Roman Empire 364-411AD


The final twenty years of the fourth century marked the decline of Emperor Valentinian’s (364-375) dynasty in the Western Roman Empire and the rise of the Eastern dynasty of Theodosius (379-395) within the Western political realm. The successful rebellion led by Magnus Maximus (383-388) culminated in the assassination of Valentinian’s elder son, Emperor Gratian, and subsequently forced Valentinian II, the younger son, to flee from Milan to Thessalonica. It was in Thessalonica that a crucial marriage alliance was forged between the waning Western dynasty of Valentinian and the ascendant Eastern dynasty of Theodosius. Following the death of his first wife Aelia Flacilla, Theodosius consented to marry Galla, the sister of Valentinian II. This union propelled Theodosius to wage a civil war against Maximus in 388 to reinstate Valentinian II to the Western throne. After the mysterious death of Valentinian II in 392 and the rise of a new challenger, Eugenius, to the Western throne, Theodosius once again led his Eastern forces to victory in 394 against the usurper and his allies, thus consolidating his hold over the entire Roman Empire.

Following Emperor Theodosius’s death in early 395, his empire was once again divided among his two sons from his first marriage to Aelia Flaccilla. The eastern empire was bestowed upon Arcadius, who was around 17 or 18 years old at the time, while the ten-year-old Honorius was appointed as Augustus of the western empire just before Theodosius’s demise. The youthfulness of the new emperors necessitated the appointment of regents to manage the day-to-day affairs of their domains.

General Stilicho, who was married to Serena, Theodosius’s niece and adoptive daughter, took charge of the administration in the West. By reorganizing the Western military forces and closely supervising Honorius and his half-sister Galla Placidia, Theodosius’s daughter with Galla, Stilicho consolidated his power. This included arranging marriages between Honorius and his own daughters—first to Maria in 398, and following Maria’s death, to Thermantia in 407. However, Stilicho’s attempts to exert influence over the Eastern empire sparked a prolonged period of hostility between the Eastern and Western empires, as Arcadius’s regents were unwilling to relinquish their authority to Stilicho.

As Honorius approached adulthood in the early 5th century, the stability of Stilicho’s administration began to wane. Faced with two significant invasions of Italy by the Gothic leaders Alaric in 401-402 and Radagaisus in 405-406, Stilicho found himself compelled to significantly reduce the military presence in Gaul. This decision left Gaul vulnerable, leading to a wave of usurpations across the Gallic provinces and the notable invasion by the Alans, Vandals, and Suebi in 406. The accumulation of these external threats fostered internal strife within the imperial court, culminating in the downfall of Stilicho’s regime by 408.

Following Stilicho’s demise, the imperial court plunged into political turmoil as competing factions vied for control over Emperor Honorius. This tumultuous situation was further exacerbated by the incursion of Alaric in 408, who also sought influence within Honorius’ administration. Over the ensuing two years, Alaric employed various strategies to strengthen his position during negotiations with Honorius’ court in Ravenna. These tactics included successive sieges of Rome and forming an alliance with the Roman Senate to support the usurper Priscus Attalus. However, when these diplomatic efforts failed, Alaric resorted to more aggressive measures. In August 410, he permitted his followers to sack Rome for three days after abandoning further attempts at negotiation. As Alaric’s army departed from Rome on August 27, they carried away not only vast riches but also a hostage of significant political importance: Galla Placidia, Emperor Honorius’ sister.

Magnus Maximus

In the spring of 383, Magnus Maximus, a Spanish military officer stationed in Britain, seized power and usurped the throne, toppling the western regime of Emperor Gratian. Over the ensuing years, he consolidated control over Gaul, Britain, and Spain, while also gaining recognition from the eastern emperor Theodosius as a legitimate member of the imperial college. Meanwhile, the Valentinian dynasty, represented by the young Emperor Valentinian II under the regency of his mother Justina, retained authority over Italy, Africa, and the Illyrian prefecture. However, the fragile peace that had settled over the empire was shattered in the summer of 387 when Maximus invaded Italy. This forced Valentinian II, along with his mother Justina and at least one of his sisters, Galla, to flee the imperial residence in Milan and seek refuge in Thessalonica, the capital of the western diocese of Macedonia.

