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Flaccilla, Aelia Flavia, wife of the eastern emperor Theodosius I

Aelia Flavia Flaccilla was the first wife of the emperor Theodosius I, and the mother of his two surviving sons, Arcadius (b. c. 377 ce) and Honorius (b. 383 ce), as well as of a daughter named Pulcheria, who predeceased both her parents.1 Flaccilla is generally believed to have been a native of Spain, and her marriage to Theodosius probably occurred some two or three years prior to his elevation as emperor, perhaps during his temporary retirement from military service to family properties in Spain, after the sudden execution of his father, the comes Theodosius, in 375/376 ce.2

Flaccilla’s location at the time of her husband’s elevation as emperor in January 379 ce is unknown; however, when Theodosius entered the city of Constantinople for the first time as Augustus in November 380 ce, he was accompanied by his wife, the empress, and his young son Arcadius.3 Flaccilla is known also to have had a sister (whose name is not recorded) who married Nebridius, who served as comes sacrarum largitionum in 383–384 ce and urban prefect of Constantinople in 386 ce,4 and bore a son of the same name, Flaccilla’s nephew Nebridius, who would later marry Salvina, daughter of the African comes Gildo.5

Flaccilla and Theodosius’s second son, Honorius, was born in Constantinople in September 384 ce, and his early years under his mother’s care are several times referred to in the poems of Claudian—with his birth to Flaccilla resulting in the palace ringing with joy, (Claud., De cons. Hon. IV.139–141), his mother wrapping him in the consular robe when the infant held his first consulship in 386 ce (Claud., De cons. Hon. IV. 157–158), and anticipating his elevation to the rank of Augustus in 393 ce (which in fact occurred some years after Flaccilla’s death):

“. . . even in those early days your mother beneath your sire’s happy gaze crowned your tender locks and, anticipating the answer to her prayers, gave you the diadem that was to be yours hereafter, and raising you in her gentle arms, she held you up to receive your mighty father’s kiss.”

(Claud., De cons. Hon. IV. 165-168)

In early 386, shortly before her own death, Flaccilla is also mentioned by Claudian as taking part in the festivities for the wedding of her niece and adopted daughter Serena, who married the rising general Stilicho:

“On one side . . . was the queen, fulfilling a mother’s loving office and ordering the bridal veil beneath a weight of jewels”

(Claud., Stil. I.80‐83)

On January 19, 383 ce, the anniversary of the accession of Theodosius I, the emperor raised his elder son, Arcadius, to the rank of Augustus (or co-emperor) at the Hebdomon outside Constantinople.6 Either at the same time or shortly thereafter, Flaccilla herself was raised to the rank of Augusta.7 The significance of the elevation was enhanced by the unusual nature of the rank at this time: there had been no Augustae in the Roman empire since the death of Helena, mother of Constantine I, in c. 329 ce. Following Flaccilla’s elevation as Augusta, the rank would become more common again.8 Some scholars have seen Flaccilla’s elevation, closely following upon that of her eldest son as Augustus, as intended to mark her role as imperial childbearer,9 but the same cannot be said for later Augustae of the dynasty, such as Pulcheria or Justa Grata Honoria.

Flaccilla’s title of Augusta entitled her to the minting of coinage in her name, on which she is depicted wearing the insignia of her rank—a diadem, and paludamentum with imperial fibula.10 The orator Themistius informs us that her statue was set up in the senate house of Constantinople, alongside that of her husband and their elder son, Arcadius (Themistius, Or. XIX, 228), while several references by Libanius, writing of the riot of the statues at Antioch in 387 ce, inform us that statues set up in that city to Flaccilla were among those of the imperial family torn down by rioters (Libanius, Or. X.4, 10; Or. XXII.8). Bases for statues to Flaccilla have also been found at Ephesus and at Aphrodisias,11 and a bust tentatively identified as that of the empress Flaccilla is held in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The Chronicon Paschale also informs us that a new palace was established for Flaccilla in Constantinople in c. 385 ce and named the Palatium Flaccillianum (Chron. pasch. s.a. 385).12 The elevation of Flaccilla as Augusta and her depiction in coinage, statuary and the use of her name in building at Constantinople and throughout the eastern empire were therefore part of the general consolidation of the Theodosian ruling dynasty’s authority through the 380s.

The ecclesiastical sources preserve a memory of Flaccilla’s exemplary piety and charity as empress. Theodoret describes the Augusta visiting the sick in hospital, whereupon she “brought the pot, fed them soup, gave them their medicine, broke their bread, served them morsels, and washed the bowl, performing with her own hands all the tasks normally given to servants and handmaids” (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, 5.18.2–3).13Flaccilla is credited with having insisted that her husband Theodosius refuse to hold discussions with the Arian bishop Eunomius of Cyzicus due to fears he would persuade Theodosius away from his Nicene orthodoxy (Sozomen, 7.6.3),14 and Ambrose of Milan would later describe her as “a soul faithful to God” (Ambrose, De ob. Theod. 40). Flaccilla died probably in early 386 ce, having travelled to Skotoume in Thrace to visit hot springs in the hope they would improve her health, and bishop Gregory of Nyssa, who only a few months earlier had composed an oration upon the death of Flaccilla’s daughter Pulcheria, was now called upon to compose a funerary oration for the empress. According to Gregory, Flaccilla had been the embodiment of wifely love, chastity and clemency, indeed, “a harmonious mixture of all the virtues. This zeal for the faith has deserted us, this pillar of the church, decoration of altars, wealth of the needy . . . ” (Greg.Nyss. in Flaccillam, p. 478, 480, 488).15

