The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Words of wisdom from Empress Galla Placidia: a message arriving to us across an abyss of time

Domina Nostra, Galla Placidia, Pia, Felix, Augusta,
Our Lady, Galla Placidia, Pious, Blessed and Venerable.

429 Anni Domini.

Digna vox maiestate regnantis legibus alligatum se principem profiteri: adeo de auctoritate iuris nostra pendet auctoritas. et re vera maius imperio est submittere legibus principatum. et oraculo praesentis edicti quod nobis licere non patimur indicamus. 

"That the Emperor profess to be bound by the laws is a sentiment worthy of the ruler's majesty, so much is our power dependent on the power of law and indeed that the imperial office be subject to the laws is more important than the imperial power itself. And by the pronouncement of the present decree, We point to what We do not allow to be permitted to Ourselves." (translation by Stewart Oost).

In this difficult moment, it may be unthinkable that we could find the wisdom we have lost so badly in the words of someone who lived more than 1500 years ago. And yet, history is a big wheel that keeps turning, and many times it retraces an old path. If you have a little time, you could spend some of it reflecting on Galla Placidia's words, pronounced so many years ago, and yet so resonating with what we are seeing happening around us. It takes an effort, I know, to ponder on just a few words in an age when we are used to skimming through the noise of infinite words overlapping on our screens. And yet, for once, it may be worth trying. Some more notes follow below. 


-- Galla Placidia (388-450 AD). A fascinating figure in history, the daughter of Emperor Theodosius the Great, she was born a princess, married a Barbarian King, became Queen of the Goths, fought and defeated a usurper, and finally became Empress (Augusta), the sole ruler of the Western Roman Empire. She may have been the only Imperial ruler who understood the problems of the Roman Empire and acted accordingly, pushing it to its final dissolution. 

-- We have no texts left that we can directly attribute to Empress Placidia, but according to her biographer, Stewart Oost, her "hand" can be found in some articles of the Corpus Iuris Civilis, published almost a century after her death, although attributed to her son, Valentinian. These few articles are the only "voice" of the Empress we can still hear after more than one millennium and a half from her times. But it is a deep voice from someone who saw the decline of her world, not unlike our situation.

-- The state of today is the equivalent of the ancient Roman Emperors, an absolute ruler that can do whatever it wants: creating new laws when it does not want to obey the old ones. It can imprison people, kill them, start wars, destroy whatever it thinks is good to destroy. Placidia says that there is no absolute power, not even for Emperors. She says that the power (auctoritas) is the result of the law (iuris). Not the reverse. There are things, says the Empress, which are not permitted to the Empress, by decree of the Empress herself. It is the core of what we call "civilization:" who creates laws? On which basis? For what purpose? In this text, she shows that she understood that laws are more important than rulers, a concept that her contemporary, Augustine, stated as "an unjust law is not a law" (Lex iniusta non est lex). It is the concept of a "natural law" or "divine law" which should guarantee against arbitrariness, but that we seem to have lost, nowadays. 


  1. I appreciate your invitation to meditate Ugo. There is a difference between then and now: the course of time has accelerated.
    Where did the laws come from when Galla Placidia was alive? From a long experience and accumulation of knowledge while the world was moving very slowly.

    The french writter Marguerite Yourcenar wrote in 1974 in her autobiography: "coal and oil have transformed the slow adventure of humanity into a frantic race of horsemen of the apocalypse."
    I understand now what she meant.

    1. The Romans were the first to establish what we call today "the rule of law." Theoretically, the source of all laws was the "ecclesia," the assembly of the free citizens. With time, laws could be promulgated by other bodies, including the emperor. That led to a certain degree of arbitrariness -- it is against this arbitrariness that Galla Placidia is reacting

  2. Another thought comes to my mind while rereading Galla Placidia.
    In our time, laws are promulgated every day, accumulate, contradict each other, and nobody is able to find any coherence in them that would allow to understand their legitimacy. If I were suspicious, I would see in it a will of the power to create confusion in order to maintain its hold in an obscure and hidden way.
    The French Constitution (article 34) itself has inverted the relationship between the State and the citizens since the State disposes of goods and persons in the name of a national defense which nobody knows what it really means. Here is the unworthy passage :
    "The law sets the rules concerning : [...] the constraints imposed by national defense on citizens in their persons and property "
    From then on, the emperor is endowed by the law itself with the authority to free himself from the laws.

  3. Laws in a democracy are theoretically made by (the elected representatives of) the people for the people. It appears to me that the moral authority to rule on behalf of the people is diminished the moment when we the voting people regard ourselves as being ruled over rather than on behalf.

    The challenge to the West is existential from within, we have become an oligarchy where our votesdont count, where the ultra wealthy, the corporate and government elites have subverted our vote. If I was called upon to fight for our Western oligarchs on behalf of Ukrainian oligarchs against Russian oligarchs the answer would be no. 8very Edmund Burke, no taxation (or service) without representation.

  4. Reminds me of an exchange in the wonderful book "A man for all seasons":
    Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law?
    More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
    Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
    More: Oh? And, when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?