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Chemistry of an empire: the last Roman empress

Galla Placidia was the last (and the only) Western Roman Empress. A contemporary of such figures as Saint Augustine, Saint Patrick, Attila the Hun, and – perhaps – King Arthur, she had the rare chance to be able to do something that past Roman Emperors never could do; take the Empire to its next stage which was to be, unavoidably, its demise.

As I was preparing this essay on Empress Galla Placidia, I found myself giving an impromptu talk on the subject to my students in chemistry on the last lesson before Christmas. Later on, I thought that I could write my essay in the form of that talk. So, here it is. It is much expanded in comparison to what I said to my students on that occasion, but still it maintains the essence of it. I have added headings and some figures.

Introduction: chemistry of an empire

I think there won't be a lecture in chemistry, today.  We are close to Christmas, there are just a few of you and so it is better to skip a long and boring lecture, we'll have it after the pause for the holidays. So, we could simply leave for a coffee but, maybe, we could use this time we have in a different way. You know, there is a subject that I work on when I have some free time: Roman history. So, I was thinking that, instead of giving you a lecture in chemistry, I could speak to you about that. How would you like to hear the story of a Roman princess who married a barbarian king and then became Empress of Rome?

Now, I see from your faces that - yes - you would like to be told this story. But note that perhaps it is a subject that is not so far from chemistry as you might think. You see, civilizations can be seen as huge chemical reactions and you know that chemical reactions tend to flare up and then subside; it is what we call "chemical kinetics," you have studied that. The same happens for empires; they tend to flare up and then disappear; that's what happened to the Roman Empire, as you know.  So, civilizations and chemical reactions can be studied using similar methods; it is a field of science that goes under the name of "system dynamics". In a sense, there are forces pushing people to do things just like there are forces pushing molecules to react. In chemistry we call those forces “chemical potentials”, about people we might use the term “destiny” or something like that. But perhaps the difference is not so great.

But don't worry about equations. I said that today I was going to tell you a story, and I am going to do it. It is the story of Galla Placidia; born a Roman princess, then Queen of the Goths, and, in the end, Empress of Rome. It is a great story of love, sex, and war. So, let's start!

The fall of Rome.

Now, I am asking you to close your eyes and forget for a moment where you are. Forget that you are in a classroom, forget that you are students of chemistry, forget that you live in the 21st century. Try to imagine something that existed way back in time: ancient Rome in the first years of the 5th century of our era, fifteen hundred years ago.

Yes, Rome, the eternal city, the center of the world, the cradle of civilization, the place all the roads lead to. At the beginning of the 5th century, Rome is still the largest city of Europe; the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Think of the city as stretched over its seven hills; surrounded by the massive Aurelian walls, full of marble palaces, markets, amphitheaters, gardens, and fountains. The Roman Senate still holds sessions in the Curia and gladiators still fight in the arenas, as they have been doing for centuries.

But, with the 5th century, things have changed a lot for the Empire. The victorious armies of old are gone; the Emperor himself doesn't even live in Rome any longer. He stays in the small town of Ravenna, protected by the marshes that surround it. And, in 410 A.D., Rome is under siege.

Imagine that: outside the walls of Rome there is a whole nation: men, women, children, horses and cattle. Tens of thousands of people who have marched there all the way from the North: the Visigoths. They are led by their king, Alaric, and now they are besieging Rome. While the Emperor, Honorius, is hiding in Ravenna, the only barrier that keeps the Barbarian out of the city is the circle of the ancient Aurelian walls. But that cannot last forever. Without an army to defend the walls, the outcome of the siege could be only one. In August of 410, the Barbarians broke in and they sacked Rome. That date was to be remembered in history: the most powerful city in the world, the “eternal” city, had fallen. The shock for the event reverberated for centuries. Among other things, it inspired Augustine's "The City of God" still well known today.

Now, how was that the largest city in the world, the "eternal" city, had ended up sacked by a band of Barbarians? It was, in fact, the final point of a decline that had been going on for centuries. You know that the peak of the Roman Empire had been at some moment in the second century A.D. After that period, it had been all downhill: civil wars, Barbarian invasions, epidemics, famines and all that. Not a smooth process, of course. There had been very difficult periods and periods when the Empire seemed to be able to recover. On the whole, the Western Empire had managed to remain all in one piece up to the end of the 4th century. But, with the 5th century, things were to change and, this time, the Empire would never really recover.

Edward Gibbon gives us an especially poignant report of these events in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In the year 405 (perhaps), the winter was very cold – so cold that it froze the waters of the Rhine river. That river had been the Eastern border of the Empire for centuries. It had been chosen after the Romans had been defeated by the Germans at Teutoburg, long before. But when it froze, a great number of Barbarians crossed over. That was the end of the border fortifications; the Romans simply couldn't defend them any more. The walls were abandoned and left to crumble to dust for ever and ever. It was an epochal change; from then on, the Barbarians were inside the Empire and they would stay there.   

Of the Barbarians who had crossed the Rhine, a large band marched directly towards Rome. They were met at the foot of the Appennini Mountains, at the city of Faesulae, by what Gibbon calls "the last army of the Republic". The Romans had gathered there all the forces they could muster and they succeeded in stopping the Barbarians. Trapped in a narrow valley, the Barbarians were nearly all killed or taken prisoners and sold as slaves. Their King, Radagaisus, was captured and beheaded. These events are still remembered as legends in the area where the battle was fought.