Valentinian II seeks aid from Emperor Theodosius

From Thessalonica, the imperial family urgently sought the aid of the eastern Emperor Theodosius in confronting Maximus’ aggression. Primary sources offer contrasting accounts of Theodosius’ decision to intervene in this struggle for control over the western empire. According to Augustine of Hippo, Theodosius was motivated by a profound respect for the memory of Gratian, leading him to assist the imperilled family. On the other hand, historian Zosimus, drawing upon the earlier work of Eunapius, presents a different narrative. Zosimus suggests that Theodosius initially hesitated until he encountered and became enamoured with Valentinian’s sister. Allegedly, Theodosius agreed to aid the refugees only after Justina offered Galla’s hand in marriage in exchange for his assistance.

Many modern historians have rightly questioned the stated causes for Theodosius’ intervention in the conflict. Zosimus, or his source Eunapius, holds a biased view towards Christian emperors like Theodosius, portraying him as lazy and cowardly. This bias undermines the credibility of Zosimus’ account, which is also criticized for its overly romanticized portrayal.

Similarly, Augustine’s narrative portrays Theodosius in a positive light, fitting the image of a virtuous Christian emperor. However, this portrayal may be influenced by the Nicene literary tradition, casting doubt on its accuracy regarding Theodosius’ intentions.

A more plausible interpretation of Theodosius’ motives can be derived from a careful analysis of the political dynamics of the time. Neil McLynn suggests that Theodosius had seized the eastern throne in 379 and had elevated his son Arcadius to the purple in 383 without Gratian’s approval, exacerbating tensions between the eastern and western empires. Marrying into the legitimate Valentinian dynasty provided Theodosius with additional legitimacy and support for his claims over the eastern empire, despite the stability of his own rule.

There are indications that Theodosius sought to expand his influence into the western empire. His marriage alliance with the Valentinian dynasty and his military support in restoring Valentinian II to the western throne could position him as a paternal regent over the West, a role that might be advantageous when the time came to allocate a portion of the empire to his second son, Honorius. The three years Theodosius spent in Italy after defeating Maximus demonstrate his determination to maintain control over the West.

Furthermore, from a perspective of imperial security, Theodosius had little choice but to confront Maximus to prevent a potentially hostile co-emperor from controlling the resources of the western empire.

Theodosius marries Galla and sends aid

Regardless of Theodosius’ actual motivations, his marriage to Galla, sister of Valentinian II, swiftly followed his agreement to aid the imperilled imperial family. While it’s suggested that Galla accompanied her mother and brother back to Italy in 388, there’s conflicting information. Zosimus indicates Galla’s presence, while the chronicler Marcellinus places her in Constantinople in 390, involved in a court dispute with her stepson Arcadius. It’s likely that Zosimus or his sources confused Galla with one of her sisters, suggesting that Galla herself remained in the eastern empire after her family’s departure.

It’s plausible that Galla had already conceived her first child before the commencement of the campaign in 388, which could have influenced her decision to remain in the eastern empire. Galla eventually bore at least two, and likely three, children to Emperor Theodosius, although only her daughter Placidia survived to adulthood. In a eulogy for Theodosius delivered in 395, Ambrose of Milan describes Theodosius’ reunion with his deceased children in heaven, including Pulcheria, a daughter from his first marriage to Aelia Flacilla, and Gratian, presumably a son of Galla who, like Pulcheria, did not survive childhood. A documented inscription in the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Ravenna, founded by Placidia sometime after 425, also mentions this Gratian, along with a child named John, who is otherwise unknown. Galla tragically died in childbirth along with her infant in 394. As John is not mentioned elsewhere, he might have been the infant who perished on this occasion.

No historical source provides the exact date of Galla Placidia’s birth or that of her siblings. However, we can logically narrow down the potential dates to either 388-389 or 392-393. These periods align with Theodosius’ residency in the western empire from 388 to 391 and also account for the conception of the child who tragically died with Galla in 394.

