Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Aelia Pulcheria: First Guardian then Empress

Aelia Pulcheria (regent of the Empire, 4 July 414)

On 4 July 414, Pulcheria declared herself regent of the Eastern Roman Empire. Then just fifteen years old, Pulcheria was only two years older than her brother, Theodosius II, who had become emperor when his father Arcadius died in 408. And as for Pulcheria's mother, Aelia Eudoxia, we have met her before--although influential, she was never beloved, dismissed as "arrogant" and "abnormally willfulful."

Aelia Pulcheria,
gold solidus coin
But for Pulcheria, things were different.

For one thing, when she proclaimed herself regent of the empire, she took a vow of virginity.

She then named herself empress, thus becoming Aelia Pulcheria. (The name "Aelia" is used by Byzantine empresses, as a tribute to Aelia Flavia Flacilla, the honored wife of Theodosius I.) The senate added the honorific "augusta" to her name.

And, too, Aelia Pulcheria's pious ways contrasted with her mother's manner. The imperial court became much more pious as well--fasting, prayer, and acts of charity replaced luxurious clothing and frivolous entertainment. 

This arrangement continued, though after Theodosius's marriage, in 421, there was conflict between his sister and his wife, Aelia Eudocia. In 438, however, Eudocia left the imperial court for the Holy Land. Although she returned briefly, by 440 she was back in Jerusalem, where she died in 460.

In the mean time, Aelia Pulcheria continued her joint rule with Theodosius until his death in 450. Since she could not continue to rule as a single woman, Aelia Pulcheria married Marcian, a once-obscure soldier who had risen through the ranks to become a senator. As a condition of the marriage, however, Marcian had to observe Pulcheria's vow of virginity. 

Pulcheria was a defender of the orthodox church against heresy, built churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Constantinople, and brought many holy relics to the city. After her death in 453, she was canonized as St. Pulcheria. Her feast day is celebrated on 10 September. 

There is an excellent chapter on Aelia Pulcheria Augusta in Kenneth Holum's Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity.

(Holum's book also includes an essay on Aelia Eudocia--who seems to have been selected by "alarmed" aristocrats in order to "resist Pulcherian innovation"--Holum concludes that the "efforts" to counter Pulcheria served only to "reinforce her own basileis [rule] with new resources. . . . In her competition with Eudocia the virgin empress brought the Theodosian phenomenon of female dominion to completion.")