You Lucky People
Empress Galla Placidia
THE STORY SO FAR:
I'd gone back to Romagna with my old friend Angelo and after 40 years we had not only discovered Ravenna but been enchanted by it!
The mosaics, the history, the atmosphere, the food, the fun and the gelatos had us captivated!
And that was it except for one thing, maybe it was the time-travelling, maybe it was the Ravenna air, but somehow my life had opened up to exciting but dangerous possibilities and I could see uncharted territory. I was, of course, blythely unaware of this, happily having an enjoyable trip but deep inside me my internal imp was doing pressups.
How did the rest happen? I really haven’t a clue. Suffice it to say that none of my fail-safe devices worked and I was to be drawn so far out of my comfort zone that my life was to be in danger far quicker than I could imagine.
Anyway, Cinzia the guide didn’t come with us to Venice. But Angelo and I, as ever, had a great time. The Venetians had pulled out their stops for us and we were staying in an unknown ex-military island in the lagoon – fascinating and just a couple of stops from Piazza San Marco on the waterbus. We went to see his mates and his favourite places, we ate great food, we popped down to the Lido, we walked and we boated around.
But, as I thought about the mosaics - gradually, imperceptably, a virtual bridge was being built between me and Ravenna – into the land where time took on a new identity and was to shake me to my roots.
Some new ideas from a new and rather strange person were creeping into my life and altering my perceptions.
Every day for the next two months, I set to finding out more about Ravenna, now the contested capital of Romagna, once capital of the Roman Empire, a very strange place indeed, but totally, utterly, dangerously fascinating.
Cinzia now became my guide. Somehow her words and her sweet enthusiasm bridged the gap between 21st-century Britain and 5th-century Ravenna taking me back a couple of millennia to Classe, the Ravenna suburb where she lived.
And soon enough I was there, physically in Ravenna. And that year I kept coming back to enjoy a bit of deft guided time-travelling with Cinzia. She would pick me up at the airport in her little ecocar and take me places. We’d see extraordinary things and eat extraordinary meals, stay in extraordinary places and then she’d dump me at the airport to go home. I would write an article for each visit and I was finding it more and more addictive.
Clearly, Romagna was a potent mix of everything I loved. Romagna? What the hell is Romagna?
A classic Roman strategy in conquered territories was to build roads through them and cities in them, so when they advanced north east of Rome first, they built a classic new city with all mod cons on the Adriatic coast called Ariminum (today’s Rimini). Naturally they built a nice new road from Rome to connect. It was called the Via Flaminia. What to do next?
In a kind of tacking move, they built a road from Ariminum towards more conquered territory in the north west. They called the road the Via Emilia and it followed the line of the Apennines towards the other sea coast – the Med’.
They now controlled a territory bounded by the mountains in the south and north (the alps) and seas in the west and the east, in the middle there was an astonishingly fertile plain watered by the powerful Po river.
Roman generals at the time had one big problem – providing pensions for their retiring soldiers, particularly if there wasn’t too much booty to go around. In these cases, generals often just captured some land and gave it away in nice retirement packages to soldiers as a working pension.
This method had a double benefit – not only were ex-soldiers looked after, but also the presence of soldiers added a bit of security. Naturally it was not a good idea to settle retired soldiers too close to overcrowded Rome.
So as soon as returning troops got through the Alps it seemed a good idea to find pension plots quick. What about that fertile land on the plain? Perfect! Before you could say Marcus Aurelius it was full of Roman soldiers living on pension plots. In other words, it became the land of the Romans or ́Romagna’!
Romagna had a few pretty strong selling points. It was close to the Adriatic (lots of seafood and lots of trade with the east). It was sandwiched between the Alps and the Apennines (lots of safety). It was astonishingly fertile (lots of great food). It had great transport options (two major Roman roads and the sea).
So for the centuries after the Romans arrived and it got called Romagna, it became a rich, elegant and important place.
First, arriving over the Alps from Gallic conquests, Julius Caesar used his first major stopping place, the then-walled island city of Ravenna, to gather his troops and make his journey over the Rubicon to take Rome and become emperor.