Notably, Ambrose’s famous letter to Theodosius, admonishing him for the massacre at Thessalonica, provides evidence for the latter of these two possible periods. In concluding his letter, Ambrose refers to Theodosius as the “father of Gratian.” Given that the letter was written around 390, this detail suggests that Galla had already given birth to Gratian, the unfortunate son of Theodosius who did not survive childhood. Gratian’s conception would have occurred before Theodosius departed for the West in 388. Therefore, we can reasonably infer that Placidia was born after Theodosius returned to the eastern empire, placing her birth in the years 392 or 393.

At a certain point during her youth, Placidia was granted her own household and properties, fitting for her status as an imperial princess. Synesius of Cyrene, in a letter discussing events from the year 400, briefly mentions a palace that belonged to Placidia and had previously been owned by the praefectus praetorio (PPO) Ablabius. Additionally, the fifth-century Notitia urbis Constantinopolitanae documents three properties associated with Placidia: a Palatium Placidianum and a Domum Placidiae Augustae in region one, and another Domum Augustae Placidiae in region ten. Records from the Chronicon Paschale indicate that at least one of these Constantinopolitan properties continued to bear Placidia’s name as late as the seventh century.

Placidia’s childhood was marked by tragedy, as she endured the successive losses of her brother Gratian, her mother, and her father. The exact date of Gratian’s death is unknown, but based on Ambrose’s references to the child, it likely occurred between approximately 390 and 395. Galla tragically died in childbirth at Constantinople shortly before Theodosius embarked on another civil war with the western empire in the early summer of 394. After emerging victorious from this campaign, Theodosius summoned his younger son, Honorius, born of his first wife Aelia Flacilla, from the east and installed the ten-year-old as Augustus on the western throne. Placidia likely accompanied her brother on this journey from Constantinople. However, early in 395, Theodosius’ health began to decline, and on January 17, before his fiftieth birthday, he passed away in Milan. Placidia and Honorius were left under the guardianship of Theodosius’ niece and adopted daughter, Serena, and her husband, the general Stilicho.

Stilicho, the General

According to Stilicho’s official propaganda, as articulated through the poet Claudian’s panegyric for the third consulship of Honorius in 396, Emperor Theodosius had entrusted Stilicho, his general and adoptive son-in-law, with the regency for both of his young sons, Honorius and Arcadius, on his deathbed. However, the officials of the eastern court, overseeing Emperor Arcadius who remained in Constantinople, had no intention of relinquishing control.

Over the following three years, Stilicho made aggressive attempts to extend his influence in the East through intrigue, assassination, and at least two military actions (395 and 397), ostensibly aimed at dealing with the renegade forces of Alaric. By 398, however, the situation between the two halves of the empire had deteriorated into what can best be described as a “cold war.” Although still actively hostile, the eastern and western empires largely limited their actions to political posturing for the next decade.

Denied access to the East, Stilicho redirected his efforts towards securing the stability of his regime in the West. Unlike his counterparts in the East, such as the praetorian prefect Rufinus and later the chamberlain Eutropius, Stilicho was not satisfied with relying solely on civilian office and personal influence with Emperor Honorius to maintain his power.

Given the absence of an official position for an imperial regent in Roman government, Stilicho took steps to consolidate his authority through various changes to the administration of the western empire. Additionally, he introduced a new titular formula to clarify his relationship with Emperor Honorius. Unexpectedly, Stilicho’s accomplishments laid the groundwork for the military dominance of the imperial court, a dynamic that would persist to varying degrees until the eventual fall of the western empire.
In 395, Stilicho possessed several advantages over his eastern rivals, Rufinus and later Eutropius. Being married to Theodosius’ niece and adopted daughter, Serena, Stilicho was effectively connected to the Theodosian dynasty through marriage, thus positioning him for high office within the imperial court. Additionally, Theodosius had groomed Stilicho for significant responsibilities.

Moreover, unlike Emperor Arcadius, who was already in his late teens at the time of Theodosius’ death, Honorius was merely ten years old, legally requiring tutelage, at least until the age of fourteen. This meant that Stilicho could potentially wield considerable influence over the young emperor’s decisions.

Furthermore, Stilicho held a military position rather than a civilian one, which could make his dismissal more challenging, depending on his relationship with the troops. This military backing could further solidify his position of power within the empire.

