The Academy for the Study of Saint Ambrose of Milan
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“Lives and Religion of Justina, Galla Placidia and Pulcheria”


by Stacy Paul


Justina, Galla Placidia and Pulcheria are three women who were trying to keep their heads above water while under the influence of men. These women exercised great influence in the fifth century in response to ineffective male leadership. Sometimes they acted out or hastily in order to receive attention. It is known that they were all devout Christians; but did their faith inform, impede or empower them?

Very little information was documented on Justina. She was a daughter of Justus (governor of Picenum under Constantius II). She was married to Magnentius, a Roman usurper, from 350 to 353. Justina's birth date is unknown, but it was known that Justina was too young at that time to have children.

According to Socrates of Constantinople, Valentinian I saw the virgin Justina bathing and was struck by her beauty. Justina and Valentinian I were married and had four children. Valentinian I died in 375 and their son Valentinian II took the throne. They moved to Mediolanum and Justina served as regent for Valentinian II because he was only six years old at the time (Schaff & Wace, 1890).

Justina was an Arian Christian but she was unable to act in favor of this until after the death of her husband. After Valentinian I's death, she advanced the interests of her sect, through her emperor son, and soon came into conflict with St. Ambrose. St. Ambrose was summoned to Sirmium to take part in the blessing of Anemius as Bishop; Justina felt that the new Bishop should be blessed by the Arians (Schaff & Wace, 1890).

St. Ambrose opposed Justina's attempts at innovation of the Arian heresy. Justina conveyed to her son that St. Ambrose insulted her. Valentinian II believed her and wanted to let Ambrose know of his wrong doings toward his mother so he sent a party of soldiers against the Church. Once they reached the temple, they forced their way in and arrested Ambrose. As they were about to lead him into exile, the people assembled in crowds at the Church and demonstrated a resolution to die rather than surrender to the banishment of their Priest. This further infuriated Justina and she sent for Menivolus to enforce her actions by law. She asked him to draw up a proclamation based on official order of Ariminum. Being attached to the Catholic Church, Menivolus refused to write the document. The empress tried to bribe him with promises of greater honors but he still refused. He tore off his belt, threw it at her feet and declared he would neither retain his present office nor accept the promotion as the reward of impiety. Since Menivolus remained firm in his refusal, others were responsible for compiling the law. By this law, all who conformed do the doctrines set forth at Ariminum and ratified at Constantinople were exhorted to convene; and it was said that death should be the punishment for those who go against this law of the Emperor (Schaff & Wace, 1890).

The struggle between Justina and St. Ambrose continued. Justina convinced St. Ambrose to be her son's ambassador to Maximus to persuade him to be contented with Gratian's provinces and to leave Valentinian II in possession of Italy, Africa and Western Illyricum. The mission was successful for a time, but the prejudicial Justina beset St. Ambrose later in the year at Easter with the object of obtaining a Church at Milan for the use of her fellow Arians. She proclaimed that those who held the opinions sanctioned by the council of Ariminum were granted the right to meet for public worship there. If Catholics attempted to get the law repealed, there would be punishment, most likely death (Schaff & Wace, 1890).

Aelia Galla Placidia was born in the east circa on an unknown date, but it is said to have been sometime between 388-390. She was the daughter of Roman Emperor Theodosius I and his second wife, Galla (Justina's daughter). Galla Placidia was granted her own household by her father in the early 390s, which made her financially independent. As a result of her father's death in 395, she was raised by her cousin Serena, wife of Stilicho who was her father's general. During her childhood she was granted the title "Nobilissima Puella" (Most Noble Girl) (Oost, 1965).

Prior to the fall of Rome, Galla Placidia was captured by Alaric but the circumstances are unknown. She followed the Visigoths in their move to Gaul in 412. Their ruler Ataulf, and Honorius, Galla Placidia's half brother, had created an alliance against rival Western Roman Emperors, Jovinus and Sebastianus. Ataulf managed to defeat both emperors in 413. The relations between Ataulf and Honorius improved and so Ataulf married Galla Placidia in a Roman wedding ceremony in Narbonne on January 1, 414. She traveled with the Goths to Spain and bore a son, Theodosius, who died early the following year, eliminating an opportunity for a Romano-Visigothic rapprochement (Mathisen, 2006). Ataulf was murdered in 415 by a traitor (Oost, 1965).

