Theodora – c.500 – 548 – Constantinople

Constantinople

CW: Sex work

Theodora

Though Theodora continued the tradition of powerful Byzantine empresses, nothing about her story is traditional.

The daughter of a bear trainer and an exotic dancer, Theodora was raised in the shadows of the hippodrome of Constantinople. She and her sisters were trained to dance and perform from a young age. Contemporary sources also mention that she was a sex worker and in fact one historian referred to her as ‘Theodora from the brothel’.

In her mid-teens Theodora became the companion of a government official named Hecebolus, and travelled with him to North Africa where he had been appointed governor of the Libyan Pentapolis. After four years together, Theodora was cast aside by Hecebolus and she – now with young daughter – travelled alone to Egypt.

Hipodrom

Ruins of the Hippodrome (source)

In Alexandria Theodora underwent her first transformation. She came into contact with Timothy III, the Patriarch of Alexandria, who converted her to Monophysite Christianity.

Monophysites believed that Jesus Christ had only one divine nature – as opposed to Chalcedonean Christians who believed Christ had two natures in one body – both human and divine. Theodora would remain a supporter of the Monophysites for the rest of her life.

In 522, a changed woman, Theodora returned to Constantinople and took up a job as a wool spinner. She had retained her connections in the entertainment industry and was particularly close with a dancer named Macedonia, who was also an informer to the emperor’s heir, Justinian.

At some point Justinian was introduced to Theodora and, apparently charmed by her wit and character, fell in love with her. At the time it was illegal for a politician to marry an actress – theatre was considered highly immoral by the church and it was unthinkable that the heir to the empire should marry an ex-prostitute.

However, Theodora had clearly enamoured herself to the emperor, Justin I, Justinian’s uncle. In 525 the law preventing Theodora and Justinian’s marriage was abolished and the couple were quickly wed.

In 527, Justinian became emperor and ‘Theodora from the brothel’ was proclaimed empress of the Eastern Roman Empire.

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Mosaic of Theodora and Justinian at Ravenna (source)

Her first chance to prove her worth came in early 532, when a riot broke out during a chariot race in the hippodrome. Led by two political factions known as the Blues and the Greens, the violence increased and soon became a full scale revolt.

The mob proclaimed Hypatius, nephew of the old emperor Anastasius I, as the new emperor and Justinian’s entire regime was placed under threat. What was worse – Justinian himself hesitated, unsure of how to respond.

In an emergency council meeting, the emperor was advised to flee the city – at which point Theodora rose to speak. Her husband could run away if he wished, she explained, but she would not be going anywhere. Now was not the time for cowardice, the empress argued, it would be better to die an emperor than live in exile.

Fortified by his wife’s words, Justinian ordered his army into the hippodrome where they defeated the insurgents. Theodora’s hard line on defence did not stop there – she insisted that Hypatius be put to death, even when he claimed he had been an unwillingly participant in the uprising.

Theodora continued to build upon her influence following the Nika revolt. Justinian clearly never forgot that his wife had saved his crown, and afterwards could refuse her very little. Together the couple embarked upon numerous building projects throughout Constantinople, erecting aqueducts, churches and bridges.

They also instigated a number of legal reforms – creating tighter controls over the magistrates of the city and closely monitoring their work to prevent corruption. Theodora herself was responsible for several initiatives designed to improve the lives of women.

During the reign of Justinian and Theodora the practice of forced prostitution was prohibited, and many brothels were closed down. A convent known as the Metanoia (‘Repentance’) was constructed as a haven for ex-sex workers to learn to support themselves.

Among other feminist laws, Justinian and Theodora increased women’s rights following divorce, and expanded mother’s guardianship of their children. They implemented a death penalty for rape and prohibited the killing of a wife who committed adultery.

While Theodora and her husband were clearly a strong political partnership, they disagreed on a number of religious fundamentals. Theodora remained true to Monophysite Christianity while Justinian sided with the opposing Chalcedonian faction.

Actively working against her husband’s beliefs, Theodora funded the construction of a Monophysite monastery in Sykae and sheltered monks and bishops who were persecuted by the Chalcedons.

Despite these disagreements, Justinian clearly adored Theodora and reportedly wept bitterly when she died in 548, aged just 48. Both Justinian and Theodora are saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church, with Theodora’s feast day commemorated on 14th November.