Despite his advantages, Stilicho implemented further measures to consolidate his newfound position and reinforce his regime. One significant aspect he addressed was the contrast in military administration between the eastern and western empires during the late fourth century.

In the East, military command was decentralized, with at least five individuals holding the title of magister utriusque militiae (master of both infantry and cavalry). These individuals commanded various regions with more or less equal rank and authority.

In contrast, the West had a more centralized military structure. Only two individuals held the highest military ranks: the magister peditum praesentalis (master of infantry in the emperor’s presence) and the magister equitum praesentalis (master of cavalry in the emperor’s presence). These officials had dominion over the entire western empire. Additionally, although technically equal, the magister equitum was typically subordinate to the magister peditum, further emphasizing the centralized nature of military power in the West.

Having ascended through the ranks of the military administration in the eastern empire, Stilicho attained the office of magister utriusque militiae (master of both infantry and cavalry) by the year 393. Following Theodosius’ death in 395, Stilicho retained this position, which took on new significance in the context of the western empire.

Expanding on the historical trend of the magister peditum holding functional superiority over the magister equitum, Stilicho consolidated the functions of both offices into his new role as magister utriusque militiae praesentalis. Although the office of magister equitum persisted, its role was significantly reduced. As magister militum praesentalis, Stilicho appointed or confirmed the appointments of all comites rei militaris (military counts) and duces (generals) throughout the empire, along with their subordinate officials.

Through these restructuring efforts in the western military administration, Stilicho concentrated the entire power of the western Roman military apparatus around himself. This consolidation ensured that Stilicho wielded unparalleled authority within the military hierarchy of the western empire.

Stilicho utilized propaganda to articulate his relationship with the sons of Theodosius, leveraging his familial connections to the Theodosian house. The Egyptian poet and court propagandist, Claudian, played a key role in conveying Stilicho’s position in terms of familial values.

Claudian portrayed Stilicho as a parens principum, emphasizing his role as a paternal figure to the young emperors and highlighting his reverence and devotion (reverentia and pietas) towards them. Additionally, the poet depicted Serena, Stilicho’s wife and Theodosius’ niece and adopted daughter, as a mother figure to Emperor Honorius, further solidifying the familial bond.

Furthermore, Claudian frequently underscored the fact that Emperor Theodosius himself had entrusted the regency of his sons to Stilicho. By emphasizing this aspect, Claudian reinforced the legitimacy of Stilicho’s regime and his authority over the empire.

In 398, facing a series of military and political setbacks, Stilicho took further action to secure his position. It is widely believed that Stilicho and Serena had long planned to arrange a marriage between Emperor Honorius and one of their daughters. Such a union would not only strengthen the bond between the emperor and his benefactors but also potentially pave the way for one of their descendants to ascend to the imperial throne.

However, in 397, Stilicho’s unsuccessful expedition against Alaric in Greece led to him being labeled a public enemy by the eastern court. Additionally, he had to contend with the rebellion of Gildo in Africa during the same year. These challenges inevitably exposed his regime to criticism and scrutiny.

Therefore, in February of 398, political expediency likely drove Stilicho and Serena to expedite a marriage between their thirteen-year-old daughter Maria and Emperor Honorius, who was fourteen at the time. While the marriage did indeed bolster Stilicho’s grip over the western empire during a period of crisis, it ultimately failed to produce any offspring. Tragically, Maria passed away childless in 407.

Subsequently, Honorius promptly wed Maria’s younger sister, Thermantia, with similarly fruitless results. In fact, some sources suggest that when Thermantia was returned to her mother following Stilicho’s fall from power in 408, the marriage had yet to be consummated.

Galla Placidia

During the fluctuating political stability of Stilicho’s regime, little is known about Galla Placidia’s life. It’s reasonable to assume that she was raised in the household of Serena and received education typical for a Roman girl of imperial rank. At some point during her youth, she was bestowed with the title nobilissima puella, as evidenced by a bronze plaque discovered in Rome. The location of this plaque suggests that she received the title during Stilicho’s regime rather than in her early years in Constantinople.

Rome may have been her primary residence during these formative years, as she later found herself among those trapped in the city during the tumultuous events of 408-410.

