approved of the hasty union, but nevertheless, she and Constantius had at least two children—a daughter named Justa Greta Honoria and a son who would later become Emperor Valentinian III (r. 425-455).
Galla Placidia’s marriage to Constantius brought her to a position of power. Her husband was named a co-emperor alongside (or more likely underneath) Honorius in 421, elevating Galla Placidia to the rank of empress. Emperor Constantius III, however, died before the year’s end. Even though Honorius favored Constantius enough to name him a co-emperor, he still had a feud with his sister, the empress. As such, following Constantius’ death in 221, Galla Placidia fled from her brother to the Eastern Roman Empire and took refuge in Constantinople with her nephew and Eastern Roman Emperor, Theodosius II (r. 402-450).
Galla Placidia waited in the safety of Constantinople until Emperor Honorius died in 423. Before she could install Valentinian on the throne, an opportunist named Johannes (or John) seized Rome for about two years. By 425, however, Galla Placidia and her allies succeeded in ousting Johannes and naming Valentinian III as the rightful emperor. The newly enthroned emperor, however, was too young to rule on his own, so Galla Placidia stepped in as regent ruler of the Western Empire. She ruled for around twelve years, until 437, spending most of that time dealing with ambitious generals and governors. The most notable of these were Count Boniface, Felix and Flavius Aetius. The latter of which was the man who won the most influence with the empress and her son.
Empress Galla Placidia died in 450 after living a dramatic life that alternated between waves of powerlessness and strength. Her son, Emperor Valentinian III, would only survive her by five years. The formerly mentioned Flavius Aetius remained the emperor’s right-hand-man until 454, when the emperor personally strangled the man on suspicions of treason. Unfortunately for the emperor, Aetius had a loyal following. Two comrades of Aetius (named Optila and Thraustila) hunted down the emperor in 455 and killed the young ruler.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture attribution: (Supposed miniature of Galla Placidia on top of a destroyed city painted by Thomas Cole (1801–1848), both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations by Norman Davies. New York: Viking (Penguin Group), 2011.