The main historical accounts of Theodora’s life come from Procopius, a contemporary scribe. However, the three texts attributed to Procopius contain vastly different portrayals of the empress.

The Wars of Justinian (545):

This text describes a brave, strong willed and influential Theodora, painted in a very positive light.

The Secret History:

In a hidden text which remained undiscovered for a thousand years, Procopius gives a wholly different account of the court of Justinian and Theodora. The empress is described as a lascivious and vulgar woman who performed in public sex shows while she was empress.

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L’Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée by Benjamin Constant (source)

Procopius accuses her of being cruel and overbearing, and claims that her Metanoia convent for sex workers was little more than a prison, driving the captive women to suicide.

However, the Secret History also claims that Justinian and Theodora were demons whose heads could detach from their bodies and scuttled around the palace in the dead of night. So perhaps this account should also be taken with a grain of salt.

Buildings of Justinian:

This final text was probably written during the same time as the Secret History. In contrast, it flatters both Theodora and Justinian, describing them as a very pious, moral couple.


In fiction:

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Sarah Berndhart as Theodora in Victorien Sandou’s ‘Theodora’ 1882. (source)

Books:

·         Theodora and the Emperor – Harold Lamb (1952).

·         The Glittering Horn: Secret Memoirs of the Court of Justinian – Pierson Dixon (1958)

·         Count Belisarius – Robert Graves.

·         The Bearkeeper’s Daughter – Gillian Bradshaw (1987).

·         Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore – Stella Duffy (2010)

·         The Purple Shroud – Stella Duffy (2012)

·         The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora – Stephanie Thornton (2013)

Film:

·         Teodora imperatrice di Bisanzio (1909) aka Theodora, Empress of Byzantium. Dir. Ernesto Maria Pasquali.

·         Teodora, imperatrice di Bisanzio (1954) aka Theodora, Slave Empress. Dir. Riccardo Freda. Theodora is played by Gianna Maria Canale.

Theater:

·         Theodora, A Drama. (1884) – Victorien Sardou.

Video games:

·         Theodora is a character in the video game Civilization V in its Gods and Kings expansion.


References:

Theodora: the empress from the brothelStella Duffy for The Guardian (2010)

The Decline and Fall of the ByzantineEdward Gibbons

The Secret HistoryProcopius

Brothels, Baths and Babes: Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land – Claudine Dauphin

On Wikipedia:

Aelia Eudocia – 401 – 460 – Constantinople

Constantinople, Greece, Jerusalem

Aelia Eudocia

Aelia Eudocia was an influential Byzantine empress and Christian poet.

She was born in Athens, Greece, to pagan parents who named her Athenaïs. Her father, Leontius was a philosopher who likely gave Athenaïs a robust classical education in Greek, Latin, poetry, philosophy and oration.

Both of her parents had died by the time she reached adulthood. She arrived in Constantinople, (Istanbul, Turkey) at the time the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire, in 420, where at some point she converted to Christianity and was baptised.

It was here that she would come to the attention of Emperor Theodosius. Later historians have reworked the story of their betrothal into a romantic fairy-tale, with Theodosius asking his sister Pulcheria to find him the fairest maiden in the land and rescuing Athenaïs from a life of poverty. This Cinderella story is highly unlikely and not supported by contemporary historical sources.

Either way, Athenaïs and Theodosius married in 421 and she changed her name to Aelia Eudocia (perhaps in homage to Theodosius’ mother Aelia Eudoxia). Following the marriage, Eudocia’s family began to gain substantial influence at court; both her brothers and her uncle received prestigious titles and political roles, and she herself had certain persuasive powers over her husband.

As well as being politically active, Eudocia expressed herself through poetry, penning a number of works, some of which are still extant. No doubt using her education in Greek literature, Eudocia’s poems are written in hexameter verse and generally have Christian themes.

In 423 Eudocia was made Augusta (empress) following the birth of her first child, a daughter called Licinia Eudoxia. Coins were issued with Eudocia’s image – as they had been previously for Theodosius indomitable sister Pulcheria.

Eudocia’s influence spread and following her ascension to Augusta construction began on the University of Constantinople – education being a cause dear to her heart. She also sponsored the building of a number of churches in the city.

In almost direct opposition to her sister-in-law, Eudocia and her family attempted to lessen the persecution of the Jewish population of Constantinople, who had faced hugely restrictive laws placed upon their worship by the fanatically Christian Pulcheria.

