Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Saint Placilla, the Most Pious Empress of the Romans, Wife of Theodosius the Great

St. Placilla the Empress (Feast Day - September 14)


Earth’s fading crown Placilla left behind,
Finding an unfading crown of glory in the heavens.

Placilla, more popularly known as Aelia Flavia Flaccilla, was born on 31 March 356. The daughter of Antonius the prefect of Gaul, she was born in Spain and therefore was of Hispanian Roman descent. In about 375–376, Placilla married Theodosius I, a son of Count Theodosius. At the time Theodosius had fallen out of favor with Valentinian I and had withdrawn to civilian life in Cauca, Gallaecia. Their first son Arcadius was born prior to the elevation of his parents on the throne. Their second son Honorius was born on 9 September 384. Their daughter Pulcheria has been suggested to have been born prior to the elevation of her parents to the throne. She predeceased her parents as mentioned in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa. A younger Gratian - mentioned alongside the imperial children by Ambrose - has at times been suggested as a third son; however, Gregory of Nyssa reports the existence of only three imperial children and other sources do not mention Gratian. Gratian was possibly a relation of some sort but not an actual member of the Theodosian dynasty.

Valens, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire was killed in the Battle of Adrianople (9 August 378). His nephew Gratian, Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, was his heir and assumed control of the Eastern Empire with his younger half-brother Valentinian II as his nominal co-ruler. On 19 January, Gratian declared Theodosius, magister militum per Illyricum, to be his new colleague in the Eastern Roman Empire. Theodosius seems to have been the senior officer of Roman origins available for promotion at the time. At this point Placilla became the Empress consort.

She was a fervent supporter of the Nicene Creed. Sozomen reports her preventing a conference between Theodosius and Eunomius of Cyzicus who served as figurehead of Anomoeanism, the most radical sect of Arians, who believed that Jesus was in no way similar to the Father. He writes (Eccl. Hist., Bk. 7, Ch. 6):

"The Arians, who were still very strong in point of numbers, and who, through the protection formerly granted by Constantius and Valens, were still convening without fear, and discoursing publicly concerning God and the Divine nature, now determined upon making an attempt to gain over the emperor to their party, through the intervention of individuals of their sect who held appointments at court; and they entertained hopes of succeeding in this project, as well as they had succeeded in the case of Constantius. These machinations excited great anxiety and fear among the members of the Catholic Church; but the chief cause of their apprehension was the reasoning power of Eunomius. It appears that, during the reign of Valens, Eunomius had some dispute with his own clergy at Cyzicus, and had in consequence seceded from the Arians, and retired to Bithynia, near Constantinople. Here multitudes resorted to him; some also gathered from different quarters, a few with the design of testing his principles, and others merely from the desire of listening to his discourses. His reputation reached the ears of the emperor, who would gladly have held a conference with him. But the Empress Flacilla studiously prevented an interview from taking place between them; for she was the most faithful guard of the Nicene doctrines, and feared lest Eunomius might, by his powers of disputation, induce a change in the sentiments of the emperor."

Theodoret reports on her piety and works of philanthropy, personally tending to the disabled. He writes (Eccl. Hist., Bk. 5, Ch. 18):

"Yet other opportunities of improvement lay within the emperor's reach, for his wife used constantly to put him in mind of the divine laws in which she had first carefully educated herself. In no way exalted by her imperial rank she was rather fired by it with greater longing for divine things. The greatness of the good gift given her made her love for Him who gave it all the greater, so she bestowed every kind of attention on the maimed and the mutilated, declining all aid from her household and her guards, herself visiting the houses where the sufferers lodged, and providing every one with what he required. She also went about the guest chambers of the churches and ministered to the wants of the sick, herself handling pots and pans, and tasting broth, now bringing in a dish and breaking bread and offering morsels, and washing out a cup and going through all the other duties which are supposed to be proper to servants and maids. To them who strove to restrain her from doing these things with her own hands she would say, 'It befits a sovereign to distribute gold; I, for the sovereign power that has been given me, am giving my own service to the Giver.' To her husband, too, she was ever wont to say, 'Husband, you ought always to remember what you were once and what you have become now; by keeping this constantly in mind you will never grow ungrateful to your Benefactor, but will guide in accordance with law the empire bestowed upon you, and thus you will worship Him who gave it.' By ever using language of this kind, she with fair and wholesome care, as it were, watered the seeds of virtue planted in her husband's heart. She died before her husband, and not long after the time of her death events occurred which showed how well her husband loved her."

