Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 8425
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Mladjov , Ian S. R.
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  • Title: The Case of Iusta Grata Honoria and Imperial Women in Late Antiquity
  • Source: Byzantine Studies Conference. Abstracts of Papers 28, ( 2002): Pages 25 - 27.
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Iusta Grata Honoria, Half-Sister of Honorius, Roman Emperor Marriage Noble Women Politics Power Princesses
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 5
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  • Abstract: Though still greatly restricted by their social environment, imperial women in the Late Empire loom considerably larger than their predecessors. The career of Iusta Grata Honoria embodies the prospects open to imperial daughters by the 5th century. Among the women of the Theodosian house, Honoria is remembered as a traitor who conspired with the Empire’s sworn enemy to exact vengeance on her brother Valentinian III. Honoria’s reputation is based on the testimony of several sources that relate a similar tale but often disagree over its details. Various elements of Honoria’s life and its chronology remain open to scholarly dispute and deserve to be considered from the point of view of prosopography. Honoria was born to Flavius Constantius and Galla Placidia, half-sister of Emperor Honorius, in 417 or 418. In 421 Honorius associated his brother-in-law on the throne, but Constantius III died seven months later. The widowed Augusta Galla Placidia remained influential with her brother until the siblings quarreled in 423. Exiled, Galla Placidia and her two children sought refuge with her nephew Theodosius II, emperor at Constantinople. Later that same year Honorius died in Ravenna and his chief notary Iohannes seized the throne. Theodosius II sent out his generals Ardaburius and Aspar to eliminate Iohannes, and in October 425 Honoria’s brother Valentinian III was crowned Augustus. Honoria became Augusta by mid-426 but only reappears in the sources some fifteen years later, when the poet Flavius Merobaudes described her as the moon reflecting her brother’s sunlight. Honoria’s fortunes changed in the middle of the century. At about thirty-two years of age, invested with the symbols of imperial power but expected to remain chaste in keeping with the dignity of the court, Honoria was caught in an illicit affair with her procurator Eugenius. Eugenius was executed, while Honoria was deprived of her imperial rank and temporarily banished from court. Whether she was pregnant and exiled to Constantinople as implied by Count Marcellinus is unclear. By July 450, Honoria, betrothed and then probably married to the future consul Flavius Bassus Herculanus, had appealed to Attila to “save her from her brother’s power” and “avenge her marriage.” First to learn of this, Theodosius II immediately wrote to Valentinian III, advising that Honoria be turned over to Attila. Valentinian, however, conducted an investigation and denied Attila both Honoria and a share of the Empire. Priscus claims that, at the time, Honoria’s life was spared as a gift to her mother. During his invasions of Gaul (451) and Italy (452) Attila repeatedly demanded Honoria as his betrothed—producing the ring she had sent him as pledge—and her share in the “royal wealth.” We may presume that she was still alive, and the “Honoria question” remained part of diplomacy through 452. Her mother had died in November 450, and with the death of Attila in 453, she may have lost her last protector. If Valentinian was bent on revenge, he was now free to exact it. There is no reason for the man who personally cut down Aetius to have refrained from punishing his rebellious sister. She was certainly dead by May 455, when, on Valentinian’s own assassination all the surviving imperial women in Rome became the object of dynastic aspirations. In addition to having been an unresolved mystery, Honoria’s career is significant as testimony to the options open to imperial women in the Late Roman Empire. What Gibbon once termed Honoria’s “adventures” illustrate all four careers a daughter of an emperor could pursue in her age. Unlike their predecessors, 4th- and 5th-century imperial women could contract not only the customary unions to members of the elite and/or for dynastic purposes, but now they had recourse to the additional two options of remaining single or marrying barbarian leaders. In the beginning, while honored with the exalted rank of Augusta, Honoria was supposed to keep chaste and unmarried, following a novel and popular option adopted by imperial families in the 4th century. She spoiled that directive by having an affair with Eugenius. Since Herculanus, to whom she was later betrothed, is described by Priscus as a man of “such good character that he was suspected of designs neither on kingship nor on revolution,” we may safely conclude Eugenius and his relationship with Honoria were perceived in exactly the opposite way. Valentinian apparently thought Honoria was trying to raise another man to status of emperor and possibly to replace him. Unwilling to marry the nobleman Herculanus, or seeking revenge after being forced to marry, Honoria turned to Attila. We do not know what she asked of him, but the barbarian king proceeded to present himself as her champion and fiancé. Attila’s claim that Honoria be sent to him as his betrothed indicates a real or fabricated attempt at a marriage between a Roman princess and a barbarian king. That Honoria did not marry Attila and may never have intended to do so is of no consequence—his interpretation of her appeal as an offer of marriage is simply another example of a new option for the marriage of imperial princesses: unlike Honoria, her mother Galla Placidia and her niece Eudoxia did marry barbarian kings. Thus, in an intriguing though unsuccessful career, Honoria epitomizes all four prospects open to a woman of her rank in Late Antiquity, prospects that remained largely unchanged until the age of the Komnenoi. [Reproduced by permission of the author.]
  • Author's Affiliation: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 2002.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 01473387
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