It was a great victory for Rome and in particular for the general who had been leading the Roman army: Flavius Stilicho. But there was a problem: successful generals are never liked by suspicious emperors. Besides, Stilicho was a Barbarian himself, a Vandal. And that didn't make him popular with the Romans. So, Emperor Honorius had Stilicho executed for treason. That was a big mistake, a very big one; you might say that Honorius had shot himself in the foot with his crossbow. By then, the Roman Army was composed mainly of Barbarians and, with their chief, Stilicho, betrayed and killed, most of them deserted. The army melted away and many of those who deserted joined the army of King Alaric. Now, you can understand how it was that Rome was left undefended and it ended up falling to the Barbarians.

Galla Placidia: Roman Princess

What I have been telling to you is the history of the fall of Rome as we can read it in the texts of the chroniclers. Actually, very little is left in terms of contemporary sources; most of what we have was written decades, if not centuries, after the events. So, we need to put together all the sources we have to try to understand what was exactly happening. And there is a human side to the events that goes beyond the fact that Rome was in decline and that it eventually fell.  We can just barely imagine what was the atmosphere in Rome during the two years of the siege, what people thought and how they saw an event that - by all means - they must have found incredible; actually impossible. Rome had not been besieged for a thousand years, it was the greatest city in the known world. That it would fall to a petty Barbarian lord, that was.... come on. It just can't be!

The problem is that when people face something that doesn't fit with the way they think the world should be, they tend to ignore it. If they can't, then they may go crazy. And the Romans went crazy. They tried whatever they could think of in order to impress King Alaric. They raised a new Emperor, someone named Priscus Attalus, with all the pump involved. But the Barbarian King was unimpressed. Then, they sent to him a delegation of Senators, and they told the King how numerous the Romans were. To that, Alaric answered, solemnly (I figure) “The thicker the hay, the easier it is mowed” Now, tell me if this is not the stuff legends are made of!

At this point, the Romans really went crazy. Yes, they went nuts, bananas, watermelons, whatever you like to call that condition. They started looking for a culprit, a scapegoat, someone to blame. Now, you remember that Emperor Honorius had accused his general Flavius Stilicho of treason; that is, of being colluded with the Barbarians. That was already an effect of the rampaging paranoia. But, in the besieged Rome, paranoia went up of a few notches. Someone noticed that Stilicho's widow, Serena, was in Rome. If her husband had been a traitor, well, she had to be a traitoress. Serena was the cousin of Emperor Honorius, a noblewoman of high rank. But when paranoia becomes the rule, it generates pure evil. Serena was accused of treason, sentenced to death by the Senate, and executed by strangling.

It is at this point that we have the first appearance of Galla Placidia in history as an adult, she was around 20 years old at that time. We are told by the chronicler Zosimus that the execution of Serena was done, "with Galla Placidia's consent."

We have a little story to tell, here. Let's go back of a few years. Placidia's father, Theodosius 1st, "The Great" had been the last Roman Emperor to rule over both the Eastern and the Western part of the Empire. He had two male children, Arcadius and Honorius, to whom he left the Empire, Arcadius took the East and Honorius the West. But Theodosius had also a younger daughter, Galla Placidia, who got nothing. Then as now, being female is not an asset when it is question of inheriting an Empire. But Theodosius may have understood that his two male children wouldn't have made good emperors (they didn't) and so he kept Placidia in reserve, sort of; something that turned out to have been a smart move. Theodosius left Placidia in care of his best general, Flavius Stilicho, who raised her in his household, with his wife Serena who was also Theodosius' niece.

So, in the years of the siege, Placidia was in Rome, probably staying together with her foster mother, Serena. Now, we can barely imagine a situation in which the Senate decides to sentence to death a noblewoman of high rank, as Serena was. But Placidia was of even higher rank in terms of nobility. She had the title of "puella nobilissima." I think you know enough Latin to translate this as "most noble girl," which is, of course, the equivalent of what we call "princess" today. So, in a sense, the Senators got cold feet with their idea of killing Serena and they asked to the highest rank noble in Rome, Placidia, to take the responsibility of what was, in effect, a legalized murder. And they were asking her to agree on the murder of someone who was both her foster mother and a close relative.

We can't say, of course, what passed in Placidia's mind at that time. We can't even be sure that she actually approved anything like that. We know about this story only from a line written by Zosimus, a Greek who wrote more than a century after the events. But, if it did happen, it was the first political decision taken by Placidia in her life; something that may give us some idea of her way of thinking. Possibly, she may simply have cracked under the stress of the moment. But she may also have reasoned that opposing the Senate would have made no difference. They had already decided on that crazy idea of killing the Serena, what was to stop them if they were to get even more crazy and decide to kill also Placidia? After all, she was Stilicho's foster daughter; maybe they could think she was a traitoress, too. So, maybe Placidia just didn't try to fight a battle she couldn't win. It was her style: don't fight the unavoidable. We'll see that it will resurface more than once, later on. Placidia could be flexible, adapt and thrive even in very difficult situations.

With the execution of Serena, the supposed traitoress, we may imagine that the Romans expected that the Visigoths would vanish in a puff of smoke. But, of course, that didn't happen. In 410 a.d. the Visigoths broke in, they sacked Rome, and not just that: they took with them a very big prize: Galla Placidia herself; puella nobilissima. The chroniclers don't mention anything like Placidia being dragged away from her palace, kicking and screaming – actually they are totally silent on this point. Probably, that means something. We don't have to think that Placidia was happy to join the Barbarians but, again, she didn't try to avoid the unavoidable. We can't even exclude that she may have felt safer with the Barbarians than with the treacherous Roman Senators. At least, as far as we know, the Visigoths treated Galla Placidia with all the honors due to a puella nobilissima, sister of the ruling Emperor.