Flaccilla was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople, where her husband, Theodosius I, would later be laid to rest; as scholars have noted recently, the establishment of the Apostoleion as a focus of dynastic loyalty was particularly emphasized during the reign of Theodosius I.16 A notable legacy of Flaccilla, in addition to the re-emergence of the rank of Augusta itself, was the adoption of her first name, Aelia, by most subsequent empresses of the Theodosian dynasty in both east and west (and of empresses of later dynasties also), which became almost a marker of imperial status in itself. 17

Primary Texts

Gregory of Nyssa Oratio funebris in Flaccillam Imperatricem, edited by Spira, pp. 478, 480, 488 (vol. ix, Jaeger-Langerbeck).Find this resource:

    Claudian, Panegyricus de Quarto Consulatu Honorii Augusti, in Claudian, edited and translated by M. Plautnauer, 2 vols. vol. 1, pp. 286–335 (Cambridge, MA, 1972–1976).Find this resource:

      The Last Statues of Antiquity Database (LSA).


      Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, s.v. “Aelia Flaccilla Augusta 3.”Find this resource:

        Brubaker, Leslie. “Memories of Helena: Patterns in Imperial Female Matronage in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries.” In Women, men and eunuchs: gender in Byzantium. Edited by Liz James, 52–75. London: Routledge, 1997.Find this resource:

          Cameron, Alan. Claudian: Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970.Find this resource:

            Croke, Brian. “Reinventing Constantinople: Theodosius I’s Imprint on the Imperial City.” In From the Tetrarchs to the Theodosians. Edited by Scott McGill, Cristiana Sogno and Edward J. Watts, 241–264. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

              Grierson, Philip, Cyril A. Mango, and Ihor Ševčenko. “The Tombs and Obits of the Byzantine Emperors (338–1042).” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 16 (1962): 1, 3–63.Find this resource:

                Holum, Kenneth. Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.Find this resource:

                  Jones, Arnold H. M., John R. Martindale, and John Morris. The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. 3 vols. s.v. “Aelia Flavia Flaccilla.” Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1971–1992.Find this resource:

                    Matthews, John. Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court, AD 364–425. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.Find this resource:

                      McEvoy, Meaghan A. Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman west, AD 367–455. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                        McLynn, Neil. “Genere Hispanis: Theodosius, Spain and Nicene Orthodoxy.” In Hispania in Late Antiquity: Current Perspectives, edited by Kimberley Bowes and Michael Kulikowski, 77–120. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.Find this resource:

                          Pearce, John W. E. The Roman Imperial Coinage, Vol. IX: Valentinian I—Theodosius I. London: Spink, 1951.Find this resource:


                            (1.) Variation is found in the spelling of the empress’ name, as either “Flaccilla” or “Flacilla”—here the spelling used by The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, ed. A. H. M. Jones et al. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1971–1992) is employed.

                            (2.) Kenneth Holum, Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 22. McLynn, however, suggests that her Spanish origins are less certain; cf. Neil McLynn, “Genere Hispanis: Theodosius, Spain and Nicene Orthodoxy, in Hispania in Late Antiquity, edited by Kimberley Bowes and Michael Kulikowski (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005), 11–12.

                            (3.) Brian Croke, “Reinventing Constantinople: Theodosius I’s Imprint on the Imperial City,” in From the Tetrarchs to the Theodosians, edited by Scott McGill et al. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 244.

                            (4.) Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 23.

                            (5.) McLynn, “Genere Hispanis,” 19–20; see also Alan Cameron, Claudian: Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), 105.

                            (6.) On the elevation of Arcadius, and of junior Augusti generally, see Meaghan A. McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367–455 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 49–53, 83.

                            (7.) Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 28–29.

                            (8.) However, Theodosius I did not elevate his second wife, Galla, whom he married in 387, to the rank of Augusta.

                            (9.) Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 30.

                            (10.) John W. E. Pearce, The Roman Imperial Coinage, Vol. IX: Valentinian I—Theodosius I (London: Spink, 1951), plates XII and XIV; Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 32–34; Croke, “Reinventing Constantinople,” 251.

                            (12.) The Chronicle, however, mistakenly makes Flaccilla the second wife of Theodosius I, rather than the first.

                            (13.) See Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 24.

                            (14.) See Croke, “Reinventing Constantinople,” 247.

                            (15.) Translated by Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 23. See also McLynn, “Genere Hispanis,” 20.

                            (16.) Croke, “Reinventing Constantinople,” 253. For her burial, see Philip Grierson et al., “The Tombs and Obits of the Byzantine Emperors (338–1042),” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 16 (1962): 21, 25.

                            (17.) Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 22; Croke, “Reinventing Constantinople,” 251.

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