Postcard from Ravenna, Italy: Gossipy stories behind ancient mosaics

It’s not surprising that Empress Theodora (about 500-548) merits the chalice full of wine in the mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale. (Warning: this post contains rumors passed down the grapevine for centuries.)

The daughter of the keeper of the animals at the Hippodrome of ancient Constantinople, a monumental center for circus-like entertainment and chariot racing, Theodora learned her beguiling ways early as her mother promoted her as an “actress.” According to ancient gossips, actresses during those times entertained publicly and privately to earn their keep.

Although not the first man to claim her for his mistress, Justinian (483-565) was smitten with her. Justinian’s origins were far from royal as well. The son of peasants, Justinian was adopted by his uncle, Justin (450-527), a member of the imperial guard. As the commander of troops in Constantinople, somehow Justin managed to be elected to rule the Byzantine Empire in 518.

While Justinian was keeping company with Theodora, their marriage was blocked by law. Rulers were prohibited from marrying actresses. Shortly before senility overtook him completely, Emperor Justin overturned the law for the benefit of his nephew. So when Justinian I succeeded his uncle as the Byzantine Emperor in 527, his former mistress became Empress and ruled jointly with him.

Construction of the large octagonal Basilica of San Vitale was begun while the Ostrogoths ran Ravenna but was completed in 547 after Emperor Justinian reclaimed the city. Supposedly, the project was patronized by gold donated by a Roman banker. Both Justinian and Theodora were promoted to sainthood by the Eastern Orthodox church.

The murals above are from San Vitale and a neighboring building in Ravenna. The oldest of the pair is a small mausoleum in the form of a Greek cross commissioned by Galla Placidia (386-452), but she ended up buried in Rome. The story of Galla Placidia, who must have been as compelling a consort as Empress Theodora, requires divulging a few more juicy tidbits.

I’ll try to keep this simple, but her life was complicated. Galla Placidia was the sister of Roman Emperor Honorius (384-423), the one who moved the capital to Ravenna in 402. Her first fiancé was executed in Rome in 408 amid accusations he was part of a military coup d’état.

During one of the invasions of the Visigoths, Galla Placidia was captured and moved with them to Gaul in 412. She ended up married to their king, Ataulf (370-415), a union forging a period when the Visigoths and Honorius briefly ceased fighting each other. King Ataulf, though, was murdered in his tub in Barcelona by a minion of a Gothic challenger to his rule.

The widow returned to Ravenna where her brother browbeat her into marrying his general, Constantius, in 417. In 421, Constantius assumed the title of Constantius III, ruling in conjunction with the childless Honorius. Her new husband brought her the title of Empress, but he died of some illness seven months later. Alternating scandalous stories of Honorius’ incestuous affection for his sister and quarrels between the pair forced Galla Placida and her children into exile in Constantinople, where another of her brothers reigned over the eastern half of the empire.

Following much political infighting and turmoil after Honorius’ death, Galla Placidia served as regent of the Western Roman Empire until her son from her marriage with Constantius III, Valentinian III (419-455), turned 18 in 437.

History is so not boring.

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