“You can tell the strength of a nation by the women behind its men.” – Benjamin Disraeli.
You’ve likely never heard of her. Eudoxia. Last empress of Rome. Last, it must be said, because of her own actions. The woman who, by her own force of will, brought about the sacking of one of the world’s greatest cities.
She was born in Constantinople in 422 AD, the daughter of the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II and his Greek consort Aelia Eudocia. She was betrothed at the age of two to her cousin Valentinian III, the future Western Roman emperor, and married in October of 437 at the age of fifteen. At seventeen, she was granted the title of Augusta, or empress.
On the 16th of March, 455, the Emperor Valentinian III was assassinated in the Campus Martius in Rome. As Valentinian had no male descedants and had never designated an heir, many candidates were presented as possible emperors. Empress Eudoxia promoted her own candidate, a prominent general named Majorian.
In the end, the wealthy senator Petronius Maximus rose to succession as emperor by buying the loyalties of palace officials and the local military. Eudoxia was forced to marry him or be faced with her own execution.
The marriage of Eudoxia to Maximus took place only days after the death of Valentinian – a death that many attributed to Maximus’s own planning — and writers of the day commented with disapproval that Eudoxia was not given the proper amount of time to grieve for her first husband.
From here, we get the rest of the story from the Byzantine chronicler Malchus. Eudoxia, he tells us, was miserable in Rome, forcibly married to man who she — probably rightfully — believed took part in the murder of her husband. History tells us that she summoned Gaiseric, the Vandal king of Africa, to fight against the new Emperor Maximus. King Gaiseric came to Rome, killed Maximus, and sacked the city. Mighty Rome fell at the invitation of a woman.
There are varying accounts as to whether Empress Eudoxia voluntarily joined Gaiseric in Carthage or was “carried off,” but in either case, she and her daughters Placidia and Eudocia spent seven years in Carthage after the sack of Rome. It is said in the writings of the time that the three women were held “in great honor” in Carthage.
Summoning the enemy in revenge for an unjust marriage was not a new concept to Eudoxia. She would have been familiar with the idea, as her own sister-in-law Justa Grata Honoria had summoned Attila the Hun for help in freeing her from an unwanted marriage, as well.
Eudoxia eventually returned to Constantinople after an absence of twenty-five years, her oldest daughter Placidia accompanying her. Her youngest daughter Eudocia stayed in Africa and took the Vandal Huneric as her husband. They became parents to Hilderic, king of the Vandals from 523 to 530.
So beware, ye ancient men, of your arranged marriages. For such plans may just bring down an emperor, a city, and — perhaps — set in motion the downfall of an entire civilization.