The Visigoths left Rome and headed South, with the idea of crossing the sea, to Africa, and of settling there. They arrived to the southernmost tip of the Italian peninsula, but they couldn't cross to Africa because a storm destroyed the ships they had assembled on the coast. Then, King Alaric died and legend has that he was buried under the riverbed of the Busento river, together with his share of the gold sacked in Rome. Another event that rings of legend. People are still looking for that treasure, today!

At this point, stranded in Southern Italy and short of food, the Visigoths had no choice but to go back, slowly retracing their road. They were led by their new king, Athaulf, half brother of Alaric. The travel to Southern Italy had weakened them considerably and, when they arrived close to Rome, they couldn't even dream to sack the city again. They kept moving on and, eventually, they stopped in Southern France, by then largely abandoned by the Roman Empire. And, on the way, Placidia married Athaulf, perhaps in Italy, or perhaps in Narbonne, in France. That was in 414, four years after the fall of Rome. Placidia was around 25 at that time.

The Royal Marriage

I think you are all visualizing the marriage of Galla Placidia and Athaulf and, indeed, it must have been something special: a real imperial marriage. It was celebrated with great pump and high Roman festivities. We even have a description of the magnificent gifts that were given to Placidia from the booty that the Goths had captured in Rome. The wedding speech was given by a Roman Senator, Priscus Attalus, who had been was claiming the title of Emperor from the time of the siege of Rome. Attalus even sang a song at the wedding; you know, that was something: think of having an Emperor singing at your wedding!

Galla Placida, the Roman Princess, now gladly took for herself the title of “Queen of the Goths”. I say “gladly” because she never reneged that title later in life, no matter what happened to her – and we'll see that a lot of things happened. But why that? I mean, she already had the title of Roman Princess, she had good possibility to marry a would-be emperor and become Empress herself. Why would she want to become Queen of a Barbarian nation? In addition, think that Athaulf was the brother of Alaric, the king who had sacked Rome. If you can imagine the daughter of an American president marrying the brother of Osama Bin Laden, well, then you can get some idea of what kind of decision Placidia took. 

Of course, 1500 years after the event, we can't say what passed in the mind of Galla Placidia and we can't exclude that there was a romantic element in her decision. That brings the question of whether Athaulf was a handsome man, but we have no portraits of him. We don't even know how old he was at the time of this marriage. We know that he had been married before, that he had four children but we have no idea of what happened of his first wife. So, we can only say that, probably, he was older than Placidia, but that's about it. We know much more about Placida, but we don't have a portrait of her, either. But, if we want to understand this story, we have to figure out in our minds the faces of these characters. I am sure that you have been “seeing” in your minds both Placidia and Athaulf – our minds are made in this way; we can't avoid that. Think of when you speak over the phone with someone you never met – you can't avoid to build up a portrait of him or her in your mind.

So, what could Athaulf and Placidia have looked like? About Athaulf, the fact that he was a Barbarian King doesn't mean that you should imagine him as Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie “Conan the Barbarian.” Not at all, of course! Athaulf surely didn't go around in a bear skin and with a horned helmet on his head. The best we can do to visualize him is to think of the one contemporary portrait of a high rank Barbarian we have: Flavius Stilicho; the Vandal general who was Placidia's foster father. We have an ivory diptych of him and of his wife, Serena, and their son, Eucherius. In this image, Stilicho is shown as tall and handsome; a bit solemn while wearing Roman clothes. Athaulf could have looked much like him: tall, handsome, and bearded.

And how about Placidia? Well, as I said we don't have a portrait of her. We might try to get some idea of what she looked from the portrait of Serena, her cousin. She is shown almost as tall as her husband, Stilicho, and as a handsome and imposing lady – she must have been in her forties when that portrait was made. She wears a heavy necklace that looks like being made of pearls. You know, there is a legend that says that Serena was cursed when she took a necklace from a statue of the goddess Rhea Sylvia – maybe it is just that necklace. Actually, the whole household of Stilicho seems to have been cursed; they all died of violent death, including their son, Eucherius. But that's another story; let's just say that the portrait of Serena tells us, at least, how Placidia would dress in formal occasions; an elaborate garment called a “Palla”.

But we do know something about Placidia's face. We can see it in some coins minted during her later reign as Empress. The problem is that these portraits are anything but realistic. It is the same problem we have with Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen. We tend to think of Cleopatra as a very beautiful woman, but we don't have a portrait that we can attribute to her for sure. So, looking at her face on coins, well, she looks frankly ugly. But, of course, those portraits on coins were not supposed to be anything realistic and we can happily continue imagining Cleopatra with the face of Elizabeth Taylor, who interpreted her in an old Hollywood movie.

Now, about Placidia, it is the same problem we have for Cleopatra. If Placidia looked the way she is shown on some coins, well, ahem...... we might pity poor Athaulf who had to marry her. But, as for Cleopatra, these coins are not supposed to be realistic. Actually, different coins show different faces for Placidia; so we can reasonably be sure that, in most cases, whoever made the portrait didn't have a chance to see the Empress in the face. In the end, the closest thing we have to a portrait of Placidia is a gold medallion; one of a couple, the other showing her half brother, Honorius. I think we can say that it gives us at least some idea of what Placidia looked like. Looking at it, we see that she had fine features and a slender neck under her elaborate hairdo. Surely, we have good reasons to imagine her as a beautiful woman; after all, her mother, Galla, had been said to be the “fairest woman in the Roman Empire.” In the end, if you like to imagine her as Audrey Hepburn playing the role of the princess in that old movie, "Roman Holiday," I'd say, why not?