Whether it was due to her building projects, her religious views or simply down to jealously, at some point Pulcheria (who had held influence over the emperor since she was fifteen years old) had had enough of Eudocia. In the late 430s, after she had given birth to a second daughter (Flaccilla), Eudocia requested permission from her husband to leave Constantinople and make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia – St Eudoxia (source)

Theodosius consented and Eudocia set off with her friend Melania in 438. Together the women visited all of the holy sites on their way through the Middle East. The tour was excellent PR for Eudocia, raising her profile as a pious and devout empress. In Antioch she made a public address which was so well received that the locals built a bronze statue to honour her.

However, it was not to last. Once she had returned to Constantinople life only became more difficult for her. In 443 she was accused of adultery with Paulinus, the emperor’s friend. Paulinus was banished and executed, causing Eudocia to leave the city again for Jerusalem.

Her life was no easier away from the imperial capital – two of her closest confidants, a priest called Severus and the deacon John were executed on her husband’s orders. This was the last straw and Eudocia finally struck back, hiring an assassin to kill the executioner of her friends. Theodosius retaliated by recalling her imperial household staff, though she was able to retain her title and personal wealth.

For the remainder of her life Eudocia dedicated herself to writing poetry and intervening in church politics. She died in Jerusalem in 460.

For those in pain your powerful might is always everlasting.
But I will sing of a god, renowned for wisdom
For the benefit of speaking mortals.


References:

Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire – Matthew Bunson

http://www.roman-emperors.org/eudocia.htm 

On Wikipedia:

 

Pulcheria – 398 – 453 – Constantinople

Ancient Turkey, Constantinople

Pulcheria

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_Coin

Coin depicting Aelia Pulcheria (source)

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.

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Late Roman statue of either Aelia Flacilla or Pulcheria, from Cyrprus (source)

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.


References:

Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity – Kenneth G. Holum

A History of Byzantium – Timothy E. Gregory

On Wikipedia:

Pulcheria

Galla Placidia – 388 – 450 – Ravenna, Italy

Ancient Rome, Constantinople, Italy

Galla Placidia

As the Roman Empire buckled and fell around her, Galla Placidia remained stalwart and dedicated to ruling by any means.

Early years:

The daughter of an emperor, Theodosius I, Placidia was an extremely precocious child. She was given her own household to manage and granted financial independence before she was even in her teens. She was given the title Noblissima Puella (most noble girl).

In 394 she moved to the royal court in Mediolanum (ancient Milan, northern Italy), where her father died early the following year. Theodosius was succeeded by Placidia’s half-brother Arcadius. Arcadius was considered a weak ruler, too much under the control of his domineering wife, Aelia Eudoxia and the General Rufinus.

Stilicho

Stilicho, Serena and their son (source)

Meanwhile, Galla Placidia spent much of her time in the care of her cousin, Serena, and her husband Stilicho the Vandal – a man of ambition.

Arcadius died in 408, leaving behind his seven year old son, Theodosius II as the Eastern Roman Emperor. Stilicho saw his chance and began preparing to head for Constantinople to act as the little emperor’s regent. He told the emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Honorius, Placidia’s other half-brother, not to join him. Honorius became suspicious when an officer called Olympius suggested that Stilicho might be planning to usurp the imperial throne.

Olympius and Honorius acted quickly, leading a military coup and having Stilicho executed. His death left Placidia (who was in Rome at the time) unattached to any household.

Rome under siege:

Stilicho’s death caused problems elsewhere. The foederati was a part of the Roman army made up  of northern European tribes, including the Franks, Vandals, Alans and the Visigoths. Following Stilicho’s fall, the foederati (who were seen as loyal to him) were targeted throughout Italy, their wives and children murdered en masse.

 

The foederati were understandably furious and baying for Roman blood. 30,000 men joined the army of Alaric I, King of the Visigoths, who led them across the Alps and attacked the city of Rome in the September of 408. The city would remain under siege for two years.

In 410, Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. Buildings were burned, statues torn down, palaces looted and captives taken. Among the prisoners of war was Galla Placidia herself.

Life with the Visigoths:

The circumstances around Placidia’s capture are unknown, but the historians Jordanes and Marcellinus Comes both mention that she was taken out of Italy to Gaul by the Visigoths in 412. Alaric I died and was succeeded as Visigothic king by Ataulf, who formed an alliance with Honorius.

