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Galla Placidia

Ralph W. Mathisen

University of South Carolina

Image of Galla Placidia (c) 1998, Princeton Economic Institute

Galla's Youth (395-423 A.D.)

Aelia Galla Placidia, born in the east circa 388/390, was the daughter of the emperor Theodosius I (379-395) and his second wife Galla. She was the half-sister of the emperors Honorius (393-423) (q.v.) and Arcadius (383-408). In the early 390s, she was granted her own household, which made her financially independent. In 394 she was summoned to Milan, and there she witnessed the death of her father in early 395. During her childhood she was named Most Noble Girl (Nobilissima Puella), and she seems to have been raised in the care of her cousin Serena, the wife of the western general Stilicho. She presumably received a classical education; she also knew how to weave and embroider.

Galla Placidia's First Marriage

When the Visigoths attacked Rome in 408, Placidia remained in the city, where, for whatever reasons, she concurred in the execution of Serena. By the time of the sack of Rome in 410, Placidia seems already to have been in Gothic hands. She was carried off with them to Gaul, and in 414 she was married in a Roman wedding ceremony to the Visigothic chieftain Athaulf at Narbonne. She may have been one of the causes of his eventual pro-Roman outlook. She subsequently traveled with the Goths to Spain and bore Athaulf a son, Theodosius, who died in infancy, thus destroying an opportunity for a possible Romano-Visigothic rapprochement.

Galla Placidia's Marriage to Constantius

In 416, after Athaulf's death, Placidia finally was restored to the Romans. In the next year, rather against her will, she was wedded to the powerful Roman general Constantius, to whom she bore two children, Justa Grata Honoria and the future emperor Valentinian III. In 419 she and her husband became involved -- on the losing side -- in the controversy over the election of a new bishop of Rome. She personally summoned the African bishops to a synod in Italy, and three of the letters she wrote in the matter still survive. In 421, Constantius became co-emperor in the west and she was made Augusta (Empress); their elevations, however, were not recognized in the east. After Constantius' death in the same year, she quarreled with her brother, and with her children sought refuge in Constantinople with her nephew, the eastern emperor Theodosius II (402-450).

After the defeat of the western usurper Johannes in 425, the eastern government belatedly recognized the claim of Placidia's son Valentinian to the western throne, but only at the price of part of the western empire. The two accompanied the eastern army to Italy, where Johannes was overthrown and Valentinian was proclaimed Augustus of the west in 425.

Galla Placidia Augusta

Placidia served as Valentinian's regent for the first twelve years of the young emperor's reign. An early supporter of the new regime was the Count of Africa Boniface, who had not recognized Johannes. A rival for influence was Aetius, who had the support of the Huns. But Placidia's initial choice for supreme general was a certain Felix, who in 430 was murdered on the orders of Aetius: according to one report, Placidia herself had instructed Felix to kill Aetius. Meanwhile, in Africa Placidia's erstwhile ally Boniface had declared his independence, and after Placidia sent an army against him, Boniface was said to have responded by inviting the Vandals to come to his assistance. The Vandal threat became so great, however, that a reconciliation between Boniface and Placidia was reached. In 432, Boniface returned to Italy and defeated his rival Aetius, but was killed in the process. After a brief period of exile, Aetius was restored to favor and became Patrician and Master of Soldiers. The rise of Aetius, coupled with Valentinian's eventual majority, worked to reduce Placidia's direct authority, although she continued in a position of influence up to her death.

Galla Placidia's Death

Galla Placidia was a devout Christian and patroness of religion. She was involved in the building and restoration of several churches. In Rome, she assisted in the restoration of the Basilica of St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls and contributed to embellishments of the church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. In Ravenna, she built churches of the Holy Cross and of St. John the Divine. The latter was the result of a vow she had made in 423 when she and her children were caught in a storm on 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." Placidia also favored the church of Ravenna in other ways, seeing to its elevation to the status of archbishopric. She also built a church of St. Stephen at Rimini.

Galla Placidia died at Rome on 27 November 450. Her final resting place is unknown: there remains much doubt as to whether the so-called Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna is actually her tomb or not. It is reasonably certain that either she or her son was responsible for its construction, but it probably was initially intended as a chapel of St. Laurence, not as a tomb. Galla Placidia exemplifies the strong-willed imperial women -- Pulcheria, the sister of Theodosius II, being another example -- who exercised great influence in the fifth century in default of effective male leadership.



Primary: For Placidia's extant correspondence, see Otto Guenther ed., Epistulae imperatorum pontificum aliorum inde ab a. CCCLXVII usque ad a. DLIII datae avellana quae dicitur collectio, C.S.E.L. vol 35 pt.1 (Vienna, 1895) nos.25,27-28 (pp.71-74).

Critical Studies:

Gerke, F., "L'Iconografia delle monete imperiale dall' Augusta Galla Placidia." Corsi di cultura sull'arte ravennate e bizantina 13(1966): 163-204

Nagl, Maria Assunta, Galla Placidia , Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Altertums. New York, 1967.

Oost, Stewart I. "Galla Placidia and the Law." Classical Philology 63(1968): 114-121.

________. "Some Problems in the History of Galla Placidia." Classical Philology 60(1965): 1-10.

________. Galla Placidia Augusta. A Biographical Essay. Chicago, 1968.

Sirago, V.A. Galla Placidia e la trasformazione politica dell' Occidente. Louvain, 1961.

Copyright (C) 1996, Ralph W. Mathisen. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: Ralph W. Mathisen.

Updated: 1 June 1999

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