|Augusta of the Eastern Roman Empire|
Coin of Aelia Pulcheria
|Empress regnant of the Roman Empire|
|Reign||28 July – 25 November 450 (alone)|
25 November 450 – July 453 (with Marcian)
|Coronation||28 July 450|
|Born||19 January 398 or 399|
|House||House of Theodosius|
|Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire|
|Born||19 January 398 or 399|
|Venerated in||Roman Catholic Church|
Eastern Orthodox Church
|Feast||10 September (Roman Catholic Church) (Eastern Orthodox Church)|
Aelia Pulcheria (/ /; Greek: Πουλχερία; 19 January 398 or 399 – July 453) was regent of the Eastern Roman Empire during the minority of her brother Theodosius II, ruling empress of the Eastern Roman Empire for a few months in 450 and then empress by marriage to Marcian until her death.
She was the second (and oldest surviving) child of Eastern Roman Emperor Arcadius and Empress Aelia Eudoxia. In 414, the fifteen-year old Pulcheria took over the reins of government as the guardian of her younger brother Theodosius II and was also proclaimed "augusta". Pulcheria had significant, though changing, political power during her brother's reign. When Theodosius II died on 26 July 450, Pulcheria initially ruled in her own right before providing a successor by marrying Marcian on 25 November 450, while simultaneously not violating her vow of virginity. She died three years later, in July 453.
Pulcheria greatly influenced the Christian Church and its theological development by guiding two of the most important ecumenical councils in ecclesiastical history, namely those of Ephesus and Chalcedon, in which the church ruled on christological issues. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church subsequently recognized her as a saint.
Pulcheria was born into the royal House of Theodosius, a dynasty of the later Roman Empire, ruling in Constantinople. Her parents were Eastern Roman Emperor Arcadius and Empress Aelia Eudoxia. Pulcheria's older sister, Flaccilla, was born in 397 but probably died young. Her younger siblings were Arcadia (born in 400), Theodosius II, the future emperor (born in 401) and Marina (born in 401).
Arcadius' reign was marked by the conflict between his imperious wife and the Archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom. Sozomen reports that much of the rivalry was based on an ornate statue made in the honor of Eudoxia which Chrysostom condemned: "The silver statue of the empress … was placed upon a column of porphyry; and the event was celebrated by loud acclamations, dancing, games, and other manifestations of public rejoicing … John declared that these proceedings reflected dishonor on the [C]hurch." Also according to Sozomen, Chrysostom had condemned the Empress for her grandiose style in his sermons, which enraged her and resulted in Chrysostom's immediate deposition. Later in life, Pulcheria returned the relics of John Chrysostom and installed them for the church, in gratitude for his pious life.
Eudoxia died in 404, and Emperor Arcadius in 408. They left behind four young children, including Theodosius II, then 7 years of age, who had been his father's nominal co-Emperor since 402 and was now Emperor himself. Two praetorian prefects named Anthemius and Antiochus at first handled government affairs. Upon coming of age at 15 years, Pulcheria deemed that her family no longer needed Antiochus, and consequently Theodosius dismissed him from office, and thereafter she acted as her brother's guardian: Theodosius proclaimed Pulcheria Augusta on July 4, 414, Pulcheria was a deo coronata and possessed basileia. At the same time, Pulcheria made a vow of virginity, probably to keep off potential suitors. After this, the imperial palace assumed a monastic tone in comparison with her mother's palace. Sozomen describes the pious ways of Pulcheria and her sisters in his Ecclesiastical History:
"They all pursue the same mode of life; they are sedulous in their attendance in the house of prayer, and evince great charity towards strangers and the poor…and pass their days and their nights together in singing the praises of God."
Rituals within the imperial palace included chanting and reciting passages of sacred scripture and fasting twice per week. The sisters relinquished luxurious jewelry and apparel which most women of the imperial court wore. Pulcheria also provided all the instruction necessary for Theodosius to be a successful emperor when he would come of age.
"Although the empire was technically to be ruled by Theodosius II when he would come of age, his older sister Pulcheria exercised such profound influence over him all his life that she must be considered the co-regent of the empire until her death in 453. In fact it can be said without exaggeration that Pulcheria gave the identity to her brother's reign."
Pulcheria's training of Theodosius included
"… how an Emperor must walk, and ride his horse, alone or in procession; how he should sit upon his throne: how to wear his Imperial armor and robes; and how to speak with dignity. By no means must he yield to loud laughter …"
Not only did Pulcheria train her brother in the duties and customs of imperial office, but she also ensured that Theodosius was trained to become a pious Christian leader. According to many historians, upon coming of age to rule as sole Emperor, Theodosius ignored the teachings of his sister.
"He was by nature kind, affable, easily led … Not only was he foolishly kind; he was careless, and often he was to neglect his duty in the administration of his Empire."
