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.

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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.

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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:

Mavia ماوية – Reigned 375 – 425 – Syria

Ancient Syria, Syria

Mavia

A century after Zenobia set her sights on taking Egypt from the Roman Empire, another Arab queen attempted the same thing. Where Zenobia had failed, Mavia not only succeeded – but also made Rome sign a treaty in her favour.

Also known as Māwiyya, this fierce warrior queen ruled a confederation of Arab tribes (known as the Tanukhids) from her seat in southern Syria. Her husband had been king of the Tanukhids and once he died his power passed to Mavia.

She proved herself equal to the task, leading her army in open rebellion against Roman rule in the Middle East. Mavia rode at the head of her cavalry, leading troops into Phoenica (modern day Israel, Lebanon and Syria) and Palestine before finally reaching Egypt.

In Egypt Mavia met the Roman army in battle again and again, defeating them each time. Eventually, Rome consented to a truce – but Mavia set the conditions.

Mavia was a successful general and ruler largely because of her use of guerrilla tactics. Rather than fight from Aleppo, which would have given the Romans a target, she retreated with her troops into the desert, drawing on the nomadic tribe’s knowledge of the terrain. As a result, the Tanukhids were better prepared than the Romans and able to keep them guessing.

As for her conditions for peace, Mavia requested that a monk named Moses be made bishop over her people. Moses was supposedly a desert dwelling Christian Arab who impressed Mavia – and who possibly convinced her to convert to Christianity. To prove that she honoured the truce, Mavia married her daughter Chasidat to a Roman commander.

Peace was temporary.

Rome was soon at war with the Goths (in Eastern Germany) and called upon Mavia’s formidable forces for assistance. She provided cavalry, but her Arab army was not prepared for the environment of northern Europe and the Goths won, killing Roman emperor Valens.

The new emperor Theodosius I gave the Gothic kings and nobles a number of high profile positions within the Roman Empire at the expense of the Arabs. Furious at the lack of respect shown for their loyalty, the Tanukhids revolted a second time in 383. It is not clear whether or not Mavia led this revolt, but it was certainly the end of the Tanukh-Roman alliance.


References:

God’s Self-confident Daughters: Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women – Anne Jensen

Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs – Irfan Shahîd

Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth CenturyIrfan Shahîd

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.

TAeliaEudoxia

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:

 

Julia Maesa – 165 – 226 – Rome

Ancient Rome, Ancient Syria

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The younger sister of Julia Domna, Julia Maesa played an equally important part in the politics of the Roman Empire, actively influencing the ascension of her grandsons the emperors Elagabalus and Alexander Severus.

Ethnically Syrian, Julia Maesa, like her sister, was considered a Roman citizen due to her family’s immense wealth. She married Syrian nobleman Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus and had two daughters; Julia Soaemias Bassiana and Julia Avita Matmaea.

After the death of her nephew, Caracalla and her sister’s suicide, Julia Maesa returned to Syria where she began to make plans.

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Coin depicting Julia Maesa (source)

Her grandson, Elagabalus, was fourteen years old and Julia Maesa was willing to do anything to make sure her family was back in power. Hugely rich, she was able to orchestrate a plot to overthrow emperor Macrinus and put Elagabalus in his place. She and her daughter (Elagabalus’ mother) spread a rumour that the boy was actually Caracalla’s illegitimate son, and therefore rightful heir to the empire.

The plot was successful and for her efforts Julia was rewarded with the title Augusta avia Augusti (‘Augusta, grandmother of Augustus’). Unfortunately, the best laid plans often go awry and Elagabalus was not a successful emperor.

Elagabalus

Bust of Elagabalus (source)

The teenager’s behaviour was erratic and scandalous. He held lavish parties, ignored the Roman gods in favour of the Syrian sun god and married a Vestal Virgin – an enormous taboo by Roman standards. Julia Maesa took swift action against her uncontrollable grandson and had him and his mother assassinated.

Now Julia promoted her second grandson, Alexander Severus, who was somewhat less of a disaster than his cousin – he managed to escape assassination until he was 26.

Julia Maesa died sometime in 226. Like her sister Domna before her, she was deified.


References:

Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient WorldJoyce E. Salisbury

Great Women of Imperial Rome: Mothers and Wives of the CaesarsJasper Burns

A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman WomenMarjorie Lightman, Benjamin Lightman

On Wikipedia:

Hortensia – fl. 42 BCE – Rome

Ancient Rome, Italy

Hortensia

Hortensia was celebrated in the final years of the Roman Republic for her oration (public speaking) and in particular an impassioned speech she gave before the three most important men of her generation.

Public oratory was central to the life of a Roman citizen. Careers were built and destroyed based on a politician’s ability to speak in public and persuade the people with eloquence and reason. Courts of law held rhetoric in high esteem, and having a lawyer who could speak well was often more important than evidence and justice.

Hortensia’s father, Quintus Hortensius, was a highly skilled orator, and rival to Cicero, the greatest speaker of the time. He ensured that his intelligent daughter received an education unusual for women at the time. A keen student, Hortensia read Greek and Latin, learning rhetoric by reading the speeches of great orators.

She likely married her second cousin, Quintus Servilius Caepio, who left her widowed in 67 BCE. The marriage produced a daughter, Servilia, and Caepio also adopted his nephew Marcus Junius Brutus – who became one of Julius Caesar’s assassins.

In 42 BCE, Rome was being managed under the uneasy triumvirate of Octavian, Marc Antony and Lepidus, who were at war with Caesar’s assassins. The campaign required almost all of Rome’s legions and was becoming very expensive. A tax was needed – and the three rulers decided that it should be levied against Rome’s most wealthy women.

The women, including Hortensia, were outraged. They had not caused the war, nor were they permitted to vote under Roman law. Many of them had lost husbands, brothers and sons in the fighting – and now they were being forced to pay for it, too!

Hortensia_speech

Medieval woodcarving of Hortensia leading the women of Rome to the Sentate (source)

They chose Hortensia to plead their case, and a group of women marched to the senate to protest the tax. The historian Appian records Hortensia’s speech:

“You have already deprived us of our fathers, our sons, our husbands, our brothers on the pretext that they wronged you, but if, in addition, you take away our property you will reduce us to a condition unsuitable to our birth, our way of life and our female nature.

If we have done you any wrong, as you claim our husbands have, proscribe us as you do them. But if we women have not voted any of you public enemies, nor torn down your house, nor destroyed your army, nor led another against you, nor prevented you from obtaining offices and honours, why do we share in the punishments when we did not participate in the crimes?

Why should we pay taxes when we do not share in the offices, honours, military commands, nor in short the government for which you fight between yourselves with such harmful results? You say ‘because it is wartime’. When have there not been wars? When have taxes been imposed on women, whom nature has set apart from men? Our mothers once went beyond what is natural and made contributions during the war against the Carthaginians, when danger threatened your entire Empire and Rome itself. But then they contributed willingly, not from their landed property, their fields, their dowries, or their houses, without which it is impossible for free women to live, but only from their jewelry. 

Let war with the Celts or Parthians come, we will not be inferior to our mothers when it is a question of common safety. But for civil wars, may we never contribute nor aid you against each other.”

Angry and embarrassed at being told off by a group of women, Octavian, Antony and Lepidus tried to no avail to dismiss the women. Still, the crowd found in their favor. The very next day the number of women subject to tax reduced from 1400 to 400.


References:

The Civil Wars , Book 4Appian

Institutio OratoriaQuintilius

On Wikipedia:

Phile – c. 50 BCE – Priene, Greece

Ancient Turkey, Turkey

Phile

Phile lived in the Greek city state of Priene, which was under Roman rule. She was honored for her services to the city and the first woman elected Magistrate.

1280px-Agora_of_Priene

Ruins at Priene

A wealthy woman, Phile personally paid for the construction of a reservoir and aqueduct for the city in 50 BCE. The funding of public works by private citizens was encouraged under the Emperor Augustus who wished to see his Empire modernised.

History doesn’t tell us how Phile was able to pay for such a huge project, but she must have been independently wealthy somehow, whether she was widowed or by some other means.

800px-Acueducto1_Lou

Aqueduct of Segovia, Spain

We do know that the city of Priene was grateful to their benefactress – Phile was honoured by public decree. She was also rewarded in another way; by being elected Magistrate – the first woman to achieve this post.

To the ancient Romans, Magistrates were not lawyers, but the highest government officers. They often held some excecutive and judicial powers (and would be advised by jurists, who knew the law). Phile was probably responsible for supervising public works in the city.


References:

Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities – Bruce W. Winter

Participating in Public: Female Patronage and Economic Prominence at Hellenistic Priene – Ashley Eckhardt

On Wikipedia:


Image Credits:

Agora of Priene” by Ken and Nyetta – Flickr: Agora of Priene.

Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Acueducto1 Lou“.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons