For Mother’s Day, the story of ancient Rome’s Galla Placidia
Guest post by Joyce E. Salisbury
As I was writing Rome’s Christian Empress, I had to think a lot about the relationship between Mothers and children—particularly daughters. The eponymous empress, Galla Placidia, grew up amidst turbulent family politics (typical for Roman ruling families), but she had an image of herself as an empress—not as a princess. What gave her this vision of herself? In part, it was the coins she held. Her family— the Theodosian—struck coins showing some of their women as fully empress. The image below shows the gold solidus of Placidia’s sister-in-law, Eudoxia. The empress is shown with the imperial robes and military cloak worn by the male emperors. The hand of God above her head claims that she rules because God had chosen the House of Theodosius to rule the empire and bring Christianity to power.
Placidia was also a model for her daughter, and here is where we learn that the examples we give are not always the lessons our daughters learn. Placidia’s first attempt at displacing her brother as emperor came when she married a Gothic barbarian, Athaulf. When her daughter Honoria wanted to carve an empire for herself to challenge her own brother Valentinian, she too looked for a powerful barbarian. She sent her ring and proposed marriage to the empire’s greatest enemy, Attila the Hun. Of course, her mother was horrified—a polygamous pagan invader was not the same as a bright Goth in the prime of his life. But, as all mothers know, we don’t get to choose the lessons our daughters learn!
On this Mother’s Day, I offer the tale of this fifth-century ruling Roman family. The cover of my book shows a rare portrait of an ancient family commissioned by Placidia. It shows the Empress herself (in pearls) with her rebellious daughter, Honoria, and her son, the Emperor Valentinian, whose recklessness contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Luckily, Placidia died a contented mother, as she wrote, “forever empress,” leaving her son secure on the throne. It was only after her death that things fell apart, so on this Mother’s Day I shall drink a toast to this successful ancient mother/empress.
Joyce E. Salisbury is professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay. She is the author of Rome’s Christian Empress: Galla Placidia Rules at the Twilight of the Empire, Perpetua’s Passion: Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman, and The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages.