Captive, Widow, Queen: How Galla Placidia became Empress over the Western Roman Empire in the disturbed 5th Century A.D.
She was a stunner this Galla Placidia. Daughter of an emperor, hostage and widow of a Gothic king, widow of an emperor, mother and regent of an emperor and always in the middle of politics.
Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Ravenna. We are in the year 425 AD.
When this coin was minted, the woman it depicts was only 35 years old. And yet, she had experienced more at this young age than a modern writer could possibly conceive of for a heroine in his book.
The beautiful queen is portrayed in the full splendour of an empress: a diadem, long earrings, a double-row pearl necklace and a coat held together by a gorgeous fibula. The inscription tells us who this woman is: Domina Nostra Galla Placidia, Pia, Felix, Augusta. “Our Lady Galla Placidia, pious, lucky, Empress.”
Galla Placidia was the daughter of Roman Emperor Theodosius I. He died when she was only 5 years old.
Her oldest brother Arcadius became the new ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire. Her 10 year old brother Honorius was sent to the Western Roman Empire. Galla Placidia accompanied him. Of course Honorius was too young to rule himself. Many others were eager to execute the real power behind the throne. No wonder things got messy very quickly.
In 410 AD, the Visigoths raided Italy on their way across the country. They even succeeded in conquering the ancient city of Rome. They took many captives, among them Galla Placidia. The emperor’s daughter was then 20 years old.
The noble princess must have suffered a culture shock. But she was young. She got used to the nomadic life of the Goths. And as freeing her did not appear to be very high up on her brother’s list of priorities, she married the king of the Goths and gave him a son.
Her child died shortly after she’d given birth to it, her husband was murdered not much later. And Galla Placidia was sold back to the court for a considerable amount of corn. Back at court, her brother married her to Constantius, one of his military leaders, against her will. In this loveless marriage, she had two children before Constantius forced the childless Honorius to make him Emperor at his side. Constantius may have hoped to become Honorius’s heir one day. But he himself died only seven months after being promoted Emperor. And Galla Placidia was a widow once more, at the age of only 31.
She had to flee Italy and she went to Constantinople. But only months later she was back: her brother Honorius had died without naming an heir.
This was Galla Placidia’s chance. She returned with her little son Valentinian who had been appointed ruler of the Western Roman Empire. In her son’s stead, the young woman tried to keep the conflicts at bay which broke out between the power-hungry military leaders. There were hardly any men left to defend the Roman borders. Visigoths and Vandals took over large parts of the Western Roman Empire.
Galla Placidia took comfort in her faith. The cross had not only found its way onto coins. In this desperate situation, many turned to the Christian belief and hoped for a better life after death. So it happened that the Empress did not just spend the Empire’s revenues on soldiers’ pay. She used some of the taxes to finance the construction of great churches and thus secure herself a place in heaven.
When her son was old enough to rule himself, Galla Placidia retreated from her public life. She died on November 27, 450, and was spared to witness how Valentinian III, her son and last ruler in the line of a once so powerful family, was murdered.
Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.