The Scheming Princess Behind the Fall of the Roman Empire
This article originally appeared in the Jan-Feb 2005 issue of mental_floss magazine.
by Mark S. Longo
Everyone goes through a rebellious phase. You know, that moment when daddy's little girl decides that booze, boys, and the beach are a lot more fun than the old man ever was. And, if you're lucky, you'll be able to look back on those years and laugh. If you're less lucky, you spent those years on a reality show, so for the rest of time, millions of strangers can look back on them and laugh instead. But, hey, it could be worse. You could be responsible for the fall of Western Civilization, just like Justa Grata Honoria, the Roman princess whose wild ways and naked ambition set off a chain reaction that culminated in the destruction of the Roman Empire.
Smart, conniving, and ruthless, Honoria possessed all the attributes befitting a Roman emperor, except for that pesky Y chromosome. As a young girl, she watched as her dimwitted six-year-old brother, Valentinian III, was crowned emperor of the Western Roman Empire, while she was set aside to await a suitable marriage. Hardly content to lead a quiet and chaste life, Honoria rebelled with aplomb, sleeping her way through the royal court while still in her teens.
Although her after-hours habits caused quite the scandal, they failed to satiate her need for attention and power, so Honoria set her eyes on the throne.
Employing her ample charms, she seduced her brother's royal chamberlain, Eugenius, and together, they plotted to murder Valentinian and seize power. But, alas, their scheme was soon exposed. Eugenius was executed, and Honoria was sent to a convent in Constantinople.
Life as a nun was a fate worse than death for Honoria, but even that couldn't quell her ambition. She spent her years at the nunnery plotting one escape attempt after another. Finally, out of sheer desperation, she turned to sources outside the empire. Her savior would have to be powerful enough to defy Valentinian and risk open war with Rome. Only one man fit that description: Attila, king of the Huns.
Attila the Hubby
Honoria got the barbarian's attention with a mutually beneficial proposal: If Attila would rescue her, she would marry him, and he would get half of the Western Empire as her dowry. Of course, Honoria was in no position to rightfully offer any portion of the Roman Empire. But she was betting that, after marrying her, Attila would conquer the whole Empire, and she'd become queen to boot.
Attila had secretly been planning a move against Rome for years, and Honoria's letter gave him the perfect opportunity to strike. Wasting no time, he told Valentinian that he planned to marry Honoria, and demanded the dowry he'd been promised. Naturally, Valentinian refused, and Attila used his status as a "wronged husband" to invade Roman territory in 451 C.E. The Hun armies quickly swept through the Empire, destroying everything in their path, and eventually they arrived in Rome. Like all the other cities before it, Rome would also have been annihilated were it not for the famine and disease that devastated the Huns during the invasion. Rome survived Attila's assault with the unlikely help of another nomadic enemy tribe, the Visigoths, but the Western Empire never recovered. Within a generation, the armies of the Goths, Franks, and Huns had overrun the area.
The Princess Bride
Ultimately, Honoria became neither Roman empress nor barbarian queen. Attila never rescued her, and she was eventually sent back to Rome and left to her brother's justice. Not wanting to cause a scandal by having her executed, and unwilling to send her back into exile where she could scheme again, Valentinian settled on a suitable third option. After years of struggle, Honoria finally suffered the fate she had been dreading all along: She was married off to an elderly Roman senator, and the rest of her life went unrecorded by history.