Aelia Pulcheria was a political powerhouse in the Eastern Roman Empire, combining immense strength of will with shrewd political intellect. Effectively ruling in one form or another from the age of fifteen, she re-shaped both the political and religious landscape of Constantinople.
The daughter of Emperor Arcadius, Pulcheria was not short of strong female role models growing up. Her mother was Empress Aelia Eudoxia and her aunt was the formidable Galla Placidia. Pulcheria was just ten years old when her father died and left her seven year old brother Theodosius II behind to rule.
Initially Theodosius was placed into the care of two regents. However, once Pulcheria reached the age of majority at fifteen, she proclaimed herself regent over her little brother.
Pulcheria had very clear ideas about how the palace and empire ought to be run. While her mother, Aelia Eudoxia, was very religious and influential within the church, she was also known for her lavish parties and extravagant style of dress. Pulcheria was the polar opposite.
She ran her palace like a monastery, organising regular prayers and chanting, readings from the scriptures and weekly fasting. Pulcheria and her sisters gave up luxurious clothes and jewellery and took vows of virginity.
As well as evidence of her piety and generally being good for public relations, Pulcheria’s choice to remain a virgin may have been politically motivated, as it meant she could avoid the risk of losing her power to a husband.
Pulcheria also set to work educating little Theodosius in preparation for his becoming emperor. This training included how to dress and appear in public, how to speak well and generally maintain an air of dignity, as well as how to be a good Christian leader.
However, Theodosius did not share his sister’s single mindedness. While historians describe him as kind and likeable as a man, they also say that he was often careless, easily led and tended to neglect the administration of the empire. This led to Pulcheria retaining much of her influence even once Theodosius became emperor.
She embarked upon numerous building projects, paying for the construction of churches and houses for the poor in Constantinople. So much infrastructure was built in her name that an entire district of the city was named Pulcherianai in her honour.
Among Pulcheria’s other good works, she reviewed the cases of bishops who had been unfairly exiled during her father’s reign and invited them to return. This included bringing back the remains of her mother’s greatest enemy, John Chrysostom.
Despite her philanthropy, Pulcheria and Theodosius’ more unsavoury policies cannot go unacknowledged. Both siblings were very anti-Jewish and worked on laws to prevent or restrict Jewish worship in Constantinople. This included forbidding the construction of Synagogues and destroying those already existing.
Another way in which Pulcheria involved herself in religious affairs was as a key player in the debate over giving the Virgin Mary the title Theotokos (‘birth-giver to god’). She presided over the Ephesus and Chalcedon church councils and advised on many church policies.
In July of 450, Theodosius II died in a horse-riding accident, aged 49. Pulcheria quickly took total power over the empire, ruling alone for at least a month before marrying an ex-soldier tribune called Marcian.
Despite her marriage, Pulcheria did not give up her principles and ensured that Marcian made a promise to respect her vow of virginity. The last three years of the empress’ life were dedicated to the Virgin Mary. She built three churches in the Theotokos’ honour in Constantinople.
The empress died in 453, after forty years in power. Even in death, Pulcheria was working for her people, leaving a note in her will to distribute her remaining wealth amongst the poor of the city.
Pulcheria is a saint in both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. After her death Pulcheria was made a Saint by both the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, with feast days on 10th September and 7th August respectively.
Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity – Kenneth G. Holum
A History of Byzantium – Timothy E. Gregory