Ataulf had executed two usurpers of the Roman imperial throne in 413, sending their heads directly to Honorius. The emperor was so pleased that he cemented the alliance with Ataulf by giving his consent to the Visigothic king marrying Galla Placidia.

Placidia and Ataulf were married in a roman ceremony in 414 and the couple travelled to Hispania (Spain) later that year. They had one child together, Theodosius, who sadly died in infancy.

Fall of Ataulf:

Ataulf was assassinated while in Barcelona in 415. A rival faction within the Visigoths proclaimed Sigeric, Ataulf’s enemy, as the new king. Sigeric lost no time in asserting his authority, murdering all six of Ataulf’s children (from a previous marriage). Placidia was once again a prisoner of war.

Historical accounts say that she was treated very poorly, forced to walk for miles on foot among Sigeric’s captives. This was shocking to the Visigoths, who eventually assassinated Sigeric himself and had him replaced with a relative of Ataulf. As the old king’s widow, a foreigner and with no children, Placidia was still in a precarious situation.

Fortunately, so was the new king of the Visigoths. Running out of food and getting desperate, he appealed to Honorius’ magister militum (master of soldiers), Constantius. The peace treaty included renewing the foederati status of the Visigoths and returning Galla Placidia to her brother.

Second marriage:

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Stilicho, Serena and their son (source)

No sooner than Galla Placidia had returned to Rome, Honorius forced her into marriage with Constantius. They had two children together, a daughter, Justa Grata Honoria, and a son, future emperor Valentinian III.

After everything she had been through, Placidia refused to retire quietly into domesticity. She expanded her influence at her brother’s court, involving herself in both court and church politics.

In 418, Placidia found herself on the losing side of a power struggle within the Church of Rome. Following the death of Pope Zosimus, two rival factions in the clergy elected their own popes, Eulalius and Boniface. The two popes threw Rome into religious and political turmoil.

Placidia was in favour of Eualius and petitioned the emperor on his behalf, personally writing letters summoning the African bishops to a synod in Italy. At first, Honorius did as his sister suggested and confirmed Eulalius as the legitimate pope. However, this did not stop the infighting in Rome, and while further synods were called in order to reach an agreement, Honorius demanded that both Boniface and Eulalius stay away from the city.

At Easter in 419, Eulalius went against the emperor’s orders and returned to Rome, attempting to sieze the papacy by force. He was repelled by the imperial army, and lost favour with Honorius. Boniface was proclaimed pope by April.

By 421, Honorius was thirty seven years old, unmarried and still without an heir. Constantius was proclaimed co-ruler of the Western Roman Empire – and Galla Placidia became the only Augusta (empress).

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Stilicho, Serena and their son (source)

Constantius died in 421, leaving Galla Placidia widowed a second time.

Move East:

Shortly after her second husband’s death, something happened which forced Placidia out of the west. Her reasons for leaving are unclear, some sources say that she argued with Honorius, others that she was in fact too close to her brother, and accused of scandalous behaviour with him which required her to create some distance.

1024px-John_William_Waterhouse_-_The_Favorites_of_the_Emperor_Honorius_-_1883

The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius, by John William Waterhouse, 1883 (source)

Whatever the reason, Placidia and her children arrived at the court of her nephew, Theodosius II, in 421, shortly after his marriage to Aelia Eudocia. In Constantinople, Galla Placidia’s title of Augusta was not officially recognised.

Two years after her arrival in the east, Honorius dropped dead, leaving a power vacuum in the western empire. In the scramble to find a suitable heir, Joannes, the head of civil service in Rome was proclaimed emperor by Castinus the Patrician.

Theodosius had other ideas, and began preparing Galla Placidia’s son, Valentinian (aged four at the time) for the imperial office. Joannes was overthrown in 425 and Valentinian proclaimed Augustus of the Western Roman Empire. Placidia would be his regent.

Beginning by pacifying her family’s enemies with a peace treaty, Galla Placidia’s twelve year regency over her son began to return stability to the western empire.

Upon Valentinian’s eighteenth birthday in 437, Placidia’s regency ended, though she continued to exercise political influence up until her death in 450 at the age of 62. Having lived through a siege, twice survived enemy capture, been a queen of the Visigoths, a prisoner of war and an empress of Rome, Galla Placidia had faced enough adventure and intrigue for ten lifetimes.

A pious Christian, Placidia built and restored many churches during her time in power. These included the Basilica of Saint Paul and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna is a UNESCO world heritage site.

