The Unflappable Felicity of Galla Placidia

Aelia_Galla_PlacidiaAlthough men dominated the history of the Middle Ages, many great women stood at the periphery of events; and, no woman was more peripheral than Galla Placidia.  In fact, you could stand in the middle of any event that was happening in Rome, swing a dead cat, and you’d probably hit Galla Placidia.  Unlike many peripherals of the day, however, she was not a schemer or ambitious.  She was just well-placed.

Placidia was the daughter of Emperor Theodosius I and half-sister to the two idiots Honorius and Arcadius, who would prove that even Rome could be brought down with effective mismanagement.  She was born in 392 and never looked back (if you’ve ever attended a birth, you understand why).  Placidia was given the title of Nobilissima Puella, which translates to “noblest girl”.  Rumor has it that there was a nobler girl somewhere in Gaul; but, her parents never filled out the entry form.

Galla Placidia was betrothed to Stilicho’s son, Eucherius.  Placidia was a Roman and Stilicho was a Vandal, so one of them was marrying up.  It hardly matters, because Honorius, in one of his more brilliant moves as emperor of the Western Empire, had his best general, Stilicho, killed.  Later, Honorius’ forces managed to find Eucherius and that was the end of him.  There was nothing left for Placidia to do but ride out the siege of Rome by the Visigoths. 

As was the custom in those days, Galla Placidia was taken prisoner by Alaric’s Visigoths.  No one knows if Alaric had any designs on her, because he died before he could get her on the five-yard line.  Alaric’s successor, Ataulf, was partial to her.  After the new Visigoth king had taken care of some “nasty business” for Honorius, Honorius was pleased as punch to give his half-sister away in marriage.  Galla and Ataulf were married post-haste, ad hoc and e pluribus unum, in 411.

The two had one child, Theodosius, who lived only a few months.  This was only a few months shy of the average life span in the Middle Ages, but feelings were hurt, nonetheless.  Before they could try again, a servant of Ataulf killed the Visigoth king in the bathtub, like a common bar of soap.  Apparently, it was blowback from that “nasty business” Ataulf took care of for Honorius.  When the dust settled, Placidia had been demoted from queen to prisoner.  This was only temporary, because the new Visigoth king was replaced pretty quickly after being assassinated himself, which was the Affirmative Action of its day.

Placidia was traded back to her half-brother when the Visigoths ran out of food.  She was promptly married off to Constantius III, the head of Honorius’ military.  It wasn’t considered a mutual attraction, but, by now, Placidia’s free will gauge was showing  just above empty.  Constantius eventually became co-ruler of the Western Roman Empire with Gallas.  After some pretty rough blows, Placidia could finally kick off her sandals and relax, as an empress, which is the very best way to relax.  If you were given a choice between relaxing and being and empress and relaxing, you should take the latter…trust me.

Constantius died in 421 leaving Placidia to take care of their two kids and the political world single-handedly.  She did not last long.  Rumors of incest (with her half-brother, Honorius) created a volatile situation that could only be fixed by having an empty space where Gallas Placidia used to be.  She hung out in the Eastern Roman Empire, although not as an empress.  Seems they didn’t recognize her authority in the east due to the fact that she’d forgotten the secret handshake. 

Placidia’s son, Valentinian III, was groomed by the Eastern emperor to be ruler of the Western Empire.  The Byzantines eventually removed the existing emperor and replaced him with Valentinian.  Placidia was made regent of the Western Roman Empire, ruling until her son was eighteen and could legally drink in Mexico.  By that time, she had lost much of her power, due to circumstances both military and bafflingly odd. 

One of her last acts of influence was on behalf of her daughter Justa Grata Honoria (not to be confused with Inna Gotta Davita).  Apparently, Honoria was betrothed to a senator that she didn’t like, so she wrote Attila for aid.  She was probably influenced by the old Roman saying, If you want something done, ask a Hun.  The Hun leader took the letter as a proposal of marriage and went to Rome to collect Honoria and half of the Roman Empire.  Gallas Placidia and the rest of the royal family assured the Hun that the whole thing was a wacky misunderstanding.  They shook hands on it and, soon after, Attila looted most of Italy.

Valentinian III, overreacting as usual, wanted to put his sister to death.  Placidia convinced him that a good exiling would put the girl in her place…and assurances that she would never get the title of “Noblest Woman” (which was recently bestowed on ex-middleweight champion Roberto Duran, for some reason).  Gallas Placidia died later that year having lived a life so rich that, to look back on it, might cause a person to scream and never stop.

Want to read more?  Bede the Venerable is right here.

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