Although Caesar’s campaign ended in his famous assassination, one thing was not lost on his adopted son and later emperor. Augustus recognised the invincibility of Ravenna and created one of the empire’s biggest ports and massive fleets in the city which then became a major international city-port.
By the time Ravenna became imperial capital of Rome it was surrounded by riches. The Via Emilia was like a glorious necklace dotted with sumptuous art cities from Ariminum to Bologna; the fertile plains were producing fabulous harvests and the hills and mountains were alive with vineyards. The scene was set to create one of the world’s great cities of art, resplendent with mosaic-stuffed basilicas. An astoundingly colourful mix of Italy and Byzantium.
In later centuries Romagna’s riches brought warlords to the green hills and the fat cities. The Borgias, the Malatestas, the Estes, the Montefeltros brought violence, commissioned art and castles and people like Leonardo da Vinci and Dante to work in the area.
And even later Romagna became a pilgrimage place for artists, writers, connoisseurs and cognoscenti. Shelley and Byron, Freud and Jung, Versace and Armani, JRR Tolkien and Oscar Wilde amongst thousands of famous others trekked to Romagna to experience its colourful, world legacy treasure chest. And then they stopped coming, the second world war had allowed them to forget and for Romagna to drop off the Grand Tour itineraries.
By the time I arrived the treasure of Romagna had been forgotten for at least half a century. Now I was on a voyage of discovery, starting with Ravenna itself. Cinzia was determined to help me experience simply everything.
And we started with a meal, naturally. In a beach restaurant right on the Adriatic we ate a massive feast of fish. Simple dishes, spaghetti with juicy clams followed by a heap of mixed perfectly grilled fish.
Wonderful fresh fare with dozens of diners enthusiastically piling into their dishes, eating with knowledge and gusto. With the warm sea breeze, the scent of great food wafting from the kitchen and Cinzia, proud of her region’s food, tucking in with relish, I felt at home.
History is strange and extremely partial. Like many kids at school I was taught quite a lot of history involving Britain. I was lucky also to learn some Latin and I knew a bit about Rome and about ancient Greece. After school and during my work I was lucky enough to learn a bit more about our past. Travelling around the Silk Road had informed me a bit about one massive gap in my understanding; the Roman empire post 300 AD was to be another quite amazing untold story. Cinzia had decided to hold my hand, guide me on this exciting journey of discovery and show me everything she had. She was to become my teacher, my guide, my interpreter, and my muse as she gradually unveiled Romagna to me.
Again and again I returned to see and hear and taste its tempting tale – to savour this massive experience to its fullest. And every time I returned, door after door opened and veil after veil was lifted as I discovered Romagna’s unbelievable story.
OK I knew a bit about Romagna already... but now I was taken to the depths of the 5th century AD and Galla Placidia. Obviously Cinzia was besotted with her. But actually, who was this unknown lady? Cinzia explained...
Galla Placidia was born in Greece – Thessaloniki actually, the daughter of the soon-to-be Theodosius the Great emperor of Rome – so power from her father’s side. But her mother’s line may actually have been a little more tough. Her gran was the gloriously beautiful and powerful Justina who seduced and married emperor Valentinian and gave birth to the equally beautiful Galla who as a teenager, in turn, seduced Theodosius.
Beautiful, tough and powerful like her female antecedents, when Galla Placidia was given the title of ‘Most Noble Child’ and her own household and income, she looked set for a life of power and glory. But it was not quite as simple as that. First her mum died, then her dad was killed and shortly after the whole of her fiancé’s family was slaughtered for trying to grab power. Galla Placidia was living in Milan then and she naturally decided to flee.
She chose Rome as her safe spot, but unfortunately it was under seige by Barbarians when she arrived and she was captured by Ataulf, king of the Goths who wanted to hold her hostage for ransom. Naturally a big price would be demanded for such a high-grade prisoner.
Who knows how she did it, but Ataulf fell head over heels in love with Galla Placidia and decided to forego the ransom and take the girl. Their marriage was consummated in Forli and they had a massive wedding ceremony in Narbonne (the then capital of the Gothic lands) surrounded by many fortunes of captured booty. Galla Placidia became Queen Consort of the Goths. One of her wedding presents – a hundred handsome slaves each bearing massive platters of priceless jewels and gold looted from Rome!
