Roman Empress Placidia, the Younger
Taken by the Vandals during the sack of Rome.
(b. 439/40, d. 484, Empress July – November 471)
Empress Licinia Eudoxia’s second daughter didn’t fare much better than her tragic sister, Princess Eudocia. Empress Placidia the Younger, didn’t have the chance to live up to her formidable grandmother’s reputation. Her reign as Empress of the West lasted only three months and she probably spent those in Constantinople–not enough time to cement the crumbling Western Empire back together. We’re well into the beginning of “The Fall” of Western Rome which saw nine emperors in twenty-one years with some interregnums.
We know little about Placidia the Younger’s childhood, but can assume she was well educated and schooled for a future role. Her grandmother Empress Placidia probably had a significant influence on her for the first ten years of her life, if only through her day-to-day example. It’s uncertain what influence her father Valentinian exerted, but he didn’t live up to his mother’s example of good ruler or good Christian. As it became clear that he would have no son, he schemed to use his youngest daughter to secure the succession in the West.
After his mother’s death in November 450, Valentinian III turned his resentments toward his most successful general. Aetius had played the barbarians off against one another for over two decades, enjoying enormous favor among the Roman nobles and people, as well as his army. Valentinian knew the Romans wouldn’t accept the Vandal Prince Huneric, his eldest daughter’s betrothed, as ruler. He looked for a suitable successor—other than Aetius—and landed on Majorian, a talented army man in Aetius’ command as a possible husband for Placidia and successor.
The General got wind of the possibility and sent the young Majorian home to his estates. Aetius then pressed Valentinian to marry the young princess to his own son Gaudentius. A noble named Petronius Maximus, who had imperial ambitions of his own, whispered to Valentinian that if Placidia married Gaudentius, Aetius had plans to assassinate him and put his son on the throne. Valentinian struck first and killed Aetius. He then recalled Majorian and gave him several honors. Maximus, resentful at being shut out, arranged for Valentinian’s assassination in 455.
Immediately after the emperor’s death, the players made their bids for the throne. Empress Eudoxia backed Majorian as Valentinian’s choice. Maximus literally took the diadem from the Emperor’s dead head and had Aetius’ still-resentful army proclaim him Emperor. He forced Eudoxia to marry him and married the Princess Eudocia to his son Palladius.
This royally ticked off the Vandals who invaded, sacked Rome, and carried off the Empress, her two daughters, and Gaudentius. Placidia and her mother languished in Carthage for seven years until Leo I of Constantinople ransomed them. Leo’s predecessor, Emperor Marcian had tried and failed to get the Empress and princesses released several times. I’m sure they lived in despair of ever being free of their captors.
When they finally arrived in Constantinople, Empress Eudoxia immediately set about finding a suitable husband for her twenty-two year old daughter. She found a man of impeccable Roman lineage and imperial ambitions. Anicius Olybrius had fled the chaos of the West and settled in Constantinople. He and Placidia had a daughter Anicia Juliana in 462.
Olybrius had his own shot at the diadem in 472. The West had had five emperors in the seventeen years since Valentinian’s death. Most were “appointed” by the Goth General Ricimer who became the de facto ruler of the West, pulling the strings of his puppet emperors.
Olybrius must have ticked off the Eastern Emperor at some point because he sent Placidia’s husband to the West to be murdered. Ricimer thwarted the assassination and made Olybrius Emperor in July 472. In August, Ricimer died coughing blood and Olybrius died of dropsy in November, leaving Placidia—Empress for three months—in Constantinople with a ten-year-old daughter to raise.
Side note: Majorian did become emperor in 457 under the sponsorship of Ricimer. He ruled for four years and was generally considered one of the better of the nine short-lived emperors before the West fell. Ricimer grew jealous of his popularity and had him assassinated in 461.
Coming next: Anicia Juliana, Empress Placidia’s daughter and the last of the Theodosian Women.
Image of bust sometimes reputed to be Empress Placidia the Younger, but might be her grandmother Empress Galla Placidia. Available through Creative Commons licensed by Fabian Zubia. In the Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1750609