In 416, Galla Placidia was returned to Honorius as part of a peace treaty. Honorius forced her into marriage, against her will, to the powerful Roman General Constantius III on January 1, 417. She bore two children, Justa Grata Honoria and the future Emperor Valentinian III. Galla Placidia intervened in the controversy over the election of a new bishop of Rome following the death of Pope Zosimus on December 26, 418. Galla Placidia and Constantius petitioned in favor of Eulalius. Honorius confirmed Eulalius as the Pope, which failed to put an end to the controversy. And Boniface was named the Pope on April 3, 419. On February 8, 421, Constantius was proclaimed co-Emperor in the West. Galla Placidia was proclaimed an Augusta and she was the only Empress in the West. However, neither title was recognized by Theodosius II, the Eastern Roman Emperor. Constantius died on September 2, 421. Galla Placidia and her brother quarreled and she and her children sought refuge in Constantinople with Theodosius II, her nephew (Oost, 1965).

Since the Eastern court had rejected the status of the Emperor Constantius, the title of Augusta could not be allowed to Galla Placidia. On August 15, 423 Honorius died and Theodosius II prepared Valentinian III for promotion to the imperial office. Valentinian III was proclaimed the new Augustus of the Western Roman Empire on October 23, 425. Since he was only six years old at this time, Galla Placidia helped establish the political landscape of the empire for the next thirty years. Galla Placidia served as Valentinian's regent from 425 to 437, when he reached his eighteenth birthday (Oost, 1965).

Galla Placidia was a devout Christian and patroness of religion (Mathisen). She was involved with the building and restoration of many Churches throughout her period of influence. She assisted with the restoration of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome and the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. Galla Placidia made a vow in 423 when she and her children were caught in a storm on the Adriatic Sea in thanks for the sparing of their lives she built the San Giovanni Evangelista in Ravenna. The dedicatory inscription reads "Galla Placidia, along with her son Placidus Valentinian Augustus and her daughter Justa Grata Honoria Augusta, paid off their vow for their liberation from the danger of the sea." She also built a Church of St. Stephen at Rimini (Mathisen, 2006).

Galla Placidia died in Rome on November 27, 450. Her final resting place is unknown. There is debate whether the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna is actually her tomb or not (Oost, 1965).

Aelia Pulcheria Augusta was born on January 19, 399 to Eastern Roman Emperor Arcadius (son of Theodosius) and Empress Aelia Eudoxia. When Arcadius died in 408, Pulcheria's younger brother, Theodosius II, became Emperor at only seven years old. At the age of fourteen, Pulcheria began to win influence in state affairs. On July 4, 414, Pulcheria was given the title of Augusta, which was previously only for the wives of Emperors, when she took upon herself the duties of regent for her brother (Teetgen, 1907). Soon afterwards, coins were minted on which she appeared crowned by the right hand of God. She is known to have held a significant amount of power in her brother's reign as Emperor, which was rare for a woman of that time (Holum, 1982).

Pulcheria provided Theodosius II with the external qualities of a ruler as well. She taught him how to sit and walk in a grand manner, how to manage the complexities of his official costume, how to keep his laughter in check, to show gentleness and anger appropriately and to appear knowledgeable when inquiring about manners of state. Above all, Pulcheria saw to her brother's religious training. He learned the importance of worship, ascetic discipline and works of philanthropy and of regular relations with outstanding holy men. And Pulcheria most likely insulated her brother from the attraction of women, according to St. John Chrysostom the greatest hazard in the pathway of a young man seeking perfection (Holum, 1982).

When Pulcheria became Augusta, she devoted her virginity to God and impressed the same resolution upon her sisters. This was no private vow, Pulcheria made it well known that her and her sisters took this vow. She dedicated an altar decorated with gold and precious stones in the Great Church of Constantinople on behalf of her own virginity and her brother's rule, also inscribing the vow they took on the face of the altar so it would be visible to all (Holum, 1982). It's debatable whether Pulcheria decorated this altar to draw more attention to herself or if it was solely to celebrate her family. I believe Pulcheria decorated the altar to celebrate her family, but more so to make a flashy statement about the vows that her and her sisters took and the power she now held serving as regent for her brother the Emperor.

Pulcheria made this "godly resolve" to avoid bringing another male into the palace and to remove any opportunity for the plots of ambitious men. On the surface, Pulcheria's "godly resolve" looked suspiciously like mature enjoyment of rank and distance, joined with a child's unwillingness to share it (Holum, 1982). Pulcheria felt taking the vow was the best thing for her brother as he was so young when he took the throne, he had much to learn about being an Emperor and she wanted to instill the values their parents had upon him to carry out but also because of her life-long devotion to Mary. There remains much debate on what Pulcheria's true reasoning's for taking her vow of virginity was (Teetgen, 1907). I believe Pulcheria liked the rank that she held and wanted to remain in power so she wanted to make sure nobody would influence her siblings to stray away from what she was imposing on them. I don't think Pulcheria was a bad person for doing this though. Many of the men who ruled around that time weren't making the best decisions and Pulcheria had a lot of influence and made positive changes over the government of the Roman Empire.

