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Getting Bishops: Galla Placidia’s Contribution to the Bonifatian-Eulalian Schism

Jacqueline Long

Department of Classical Studies, Loyola University Chicago

Three documents of the Collectio Avellana’s dossier of the Bonifatian-Eulalian schism of 418-419 are docketed as letters of the Western emperor Honorius, but express their thoughts markedly differently from Honorius’s other letters in the group. Two of the three refer to domni germani mei Augusti principis (Coll.Av. 27.2, 28.3), plainly correcting the docketer: they were written not by Honorius but by his sister Galla Placidia, at that date also a member of Honorius’s court. This paper will analyze the epistolary rhetoric of all three letters in comparison with letters of Honorius himself, so as to confirm with new concreteness the suspicion expressed in scholarship previously that the third too is Placidia’s (Coll.Av. 25). The paper will connect Placidia’s writing with her residence in Rome before 410. Although extant direct evidence does not trace what she did at that time, the Collectio Avellana letters reinforce the probability that Placidia participated as an imperial woman in the ecclesiastical networking of which the bishop of Rome was a node (cf., e.g., August. Ep. 20*). They thus add to the clarity with which late-Roman aristocratic women’s agency in Church concerns can be understood. In particular, when Placidia flatters Aurelius of Carthage that he is princeps of the doctissimos viros whom Honorius and she are now summoning to a second synod to decide the schism (Coll.Av. 27.1), or Paulinus of Nola that his absence from the first synod caused its deliberations to wreck corruptly (Coll.Av. 25.1), she delicately suggests how she wishes their and their adherents’ votes to sway the second synod’s results, while Honorius stiffly professes impartiality and reliance on the synods’ judgment (Coll.Av. 18.2, 20.3, 26.3). Recognizing Placidia’s technique, and the possibility of preexisting relationships on which she builds, supports a hypothesis that in the schism she worked contrary to her husband Constantius’s alliances in order to promote a result she liked better. Events in Rome ultimately caused Honorius to impose a decision reinforcing his own authority, rather than deferring to a second synod, but the dossier illuminates the religious politics of the imperial family.

Honorius in all his own letters in the Bonifatian-Eulalian dossier pounds out an impression of conscientious deference to abstract procedure and authority. He recapitulates urban prefect Symmachus’s first report of the dual elections point by point (Coll.Av. 14, 15). When unrest in Rome makes plain the procedurally legitimate election, as Symmachus had presented it, was not popular, Honorius rescinds his authorization without prejudgment and calls for a collective decision of priests (Coll.Av. 18). Impersonal phrases deliver his exhortations (e.g., Coll.Av. 26). Honorius thus conspicuously conforms to decorums of imperial modesty (e.g., Euseb. VC 3.12, Pacat. Pan.Lat. 2.47.3). Placidia, by contrast, invokes personal emotions and mutual presence (Coll.Av. 27.1, 28.3). Her references to her “lord brother Augustus the emperor” ostensibly defer to Honorius while also underlining her own importance, but the intimacy with which she imbues her messages follows a traditional style of Roman aristocratic female interaction much noted, and reprobated, when churchmen were involved (e.g., Coll.Av. 1.9). In the private confidence of this created relationship, Placidia delivers her opinions of the first synod sharply (Coll.Av. 25.1, 27.1, 28.1). She does not mar Honorius’s official rectitude by crassly naming which candidate she prefers, but her addressees can have made no mistake. While both siblings use similar themes in their parallel letters inviting bishops and other clergy to the second synod, and both use grammatical structures in ways that reinforce the meaning of their words, Placidia’s stands out as the more accomplished performance.

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Women and Agency

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