Eudocia (c. 400–460)

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Eudocia (c. 400–460)

East Roman empress of Athenian origin who, though baptized a Christian upon her marriage to Theodosius II, is said to have admired classical culture and to have harbored sympathies for learned pagans throughout her life. Name variations: Aelia Eudocia; Aelia Licinia Eudocia; Athenais; Athenaïs; Athenaïs-Eudokia of Athens; Eudocia Augusta; Eudociae. Pronunciation: AYE-lee-ah Yoo-dock-EE-ah; Ath-ayn-AH-is. Born Athenaïs in Athens or Antioch c. 400; died peacefully in Jerusalem on October 20, 460; daughter of Leontius (an Athenian sophist); educated in Athens by her father, and by the grammarians Hyperechius and Orion in Constantinople and Jerusalem; married Theodosius II, East Roman emperor (r. 408–450), on June 7, 421; children: Licinia Eudoxia (b. 422); Flaccilla (d. 431); Arcadius (d. before 450).

After death of father Leontius, left Athens for Constantinople; was baptized there and betrothed to Theodosius II (421); proclaimed Augusta (423); was thought to have influenced the foundation of the University of Constantinople (425); saw marriage of daughter Licinia Eudoxia to West Roman Emperor Valentinian III (437); made pilgrimage to Jerusalem and visited Antioch, where she addressed the senate (438); fell from favor at court and withdrew to Jerusalem (443).

Literary works:

verses on Roman victories over Persia; verse paraphrase of portions of the Old Testament in eight books; oration in praise of the city of Antioch (all extant only in sparse fragments); poem on the martyrdom of St. Cyprian and Homerocentones (both extant in large fragments). Fragments collected in Eudociae Augustae, Procli Lycii, Claudiani: carminum graecorum reliquiae, Teubner (1897).


built walls around Antioch (438); in Jerusalem restored walls and built fortifications, an episcopal palace, and the church of St. Stephen, in addition to many churches and shelters for pilgrims, the poor, and the elderly.

At his death in 395, Theodosius I left the Roman Empire divided between his two sons as emperors ("Augusti") of the West and East. Despite the almost complete entrenchment of Christianity during his reign, the old Roman Empire was no longer unified or resilient enough to withstand the external pressures exerted by barbarian hordes through the 5th century. The division of power resulted in what Theodosius I had not planned for: the de facto creation of two new political entities. The year 395 thus marks the clear bifurcation of the legacy of Rome in East and West. The Latin West would last scarcely a century more before the last Augustus, Romulus, was overthrown by the German Odoacer in 476. The Greek East, however, would survive as the Byzantine Empire in the Aegean and Asia Minor for another millennium. The period between 395 and 476 into which Eudocia was born describes an important transitional period in the history of social, political, and religious life.

One of the most interesting aspects of change in this era is the phenomenon of female basileía, the officially sanctioned partnership of women in imperial power. Beginning with Flaccilla (c. 355-386), empress and wife of Theodosius I, is a line of imperial women who wielded public power in a way that the Roman world had never before seen. Eudocia, wife of Theodosius II from 421, has been considered by many as one of the most appealing of these women both because of the romantic stories of her origin and downfall, and for the intrinsic characteristics of intelligence and dignity that she manifested through a long and difficult career.

The Empress Eudocia was born in 400 as Athenaïs; it is safe to say that her family had no inkling of what she would become. We have no record of her mother's name, but her father Leontius was a Greek sophist (a philosopher-rhetorician). Her place of birth is traditionally thought to be Athens, though it has been recently suggested that it was actually Antioch (present-day Antakya, in southern Turkey). It does seems certain that she spent a large portion of her youth in Athens, which was a preeminent center of classical learning, and the place where her father held an important professorship from around 415 to his death a few years later. Though we cannot be certain as to what extent Leontius and his family adhered to official Christianity, the fact that he held the position he did in Athens suggests that Eudocia was heavily exposed to, if not taught in the ways of, classical systems of philosophy and literature in this city of many schools. In addition to this indication of a pagan upbringing, there is the matter of her birth name Athenaïs, which is obviously derived from that of the Olympian protectress of Athens, the goddess Athena, and which had to be changed to Eudocia upon her baptism immediately before marriage.

There is much uncertainty in the ancient accounts of Eudocia's life. She is mentioned by several Church historians and chronographers dating from the generation preceding her death until well into the Byzantine era, but the fullest and most lively account is that of John Malalas, who lived between 491 and 578; it is with him that the romantic tradition of Eudocia's discovery in Constantinople begins. Although we must suspect the rhetorical embellishment of his account, and supply dates to the events as we know them from other sources, Malalas provides us with the most comprehensive story of Eudocia.

Leontius died probably in 420, and legend has it that he left the lion's share of his estate to his two sons, Valerius and Gesius, setting aside only one hundred coins to his daughter, "because her good fortune, which surpasses that of all other women, will be enough." Valerius and Gesius refused to override their father's will and make a more equitable division of the estate with their sister, and so Eudocia traveled to Constantinople, where she hoped that she could arrange an audience with the Empress Pulcheria Augusta.

Pulcheria, another of the impressive imperial women of the period, is a character who figures prominently in the life history of Eudocia. She had been regent for her younger brother Theodosius II when he was a boy, and for most of his reign she continued to exert a considerable influence at court. Eudocia's visit to Constantinople coincided with Pulcheria's search for Theodosius' bride. When the young Athenian appeared before the empress to make her inheritance case, Pulcheria saw a woman of such learning and beauty that she immediately arranged for Theodosius, a studious and passionate young man, to view Eudocia secretly. We are then told that he and his boyhood friend Paulinus observed her from behind a curtain in his private apartments. He fell immediately in love, and plans were set straightaway for marriage.

After catechism and baptism by the patriarch of Constantinople, Eudocia dropped the name Athenaïs, took the name Aelia Eudocia ("the benevolent will of God"), and married Theodosius II on June 7, 421. The next year the imperial couple had a daughter, Licinia Eudoxia , later to be Augusta in the West. On January 2, 423, Eudocia was herself proclaimed Augusta, which made her a theoretical equal with the redoubtable Pulcheria, the other woman in Theodosius' life.

Pulcheria was of a rather severe religious cast, and this, in combination with a remarkable political adeptness and a thirst for wielding power, made some sort of confrontation between the Augustae inevitable. Theodosius, though intelligent and benevolent, was a weak and complacent ruler whose long reign can be plotted in terms of which courtier or relation exerted the most influence over him at any given time. By the time Eudocia was brought into the palace, Pulcheria had made the court into a sort of cloister: she had elevated theological concerns to high importance in imperial politics and had dedicated herself—and her two sisters, Arcadia and Marina —to perpetual chastity. Her zeal is evident in a constitution signed by Theodosius in 415 forbidding the construction of new synagogues and ordering the destruction of old ones, and in another of the same year excluding pagans from positions in the army or administration. In the two years following Eudocia's elevation, however, a new influence seems to be evident in Theodosius' appointments and policies.

On the day before Eudocia's investiture as Augusta, a man called Asclepiodotus was named to the highest civil position in government, the praetorian prefecture. He was Eudocia's maternal uncle. On April 6, 423, Theodosius presented a new law to Asclepiodotus reaffirming harsh penalties against various Christian heresies as well as against pagans and Jews. Asclepiodotus was able to mollify the emperor's harshness by bringing before him evidence of Christian outrages against Jews, and by apparently convincing him that there were really no pagans left in the Roman world to suppress. Theodosius appended provisions to his law to protect peaceful pagans and Jews from attack. Asclepiodotus made every effort to enforce the emperor's new rulings, but they were eventually repealed after St. Simeon the Stylite threatened the timorous Theodosius with divine punishment. Nevertheless, this outcome only emphasizes the independence of outlook that dared to discourage the violent Christian piety popular in Roman society at the time. It is very unlikely that Pulcheria, so intense in her love of the Church and her hatred of those outside of it, would have appealed for clemency. It is a far more likely conjecture that the new Augusta Eudocia was ultimately responsible for the concessions: despite her recent conversion to Christianity, her upbringing is likely to have given her some sympathy for the position of loyal pagan citizens in the empire.

