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."
Showing posts with label rulers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rulers. Show all posts

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.