So, loved-up and happy for once, there is yet another turn in her tale. Taking a bath in Barcelona, Ataulf was slaughtered by a rival who proceeded to kill the king’s ex-wife and his six children. Galla Placidia was again used as a ransom but not before she had been marched in front of her husband’s murderer.
Her half-brother Honorius had a cunning plan. Now he was in charge of the empire, he would ransom Galla, his half-sister, whom he had designs on, marry her off to his friend, the soldier Constantius, and while he was away in battle, Honorius would have her all to himself. So in 417 Constantius married Galla Placidia then off he went to fight.
It didn’t quite work out like that. Honorius moved everyone to Ravenna from Milan and to get the ménage a trois working properly he made Constantius joint emperor – so when Galla Placidia married she became Empress Consort in the Western Roman Empire then she had his two children Justa and Valentinian then of course Constantius died!
By now Constantius had become the real power behind Honorius’ throne and Galla Placidia’s protector. Knowing that she was in danger without his protection and fearful of the anger of the Ravenna population at her perceived incest with her brother, Galla Placidia fled to Constantinople with her children.
Mind you, by now Constantinople was about as safe as Rome had been when Galla Placidia had fled there. The Eastern (and most important) capital of the Roman Empire was pretty much under seige by Atilla the Hun. There was sufficient danger for a wall to be built to secure Constantine’s beautiful new city.
Then her half-brother Honorius died. In Constantinople with her half-nephew Emperor Theodosius, Galla Placidia decided to make a bid for power for her son Valentinian.
In the meantime local civil servant Johannes had seized power in Ravenna and was negotiating to become emperor.
After getting Theodosius’ support for Valentinian to be child emperor plus an army and a fleet of ships, Galla Placidia left the Bosphorus to take ‘impregnable’ Ravenna. She went by land with a small army and her captain Ardaburius went by sea.
Ardaburius and two of his galleys were captured by forces loyal to Johannes and were held prisoners in Ravenna. The top grade prisoner was allowed the freedom of walking the court and streets of Ravenna during his captivity. He took advantage of this privilege to get the city gates open to let in his troops. Johannes was taken and his right hand cut off; he was then mounted on a donkey and paraded through the streets, and finally beheaded in the city’s main hippodrome.
All Galla Placidia had to do was to make peace with the Goths waiting for spoils and she was in! Now she was Empress Consort on behalf of her 3-year-old son. Real power at last!
Thus began Ravenna’s age of Roman glory. Now not just a port, it was Imperial capital of Rome – and its empress – twice married, twice widowed, twice ransomed, humiliated and bartered now glorious Galla Placidia.
In 425 she started a building campaign that is evident even now, nearly 1600 years later. She built beautiful basilicas, commissioned glistening mosaics, started to create glorious Ravenna. Beautiful, rich, powerful, opulent, impregnable, global, stuffed full of Byzantine treasure, Rome’s window on the east was also full of intrigue, deca- dence and seedy goings-on.
Galla Placidia, though, was empress at a time when the whole world was in chaos. The city of Rome had fallen, the known world was full of millions of refugees due to famines.
Whole peoples were roaming the world to find fat territories to ravage and plunder. In China there were massive famines, hunger and death; in Europe malaria had reached the hitherto cold northern countries. Atilla the Hun and his vicious tribes having been bribed to go by Theodosius, were on their way to Italy. Rome’s western empire had fallen apart, the Vandals had reached North Africa, and closer to Ravenna the lands were full of Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Barbarians, and many other tribes who relished the opportunity to ravish the great city.
It’s lucky for her that Galla Placidia was a woman of steel forged in conquest and defeat.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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Valere Tjolle is the travel and tourism insider. An entrepreneur, consultant, developer and journalist, he has been in at the beginning of almost every tourism development for the last sixty years. There is no one better placed to expose the seedy side of tourism nor its enormous opportunities to unite people across the globe.