In his panegyric on the consulship of Stilicho in 400, Claudian subtly hints at the regime’s broader dynastic ambitions through his portrayal of a series of embroidered images on Stilicho’s consular robe. The poet describes one image depicting Serena comforting her daughter Maria, who has just given birth to an imperial heir, while nymphs wash the newborn in a fountain of gold. Another image portrays an older Stilicho imparting martial knowledge to the child. A third image depicts Stilicho’s son, Eucherius, engaged in a hunting scene. Lastly, an image shows the goddess Venus presiding over a marriage between Eucherius and an unnamed daughter-in-law who is described as “the offspring of an emperor and the sister of emperors.”

It is evident that Galla Placidia is intended to be Eucherius’ future bride in this depiction, suggesting the regime’s ambitions for dynastic consolidation and expansion of influence.

Despite Stilicho’s intentions around the year 400 to strengthen the ties between his descendants and the Theodosian dynasty, the marriage between Eucherius and Galla Placidia never came to fruition. According to Stewart Irvin Oost, an influential biographer of Placidia, the marriage might have been postponed until after Emperor Honorius and Maria had produced a child. This delay could have been motivated by political considerations, as Stilicho’s detractors could perceive the union as a dynastic threat to the young emperor’s security, particularly if Eucherius and Placidia were to have children before Honorius and Maria did.

Historical events such as the revolt of Procopius in 365-366 and Constantinian family politics demonstrated the risks associated with allowing auxiliary branches of the imperial family to gain power. Moreover, the potential for ambitious husbands to leverage their marriage to an emperor’s sister for personal gain, as seen in the cases of Constantius III in 421 and Emperor Marcian in 451, further emphasized the importance of maintaining celibacy among imperial sisters.

In this context, Stilicho’s intention for Placidia to marry Eucherius was not necessarily radical; rather, the radical element lay in the departure from the tradition of celibacy itself. Placidia’s entry onto the historical stage occurred following Stilicho’s fall, during a pivotal moment when the eastern emperor Arcadius passed away. While Honorius intended to travel to Constantinople to oversee his nephew Theodosius II’s ascension, Stilicho aimed to extend his influence into the East, asserting old claims to regency in both the eastern and western parts of the empire. Stilicho’s maneuvering, using the rise of Constantine III in Gaul as a pretext, ultimately set the stage for significant political developments.

Stilicho’s decision to extend his power to the East came at a time when his control over the western empire was already weakening. The incursions of Suebi, Vandals, and Alans across the Rhine frontier in 406 had caused significant disruption in the northern Gallic provinces. The subsequent rise of Constantine III as a usurper further destabilized the situation, compelling loyalists of Emperor Honorius to seek refuge in Italy.

Additionally, Stilicho’s dealings with Alaric reached a critical point in 407 when the barbarian leader demanded a large sum of gold. Stilicho managed to shift the burden of this demand onto the Roman Senate, but this victory alienated him further from his enemies, particularly among the senatorial class.

Stilicho’s adversaries, led by the magister scrinii Olympius, seized the opportunity presented by his plans for the East to orchestrate his downfall. Rumors spread that Stilicho intended to seize the eastern empire and install his son Eucherius as emperor, leading to a mutiny among the troops in northern Italy in August 408. Stilicho sought refuge in a church in Ravenna but was lured out and executed on August 22, 408. His son Eucherius was also killed, and his daughter Thermantia was sent back to her mother, Serena, in Rome.

However, the removal of Stilicho and his supporters only plunged the western empire into further chaos. The new regime under Olympius was unstable, and the brutal actions taken against Stilicho’s allies led to resentment and further unrest. The situation was exploited by Alaric, who, despite attempts at negotiations, eventually besieged Rome in 410, leading to its sack.

Internal power struggles within the imperial court, including the fall and restoration of Olympius, further complicated matters. Loyalties were questioned, and decisions made by officials such as Jovius, who was sympathetic to Alaric, hindered efforts to negotiate a resolution. The chaotic aftermath of Stilicho’s fall exacerbated the challenges facing the western empire and contributed to its continued instability.

