For Galla Placidia’s entire lifetime, barbarians, particularly the Goths, fought against the Roman Empire for two particular purposes: to obtain food and land. As they traveled throughout modern day Europe, they plundered villages and towns in search of food to sustain their massive numbers. Starting in 395, Alaric became the King of the Goths (Wikipedia, 2016a). Placidia’s cousin’s husband, Stilicho and Alaric had many encounters throughout their military careers, fighting over these precious commodities. However, due to the incompetence of Emperor Honorius, the Goths would soon take advantage over the Romans.
In the winter of 409, both the Romans and the Visogoths were in want of food. Due to their allegiance to the emperor, the African provinces had cut of their grain supply (which served the majority of the empire) to Rome. With the addition of Alaric’s plundering of Italy, all of Rome was in dire need. As Alaric needed to feed close to 180,000 people, he sought to negotiate with Honorius (Salisbury, 2015). Upon their meeting, a Gothic general, Sarus, who was paid by Honorius, turned and attacked Alaric and his men, causing considerable loses. This enraged Alaric so he turned his forces toward Rome.
On the night of August 24, 410 the Goths entered the city through the Salarian Gate, which was opened from within. As barbarians, the Visogoths mainly focused on looting the city, stealing much of Rome’s wealth. However, that did not stop the destruction of the city. According to excavations, many buildings were burned, including the palace of the historian Sallust and the Basilica Aemilia as well as statues and decorations. One Biritsh monk named Pelagius who was present described the scene, “Rome the mistress of the world, shuddered, crushed with dismal fear at the sound of the shrieking trumpet, and the shouts of the Goths” (Salisbury, 2015). Although this siege was bloody, the Goths were respectful to the Christians and their churches. The Christians had considerable wealth but Alaric ordered his men to escort the Christians and their gold safely outside the city walls (Salisbury, 2015).
Wikipedia (2016). Sack of Rome.
Besides seeking gold, the Visogoths also sought out prized hostages. As a potential empress and very valuable, Placidia was safely taken from her palace in Rome. Historians believe that Placidia was 22 years old when she was taken hostage (McHardy & Marshall, 2004). For an upper class woman to still be unmarried at this age was quite unusual in Rome. Alaric entrusted his own brother-in-law, Athaulf, to capture and watch over her. One chronicler wrote of Placidia’s circumstances, “she enjoyed all the honor and ceremony due to her imperial rank” (Salisbury, 2015).
While Placidia and the Visgoths were traveling, their leader Alaric died, giving the crown to his brother, Athaulf. When Athaulf took over as leader, his initial goal was to take over Rome, with the Goths dominating and he the next Caesar Augustus (Salisbury, 2015). According to some second-hand accounts who listened to Athaulf, his mind was changed to combining with the Romans and directing the Goths to a more legal tradition. His attitude was altered “by the persuasion and advice of … Placidia, a woman, indeed, of a very keen mind and very good religiously” (Salisbury, 2015). This was to be expected as Placidia and Athaulf spent most of their time together in camp, developing a strong relationship.
Wikipedia. (2016). Athaulf.
As Athaulf sought to negotiate with Rome, he ran into several issues. Emperor Honorius had promoted Constantius to master general in his army, replacing Stilicho. Constantius desperately wanted to marry Placidia and convinced Honorius to arrange it with his military victories (Salisbury, 2015). However, Athaulf kept raising the amount of grain he wanted from Honorius that it became impossible to follow through. Knowing how much Constantius wanted Placidia, and his own admiration for her, Athualf decided to join the Theodosius dynasty and the Visogoths by marrying Placidia (Salisbury, 2015).
The wedding took place on January 1, 414 at a mansion in Narbonne (Wikipedia, 2016; Salisbury, 2015b). Placidia was dressed in abundant royal silks, signifying her right to the throne (Sivan, 2011). Interestingly, Athaulf did not dress as a Gothic king but as a Roman soldier in military garb (Sivan, 2011). Additionally, Athaulf wore the paludamentum with a precious brooch fastened to one side. This cloak was worn by generals and emperors, suggesting Athaulf’s desire to lead the Romans. To further cement his intentions, during the wedding itself, Athaulf swore allegiance to Rome and everything it stood for (Sivan, 2011).
As described by Olympiodorus, Athaulf brought in gifts to his new bride including “fifty handsome young men dressed in silk clothes each bearing aloft two very large dishes, one full of gold, the other full of precious, or rather priceless stones” that were from Rome during its destruction (Sivan, 2011). Finally, the epithalamia, which are verses and compositions to honor the bride and groom, were written by three men: Attalus, Phoebadius, and Rusticus (Sivan, 2011). Concluding with typical music, dance, and food, Placidia’s wedding was a true Roman festival.
Historians estimate that around 415 in January, Placidia and Athaulf gave birth to a son whom they named Theodosius. His birth secured the unification of the Goth and Roman line. However, in July or August of that same year, Theodosius died from unknown circumstances (Salisbury, 2015). Another blow would strike Placidia when Athaulf was assassinated just a few months after the death of Theodosius. A trusted servant of Athaulf’s was avenging his chief Sarus who was killed by Athaulf (Salisbury). There is much speculation of the location of this assassination; some sources state that Athaulf was killed while taking a bath (Wikipedia, 2016), while others believe they were in the stable tending the horses (Salisbury, 2015). Athaulf’s dying wish was for Placidia to return to her brother Honorius in Constantinople and secure friendship with Rome. To ensure her safety, Constantius (with Honorius’ agreement) sent his representative Euplutius to accompany Placidia back to Ravenna (Salisbury, 2015). However, spending 7 years with the Visigoths in their camp, Placidia had their allegiance and therefore brought a substantial guard of Goths with her. As Placidia entered the capitol in 416, she was prepared to take over political and religious leadership in Rome.
McHardy, F. & Marshall, E. (2004). Women’s influence on classical civilization. Psychology Press.
Salisbury, J. (2015). Rome’s Christian empress: Galla Placidia rules at the twilight of the empire. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Sivan, H. (2011). Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
Wikipedia. (2016a). Alaric I. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 10, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaric_I
Wikipedia. (2016b). Galla Placidia. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 12, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galla_Placidia