So, let's go back to the imperial marriage. We have two handsome people getting married: Athaulf and Placidia, but, of course, that can't be all the story. What we can say is that people do things for many reasons: sometimes because of logic, sometimes they act on impulse. But don't forget that real life is not a fairy tale. You know that love is a chemical reaction and that chemical reactions have a way to go on by themselves if there is a chemical potential driving them. And, as we said before, this potential is something that we may call “destiny” if we like. And I think that in this case there was a very strong potential that was leading Athaulf and Placidia to react with each other, to marry.

Now, I would like to ask you a question. Can you think of another figure who was trying to do something similar to what Placidia was doing, just in that period; that is, a Roman marrying a Barbarian? It takes a small jump of imagination to connect Galla Placidia to this figure. Can you make it? Think about that for a moment and the name will come to your mind. That name you know very, very, well: it is King Arthur!

Yes, King Arthur, the legendary hero. We can't say for sure if he actually existed. At least, historians say that there is no proof that he ever existed. But that doesn't mean that he didn't exist and if he existed there is a reasonable chance that he was a contemporary of Galla Placidia, during the 5th century. At that time, Britain had ceased to be part of the Roman Empire and it is likely that Placidia never came to know the name of a petty Barbarian King – Arthur – who ruled part of a remote northern island. Arthur, on his part, surely knew little of the events that took place in the far away Roman Empire. But, curiously, Arthur and Placidia – contemporary or not – may have followed similar paths in their lives.

You know that the core of the Arthurian cycle is the love of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. The way we often interpret the story is that Arthur was Roman and Guinevere was British (actually, Welsh). You may have seen the recent movie “King Arthur,” the one that was released in 2004. It ends with the scene of the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere. It is a stunningly beautiful scene and it symbolizes the whole theme of the film. It is the marriage not of just a man and a woman, but of two civilizations. So, their marriage implied the fusion of the Roman and the British culture. That was happening in Britain earlier than in the rest of Europe because, there, the Roman Empire had ceased to exist already during the 4th century AD.

I am mentioning this movie to you just to show how we can still “feel” quite a lot about an age as remote as the 5th century. The Arthurian cycle pervades our culture still today even though, as I said, we can't even be sure that a king named Arthur ever existed. But the fifth century was a great generator of legends. Think of the Nibelungenlied, the saga of the Nibelungs. You know that story; you know the names of the characters: Siegfried, Hagen, Kriemhild. It comes from the same period, the 5th century AD and it echoes of events of that age, including the presence in the story of historical personages, such as Attila the Hun, who also was a contemporary of Galla Placidia.

It is curious that of those characters, the one for which we do have the most historical data, Galla Placidia, is the one who didn't generate epic poems. I feel a bit sorry for Placidia because of this, but so it goes. I think it is because civilization stymies creativity. Placidia's foster-father, Stilicho, was rich enough that he could keep a house poet, Claudian, who was a "panegyrist", someone whose job was to sing the deeds of his masters. And Claudian did that; he wrote poems praising Stilicho and the members of his family, but almost nobody remembers those poems today. As I was studying the story of Placidia, I made a honest effort to read Claudian. I found that he is refined, clever, cultured and unbelievably banal. That is, when I say “banal” I mean real silly. You know, Claudian looks to me as something not unlike our TV advertising: it is clever and often visually stunning but, in the end, it is just about eating hamburgers. Just as a note, Claudian mentions Placidia once, as a child, all clad in gold, at the imperial coronation of her half brothers. A glimpse we have of that time, so remote that even a small detail is to be treasured as much as possible.

Queen of the Goths

In marrying Athaulf, Placidia may simply have ceded to the unavoidable; as it was her typical style. But in following her destiny, Placidia may also have had a specific plan and she had a way to seize an opportunity when she saw one. You see, she was a Roman princess and she had this potential of becoming Empress. She couldn't do that as long as her half brother, Honorius, was alive, but Honorius was childless. So, Placidia surely had something in mind when she named her son "Theodosius", the same name of his grand-father, Theodosius “The Great.” From what the chroniclers tell us, it seems clear that Placidia's idea was nothing less than taking over the throne from her half-brother, Honorius, and starting a Gothic-Roman dynasty that would have ruled the Empire. A bold plan, if ever there was one.

But there was much more in Placidia's plans than simply ruling an Empire. You see, the fifth century looks like our times for many reasons; one was the great migrations. It was a time when people marched on and on, searching for a place to settle, and that brought many contrasts, battles and wars. For the Romans, the people who had entered their empire were invaders or, in some case, immigrants; that was what the term "Barbarian" meant: simply "foreigner". Legal or illegal as they could be, immigrants they were looked with suspicion – just like today we look at our immigrants. At that time, just like today, there were people who wanted to send the immigrants back home, or just get rid of them one way or another. But that wasn't easy and, as we saw, the immigrants had become numerous and powerful enough that they had been able to sack Rome. So, the Romans would have had to learn how to live with their Barbarian immigrants; but at the time of Placidia many Romans just couldn't resign to the idea they had to do that. As I said, there are remarkable similarities with our times!

