Galla Placidia

Galla Placidia
(c. 388-450)
   Daughter, sister, and mother of emperors, Galla Placidia played an important role in Roman politics in the first half of the fifth century. The daughter of Emperor Theodosius the Great and sister of Honorius, Galla Placidia is perhaps best known for her marriage to the Visigothic king Ataulf, the brother-in-law and successor of Alaric. Although the marriage was short-lived because of Ataulf's death, it offered the possibility of greater union between Ataulf and the empire. Galla Placidia returned to the empire after her husband's death, where she continued to play a role in political life and eventually assumed the regency for her son Valentinian III (425-455).
   Galla Placidia was an important figure in the complicated relations between the Romans and Visigoths in the late fourth and fifth centuries. Held at bay by her father, Theodosius, and her brother Honorius's general Stilicho, the Visigoths exploited the emperor's weakness after his murder of Stilicho. In 410, the Visigothic king Alaric sacked the city of Rome, and Ataulf, according to contemporary accounts, captured Galla Placidia himself and took her as a hostage once the Visigoths withdrew from Rome. She remained with Ataulf as his people moved into southern Gaul after the death of Alaric and succession to the throne by Ataulf. The capture of Galla Placidia enraged Honorius and made the establishment of good relations between the two difficult. Even though Ataulf turned over to Honorius a pretender to the throne, Honorius refused to sign a treaty until Galla Placidia was returned. Ataulf, in response, laid waste to imperial territory in southern Gaul.
   In 414, a significant step was taken by Ataulf and Galla Placidia that had the potential to change the relationship between the Romans and the Visigoths. In January of that year, in an elaborate ceremony, Ataulf and Galla Placidia were married. The wedding was conducted in the Roman fashion, and Ataulf dressed in the uniform of a Roman general. His wedding gifts to his bride included many of the spoils of the sack of Rome, such as fifty Roman youths dressed in silk each carrying gold and precious gems. According to a contemporary account, Ataulf is supposed to have declared a change of heart in regard to the empire. Rather than seeking to replace Romania with Gothia as he originally intended, Ataulf declared that the "unbridled license" of the Goths would not allow this and therefore he aspired "to the glory of restoring and increasing the Roman name with Gothic vigor" (Bury 1959, 197). This sudden change of attitude was most likely the result of the influence of Galla Placidia, who bore a son in 415, whom they named Theodosius, in honor of his maternal grandfather. The name was a declaration of the legitimacy of the child and staked his claim to inherit the imperial throne. Unfortunately, Theodosius died shortly after birth, and Ataulf was murdered in 416.
   Galla Placidia continued to play an important role in Gothic and Roman affairs after the death of her first husband. Ataulf hoped to remain on good terms with the Romans and recommended to his brother that should anything happen to him, Galla Placidia be returned to the empire. Although the succession to the throne after the death of Ataulf was tumultuous, Galla Placidia was returned to the imperial court on January 1, 417, even though Ataulf's eventual successor, Vallia, was hostile to Rome. On her return, and most likely much to her dismay, Galla Placidia was married to the military commander, Constantius, who was raised to the status of co-emperor by Honorius in 421. But the Eastern emperor refused to recognize the new emperor and empress in the west, and Constantius died that same year. Galla Placidia had two children by Constantius, including the future emperor Valentinian III. Her relations with Honorius, however, became strained after her second husband's death, and power struggles ensued between them. She retained the loyalty of her Gothic guard and used them against her brother. She was then banished to Constantinople in 425, where she and her son were welcomed by Emperor Theodosius II (408-450) who had two years earlier spurned her.
   On the death of Honorius, Galla Placidia and her son returned to the Western Empire, where she ruled as regent for her young son. She faced numerous challenges during her years as regent, as well as the years following her son's majority, when she continued to exercise influence at court. She was troubled by both imperial politics, especially the rivalry with the powerful general Aëtius, and barbarian peoples, including the Vandals. In the early years of the regency of Valentinian, Galla Placidia's authority was unchallenged. But the successes that Aëtius enjoyed against the various barbarian peoples challenging the Western Empire allowed him to force Galla Placidia to make him her chief military commander in 429. When her son reached his majority, Aëtius's influence increased, even though Galla Placidia managed to replace him with a commander of her choice for a time. The empress's other great challenge came from Gaiseric and the Vandals. During her regency, Gaiseric took advantage of political unrest in Africa and moved there from Spain with his entire tribe of Vandals. Gaiseric managed to take control of much of imperial Africa, but did come to terms with Galla Placidia and signed a treaty in 435. Her last years were spent influencing affairs from behind the scenes and building churches and other public buildings in the imperial capital of Ravenna, Italy.
   See also
 ♦ Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. 2 vols. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.
 ♦ Hollum, Kenneth G. Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
 ♦ Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
 ♦ ---. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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