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Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (source)


In literature:

  • Two stanzas in Alexander Blok‘s poem Ravenna focus on Galla Placidia’s tomb.
  • Louis Zukofsky refers to the mausoleum in his poem 4 Other Countries:

“The gold that shines/ in the dark/ of Galla Placidia,/ the gold in the/ Round vault rug of stone/ that shows its pattern as well as the stars/ my love might want on her floor…”

  • Carl Jung refers to Galla Placidia in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

In music:

  • Spanish musician Jaume Pahissa wrote the opera Galla Placídia in 1913.

On television:

  • Galla Placidia is played by Alice Krige in the 2001 American TV Miniseries Attila.

 


References:

Galla Placidia on romanemperors.org

Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress – Hagith Sivan

Galla Placidia Augusta: a biographical essayStewart Irvin Oost

On Wikipedia:

Egeria – fl. 380s – Hispania or Gaul – Jerusalem

Constantinople, France

Egeria

Egeria, also known as Etheria or Aetheria made an incredible journey during the fourth century which she later wrote about in detail – making her one of the earliest authors of a travel book.

Far from being a leisure guide, Egeria’s work describes a pilgrimage taken over a number of years from the western reaches of the Roman empire to the heart of the Christian holy land. Scholars believe she may have been a nun.

As the beginning and the end of the Itinerarium Egeriae (‘Travels of Egeria’) are missing, there is no consensus on where she began her journey, though the most likely suggestions are Hispania (modern day Spain) or Gaul (France).

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Mount Sinai (source)

It is likely that Egeria took notes as she travelled before compiling the final text at the end of her pilgrimage. The Iterarium Egeriae is written in the form of a letter to the women in her home town – she refers to them as ‘dear ladies’ and ‘sisters’ – it is not clear whether this means Egeria was a nun writing to the other women in her convent, or whether ‘sister’ is simply meant as a term of endearment.

The surviving text begins with her approach to Mount Sinai in Egypt, then her journey to Constantinople (in Turkey). Egeria spent three years in Jerusalem making various trips outwards to see a number of biblical and religious sites, including the tomb of Job (in Syria), the burial place of Haran (the brother of Abraham) and Saint Thecla’s shrine.

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Constantinople (source)

As well as documenting her travels, Egeria took the time to detail religious services and practices during her time in Jerusalem. Her work remains helpful to liturgical scholars as she noted various celebrations and observances first hand, such as the date and celebration of Palm Sunday, Lent and even Christmas prior to its modern date of 25th December.

Egeria’s text also provides useful grammatical context for the development of Vulgar Latin during the 4th century, revealing the origin of the definite article used in modern Latin languages (e.g. Spanish, Italian).

Egeria’s letter home has become a fascinating snapshot of history as she managed to document so much of the changing world around her.


Note:

Later publishers of Egeria’s book mistakenly attributed her work to Sylvia of Aquitaine and the empress Galla Placidia.


References:

The Egeria Project

The Pilgimage of EgeriaThe Pilgimage of Egeria – Translation by M.L. McClure and C.L. Feltoe

On Wikipedia:

Egeria

Olympias – c.361/368 – 408 – Constantinople

Ancient Turkey, Constantinople

Olympias

Olympias (also known as Olympias the Younger and Olympias the Deaconess) dedicated so much of her time and money towards good works and charity that John Chrysostom told her that she had done ‘almost too much’.

As with Marcella, Paula and Fabiola before her, Olympias began life as a wealthy noblewoman of lofty lineage. She grew up in Constantinople, at the time the capital of the Roman Empire, and was ethnically Greek.

Like every good Roman woman she was married to a man of equal status once she reached adulthood. Her husband Nebridius was Prefect of Constantinople, making her social position even more public. When Nebridius died and left Olympias widowed, she chose not to remarry, but instead focussed her efforts on supporting the church as a deaconess.

Olympias was not the first woman to be ordained as a deacon in the church. The Didascalia (a Christian treatise from the third century) encourages bishops to appoint women to these positions in the church hierarchy because women were often capable of ministering to other women while male deacons might not be appropriate:

“Appoint a woman for the ministry of women. For there are homes to which you cannot send a male deacon to their women, on account of the heathen, but you may send a deaconess … Also in many other matters the office of a woman deacon is required.”

Olympias herself personally financed and oversaw the construction of a hospital and an orphanage and dedicated much of her time to caring for monks exiled from Nitria (Egypt).