In a way, what was happening was a big chemical reaction: the two “reactants”, Barbarians and Romans, had come together on that fated winter of 405, when the border fortifications of the Empire had collapsed. Now, there was nothing that anyone could do – the reactants were mixed together, the reaction was going on. It could not be stopped and Placidia's idea was to favor it. Again, we see her style: don't fight the unavoidable, let it happen. In this case, the unavoidable meant anticipating something that in actual history would take several centuries to happen: the merging of the Roman and German peoples in Europe. Placidia was taking this merging on herself by marrying a Barbarian and bearing a child to him. According to the chroniclers, it was she who convinced her husband, Athaulf, of this idea. Athaulf is reported to have said that initially he had planned to destroy Rome and the Romans, but after that he had met Placidia, he wanted to live in peace with them. Maybe it is a fancy story, but it gives us some idea of what was passing in the minds of the characters of this story.

It would be nice, at this point, to say that Athaulf and Placida lived happily ever after and that their son, Theodosius, became Emperor of the Romans and, at the same time, King of the Goths. But things didn't go that way, of course. It was a beautiful dream, but also an impossible one.

The military situation was changing. The Romans had managed to re-organize and rebuild an army under the leadership of a new commander in chief: Constantius. He seems to have been a very competent general; he never fought big battles but almost always he obtained what he wanted. The Visigoths started feeling the pressure and they had to leave Southern France and move to Spain. Their retreat must have been rather hasty, since they had to abandon Attalus, the usurper who had sung at Placidia's marriage. He was captured by Costantius and sent to Ravenna, where he suffered the humiliation of having his hand cut off before being sent to exile. But that's another story.

In Spain, the Visigoths settled in Barcelona, which a that time was a fortified stronghold. There, everything went wrong. Little Theodosius died before being one year old. Then, Athaulf was killed in a conspiracy. Maybe it was the result of the loss of prestige that he had suffered with the retreat from Southern France. Surely, there were Visigoths much more aggressive than Athaulf in the way they thought they should deal with the Romans; there may well have been something like a “war party”. The new king was one of them. He was named Sigeric and, just to give some idea of what he had in mind, let me tell you that he forced Placidia to march for miles on foot, while following her, riding his horse. Fortunately, as I said, she was strong and in good health.

But Sigeric ruled for just one week; I think that the Goths were afraid of what he was planning to do – and correctly so; as I said, the Romans were now much stronger than they had been at the time of the siege of Rome. So, someone got rid of Sigeric and a new, more diplomatic king was installed - someone named Wallia. The new king started negotiations with Costantius and, eventually, he sent Placidia back to Ravenna in exchange for food and a peace treaty. That was the end of Placidia's time with the Goths. For all her life, she maintained the title of “Queen of the Goths”, but she would never be one of them again.

Galla Placidia: the Empress

The story of Galla Placidia seems to have been conceived from the beginning as the plot of an adventure movie. It is full of events and it swings up an down as a rollercoaster. So, we saw that Placidia started as a princess, then she was prisoner of the Goths, then she became their Queen, then she was again their prisoner. A series of oscillations that was to go on for quite some time.

With Placidia back to Ravenna, things changed again. It seems that Constantius had something in mind about her; actually he may have been an early suitor of hers. Anyway, the two got married soon after arriving in Ravenna. We can't say whether Placidia was happy about that but, as usual, she didn't fight the unavoidable and she followed opportunities when she saw one. The couple had two children and, later on, Constantius, as the husband of a member of the Imperial family, managed to be raised to the title of “co-emperor” of the Western Empire. At this point, Placidia obtained the title of "Augusta." It was not exactly the same title as “Imperator” which means “commander” and has to do with leading armies. But, for all practical purposes, she was Empress of Rome. You see? A big swing upward of the rollercoaster.

Now, there is a lot to say about Placidia's life as Empress and the rollercoaster was to go through a few more swings up and down. But let me go quickly with the story because, as you perhaps have heard, “the art of boredom consists in telling everything.” So, Constantius died a few months after having been raised to the Imperial Purple and the situation in Ravenna evolved into a squabble where Honorius and Placidia, Emperor and Empress, started behaving as the characters of old western movies; you know, when they say, "this town ain't big enough for both of us."

There are many curious details about the fight of Honorius and Placidia. One is that Placidia was accused of incest with her half brother; that may have been just bad press against her but, who knows, maybe she was using all the means she had to try to control him. This would have been a curious facet of Placidia's personality, considering that she was a devout Catholic and she was always said to be an examplary spouse and a chaste widow. But she had enemies who would surely spread rumors about her. Was this one true or false? We'll never know. Then, there is mention of Placidia's Gothic bodyguards. They had accompanied her since the time when she was Queen of the Goths (which she still was – she never wanted to abandon that title!). So, the fight got ugly in the streets of Ravenna and, no matter how brave Placidia's bodyguards were, her brother Honorius managed to get the upper hand.

And here we have another swing down of the rollercoaster. Placidia, thrown out of Ravenna, could only take refuge in Costantinople; the capital of the Eastern Empire. There, her nephew had become Emperor with the name of Theodosius II. Placidia arrived in front of him with little more than the clothes she had on. But the rollercoaster swung up again: while Placidia was there, Honorius died in Ravenna and an usurper took his place. At this point Theodosius II thought that he couldn't lose the Western Empire to the dynasty; so he gave to Placidia a whole army to go back to Italy and reconquer Ravenna. The usurper didn't have a chance, poor guy. He was defeated, captured, had one hand cut off, then he was paraded around on a donkey, and finally beheaded. We don't know if Placidia ordered that herself, but those were hard times and if you wanted to be an emperor (or an empress) you had to take the risks involved. No one ever said that Placidia was Ms. Nice Girl, anyway.