Edward Gibbon">

The story of a fair and virtuous maiden, exalted from a private condition to the Imperial throne, might be deemed an incredible romance, if such a romance had not been verified in the marriage of Theodosius.

Edward Gibbon

Another key event in the reign of Theodosius often associated with the influence of Eudocia is the foundation of the University of Constantinople on February 7, 425. It was established to compete with the traditional places of classical education in Antioch, Alexandria, and Athens as an institution with an emphasis on Christian learning within the classical disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, and jurisprudence. Again the involvement of the new empress in this endeavor seems plausible because of the conjectured status of traditional education in her upbringing. It is worth noting that Christianity did not require of its adherents the wholesale rejection of pagan culture. Many learned bishops and saints of the time cultivated their understanding of the past to further their Christian goals; to say that the baptized Eudocia understood and appreciated pagans is not to suggest that she was behaving hypocritically.

On October 29, 437, Eudocia and Theodosius' first child Licinia Eudoxia was married to her cousin Valentinian III, Augustus in the West. After the departure of her daughter, Eudocia decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to render thanks for the successful marriage. In the spring of the same year, she made her way to the holy city with a stop in Antioch, the occasion of a famous display of her learned eloquence. There, before the local senate, she delivered an oration in praise of the city, the final line of which—a quotation from Homer—brought down the house: "I boast that I am of your race and blood." The senators responded to the compliment by erecting two statues to the empress, and she persuaded Theodosius to undertake several public works to improve the city.

Eudocia's itinerary in Jerusalem included visits with the pious and wealthy Roman widow Melania the Younger (who had established a religious house there), prayers and devotions at the holy sites in the city, and the collection of some important relics, including those of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, which Eudocia triumphantly brought back with her to Constantinople in 439. In these details, her journey recalled that of Helena , the mother of Constantine the Great, some 100 years earlier. This recollection only served to increase her renown—and perhaps Pulcheria's jealousy.

At her arrival back in the imperial city, Eudocia's influence was still strong, but whatever disharmony had existed between herself and Pulcheria came quickly to a head. One likely point of contention was a theological dispute that was raging throughout the East at the time: the controversy between the Orthodox party, to which Pulcheria adhered, and the Monophysite heresy, to which Eudocia inclined. But it took more than an argument about the nature of Christ to bring full-fledged dissension to the palace. The real author of the dispute that led to Pulcheria's withdrawal from court soon after 441 seems to have been one Chrysaphius Tzumas, a court eunuch who had been gaining steady influence over the weak-willed emperor since 440. Chrysaphius pointed out to Eudocia that Pulcheria had enjoyed for some time the service of a chamberlain in her household, and suggested that she demand of Theodosius a chamberlain for herself. When Theodosius refused, Chrysaphius suggested that Eudocia urge the emperor to have his sister ordained a deaconess—ostensible flattery for the purity of her life, but actually a ploy to break her power, since the ordination would place her in subservience to the archbishop of Constantinople. Pulcheria sensed the object of these machinations and withdrew from the palace to bide her time, having sent her chamberlain over to Eudocia.