During Pulcheria's time as Augusta, she held a great deal of power in politics and although she was a woman, she was treated equally among other men of power. Many important events occurred during this time and her brother's reign as Emperor, but her influence was mostly in the Church. Pulcheria and her brother were known to have harbored anti-Jewish sentiment and made a law that all synagogues be destroyed (Teetgen, 1907).

Pulcheria embraced the image of Flaccilla's piety and exalted humility and imposed it on her siblings. Just like her mother, Pulcheria used the Imperial Palace as a gathering place for women to discuss affairs of state. Day and night the Emperor and his sisters came together to chant hymns and recite passages of Scripture learned by heart. They fasted on Wednesday and Friday and the young women gave up such vanities as cosmetics, luxurious apparel and devoting themselves to the loom and other household occupations. At an early age, Pulcheria embraced her family's tradition of philanthropy for the least of these founding houses of prayer, refuges for beggars and the homeless and monastic communities and providing generosity for their support from her personal income (Holum, 1982).

Along with her and her sister's vows to remain virgins, the palace became very religious, with holy men and bishops in attendance. Pulcheria commissioned Church building and collected religious relics. Throughout her life, Pulcheria devoted her wealth to the Church. For instance in 420 she sent money to Jerusalem for those in need, inspiring Theodosius II to do the same (Holum, 1982).

Once Theodosius II came of age to rule as sole Emperor, he was careless and often neglected his duty in the administration of his Empire. This caused Pulcheria to take on a much larger role of authority and influence in the Empire. Theodosius II's marriage to Eudocia in 421 was followed by a fading influence from Pulcheria. She withdrew from the Imperial Palace and took up residence at various other palaces in and around the capital, partially to avoid being sanctified as a deaconess. She maintained strong contacts with various Christians and she continued to be an abundant patron of the Church. She assisted in building several Churches in Constantinople and played a key role in the discovery of the relics of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Pulcheria dreamed three times that St. Thyros, a third century martyr, came to her and said that the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste lay hidden near his own shrine. Digging followed and Pulcheria presided with Proclus as the relics were revealed. In addition to aiding in building Churches, she also built many hospitals, houses for pilgrims and bequeathed her wealth to charity. Her building projects were so vast in Constantinople that a whole district was named Pulcherianai in her honor (Holum, 1982).

On July 28, 450, Theodosius died suddenly due to injuries from falling off a horse. Pulcheria reigned over the Empire alone, but at that time the Roman senate would not make a woman be sole ruler of the Empire. So later that year, Pulcheria returned to the court as the wife of the new Emperor, Marcian. Pulcheria was worried that people would think differently of her now that she was married based on her vow of virginity. So she made part of the condition of the marriage for Marcian to obey and respect her vow of virginity. After realizing how much Pulcheria contributed to the Empire even after getting married, she was unanimously proclaimed Empress of the East in 450 when the Romans for the first time submitted to a female reign. Adoration of Pulcheria reached its peak on October 25, 451, when the council formally adopted the new definition of faith and both the sovereigns appeared in person in the Church of St. Euphemia to accept the acclamations of the bishops. They praised Pulcheria enthusiastically because she had restored harmony and she acclaimed her resistance to heresy, recognizing that it was traditional in her family. Pulcheria died in July of 453. She was later made into a Saint by the Roman Church (Holum, 1982).

It seems that Pulcheria exercised more influence over the government of the Roman Empire for longer than any woman before or after her. The part she played behind the scenes of the world in the guiding influence she exercised over the Emperor and her position as Empress exemplified her steadfast faith and goodness.

Pulcheria is remembered for her zeal in promoting other interests of the Church.

Despite the importance of such Empresses, they have received very little attention from analytical scholarship. Besides Pulcheria, it was hard to really say if or how their faith impacted how they carried out their lives due to lack of documentation. During the time frame of these Empresses, more was documented about males as they were usually the rulers and seen as worthy figures whereas females were either at home or behind the scenes. This made it difficult to find valuable information on these women from a religious standpoint as most of the information documented was about their family.


  • Holum, K. (1982). Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity. University of California Press; Berkeley.
  • Mathisen, R. (2006). Galla Placidia. University of South Carolina.
  • Oost, S. (1965). Some Problems in the History of Galla Placidia. Classical Philology Vol. 60. No. 1.
  • Schaff, P., & Wace, H. (Eds.). (1890). A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of The Christian Church. Volume II. New York: The Christian Literature Company.
  • Teetgen, A. (1907). The Life and Times of The Empress Pulcheria. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co.