The lack of determined leadership by Theodosius motivated Pulcheria to assume greater authority and influence over the Empire.
At the time Pulcheria proclaimed herself guardian of her brother, in an act of piety she also took a vow of virginity, and her sisters followed her example. Sozomen explains that:
"She devoted her virginity to God, and instructed her sisters to do likewise. To avoid cause of scandal and opportunities for intrigue, she permitted no man to enter her palace. In confirmation of her resolution she took God, the priests, and all the subjects of the Roman empire as witnesses …"
In a letter from Pope Leo I, a contemporary of Pulcheria, he complimented her great piety and despisal of the errors of heretics. But it is possible that Pulcheria may have had another motive to remain unmarried. According to Sozomen, Socrates Scholasticus, and Theodoret, Pulcheria deeply disliked Anthemius, the former guardian of Theodosius; and the reason may have been his distaste for her great political power and unwillingness to permit Anthemius to gain it at court. A more recent historian, Kenneth Holum, states that Anthemius had tried to marry into the imperial family. Pulcheria would have had to relinquish her power to a potential husband.
In 414, the Roman Senate gave Pulcheria the title of Augusta. Although a woman, Empress Pulcheria was treated as an equal among men at court. In the Byzantine Senate a bust was erected in her honor along with those of other Augusti.
Many important events occurred during her time as Augusta and her brother's reign as Emperor; however, Pulcheria's influence was mostly ecclesiastical. Pulcheria and her brother were known to have harbored anti-Jewish sentiments, and both enacted laws against Jewish worship in the capital. Before the reign of Theodosius II, synagogues were treated as private property and protected by the imperial government. Theodosius enacted a law that forbade the construction of synagogues and required the destruction of those in existence. Pulcheria and Theodosius also ordered the execution of a group of Jews after strife among Christians emerged in Palestine. Kenneth Holum writes "Pulcheria had long nursed a special hatred for Jews, and the Nestorian heresy, which appeared to contemporaries to be of Jewish origin, no doubt served to confirm that hatred."
Pulcheria was also famous for her philanthropy. She erected many churches and buildings for the poor in and around Constantinople. Pulcheria's building projects in Constantinople were so vast that a whole district was named the Pulcherianai in her honor. As well as contributing new churches and districts to the City, Pulcheria contributed significantly to the Christian Church by reinstating bishops who were unjustly dismissed and returning the remains of others, such as Flavian, as relics of the church.
Pulcheria's time as Augusta also was marked by war and ongoing conflict with Sassanid Persia. Pulcheria called for war against Persia when Persian King Yazdegerd I executed a Christian bishop who had destroyed a Zoroastrian altar. Under the influence of Pulcheria, Theodosius sent troops into battle with fanatical fervor, described by Sozomen as "ready to do anything for the sake of Christianity." Pulcheria and Theodosius were victorious and, according to historians, Theodosius credited his sister's vow of virginity as the reason for victory. Theodosius thus made his sister's virginity a tool of war propaganda, and because of her vow to be faithful only to God, the hand of God would help Roman troops in battle against Persia. Pulcheria's power would become even greater after the death of her brother, Theodosius II.
The relationship between Pulcheria and Aelia Eudocia, Theodosius II's wife, was strained. The two women over the years had developed a rivalry based on their different backgrounds and religious beliefs. Eudocia was originally named Athenais and was born in Athens to a Greek philosopher and professor of rhetoric. When her father died, he left her with little means, only "one hundred gold coins". She visited her aunt in Constantinople out of desperation. On 7 June 421, Theodosius married Athenais, but her name was changed to Eudocia. The rivalry between the two women was motivated by Eudocia's envy of Pulcheria's power in court.
Together Eudocia and the chief minister, the eunuch Chrysaphius, convinced Theodosius to rely less on the influence of his sister and more on that of his new wife. This caused Pulcheria to leave the imperial palace and live in "…Hebdomon, a seaport seven miles from Constantinople." The rivalry of Eudocia and Pulcheria came to a head when Eudocia departed for the Holy Land and, for a time, openly supported monastic Monophysitism. Eudocia's open opposition to the doctrine of the "Theotokos" of the Blessed Virgin Mary was an open opposition to Pulcheria as well.
While hunting on horseback in 450, Theodosius II fell from his horse and injured his spine; he died 2 days later from the injury. Pulcheria then returned to court and openly fought Chrysaphius. She reigned over the Empire alone for about one month after the death of Theodosius, and it is assumed that her duties primarily consisted of arranging the public funeral of Theodosius. Although Pulcheria was respected as an authority in Rome, the Roman Senate would not permit a woman to be sole ruler of the Empire. Therefore, Pulcheria was forced to marry and rule the Empire with a husband. Regarding her vow of virginity, she performed the religious rituals necessary to both honor her vow and enter a legitimate marriage. She married Marcian, who was a tribune and close associate of the Germanic General Aspar. Marcian's origins were quite civilian in comparison to those of previous emperors: "Marcian was a man of little substance, with no ancient aristocratic or imperial blood. He was Roman, however, and thus the bond of kedeia at once communicated eligibility for basileia." One condition of the marriage was that Marcian obey and respect Pulcheria's vow of virginity, and he complied with it. In order for the marriage to not seem scandalous to the Roman state, the church proclaimed that "Christ himself sponsored the union and it therefore should not provoke shock or unjustified suspicions." After their marriage, Pulcheria convinced Marcian to execute Chrysaphius.
The First Council of Ephesus, held in 431 in Theodosius's reign, involved two rival bishops: Nestorius, who was Archbishop of Constantinople, and Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria. The historian Averil Cameron described the conflict between them thus:
Nestorius advocated diminishing the influence of the doctrine of the "Theotokos", i.e., "the one who gives birth to the One Who is God" or "Mother of God", in the church. This conflicted with the religious beliefs of Pulcheria, as she was a virgin empress, and a rivalry between them ensued, during which Nestorius launched a smear campaign against her:
"Nestorius took specific action against Pulcheria. He implied that she enjoyed illicit sexual relations with at least seven lovers. He also would not accede to her demand that she be remembered in prayers as the 'bride of Christ' since she had been 'corrupted by men'. Most egregious of all, he effaced her image which he had removed from above the altar; and he refused to use her robe as an altar cover."
Nestorius greatly underestimated Pulcheria's power, because she had him deposed and her ally, Eusibius, a court official, produced an anonymous document declaring that Nestorius was a heretic. Meanwhile, Cyril had already publicly condemned Nestorius and wrote to the imperial court stating that the doctrine of the "Theotokos" was correct. Nestorius then called for an ecclesiastical council.
The Council was dominated by Cyril. With the Council at a standstill, Theodosius intervened to decide for it. Influenced by Pulcheria, the Emperor ruled in favor of Cyril, decreeing that the title of "Theotokos" was orthodox. He also deposed Nestorius and banished him to a monastery in Antioch.
In 449, christological debates flared up again. Theodosius summoned another council to Ephesus, to resolve the disputes. At this council, Pope Leo I was the primary advocate for Pulcheria's claims of the doctrine; he
"…forcefully intervened, sending a long letter to Archbishop Flavian of Constantinople, in which he argued for the two natures, but questioned the legality of the recent condemnation of a certain Eutyches for denying them. At this the party of Dioscorus, Cyril's successor in Alexandria, having believed that Eutyches had renounced his heresy earlier, was able to overturn the situation, whereupon Leo asked for a second council, calling that [council in] Ephesus the 'Robber Council."
During this council, Flavian was beaten and died from his injuries. He was later declared a saint and martyr.
Two years later, Pulcheria and Marcian summoned the Council of Chalcedon, attended by 452 bishops. It condemned the doctrines of both Nestorius and Eutyches, developed the doctrines of Cyril and Pope Leo I into one, and it declared the doctrine of the "Theotokos" orthodox. Historian Avril Cameron explains what the Council of Chalcedon meant in greater detail: "It developed and clarified the creed of Nicaea, according to which God was Father, Son and Holy Spirit, by further proclaiming that Christ was at all times after the Incarnation fully God and fully human."
Pulcheria devoted the last years of her life to the "Theotokos", and had three churches in Constantinople dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary: the Monastery of the Panagia Hodegetria, the Church of St. Mary of Blachernae, and the Chalkoprateia.
"Mention of her death in the chronicles confirms that her passing, like that of Flacilla [her grandmother], struck like an earthquake in the dynastic city. Unlike Eudocia [wife of the late Theodosius], she lived out her life in Constantinople and its suburbs, forming a bond with its people which even death could not sever." 
Even in her last days Pulcheria thought of ways to help the poor of Constantinople, for "in her will she reinforced that bond by instructing that all of her remaining wealth be distributed among the poor…"
Pulcheria brought many holy relics to churches in Constantinople. The Trier Adventus Ivory, now housed in the treasury of Trier Cathedral, Germany, has been interpreted as depicting the installation of one of these relics. Historian Kenneth Holum describes the Ivory thus:
"On the Ivory Theodosius wears distinctive costume and inclines slightly forward, but essentially he remains only part of the cortege and thus of the ceremonial context. The direction of the wagon's movement inexorably toward the scene at the right, toward the diminutive woman clothed in the rich costume of an Augusta … in it she deposited the holy relics."
PulcheriaBorn: 19 January 398/399 Died: July 453
| Byzantine Empress
| Byzantine Empress consort