Then, in 425, Placidia took the title of Augusta for herself alone, although theoretically on behalf of her son, Valentinian. That was the end of her rollercoaster ride in life – no more swings up and down from now on. She was to rule as Empress for 12 years and she maintained a strong influence at court as Empress Mother for 13 more years; until her death, in 450 AD, when she was 62 years old.

Ruling an empire.

Now, let's play a little game, a game that I think all of us have played inside our minds. If you were the absolute ruler of the world, the Emperor of Earth, what would you do to solve the world's problems? I am sure you have plenty of ideas that you would put into practice; you know, how eliminate hunger, reduce pollution, stop global warming, make everyone happy -- all that. Of course, that is only a dream for us, but there have been people in the past who really had tremendous power in their hands. Not on the whole world, of course, no single person has ever ruled it. But there existed people who ruled sizable parts of the world and their power was absolute and subjected to no rules. The Roman Emperors of the last period of the Empire were of that kind. They were called porphirogenites, “born in the purple,” they were semi-divine rulers. You know, if you were emperor at that time, you couldn't turn your head left or right when you walked; your subjects could speak to you only if you addressed them first, you had to wear heavy clothes all the time, and God knows what else the imperial protocol would impose on you. There is a curious detail about Constantius, Placidia's second husband, who said that becoming Emperor had been a terrible experience for him: too much protocol! That was the price of absolute power.

Actually, “absolute power” is an exaggeration. Galla Placidia, as any emperor before and after her, had limits to what she could do. One of these limits was that she couldn't lead armies herself. She had to rely on generals and that was big problem: as it always happens in history, successful generals tend to take all the power for themselves and, of course, unsuccessful generals are totally useless. So, during her career as Empress, Placidia's main problem was to control her generals by balancing one against the other. One of these generals was named Aetius, you may have heard the name. He was quite a character, he was a Roman but he had been raised with the Huns, so they were his allies and they would fight for him when he needed (of course he had to pay them!). But Aetius was also the general who led the Roman army that stopped Attila the Hun from invading Europe at the famous Battle of Chalons, in 452 AD.

Anyway, the story of Placidia as Empress would take an entire book but, as I said, the secret of boredom is to tell everything, so let's just say that Placidia managed to keep the Empire more or less together; one of her achievements was in securing the supply of grain to Rome from Africa. That was despite the fact that North Africa had been taken by the Vandals; yes, but they kept shipping grains to Rome as long as Placidia was Empress. After the death of Placidia, they stopped sending grain and not just that; they took Rome and sacked it. I think it means that Placidia made a difference as Empress; she was not just a doll wearing expensive clothes.

But, from our viewpoint, we know that the Western Empire was doomed and that it would disappear a few decades after Placidia. The question that we may ask ourselves is whether she understood that the Empire was going to fall. If she did, what did she do to avoid that? Think of being in her shoes: if you were Placidia, what would you do to save the Empire?

So, let's see if we can understand in what kind of troubles, exactly, was the Western Roman Empire at the time of Placidia. We said before that empires are like chemical reactions and chemical reactions subside when they run out of reactants. In the 5th century, the Roman Empire had been running out of reactants. It had been growing on the profits made from military campaigns but, at some point around the 2nd century, it had reached its limits. With no more easy conquests in sight, the Empire had to live on its own resources and it never really learned how to do that. The empire, simply, could not tax its subjects high enough to support the troops it kept. Over and over, the Empire continued to spend more than it could afford for defense. It is typical of empires all over history: empires destroy themselves by spending too much for their military apparatus.

Managing any large structure is difficult and we tend to do it badly; a whole empire may be an especially difficult case. To do it well, we would need to use a method what I mentioned before: system dynamics; which is a way to describe systems and the relation of the various elements that compose them. But it is rare that people can understand systems in this way. What happens instead is that, in most cases we understand what are the critical points ("levers") that are causing troubles, but we tend to act on them in the wrong way. It is something that we learned in our times from Donella Meadows (like Placidia, a strong woman, although not an Empress), who has taught us a lot about system dynamics. It is a very general trend: almost always we pull the levers in the wrong direction and we worsen the problems that we are trying to solve. That is even too clear for the case of the Roman Empire, at least from our viewpoint. During the decline phase, Roman Emperors struggled to keep the Empire safe from Barbarian invasions and they understood that their problem was that they didn't have enough resources to do that. But their answer was always the wrong one: they kept trying to raise as many troops as they could. That it was a self-defeating idea: every time that the Romans fought the Barbarians, they could win or lose, but each battle made the Empire a little poorer and a little weaker. The empire was using resources that could not be replaced; non renewable resources, as we would say today.

So, wasn't there a solution for the troubles of the Roman Empire? Well, there was one if you think in terms of system dynamics. It is a question of pulling the levers in the right direction. By raising troops and fighting battles, the Roman Emperors were pulling the levers in the wrong direction. They had to invert the direction: the solution was not more troops but less troops. It was not more imperial bureaucracy, but less; not more of a tax burden, but less. In the end, the solution was right there and it was simple: it was Middle Ages.

Middle Ages meant getting rid of the suffocating imperial bureaucracy. It meant transforming the expensive legions into local militias.and having people paying taxes locally. In short: transforming the centralized empire into a decentralized constellation of small states. Without the terrible expenses of the Imperial court and of the Imperial bureaucracy, these small states had a chance to rebuild their economy and start a new phase of prosperity, as indeed it happened during the Middle Ages. The Empire was going there; it was unavoidable and one could as well favor that road. Of course, when the Empire was still strong and powerful, no emperor had the power of disbanding the legions, nor even the imperial bureaucracy. But that was happening anyway during the 5th century and what an emperor (or empress) could have done was to give to the events just a little push in the right direction. Don't fight the change, ease it. It is the way of pushing the levers in the right direction. Could Placidia have done just that? Incredibly, perhaps she did.