She attracted the attention of the Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, with her good works and the two became lifelong friends. The friendship got her into trouble when Chrysostom was banished after his feud with the Roman Empress, Aelia Eudoxia. Olympias herself was exiled in 404 to Nicomedia (Turkey), where she remained for the last four years of her life.

Olympias is honoured as a Saint in the Roman Catholic (feast day 17th December) and Eastern Orthodox Church (feast day 25th July).


In the arts:

Olympias is one of the 140 Colonnade saints which adorn Saint Peter’s Square.

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Saints on the colonnade, St Peter’s Square, The Vatican (Source)


References:

Catholic onlineSt. Olympias

This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age – Gillian Cloke

On Wikipedia:

Leoparda – 4th Century – Constantinople

Constantinople

Leoparda

Leoparda lived and worked at the court of Emperor Gratian as a gynaecologist, serving the medical needs of the women at the Byzantine court.

She was a respected doctor who we know about from a book by her colleague, the emperor’s physician, Theodorus Priscianus. Priscianus wrote a book on women’s medicine which was intended to teach women in medical professions.

Ad Timotheum fratrem. Book III: Gynaecea ad Slavinam was dedicated to Leoparda, as well as two other women, Salvina and Victoria. It also contains quotes from Aspasia, an earlier physician who specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology.


References:

The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: L-ZMarilyn Bailey Ogilvie, Joy Dorothy Harvey

On Wikipedia:

 

Aelia Eudoxia – c. 377 – 404 – Constantinople

Constantinople

Aelia Eudoxia

In 388 Aelia Eudoxia arrived in Constantinople, the new capital city of the Roman Empire, as an orphan. Her father, a magister militum (master of soldiers) was presumably killed in battle in France and her mother’s fate is unrecorded.

Eudoxia was taken into the household of Promotus, a friend of her father’s, where she was raised and educated alongside his two sons, as well as the emperor’s sons, Arcadius and Honorius.

Some years later in 395, Emperor Theodosius I died and was succeeded by eighteen year old Arcadius. Due to his relative youth, Arcadius was assigned a protector – Praetorian prefect Rufinus. Rufinus hoped to gain control of Arcadius by marrying him to his daughter, but a rival faction led by palace official Eutropius got there first and arranged for Eudoxia to marry Arcadius instead – without Rufinus’ consent.

The two teenage rulers went on to have a generally successful marriage. Considered extraordinarily beautiful and highly intelligent by her contemporaries, Eudoxia divided political opinion. She was immensely strong willed and perceived by many as domineering; holding too much control over the emperor.

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Coin with Aelia Eudoxia’s image. (Source)

Her influence was certainly wide. Eudoxia involved herself in legal matters, in one case preventing court action against a general who bribed her. She was also active in the affairs of the church, patronising the Nicene Creed, paying for religious processions and involving herself in Christian celebrations and vigils, often appearing without her husband.

By 400, Eudoxia was officially known by the title Augusta (Empress) and was depicted on Roman coinage. A statue was dedicated to her, and her husband even renamed the town of Selymbria Eudoxiopolis in honour of his wife.

As with all powerful women, Eudoxia’s enemies had much to say about her. The historian Zosimus accused her of being easily manipulated by the women of her court, as well as claiming that her son Theodosius was the result of an affair with a courtier. Philostorgius concedes that Eudoxia was cleverer than her husband, but that she was very arrogant, and a barbarian.

She made her greatest enemy in John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople. As a church leader, John rejected flamboyant dress and expensive parties. He publicly spoke against extravagant women’s fashion, which the empress took as a personal criticism. Eudoxia used her influence in the church to have John banished.

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John Chrysostom confronting Aelia Eudoxia by Jean-Paul Laurens. (Source)

However, he had been popular with the common people who threatened to turn against the emperor and empress. Eudoxia had to call the bishop back almost as soon as judgement was passed. Reinstated, John continued to antagonise Eudoxia, comparing her to the biblical seductress Salome and making complaints about a statue erected to the empress.

He was banished again, and this time did not return.

Eudoxia died while she was still in her twenties, due to complications in childbirth. Her son, Theodosius later became Emperor, and one of her four daughters, Pulcheria, eventually became an empress as powerful as her mother.


References:

Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late AntiquityKenneth G. Holum

A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women Marjorie Lightman, Benjamin Lightman

On Wikipedia: