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.
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.
Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire – Matthew Bunson