During the turbulent period following Alaric’s sieges of Rome and the rise of the usurper Priscus Attalus, Galla Placidia emerged as a significant figure in Roman political life. According to Zosimus, Placidia played a role in the decision to execute Serena, her foster mother, whom the Senate believed had colluded with Alaric. This raises questions about Placidia’s motivations and relationship with Serena.

Scholars have debated the nature of Placidia’s involvement in Serena’s execution. Some suggest that Placidia harbored a deep hatred for Serena, stemming from a sense of manipulation and exploitation by Serena and Stilicho during their upbringing. Placidia and Honorius may have felt like pawns in Stilicho and Serena’s regime and could have consented to the execution as a form of revenge or to rid themselves of perceived threats.

However, others argue that Placidia’s participation in Serena’s execution might have been the result of coercion or intimidation by the Senate. The chaotic circumstances, with Rome under siege and the rise of Priscus Attalus, may have led to a climate of panic and scapegoating. Serena’s execution could have been seen as a way to appease the populace and shift blame for the city’s plight.

While some scholars view Placidia’s involvement in Serena’s execution as evidence of her active political rise, it is more plausible to consider it within the context of the prevailing political dynamics and pressures of the time. The decision to execute Serena likely involved various factors, including political expediency, fear, and the desire for retribution, rather than solely reflecting Placidia’s personal ambitions or animosity.

Galla Placidia is Kept Hostage

During the tumultuous events of 409 and 410, Galla Placidia found herself in increasingly precarious circumstances. In December of 409, as Rome rejected the rule of Honorius and allied with Alaric, Placidia’s safety became a concern. The elevation of Priscus Attalus to the imperial throne, with Alaric’s support, marked a significant shift in the political landscape. However, Attalus’s refusal to heed Alaric’s advice and his subsequent failures led to a breakdown in the alliance between Alaric and the Roman Senate.

As negotiations with Honorius failed and tensions escalated, Placidia’s situation grew more perilous. With Alaric’s capture of Rome in August of 410, Placidia found herself in his custody, either as a hostage or under house arrest. Zosimus provides a detailed account suggesting that Placidia was held by Alaric earlier in the summer of 410, along with Attalus and his son Ampelius, as negotiations with Honorius continued.

While other sources offer differing timelines of Placidia’s captivity, Zosimus’s narrative aligns with the political dynamics of the time. Both Alaric and the Roman Senate recognized the strategic value of holding Placidia, the sister of the emperor, as a bargaining chip in their dealings with Honorius. As negotiations faltered and alliances shifted, Placidia’s status as a hostage or high-status prisoner would have remained crucial in the power struggles unfolding between Rome, Alaric, and Attalus.

Ultimately, the capture of Placidia by Alaric highlights the complex and volatile nature of political alliances and power dynamics during this period of Roman history. Placidia’s fate became intertwined with the shifting fortunes of emperors and usurpers, illustrating the precariousness of life in the midst of political upheaval.

The effect of Galla Placidia’s captivity on Alaric’s negotiations with Honorius remains unclear. While some scholars speculate that Honorius may have become more conciliatory towards Alaric due to Placidia’s hostage status, there is limited evidence to support this claim. Honorius’s initial offer of co-rule with Priscus Attalus in 409 may have been influenced by a similar situation involving Constantine III, who held Honorius’s relatives captive. Placidia’s captivity could have prompted Honorius to make similar concessions in an attempt to placate Attalus and Alaric.

Regardless of when her captivity began, Placidia was certainly among the prominent individuals in Alaric’s army when they left Rome after its sack in August 410. Subsequently, Alaric died near Consentia, and his lieutenant Athaulf took command of the army. Placidia remained a hostage among Athaulf’s forces for the next three years, during which negotiations likely took place between the barbarian army and the imperial court.

Placidia’s captivity among Athaulf’s forces may have initially been traumatic, but she eventually realized the opportunities it presented for her own ambitions. This conscious decision to embrace these opportunities would have significant consequences for her future and the political landscape of the western Roman Empire.

While the details of negotiations and interactions between Athaulf’s forces and the imperial court are scarce, it is evident that the problem of the barbarian army took a backseat to other priorities in Ravenna by 411. The imperial court likely focused on dealing with the usurpers in Gaul, while Placidia remained a hostage in Athaulf’s custody.