Chrysaphius' complete domination of the emperor was now obstructed by only Eudocia, and he is probably behind the rumors that soon reached Theodosius about adulterous liaisons between Eudocia and his old friend Paulinus, now a high official in the palace. Just as John Malalas provides us with the most vivid account of Eudocia's rise to prosperity, he gives a fabulous account of her fall from grace. At the feast of Epiphany, Malalas tells us, a poor man brought Theodosius an apple of prodigious size, which the emperor bought and presented to Eudocia. The empress in turn gave the apple to Paulinus, who was ill. He, unaware of its origin, then made a gift of it to Theodosius. When the emperor questioned Eudocia as to what she had done with his present to her, she swore that she had eaten it. This made Theodosius believe that his old friend and his wife had indeed been engaged in an illicit romance, and he had Paulinus killed. The folk-tale elements of this account do not permit us to fully credit its details, but we do know from an independent source that Paulinus was executed in 444, and that in 443 Eudocia secured Theodosius' permission to go for a second time to Jerusalem; she would never return.

Though the move to Jerusalem was a diminishment of her former power at court, Eudocia was allowed initially to maintain the tokens of her Augustan dignity, which included not only her title, but also a large retinue and revenue. In fact, she was so active in building and charity in the city that Theodosius apparently felt threatened and, at some point, sent the commander of his guards, Saturninus, to chastise her. His first act was to execute her two most trusted confidantes, the clerics Severus and John. We have it on good authority that the enraged Eudocia then killed the imperial emissary with her own hands. At this point, Theodosius deprived her of her imperial staff and ceased to include her image on coins struck at the government mints. Nevertheless, we have no evidence that she ever lost her imperial title. The last we know of the empress in Jerusalem is her involvement in strife between the partisans of the Monophysite and Orthodox causes in the Holy Land. She at first supported the usurpant Monophysite bishop of Jerusalem in his violent measures against the Orthodox, but after he was suppressed by imperial intercession she had a change of heart, and in 460 died peacefully in the Orthodox communion. She was entombed in the Church of St. Stephen, which she had helped to build with her patronage.

The most accessible remains of Eudocia (at least to readers of Ancient Greek) are the fragments of her writings that have survived the ravages of time. Of her encomium on Antioch, J.B. Bury suggests that she posed "rather as one trained in Greek rhetoric and devoted to Hellenic traditions and proud of her Athenian descent, than as a pilgrim on her way to the great Christian shrine." The two faces of Eudocia's soul, pagan and Christian, also seem to be evident in the two works that have come down to us relatively intact. Her Life of St. Cyprian is an account of the martyrdom of an Antiochene bishop cast into arduous Homeric hexameters. Eudocia's Homerocentones, or "Homeric Stitchings," is a work on which she collaborated with a number of other scholars. It comprises paraphrases of Bible stories constructed by lifting complete lines from the Iliad and Odyssey and "stitching" them together in a new order. Eudocia's literary undertakings beg the question: do they demonstrate the desire of a nominal Christian to satisfy her love for pagan literature, or the desire of a sincere Christian to present her religion in a manner acceptable to cultivated pagans? In either case, as Alan Cameron remarks, "it is safe to say that no-one would ever have heard of so minor a poet as Eudocia if she had not become empress." It is perhaps best to see her poetic efforts as an analogous representation of the woman herself: enigmatic in her passions, noble in her endeavors, but ultimately frustrated in her quest for pure greatness.


Bury, J.B. History of the Later Roman Empire. Vol. I. London: St. Martin's Press, 1923 (reprint, NY: Dover Publications, 1958).

Cameron, Alan. "The Empress and the Poet: Paganism and Politics at the Court of Theodosius II," in Yale Classical Studies. Vol. 27, 1981, pp. 217–89.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edited by J.B. Bury. Volume 3. London: Methuen, 1901.

Holum, Kenneth G. Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982.

Ioannis Malalae Chronographia. Edited by L. Dindorf. Bonn: Weber, 1831.

suggested reading:

Tsatsos, Ioanna. Empress Athenais-Eudocia: A Fifth Century Byzantine Humanist. Translated by Jean Demos. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1977.


Eudociae Augustae, Procli Lycii, Claudiani carminum graecorum reliquae. Edited by A. Ludwich. Leipzig: Teubner, 1897.

Peter O'Brien , Department of Classical Studies, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts