Pulcheria (c. 398–453)

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Pulcheria (c. 398–453)

Romano-Byzantine empress who shaped a decisive period in the history of an empire in which few women reached such positions of power and influence. Name variations: Aelia Pulcheria or Aelia Pulcheria Augusta; Pulcheria means "beautiful woman" from the Latin word pulcher (beautiful). Reigned 408–450; born on January 19, 398 or 399; died in 453; daughter of Emperor Arcadius (r. 395–408); mother's name unknown; stepdaughter of Eudocia of Byzantium (d. 404); half-sister of Emperor Theodosius II; married Marcian (a general).

Death of Emperor Theodosius I the Great and partition of the Roman Empire between his sons Arcadius, who received the Eastern half, and Honorius, who received the West (395); Pulcheria born (398 or 399); birth of her brother Theodosius (c. 400); German tribes crossed the frozen Rhine and began their conquest of the West Roman Empire (December 31, 406); death of Pulcheria's father Arcadius (408); sack of Rome by the East Goths (Ostrogoths, 410); Pulcheria granted title "Augusta" and appointed regent for her brother Theodosius II (July 4, 414–416); arranged brother's marriage to Athenais (renamed Eudocia) (421); founding of the University of Constantinople (February 25, 425); Council of Ephesus (431); Code of Theodosius promulgated (438); Pulcheria quarreled with sister-in-law Eudocia, who moved permanently to Jerusalem (c. 440); the eunuch grand chamberlain, Chrysaphius, became all-powerful at the court of Theodosius; Pulcheria retired from court life (443); earthquake ruined the walls of Constantinople (447); death of Theodosius and Chrysaphius' fall from grace (450); Pulcheria became first woman to hold the Roman throne, marrying General Marcian, whom she made her co-ruler (450); Council of Chalcedon (451); siege of Rome by Attila the Hun (452); death of Pulcheria (453); sack of Rome by the Vandals (455); death of Marcian (January 457); fall of the Roman Empire in the West (476).

Written in the late 4th century, the history of Ammianus Marcellinus, the last great chronicler of the Roman Empire, ends the series of works by classical Roman historians that illuminate the history of the Roman world. Not until the emergence of Procopius, court historian of Emperor Justinian (r. 527–565), is there another historian of the first rank upon whom to rely. Therefore, the years from 395 to 527—the period including the final partition of the Roman Empire into East and West (395), the fall of the Western Empire (476), and the life of Empress Pulcheria—must be pieced together from a variety of minor sources, many of them extant only as fragments quoted by later authors. To assemble the history of the period, we must look to details passed down by inferior chroniclers, such as Claudian, Olympiodorus, Zosimus, John of Antioch, John Malalas, Priscus, Cedrenus, Sozomenus, Eunapius, Theophanes, the Paschale Chronicle, Orosius, and Arian Philostorgus.

Pulcheria was born around 398 in Constantinople, the daughter of Emperor Arcadius (r. 395–408), into the last decades of the Roman Empire. (Her mother's name is unknown.) She was apparently named after a paternal aunt who had died in infancy, and her name meant "beautiful woman" (from the Latin pulcher, "beautiful"). Hers was an illustrious family. She was the great-granddaughter of Emperor Valentinian I (r. 364–375), granddaughter of Theodosius I (r. 379–395) and his wife Flaccilla (c. 355–386), grandniece of Valentinian II (r. 375–392), niece of Emperor Honorius (r. 395–423), and first cousin of Valentinian III (r. 425–455). Through the first marriage of her half great-uncle, Emperor Gratian, to the granddaughter of Constantine I the Great, Pulcheria was linked, however distantly, to the first Christian emperor of Rome.

She was the second of four sisters, of the eldest of whom, Flaccilla, we hear nothing; she may have died young or, as some have speculated, was perhaps considered deficient in some way. Well educated, knowing both Greek and Latin, at an early age Pulcheria together with her two sisters Arcadia and Marina took a vow of chastity in the presence of the high clergy and the people; they did this, it is said, as a means of avoiding what they felt would be the destructive rivalries inevitable between their husbands were they to marry. Though dedicated to the religious life, Pulcheria would play a significant role in the politics of the late Roman Empire, serving as regent and co-ruler with her brother Emperor Theodosius II, becoming the first woman to rule Rome in her own right, and eventually (after being absolved from her vow of chastity) entering into a platonic marriage with General Marcian to enable him to serve as her co-ruler at a critical point in Roman history.

Pulcheria's brother Theodosius II (with whom she shared the same father but not the same mother) came to the throne at the age of 7 and reigned for 42 years (408–450). Son of the weak and slow-witted Arcadius, whose character he appears to have inherited, Theodosius was nevertheless a better physical specimen than his father. He was tall and fair in appearance, apparently taking after his mother Eudocia of Byzantium , who was of Frankish German birth. At first, the seven-year-old boy-emperor ruled under the wise regency of Anthemius, Praetorian prefect of the East, while his education was entrusted to Antiochus, a palace eunuch. However, it was Pulcheria—designated an "Augusta" on July 4, 414, and thereafter in effect co-ruler with her brother—who assumed responsibility for his rearing. Guided by Aurelian, the new Praetorian prefect of the East, and Atticus, patriarch of Constantinople, she raised her brother with the greatest attention, providing him with a good education and keeping him free from the immorality and other vices easily accessible in the capital. Despite her efforts, Theodosius, though kindly and good natured, grew up weak, self-indulgent and indolent, and it has been said that he did not even read the famed code of laws to which his name would forever be attached. Renowned for his elegant hand, he passed his time in copying manuscripts, collecting theological works, and studying astronomy. During Pulcheria's entire reign, he does not appear to have undertaken a single political act on his own initiative. Fortunately, however, he had the good sense to leave affairs of state largely in the hands of his sister.

Pulcheria and her sisters had imparted a tone of almost monastic piety to the Eastern court, in part from natural inclination, in part from a desire to avoid political difficulties in the imperial succession by avoiding marriage in Christian chastity.

—Stewart Irwin Oost

Sincerely devoted to the religious life, Pulcheria and her sisters turned the imperial palace in Constantinople into a kind of nunnery into which they retreated together with a select group of women. No man was allowed to enter the confines of this cloister except for the priests and the high ministers through whom Pulcheria ruled. In the palace, the women, simply dressed, devoted themselves to a regime of church services, fasting, vigils and prayer, their recreation being the embroidering of vestments and altar cloths. Together, the sisters founded churches, hospitals and monasteries throughout the eastern provinces of the empire, endowing them with lands and other emoluments for their support. To Pulcheria must also be given at least some of the credit for the founding of the University of Constantinople (425), and, above all, for the convocation of the Council of Ephesus (431).

Pulcheria also appears to have selected the emperor's bride, the gifted Athenais (Eudocia , c. 400–460). Athenais was a native of Athens, the daughter of the pagan philosopher Leontius. Educated by her father, she was relegated to poverty when he died and left most of his wealth to his two sons. Athenais, unable to secure from her brothers enough to live on comfortably, appears to have gone to the capital to seek the intercession of Pulcheria. Impressed by the girl's breeding and education, Pulcheria introduced her to the emperor and succeeded in convincing her brother that in Athenais she had found him a suitable bride.

Upon her conversion to Christianity, Athenais gave up her original pagan name for the Christian name Eudocia (eudocia meaning "good teaching"), whereupon she was married to Theodosius in June 421. Eudocia (often referred to incorrectly by modern authors as Athenais-Eudocia) gave birth to three children with Theodosius: a son Arcadius and a daughter Flaccilla (d. 431), both of whom died young, and another daughter, Licinia Eudoxia , who in 437 was married to Emperor Valentinian III (r. 425–455), cousin of Theodosius and Pulcheria and ruler of the Western Roman Empire. The following year, 438, Eudocia made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Traveling in great pomp through Asia Minor, the young empress arrived in Antioch, capital of the province of Syria, where she addressed the local senate, donated a sum of 200 gold pieces for the restoration of the municipal baths, and induced Theodosius to erect a new basilica in the city and to extend its walls. Proceeding on to Jerusalem, she visited the Holy Places, distributing alms and endowments beyond even those granted by Helena (c. 255–329), the sainted mother of Emperor Constantine I the Great whose pilgrimage to the birthplace of Christianity the empress may have been consciously emulating.

Upon her return to Constantinople, Eudocia was likely a different woman from the desperate young girl who had once sought the protection of the emperor's sister, and it seems that she now attempted to dominate Theodosius in Pulcheria's place. The execution of Eudocia's supporter Paulinus, the master of offices, and the disgrace of Cyrus, Praetorian prefect of the East, both of whom were high ministers of state inclined to support Eudocia, may have been due to the power struggle between Pulcheria and Eudocia that now ensued. Whatever the case, the two women quarrelled. Eudocia lost the struggle and in 443 (still empress, though estranged from her husband over an alleged adulterous relationship between herself and his childhood friend Paulinus) she returned to Jerusalem where she would spend the rest of her life. There, she supervised the rebuilding of its fortifications and the construction of several splendid churches. A highly cultivated woman, Eudocia wrote religious poetry, including a panegyric on the Roman victory over the Persians in 422, and had a considerable influence on her weak husband until she left the court.

Another close contemporary of Pulcheria's was her aunt Empress Galla Placidia , who had served as regent for her son Valentinian III (r. 423–455) and had led a particularly stormy life. Born in Constantinople around 390, she was less than ten years older than Pulcheria, but the two never met as children. At six years old, Galla Placidia had left Constantinople for Rome where she was taken prisoner by the Goths, then carried off to Spain and married to the Gothic chieftain Athaulf (Adolf). Released in 416 after his assassination, she settled in Ravenna where her worthless brother Honorius was emperor of the Western Roman Empire (r. 410–423). In 417, Galla Placidia married Constantius III, the master of soldiers (commander-in-chief of the Roman army), with whom she had two children. Having aroused the suspicions of her brother, however, she was banished from Ravenna after her husband's death in 422. After a brief sojourn in Constantinople with her niece Pulcheria and her nephew Theodosius II, in 425 she returned to Italy after her brother Honorius' death. There, supported by Theodosius and Pulcheria, she became regent for her son Valentinian III, who was later to marry Theodosius' daughter Licinia Eudoxia. In return for this support, however, Theodosius and Pulcheria obtained for their share of the empire the disputed province of Dalmatia and the eastern part of Pannonia.

After the marriage of Licinia Eudoxia to Valentinian III, which took place in Constantinople, Pulcheria retired from the court for a time, moving to the Hebdomon Palace. Domination over the emperor passed to the grand chamberlain, the eunuch Chrysaphius. An intelligent woman and a fine scholar, Pulcheria led a life characterized by extreme piety and chastity. Devoted both to her church and to the welfare of her people, she may have had something to do not only with the establishment of the University of Constantinople in 425, but also with the construction of the famed Theodosian walls that protected Constantinople from land and sea, and with the codification of Roman law (429–438) known as the Theodosian Code. Promulgated in the Eastern Roman Empire on February 15, 438, the Code was accepted in the West by the Roman Senate on December 23. Pulcheria was probably present at the arrival of St. Mesrop Mashtots, inventor of the Armenian alphabet, who was received at court in Theodosius' time and obtained from the emperor the authorization to combat heresy in the part of Armenia under imperial control.

Pulcheria was also on the friendliest of terms with Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria (r. 412–444), who was chief bishop of the Christian Church in Africa and one of the great theologians of the day. Eventually Pulcheria became involved in the christological controversies of her time, disputes that erupted in the capital with the teachings of Nestorius and which revolved around the nature of Christ, particularly in what way Christ was to be accounted for as either God, man or both. Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople (i.e. chief bishop of the Christian Church in Eastern Europe and Anatolia, 428–431), was born of Persian parentage at Germanicia (now Marash) in eastern Anatolia in the late 4th century. With the emperor's support, he had been zealous in the suppression of heresy in the eastern half of the empire. On November 22, 428, however, his domestic chaplain, Anastasius, preached a sermon denouncing the use of the term theotokos (Begetter of God) for Mary the Virgin on the grounds that Christ was but a man in whom God had dwelled, as in a temple, and that Mary was therefore mother only of Christ the man. In this, Anastasius was supported by Nestorius, who, that Christmas, began a series of sermons in the Cathedral of Constantinople (the old Hagia Sophia, replaced a century later by the one still standing in Istanbul); in these sermons, he affirmed that in Christ there existed two different and distinct persons, human and divine, united by an external, accidental, moral union. Denouncing the concept of the unity of God and man in Christ, he seemed almost to divide the God and man in Christ into two persons acting in concert. This new doctrine stirred up an enormous controversy, not only among theologians and clerics, but also among the common people, who were particularly offended by the rejection of the title "Mother of God" to which they had already developed a great devotion. Moreover, it pitted the so-called "Antiochene school" of theology against that of Alexandria, where different approaches to the understanding of the nature of Christ were beginning to take form largely through a differing theory of Biblical exegesis. At this juncture, Cyril intervened, writing to Nestorius in support of the doctrine of the unity of the divine and human natures in the one Christ and arguing that Mary the Virgin was thus indeed the "Mother of God."

Although Nestorius rebuffed the letter of Cyril, he had offended Empress Pulcheria with his doctrines. She influenced Theodosius to settle the issue by having her brother call for the convening of a church council at Ephesus. At the first session of the Council of Ephesus (431), the third so-called ecumenical council of the Christian Church, Cyril dominated the convocation. He represented not only himself but also Pope Celestine (r. 422–432), who was gravely alarmed by the teachings of Nestorius and whose position was in complete agreement with that of Cyril. Nestorius, who refused to attend the council, was condemned in absentia, removed from his patriarchate and banished to Syria. At the second session of the council, three bishops arrived from Rome as the pope's emissaries, and they approved the acts of the first session.

The third session of the council is of the greatest historical importance. It was here that one of the pope's delegates, Bishop Philip, proclaimed the undoubted primacy of the See of St. Peter, i.e. the papacy, and of the pope as the head of the Church. This pronunciamento was received without opposition or question, together with the assertion that this doctrine was centuries old. Four more sessions of the council were held which dealt, among other things, with the heretical teachings of the British prelate Pelagius (his name a Greek translation of the British Morgan, "man of the sea"), who denied the existence of original sin, and whose doctrine was likewise condemned. Four years later, when it became clear that Nestorius was still influential in his Syrian exile, he was banished to Petra in the Jordanian desert and later to Egypt, where he died (c. 451). As a result of the Council of Ephesus, Pulcheria was on good terms with both Cyril of Alexandria and Pope Leo I the Great. In this period of bitter theological and christological argument, her orthodoxy was beyond reproach as far as the mainstream of the Church was concerned.

The religious controversy that had engendered the Council of Ephesus surfaced again in 448. Flavian, patriarch of Constantinople—supported by dogmatic letters from Pope Leo I (the so-called Tome of Leo)—condemned Eutyches, abbot of a monastery near Constantinople. Eutyches taught a doctrine almost the exact opposite of Nestorius', namely that there was no human nature at all in Christ. He maintained that there existed only a divine nature in Christ, making Christ in effect simply God in the form of a man. This condemnation by Flavian of what amounted to the last great heresy of the age led Diocorius, patriarch of Alexandria, to convoke a new council at Ephesus in 449 (later known as "the robber council" because of the irregularities in its proceedings). But before the council opened in 451, a new emperor was reigning at Constantinople, and Pulcheria was at the height of her power as his consort and co-ruler.

Emperor Theodosius died in 450 from the effects of a fall from his horse while hunting. Because he left no son, his throne would naturally have passed to his son-in-law and cousin Valentinian III, still reigning at Ravenna. This was impractical, however, for the troubles in the West had made it clear that the reunion of the empire into a single political entity was not a particularly good idea at that time; the domination of Theodosius by the eunuch Chrysaphius—having been characterized by a series of raids across the eastern frontier of the empire as well as by an invasion of Huns in the Balkan Peninsula and a war with Persia—would have made such a union seem undesirable at Rome as well. On his deathbed, Theodosius indicated as his successor a certain Marcian, aide-de-camp of Aspar, master of the soldiers. Pulcheria probably had a hand in her brother's choice and, by agreeing to marry Marcian, she provided a needed link between the new emperor and the Theodosian dynasty.

Pulcheria herself duly crowned Marcian emperor on August 25, 450, in the Hebdomon Palace at Constantinople. At the very outset of his reign, he issued a gold coin showing himself and Pulcheria on one side with a depiction of victory and the cross on the obverse. The new emperor soon proved himself to be capable of decisive action. He executed the incompetent Chrysaphius, refused to pay tribute to the Huns, and was able to preserve the Eastern Empire untroubled during the storms that convulsed the West and which saw Rome besieged by the Huns (451) and sacked by the Vandals (455). Economically, he eased the burden of taxes in the empire, remitting arrears, yet left the treasury full at the time of his death. On her part, Pulcheria devoted herself to the adornment of Constantinople with new religious edifices including the churches of Our Lady of Blachernae; The Mother of God of Chalkopratreia, near Hagia Sophia; and The Mother of God of Hodegetria (Our Lady of Victory), on the eastern shore of the city, where she placed an icon of the Virgin sent to her from Jerusalem by her sister-in-law Eudocia.

Early in the reign of Marcian and Pulcheria, it was Pulcheria's influence that led the emperor to consider the calling of another ecumenical council to settle the old religious controversies anew. The new council—held at Chalcedon in the province of Bithynia across the Bosporus from Constantinople—opened on October 8, 451, with the consent of Pope Leo; its last session would be on November 1 of the same year. Of all the so-called ecumenical councils of the Church, from that of Nicea in 325 to that of Vatican II in 1962, this was by far the most truly ecumenical in terms of numbers. No less than 500 to 636 bishops were in attendance (depending on which of the surviving lists one consults), most of them coming from sees in the eastern provinces of the empire. It has also been the most controversial council of its kind.

The council opened under the presidency of Paschasinus, one of the three bishops sent by Pope Leo I to represent him at the conclave. Anatolius, the master of soldiers for the East, represented the emperor. From the very opening session, the council was dominated by the papal delegation from Rome, and there is no question that this conclave marked the zenith of the acceptance of papal supremacy in the East. By the end of the month-long gathering, Dioscurius had been deposed as patriarch of Alexandria, the Tome of Leo had been accepted, and, after violent debates, Eutyches was found innocent of heresy but his doctrine that in Jesus Christ there is but one nature had been rejected. The council asserted that in Jesus Christ the two natures, divine and human, each perfect and distinct, existed without mixture or change; without division or separation, these natures were said to be united in one person in the Word, the second person of the Trinity. The council thereby rejected the Nestorian doctrine that taught that in Jesus Christ there are two persons. The 30 canons of the council dealt largely with the curbing of clerical abuses, and canon 28 conceded to the see of Constantinople the second place among the patriarchates of the Christian Church, after that of Rome. In addition, Nestorius and all his ilk were once more condemned, and the presence of his disciple the theologian Theodoret of Cyprus was (unsuccessfully) denounced. Pulcheria—who with Marcian attended the session of October 25—was enthusiastically acclaimed by the bishops and publicly praised for her orthodoxy: "The Empress drove out Nestorius—long live the orthodox Empress."

In noting the triumph of Marcian and Pulcheria at Chalcedon, it is important to realize the political implications of their victory there. As the capital of the Eastern Empire, it was necessary for Constantinople to be also the seat of orthodoxy. This Pulcheria accomplished by siding with Cyril of Alexandria and the pope at Ephesus, and she repeated her accomplishment here at Chalcedon. Just as the Council of Ephesus had humbled the position of the Patriarchate of Antioch in the Christian Church, so did the Council of Chalcedon humble that of Alexandria. The reason for supporting the papal position in both cases was based on the fact that Rome, lying as it did in the Western Empire, posed no challenge—at least at that time—to the position of Constantinople as the font of orthodoxy in the East. Unfortunately, we do not know the details of Pulcheria's involvement in all of these affairs or even of her consciousness of all of their implications; but that she was involved we do know and it seems difficult to doubt that a woman as intelligent as she obviously was would not have been aware at least to some degree of the political ramifications involved in the otherwise religious controversies of the day.

The Council of Chalcedon was a failure, however, when it came to unifying the beliefs of the Christian Church, for its doctrines went against the christological position of most of the theologians of the East. The Nestorian Church not only remained unshaken in eastern Syria, Mesopotamia, the Persian Empire and beyond, but the west Syrian, Egyptian, Ethiopian and Armenian Christians seceded to form the so-called Monophysite Churches. Even the estranged Empress Eudocia, retired in Jerusalem, showed herself sympathetic to the Monophysites though she died a devout Orthodox Christian. After Chalcedon, Orthodox, i.e. mainstream, Christianity in the Middle East was confined almost exclusively to the Anatolian peninsula, while the Church of Persia clearly accepted the teachings of Nestorius at the Council of Seleucia held in 498. The christological problems that had engendered the Council of Chalcedon survived Marcian and Pulcheria both, and all of the succeeding emperors as late as Justinian (d. 565) had to deal with them in one way or another. The name of Marcian was regularly denounced in the polemical literature of Monophysite Christianity, usually in concert with that of "the wicked Pulcheria."

After what must have appeared to her and to her contemporaries as a full and rewarding life, Empress Pulcheria died in 453 at about 53 or 54 years of age. In her will, she left all of her wealth to the poor, a bequest honored by her husband. Marcian died in January 457, aged 65. He left his throne to his steward, Leo I, whereupon the dynasty founded by Theodosius the Great at last came to an end. Nineteen years later, the Roman Empire fell in the West; the Eastern Empire, so ably governed by Pulcheria, survived the disaster and endured for another 1,000 years.

As the Roman emperors were deified in pagan times, it is not surprising to find that for some time after the conversion of the Romans to Christianity emperors were canonized as saints, a practice that persisted through much of the 5th century. Marcian (the first emperor to be crowned by the Church) and Pulcheria—twin paragons of orthodoxy and personae gratissimae at Rome—were both duly canonized as well. His feast is on February 17. Her dual feasts are celebrated on February 17 and August 7. A rich medallion of Pulcheria preserved in the British Museum shows us an attractive woman with a prominent chin and a "Roman" nose, but it is unlikely to have been an actual portrait.

Like her aunt Galla Placidia, who guided the Western Roman Empire during the minority of her son Valentinian III, Pulcheria had far more character than the emperor for whom she served as regent. The Roman world, disastrous as this period was for it, was fortunate that the women of the imperial family were both willing and able to assert some sort of direction in the affairs of state. The role of Empress Pulcheria in guiding the Eastern Roman Empire through so many of its most perilous early years, as well as the important role she played in generating the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, two of the most significant events in the annals of the Christian Church, assure her a permanent place as one of the most important women in history.


Oost, Stewart Irwin. Galla Placidia Augusta. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1968.

suggested reading:

Bury, J.B. The Later Roman Empire. Vol. II. NY: Dover, 1958.

Ostrogorsky, George. The History of the Byzantine State. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1957.

related media:

Pulcheria has been depicted in Sign of the Pagan (92 min. film), starring Jeff Chandler, Jack Palance, and Ludmilla Tcherina , directed by Douglas Sirk, 1954, and at least one other motion picture dealing with Attila the Hun. In one, she was portrayed as a beautiful siren, in the other as a virtuous heroine.

Robert H. H. , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey, and author of a book and several articles relevant to late Roman and Byzantine history