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RPG Evolution: The Placidia Campaign

Game of Thrones can't beat the real life adventures of the last Roman Empress.

Game of Thrones can't beat the real life adventures of the last Roman Empress.


Placidia's potrait by http://www.taivaansusi.net/historia/antiikki/parp581.jpg, Public Domain, File:Aelia Galla Placidia.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Rome didn't fall all at once. It died in fits and starts, and Roman Princess Galla Placidia was at the center of it all. Following her adventures can make an epic campaign. Please Note: What you are about to read is rooted in history, but some of it has since been challenged by historians as being biased to shape certain narratives.

Meet Placidia​

Born around 390, Placidia was the daughter of a patrician named Galla and Emperor Theodosius the Great. She lived the early part of her life as a nobilissima puella, “most noble girl,” in the Great Palace of Constantinople. She was orphaned around the age of 5. By age 6, she traveled with the legions to Milan. She moved to Rome when her half-brother Honorius was named Emperor and moved the Western capital in 401 to Ravenna, an Adriatic port.

Honorius was a terrible ruler. Managing the empire fell to the women in court, including Placidia’s cousin Serena, who married the general Stilicho. Serena managed affairs from Rome while Stilicho waged war against the Visigoths in 401. His victories two years later seemingly defused the barbarian threat.

And yet Honorius took credit for Stilichio's victory with a parade. The parade ended before the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Honorius declined to offer sacrifice to the king of the gods. It was a slight the pagan population of Rome would not soon forget.

The Beginning of the End​

Honorius spectacularly mismanaged the defense of Rome. He grew suspicious of Stilicho and had him beheaded in 404. He refused to negotiate with the leader of the Goths, Alaric, over demands for food. And then his troops massacred the families of Gothic soldiers who served in the legions. By 408, Alaric felt he had no choice: he marched across the Alps with 30,000 starving soldiers and 150,000 camp followers towards Rome.

Rumors spread that Serena was plotting with the Goths. Placidia conspired with the Senate to have Serena publicly strangled, making Placidia the highest-ranking noble left in Rome. The senate paid Alaric a ransom of 42 wagons of treasure, but he was not deterred. In 410, Honorius met with Alaric but treated the negotiations with disdain. Yet still Alaric hesitated, concerned that Rome's patron goddess Roma might unleash her wrath if he invaded. With an increasingly hungry horde at his command, Alaric finally unleashed hell upon Rome.

Three months of siege took a dire toll in disease and death. Its population shrank from one million to 600,000, the Colosseum games were mostly shut down, and lawlessness roiled the streets. Placidia's father favored monotheism over paganism, a tension that would boil over during the siege as the many religions blamed the invasion on the failure to make sacrifices to the gods who protected Rome. When the gates finally opened, three days of savagery erupted as the Goths ran rampant, pillaging noble and commoner alike and setting fire to it all.

In the western capital of Ravenna, Honorius barely noticed. When he heard Rome had fallen he thought his courtiers were talking about his pet rooster, also named Rome (it survived).

In a Roman-era D&D campaign, PCs can assume the roles of loyal subjects, Roman legionnaires, or even barbarian allies as they navigate the chaos and witness Galla Placidia's struggle to preserve the empire. They might be responsible for evacuating her from the city or capturing her, depending on their allegiance. Druids and clerics might clash in the chaos.

Rome Resurgent​

Placidia survived as a royal hostage and traveled for four years with the Goths as they roamed Italy searching for food. She was assigned a handsome cavalry leader named Athaulf. Alaric's fears of Roma's divine vengeance proved well-founded when he died a few months later, probably from malaria. Athaulf was named his successor.

The newly-crowned Visigoth king married Placidia in southern Gaul. The happy match was the beginning of even greater plans. In his wedding speech, Athaulf explained how he tired of endlessly wandering in search of food. Instead, the Goths, led by his new Roman bride, would settled down to become Roman citizens. He credited Placidia for originating the idea.

The two had a child, named Theodosius after his Roman grandfather. For a brief, shining moment, Rome seemed like it might be reborn. But it was not to be.

A few months later, the child died. In 415, Athaulf was stabbed by a traitorous servant and died from his wounds. The new Gothic king Sigeric personally murdered Athaulf’s daughters from his first marriage. Only Placidia was saved, thanks to her Roman blood, and was forced to march along with other Roman prisoners during Athaulf’s 12-mile funeral procession. She was then ransomed back to Honorius.

PCs aligned with Goths or Romans may find themselves surprisingly united in common cause in the marriage of their leaders, and then later out of loyalty to their legacy.

Home Again, Home Again​

Placidia was back in the venomous lair of Honorius. She was married to his top general, Constantius, a grizzled war veteran. Despite her misgivings, the marriage paid dividends: Constantius' capable leadership earned him a promotion and Placidia the title of Augusta. She bore two children, a daughter named Honoria and a son named Valentian. With Honorius childless, Valentian would inherit the throne.

It was not to last. Only months after her new title, Constantius died from pleurisy. It wasn't long before Honorius became convinced Placidia was secretly negotiating with the Visigoths, so he banished her to Constantinople. Her terrifying voyage resulted in the ship nearly sinking, and Placidia believed she was only saved thanks to divine intervention.

PCs assigned to guard Placidia (Goths or Romans) will find their fortunes reversed once again. Her adventures on the way home could constitute several maritime adventures, with druids and cleric figuring prominently in protecting the ship to ensure it reaches its destination.

The Phoenix Rises​

Shortly after Placidia's banishment, Honorius collapsed from edema at 38. The throne was seized by Joannes, a palace official of no royal blood. This could not stand, so Placidia's nephew Theodosius II, dispatched an army to Italy to depose Joannes and install six-year-old Valentinian as Emperor of the West. By 425, Placidia returned with her children to Ravenna and regained her title.

For the next decade, Placidia used her accumulated experiences in court and war to her advantage. She streamlined Roman laws into a single written set known as the Theodosian Code. She was actively involved with the Church and a devout patron of the arts.

Unfortunately, her son inherited many of the attributes of his uncle: Valentinian failed to act decisively when the Vandals invaded North Africa, cutting off Rome's main supply of grain. Honoria fared little better, embroiled in an affair with her palace steward that led to her being forcibly engaged to a senator. In revenge, Honoria secretly asked for help from Attila the Hun. Before Placidia died in 450 at the age of 60, she successfully managed to have her daughter banished instead of executed.

But just two years later, Honoria's plan came to fruition. Atilla the Hun arrived, demanding Honoria's hand. Only the intervention of a Pope turned him away, with one chronicler positing that it was the grim fate of Alaric, who died just months after invading Rome, that dissuaded him.

Soon after, Valentinian would be murdered by men loyal to a general he had killed. The Vandal armies arrived in 455, the final nail in the Western Empire's coffin. The fall of Rome is pegged at 476, when Odoacer took Ravenna and proclaimed himself King of Italy. The so-called Dark Ages had begun.

PCs loyal to Placidia's house may be vexed by her children's choices. Paladins and clerics likely flourish under her rule, only to find themselves facing another set of invaders due to an ill-fated marriage. Their ability to stave off an attack may rely as much on negotiation as it does on divine magic.

Stranger Than Fiction​

The fall of an Empire is rife with opportunities for characters to ascend social ranks, gain power, and potentially lose it all. Like Placidia, a campaign set in these times can span her rule and many reversals of fortune, with enemies becoming allies, only for new threats to arise within and without the court. Placidia would make a great patron for adventurers looking for faith, fame, or fortune.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


This is very good. One great thing about this era from the viewpoint of inspiring a campaign are the many conflicts going on. The Eastern and Western empires, the court intrigues, the "barbarians" who are fighting Rome while also wanting to emulate it, the leaders who vary from inept to remarkably skilled, the new and old religions, trade across vast areas, huge migrations, etc. etc. etc.

I guess I can suggest the "fitna of al-Andalus" as source of inspiration. The conflict in the Muslim Spain what caused the end of Omeya dinasty and the division into taifas (little Spanish Muslim realms).

The empress Theodora is other interesting historical character.

And other character:

Doña Urraca de Castilla, the first queen ruler in Europe.

Catalina de Erauso, known as "la monja alferez", she was.... an interesting character. Two movies were producer about her.

This could be interesting. Spanish army in Philippines against Asian pirates.


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