What Placidia could do as an Empress was, mainly, to enact laws. The Empire still had a functioning bureaucracy and so the edicts from Ravenna were not ignored, at least in the regions that the Empire could still control. So, law was the playground of Placidia and she did enact a number of laws, many of which are still existing in the “Codex Theodosianus,” a collection of laws compiled on behalf of Placidia's nephew, the Emperor of the East, Theodosius the 2nd. The Codex Theodosianus is an unbelievable mass of data; there are some 2500 laws in it. Well worth giving a look, because it is full of hints and glimpses of what life was like in the Roman Empire at that time. But it is impossible to go into any depth in it unless you are a specialist in this matter – it is just too much. So, I learned about Placidia's laws mainly from the report written by Stewart Oost, who wrote her biography in 1966.

Now, as I said, it is a complex matter and very often we cannot say who was exactly the mind behind a certain law. There are all sorts of laws and it is very difficult to find a common thread in the whole body. But there seems to be some logic in what the Imperial Court in Ravenna was doing at that time. That logic looked a bit like the policy of Mikhail Gorbachev for the Soviet Union – let's call it “Soviet Empire.” Gorbachev consistently refused to use force to keep together an empire that was disintegrating – although he could have done that. The court of Ravenna, it seems, took the same approach during the first half of the 5th century. The Roman Empire still had an army, they could have used to try to destroy the Barbarian nations that had settled within the Empire's borders. But that would have meant only squandering away those few resources that the Empire still had. It would have greatly hastened the demise of the Empire.

It seems that Placidia was acting according to her style; ease the unavoidable, don't fight it. Not that she knew system dynamics but, after all, system dynamics is just formalized common sense and it seems that Placidia had plenty of it. So, consistently, we see the tendency of reducing the power of the Imperial court. You see it in some details, such as when she gave back to the Senate, in Rome, the gift of gold that was customary for the senators to present to the Emperor every year. But she did much more than that to reduce the central power of the Empire. Placidia forbade the coloni, the peasants bound to the land, to enlist in the army. That deprived the army of one of its sources of manpower and we may imagine that it greatly weakened it. Another law enacted by Placidia, allowed the great landowners to tax their subjects themselves. This deprived the Imperial Court of its main source of revenues. All that meant just one thing: Middle Ages.

If the purpose of Placidia really was to take the Empire to the Middle Ages, we can say that she was successful. After that she was gone, the Empire melted away. Her son, Valentinian managed to get killed a few years after the death of her mother, Rome was sacked by the Vandals and that was a deadly blow. For a few decades, there were still individuals in Ravenna who claimed the title of Western Emperors, but we don't care much about their names just as their contemporaries probably did not. We only remember the name of the last Emperor, Romolus Augustulus, who was deposed in 476, and that is just because he was the last. After that, it was Middle Ages – the destination where the Western Empire was going in any case.

This is just a possible interpretation of what Placidia did and I am the first to say that it is just speculation. These laws may have been enacted simply because the Imperial Court was forced to, or it had no other choices. And, of course, we will never know what passed in Placidia's mind. She left us only some letters that miraculously survived in the Vatican's archives, but nothing that we could use to penetrate her inner thoughts. We can only say that staying with the Goths, although for just a few years, could have opened her mind enough that she could have a vision that no Emperor, before or after her, could have. And so she did something that no emperor, before or after her, could do. Push the empire towards its destiny, fulfilling its chemical potential, if you like. In a way, Placidia was the catalyser that made it happen. 

Galla Placidia's legacy

Now, I'll ask you another little feat of imagination. Close your eyes again for a moment and imagine something that took place a long, long time ago; 15 centuries before our time. Imagine a young princess. Imagine that she has lived all of her life inside beautiful palaces; that she has been wearing splendid dresses and expensive jewels, that she has been walking inside closed gardens, rich of statuary and fountains; always protected, always secluded, as it is the usual lot of princesses. And then imagine her in a completely different situation: she is somewhere in the mountains; around her, the slow, winding column of the wagons has stopped and the nation of the Goths has stopped for the night. It is a cold night of an early winter and the women have lit campfires, while the warriors are sitting around, singing their songs. These tall warriors are Christian, but of a different version – they are Arians, while the Princess is Catholic, and that already makes a lot of difference. What's more, it is likely that in one of those wagons they still carry the wooden statues of their pagan gods: perhaps Hertha the goddess of earth, and perhaps other gods of fire and thunder. Maybe, the prayers being recited for these ancient divinities can be heard as a distant whispering in the night. Placidia listens to these distant songs and then she looks at the stars as she has never seen them. These are the same stars that we can see today; dimly, because we have dirtied our sky with our waste. But Placidia sees those stars in a sky of a clarity that today we can’t even imagine; the sky of a world that was shrinking to nearly nothing, its cities depopulated, its roads abandoned, its farmland left to transform into forest. Just during those years, Rutilius Namatianus gave us an unforgettable image of the lights of Rome in the night, lights that he saw for the last time as he was abandoning the city, to seek refuge in Gallia. But, around Placidia, there was no human light, except the fires lighted by the Visigoths, and so she could see that fantastic sky.

