Galla Placidia: Born to Be An Empress

aelia_galla_placidia

Wikipedia (2016). Galla Placidia

 

Early Life

Galla Placidia is known as the last Roman Empress.  Throughout her lifetime, she exerted much influence over the political and religious atmosphere in the imperial court.  Before a review can be given on Galla Placidia’s childhood, it is crucial to begin with her family history.  Placidia’s father was Theodosius I, who became the coemperor of the Eastern empire of Rome on January 19, 379 (Salisbury, 2015).  Although he was dedicated to his campaign and securing the safety of his empire, Theodosius wanted to secure his own dynasty.  With his marriage to the Spanish Aelia Flavia Flaccilla, he received an heir, Arcadius, and a daughter, Pulcheria, who would later die in childhood.

I believe that Flaccilla was a prominent woman figure in Placidia’s growth as a leader, although she never met her.  Theodosius, while crowning Arcadius as a young emperor, crowned Flaccilla as “Augustus”, empress.  Although it was not unusual to have a Roman Empress, Theodosius awarded her the same ceremony as her son; dressed in a “purple military cloak fastened on the right shoulder with a jeweled fibula and crowned her with a jeweled imperial diadem” (Salisbury, 2015).  Additionally, Flaccilla was imprinted onto the coinage in Rome.  This action showed no distinction between women and the status of men.  This equality founded Placidia in her search for power.  flaccilla Wikipedia (2016) Aelia Flaccilla Coin

However, shortly after the death of Theodosius’ daughter, Flaccilla also died.  As emperor, Theodosius needed to make another politically advantageous marriage, even though Flaccilla was able to produce two male heirs, Arcadius and Honorius.  Valentinian I’s son, Valentinian II was at the time the coemperor with Theodosius.  It is said by the chronicler Zosimus that Valentinian II’s mother, Justina, arranged the meeting of her daughter Galla and Theodosius to ensure the safety of Valentinian II.  Theodosius was struck by Galla’s beauty that he agreed to aid Valentinian II in exchange to marry Galla (Salisbury, 2015).

Theodosius was off conducting military affairs when Galla gave birth to their daughter, Galla Placidia.  Historians are unsure to the actual date of Placidia’s birth, however.  Due to Galla’s family circumstances, Placidia’s birth could have been as early as 388.  Additionally, Galla died in childbirth of their son in 394, so Placidia could have been born as late at 393 (Oost, 1965).  It is estimated that she was likely born in 389.  When Theodosius returned from Constantinople in 391, he granted Placidia her own household thus ensuring her financial security.  This was significant in Rome as to be granted financial independence at such a young age (Wikipedia, 2016c).

Another significant even in Placidia’s childhood occurred at the crowning of her brother, Honorius, in 393.  Placidia was awarded the title of “most noble girl” (nobilissima puella) by her father, Theodosius.  Similar to Flaccilla, this was a traditional step to becoming an empress (Salisbury, 2015).   A tragedy struck the Theodosius dynasty when Placidia was only 7 years old, Honorius at 10 years old, and Arcadius at 18 years old (Wikipedia, 2016a).  During a chariot race on January 17, 395, Theodosius died from what historians presume was severe edema (Wikipedia, 2016a).  With her mother’s death years ago, this left Placidia an orphan.  Fortunately, Theodosius’ niece and her husband, Stilicho, were able to care for Arcadius, Honorius, and Placidia.

Stilicho was a Vandal who became a high-ranking general (magister militum) in the Roman army under Theodosius.  There were several threats to the empire from barbarians so Theodosius wanted someone who could fight against and lead them, and his choice was Stilicho.  To ensure that his leadership would continue, Theodosius arranged for his favorite niece, Serena, to marry Stilicho (Salisbury, 2015).  Stilicho was written about by his contemporary and historian, Orosius, “Stilicho, sprung from the Vandals, an unwarlike, greedy, treacherous and crafty race” (Salisbury, 2015).  As Placidia had no other caretaker, Serena took the primary role of raising Placidia to be a ruler.  serena-and-stilicho

Wikipedia (2016) Diptych of Serena and Stilicho

Not much is known about the upbringing of Placidia and Serena’s daughter, Maria, who were the same age.  We assume that Serena taught Placidia and Maria according to the Roman culture which included mathematics, reading, and eventually literature.  Additionally, historians know that Placidia learned to weave and embroider (Wikipedia, 2016c).   An interesting story tells of Placidia helping Serena embroider a girth for her brother, Honorius’ horse (Salisbury, 2015).  An important note is to be made about Placidia’s brothers, Arcadius and Honorius.  As they were surrounded by luxuries and eunuchs, much is said of these future leaders as spoiled brothers who were completely incompetent to be emperors.  Neither were taught much on military strategy or how to maintain an empire.  These weaknesses will turn into consequences for all of Rome (See next blog).

As Honorius began to fulfill his duties, which were taken by Stilicho when he was underage, he surrounded himself by other counselors.  Under their advisement, particularly that of Olympius, Honorius began to question Stilicho’s loyalty.  In 408, Honorius issued his arrest, and shortly thereafter, his execution (Salisbury, 2015).  Consequently, because Serena was married to this Vandal, and was falsely accused of conspiring with the Goths during their siege of Rome, she was later killed (Wikipedia, 2016b).  There is much speculation as to the death of Serena, suggesting involvement and direction on Placidia’s part.  It is argued that Placidia despised her caretaker and wanted to remove her as the obstacle to gaining power.  Others suggest that as a good Christian woman, Placidia would never disrespect her guardian this way (Salisbury, 2015).  Regardless, Placidia was now free to start leading her country.

 

References

Oost, S. (1965). Some problems in the history of Galla Placidia. Classical Philology, 60(1), 1-10.

Salisbury, J. (2015). Rome’s Christian empress: Galla Placidia rules at the twilight of the empire. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Wikipedia. (2016a). Theodosius I. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 7, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodosius_I

Wikipedia. (2016b). Serena (Roman). Wikipedia. Retrieved December 7, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serena_(Roman)

Wikipedia. (2016b). Galla Placidia. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 5, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galla_Placidia

 

 

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