If we were judging by famous ancestors, Aelia Galla Placidia had collected quite a few plums. Daughter of Emperor Theodosius I and his second wife, Galla, who was the daughter of Emperor Valentinian I. Her half brothers were emperors Honorius and Arcadius, and nephew was Theodosius II, emperor in Constantinople. Her son went on to become Emperor Valentinian III. Granted, some of the crop was a bit questionable and possibly moldy, but they were plums all the same. Added to, or perhaps in spite of, her famous relative, Galla Placidia was one of the most influential figures of the time. Her biographer Stewart Irvin Oost says, she “played at least as important a role as any other figure in the history of the Western Empire throughout the first half of the critical fifth century….” In spite of all this, no one bothered to record her birthday. We think it was between 388 and 393 CE.
Her father died soon after her birth in 395, and Galla Placidia was present at his court at his death. She was granted the title of “Nobilissima Puella”, or most noble girl, around this time. Galla Placidia spent most of her childhood in the household of Stilicho the Vandal and his wife Serena, who may have been the daughter of Theodosius I’s brother. There, Galla Placidia was given the traditional education of noble woman, weaving and embroidery, as well as possibly an education in the classics. Stilicho was magister militum, or the top military general, or the Western Roman Empire. Passing through their home were men who were in charge of the empire, so Galla Placidia must have learned politics with her weaving.
In 408, Galla Placidia’s half brother Arcadius, Emperor in the East, died and left the throne to his son Theodosius II. Stilicho was heading to Constantinople to advise the young ruler when a coup d’etat took place and Stilicho and Serena were killed. There were also purges in the army to eliminate anyone still loyal to Stilicho. Many men were killed or fled Rome. This left Rome vulnerable, and when the Goths laid siege there was not much of defense. Rome was sacked in 410 and captured by the Goths. She traveled with them as their hostage for three years, moving from the Italian Peninsula to Gaul in 412. A truce was negotiated between Ataulf, the leader of the Goths, and Honorius, the Western Emperor. Galla Placidia’s marriage to Ataulf sealed the deal. Perhaps in their travels the two had gotten to know each other so the marriage was as distasteful as it could have been. There are hints in some writings that the two were more than captive and captor to each other, but this is only rumor. The couple had one son who died young, and Ataulf died suddenly three years later. Siegeric was proclaimed as the new leader of the Goths, and he was not well disposed to his predecessor’s family. According to The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Galla Placidia, as Ataulf’s widow, was “treated with cruel and wanton insult” by being forced to walk more than twelve miles on foot among the crowd of captives. Wrong answer. Supposedly, this inspired the opponents of the new leader of the Goth’s to overthrow him. The new leader made peace with Rome again and Galla Placidia was sent home as part of the treaty. She was given in marriage to the new magister militum, Constantius. All this happened before she was 25 years old.
Constantius and Galla Placidia had two children, Justa Grata Honoria and Valentinian. Constantius was raised to co-emperor with Honorius and Galla Placidia was raised to Augusta in 421. Constantius died soon after of an unknown illness. This left Honorius and Galla Placidia alone together at court in Ravenna. At first, things were fine and they seemed close. Then Honorius developed an unsettling attachment to his younger sister. Olympiodorus of Thebes describes increasingly scandalous public caresses Honorius foisted upon her. That had to have been horrible. Some historians also speculate that the Gothic soldiers were adhering too closely to the widow of their fallen leader, Ataulf. The combination of these things and possibly unknown factors led to a falling out between the siblings and Galla Placidia was forced to flee with her family to Constantinople in 423.
The time in Constantinople was brief as Honorius died later that year of dropsy. In the absence of anyone from the imperial family in Ravenna, Joannes, the primicerius notarioum or chief notary, claimed the throne at behest of another general. This would not do. Reconfirmed in her rank of Augusta and her son, Valentinian, confirmed as Caesar, Galla Placidia and her family traveled back to Ravenna to claim the throne. Valentinian was proclaimed Western Emperor soon after.
For twelve tumultuous years, Galla Placidia ruled for her minor son. Even after her son took the throne, she was still an important influence. In 450 when Attila the Hun ravaged Europe, Justa Grata Honoria sent a message with a ring to the barbarian leader asking him to help her avoid a forced marriage. Attila took this as a proposal of marriage and demanded a dowry of half the Western Empire. Valentinian did not kill his sister for this only at his mother’s urgings. Honoria was quickly married off, but that did not stop Attila from pressing his claims. Not long after, in 450 Galla Placidia died.
During her life, Galla Placidia built many churches in Ravenna as well as a beautiful mausoleum complete with fine examples of Byzantine mosaics. It is called the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, but there is some question as to whether she is buried there. Far more probable that she was buried in the Rotunda of St. Petronilla next to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Sources available on request