Ataulf and Galla Placidia

In his Italian expedition Alaric had been assisted and supported by his brother-in-law, Ataulf. The Goths elected him their king on Alaric’s death, and on him it devolved to find an expedient to deliver his fold from the impasse into which Alaric had led them. The new king was different from the old in character and ideas. He at first had less reverence for Roman civilisation than Alaric; he was more devoted to the ways and manners of his own people. But he changed. We are fortunate enough to possess a remarkable testimony as to his ideals. It is preserved by Orosius, a Spaniard, who was a contemporary and who completed his work Against the Pagans about 418; and Orosius derived it directly from a citizen of Narbo Martius who had been on terms of intimacy with the Gothic king. This person heard Ataulf say that at one time he had aspired to abolish the Roman name, to turn Romania into Gothia, to make himself a Gothic Emperor. But experience taught him that the Goths were by themselves too lawless and unteachable to be successors of the Romans, and so he changed his mind: he formed the idea of using Gothic vigour to restore the Roman name, and of being handed down to posterity as the restitutor orbis Romani. Thus from having been a outrance anti-Roman, and cherishing dreams which would not have tempted even Alaric, Ataulf became a convert to Rome.


Of his doings in Italy during the thirteen or fourteen months which elapsed between Alaric’s death and the entry of Ataulf into Gaul we hear almost nothing. It is hardly probable that he visited Rome and plundered it again; but Etruria was laid waste by him. Ataulf crossed the Alps early in A.D. 412, perhaps by the pass of Mont Genevre, to play a leading part in the troubled politics of Gaul, taking with him his captive Galla Placidia and the deposed Emperor Attalus. The Goths were then involved for some time in hostile operations against a pretender named Jovinus in south-eastern Gaul; here they acted successfully in support of Honorius, and for a moment the authority of that Emperor was supreme in Gaul.

Ataulf then moved westward and established himself in Narbonensis and Aquitania. He took Narbonne, Toulouse, and Bordeaux, and determined to give himself a new status by allying himself in marriage to the Theodosian house. Negotiations with Ravenna were doubtless carried on during his military operations, but he now persuaded Placidia, against the will of her brother, to give him her hand. The nuptials were celebrated in Roman form (in January, A.D. 414) at Narbonne, in the house of a leading citizen. We are told that, arrayed in Roman dress, Placidia sat in the place of honour, the Gothic king at her side, he too dressed as a Roman. We know all too little of the personality of this lady, who was to play a considerable part in history for thirty years. She was now perhaps in her twenty-sixth year, but she may have been younger. Her personal attractiveness is shown by the passion she inspired in Constantius, and the strength of her character by various incidents of her life—such as her defiance of her brother’s wishes in uniting herself to the Goth—in which she displayed marked independence. She was in later years to become the ruler of the west.

The friendly advances which were now made to Honorius by the barbarian who had forced himself upon him as a brother-in-law were rejected. Ataulf then resorted to the policy of Alaric. He caused the old tyrant Attalus to be again invested with the purple. Constantius, the Master of Soldiers, went forth for a second time to Arles to suppress the usurper and settle accounts with the Goths. He prevented all ships from reaching the coast of Septimania, as the territory of Narbonesis was now commonly called. The Goths were thus deprived of the provisions which reached Narbonne by sea, and their position became difficult. Ataulf led them southward to Barcelona, probably hoping to establish himself in Tarraconensis (early in A.D. 415). But before they left Gaul, the Goths laid waste southern Aquitania and set Bordeaux on fire. Attalus was left behind and abandoned to his fate, as he was no longer of any use to the Goths. Indeed his elevation had been a mistake. He had no adherents in Gaul, no money, no army, no one to support him except the barbarians themselves. He escaped from Gaul in a ship, but was captured and delivered alive to Constantius. At Barcelona a son was born to Ataulf and Placidia. They named him Theodosius after his grandfather, and the philo-Roman feelings of Ataulf were confirmed. The death of the child soon after birth was a heavy blow: the body was buried, in a silver coffin, near the city. Ataulf did not long survive him. He was slain in the private vengeance of a servant (September A.D. 415).

(Source: “The Invasion of Europe By the Barbarians”, by Bury, J.B.)

Galla Placidia


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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