She died at the early age of thirty in 386. Her death is mentioned by (among others) Claudian, Zosimus, Philostorgius and Joannes Zonaras. According to the Chronicon Paschale, the Palatium Flaccillianum of Constantinople was named in her honor. A statue of her was placed within the Roman Senate.

Placilla was buried in Constantinople, and Saint Gregory of Nyssa delivered her funeral oration. In his panegyric Saint Gregory of Nyssa bestowed the highest praise on her virtuous life and pictured her as the helpmate of the emperor in all good works, an ornament of the empire, a leader of justice, an image of beneficence. He praises her as filled with zeal for the Faith, as a pillar of the Church, as a mother of the indigent. Saint Ambrose describes her as "a soul true to God."

Theodoret goes on to describe how much Theodosius showed his love for Placilla after her death, when the people of Antioch revolted against his tax increase by pulling down a bronze statue there of Placilla. He writes (Eccl. Hist., Bk. 5, Ch. 19):

"In consequence of his continual wars the emperor was compelled to impose heavy taxes on the cities of the empire. The city of Antioch refused to put up with the new tax, and when the people saw the victims of its exaction subjected to torture and indignity, then, in addition to the usual deeds which a mob is wont to do when it is seizing an opportunity for disorder, they pulled down the bronze statue of the illustrious Placilla, for so was the empress named, and dragged it over a great part of the town. On being informed of these events the emperor, as was to be expected, was indignant. He then deprived the city of her privileges, and gave her dignity to her neighbor, with the idea that thus he could inflict on her the greatest indignity, for Antioch from the earliest times had had a rival in Laodicea. He further threatened to burn and destroy the town and reduce it to the rank of a village. The magistrates however had arrested some men in the very act, and had put them to death before the tragedy came to the emperor's ears. All these orders had been given by the Emperor, but had not been carried out because of the restriction imposed by the edict which had been made by the advice of the great Ambrose. On the arrival of the commissioners who brought the emperor's threats, Elebichus, then a military commander, and Caesarius prefect of the palace, styled by the Romans magister officiorum, the whole population shuddered in consternation. But the athletes of virtue, dwelling at the foot of the hill, of whom at that time there were many of the best, made many supplications and entreaties to the imperial officers. The most holy Macedonius, who was quite unversed in the things of this life, and altogether ignorant of the sacred oracles, living on the tops of the mountains, and night and day offering up pure prayers to the Savior of all, was not in the least dismayed at the imperial violence, nor at all affected by the power of the commissioners. As they rode into the middle of the town he caught hold of one of them by the cloak and bade both of them dismount. At the sight of a little old man, clad in common rags, they were at first indignant, but some of those who were conducting them informed them of the high character of Macedonius, and then they sprang from their horses, caught hold of his knees, and asked his pardon. The old man, urged on by divine wisdom, spoke to them in the following terms: 'Say, dear sirs, to the emperor; you are not only an emperor, you are also a man. Remember, therefore, not only of your sovereignty, but also of your nature. You are a man, and you reign over your fellow men. Now the nature of man is formed after the image and likeness of God. Do not, therefore, thus savagely and cruelly order the massacre of God's image, for by punishing His image you will anger the Maker. Think how you are acting thus in your wrath for the sake of a brazen image. Now all who are endued with reason know how far a lifeless image is inferior to one alive and gifted with soul and sense. Take into account, too, that for one image of bronze we can easily make many more. Even you yourself cannot make one single hair of the slain.' After the good men had heard these words they reported them to the emperor, and quenched the flame of his rage. Instead of his threats he wrote a defense, and explained the cause of his anger. 'It was not right,' said he, 'because I was in error, that indignity should be inflicted after her death on a woman so worthy of the highest praise. They that were aggrieved ought to have armed their anger against me.' The emperor further added that he was grieved and distressed when he heard that some had been executed by the magistrates. In relating these events I have had a twofold object. I did not think it right to leave in oblivion the boldness of the illustrious monk, and I wished to point out the advantage of the edict which was put out by the advice of the great Ambrose."

It should be noted that it was on account of these riots in Antioch in 387 that Saint John Chrysostom delivered his famous twenty-one homilies known as the "Homilies on the Statues."

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