Now, of course this is just fantasy, but I am mentioning to you stars for a reason. You see, I said that Placidia left us almost nothing in terms of written worlds. At least nothing that we can use to understand what she thought. But she left us a message that is perhaps even clearer than a written diary. It is the mausoleum that takes her name in Ravenna; and it is there that you can find a triumph of stars in the mosaics of the ceiling. Big, bright, fantastic stars that remind to us a little those that Vincent van Gogh painted in that famous painting of his.

You know, those stars in Placidia's mausoleum always reminded to me of "Christmas", in the sense of the way we celebrate it today. Not, of course, the commercial holiday that it has become nowadays, but the atmosphere of the "nativity scene" that is still commonplace in Southern Europe and South America. Of course, in the mausoleum you won't find the baby Jesus and not even the Virgin Mary. These figures would became commonplace much later. At the time of Galla Placidia, Christianity was something different than it is for us. But there is no doubt that Placidia was a convinced Christian; she was a believer and she always saw Christianity as an important part of her life. The mausoleum is just part of this attitude of hers.

No one can say, of course,  that these stars in the mausoleum in Ravenna are there as a memory of Placidia's travels with the Visigoths, but I think we can take this small creative license and see those stars as such. It is, as I said, a way to get a feeling on the matter we are discussing. We need it; you see, I could mention now something that Marguerite Yourcenar says in her “Memoirs of Hadrian”. She says that she got a tremendous feeling of kinship with the long gone Emperor when she could hold in her hands a jewel that, most likely, Hadrian had held in his hands, once. We don't have a jewel that Placidia may have held or worn, but we have that building, her mausoleum.

Actually, the building in Ravenna is not a "mausoleum" in the sense of something built over one's tomb. It is reasonably certain that Placidia was never buried in there; she probably died in Rome and her tomb has been lost long ago. We can't even be sure that Placidia had a role in the design of that building; it is just a later tradition. Yet, if the tradition exists, it has to be for some reason and I think it does. In my opinion, that building was built under her influence. There are many details in it that are absolutely clear to me. So, if you walk inside the mausoleum, you know that you are walking in a place where Galla Placidia has walked. And there is more: what I can tell you is that the mausoleum is a message.

By now, Placidia is almost a creature of the mythical universe of Gods and Heroes, just like Cassandra and Helen of Troy. Yet, she has not yet vanished from memory. Her voice is faint but, if we listen carefully we can hear it. And you can still hear it if you go to see that small building in Ravenna, her last message to us. It is simple and unprepossessing in the exterior, but it is a triumph of colors inside. That’s already a message in itself that comes from an age when whatever there was that was beautiful had to be kept hidden to be saved from destruction. But it was there and it could be enjoyed by those who had the key to it. But it is not just that. That building has a decided “feminine” aspect, and it will show you more of itself if you make the effort to deserve it. It is like a woman who may show you something intimate about herself, but only if you deserve it. That building has a meaning; it is in the figures and the images in it: it is her story, Placidia's story – that building will tell it to you, but only if you deserve it.

You know that the art of being boring consists in telling everything, so I won't tell you the details of the decoration of the building and how each detail fits so well with Placidia’s story. I'll let you just imagine that and, if one day you'll have a chance to go there and visit that mausoleum; do it in silence and listen. It is a faint, faint voice, but you can hear it if you pay attention. After all, as a Latin poet who lived centuries before said, Terence, "nothing human is alien to us." Placidia was one of us.

In her 62 years of life, Placidia was princess, queen and empress. She did reasonably well in these roles and, during her reign as Empress, the Western Empire remained relatively safe and the Romans had the food they needed. She had defects; for sure. She failed to save her foster mother from death when, perhaps, she had a chance to do that. She was ruthless with her enemies and her way of being Christian may have veered on the verge of bigotry. But she played her role as well as she could in those difficult times and she may have played a fundamental role in closing an era in which the very concept of “Roman Empire” had become anachronistic. A judgment by a later chronicler, Cassiodorus, may say it all about her rule, "too much peace," even though it was intended as a criticism. In the end, she was a human being like all of us and she followed her destiny, her chemical potential, if you like.

And, if Placidia's destiny was to be empress, yours, boys and girls, seems to be to study chemistry. Then, my destiny – my chemical potential, if you like - is to teach chemistry to you. That's what we'll do next time we meet in this classroom. Now, thanks for having listened to me and we can leave and have that coffee!

Editorial Notes: I think "labor of love" would describe Ugo's story of Galla Placidia. Until the last century, the history of Rome was central to European culture. The American Revolutionaries looked back to its political struggles as inspiration for the new republic. Movements on the right adopted the "fasces" as a symbol of solidarity and firmness. The left could look to the reforming Gracchi brothers for inspiration . I'm reading in Livy's history at the moment, and finding antecedents for Occupy in the struggle between the Plebs (the 99%) and the Patricians (the 1%). At one point, the Patricians pushed the Plebs too far. The overwhelming majority of the population of the city climbed the Sacred Mount and stayed there until their demands were met (Livy LII in Book III). Wikipedia describes it: "Secessio plebis (withdrawal of the commoners, or Secession of the Plebs) was an informal exercise of power by Rome's plebeian citizens, similar to a general strike taken to the extreme. During a secessio plebis, the plebs would simply abandon the city en masse and leave the patrician order to themselves. Therefore a secessio meant that all shops and workshops would shut down and commercial transactions would largely cease. " In times of change, one could do worse than turn to a study Roman history. Nihil sub sole novum. -BA

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