One might wonder what the early fifth century Byzantine world would have been like if Aelia Pulcheria was not around and her younger brother Theodosius II was led by other ambitious men? Sometimes, strong Byzantine women like Pulcheria aren’t given enough credit for the role they play in the Byzantine state and society.
This amazing woman should be an inspiration to all who study Byzantine history. Though she was a woman not without her flaws. She was very intolerant of other religions, particularly Judaism and paganism. But you have to admire and respect her duteous approach to life, which was evident when she took a vow of virginity.
Pulcheria was born in 398 or 399, into a world of privilege as a child of Byzantine Emperor Arcadius and Empress Aelia Eudoxia. At fifteen, she proclaimed herself regent over her brother and in effect she became Augusta and empress of the eastern government. As Emperor Theodosius regent, she almost certainly gave the young Emperor his ‘identity’, teaching him how to behave amongst other things. Theodosius, in turn, often also sort out her advice on important imperial matters. It was with her influence and urging that Theodosius went to war with the Sassanidis in 421-22AD. She also successfully arranged for him to marry Athenais, a beautiful Greek girl, whom we will come to know as Eudocia , after her conversion to Christianity.
But Pulcheria would come to regret her choice of promoting Eudocia, in view of the fact that the two would butt heads constantly. Pulcheria fought desperately, in a tug of war over her brother, against the bad advice her sister-in-law offered Theodosius. Later the vindictive Eudocia would conspired against Pulcheria and have her exiled to a seaport town seven miles from Constantinople. Fortunately for Pulcheria, her strength and faith would keep her going, even while in exile and removed from power.
When her Emperor brother died in 450, she returned to Constantinople and for about a month ruled the empire alone. Unfortunately, for Pulcheria, she was a woman well ahead of her time, and although she was greatly respected, the Roman senate would not allow a woman to be sole ruler of the empire.
She would agree to marry General Marcian to maintain the stability of the empire, so as long as he respected her vow of virginity. Together they would govern the empire with newly appointed Emperor Marcian persecuting the Nestorians of the day, recalling the Catholic Bishops who had been exiled by her brother Theodosius and famously refusing to pay Attila the Hun tribute (to not wage war against Byzantium)
Much more can be said about this great women, maybe for another time on this site, but above all, Pulcheria’s first care was for the service of the church and God. Pulcheria would die in 453, at the age of 54. Some say that she was the ‘earthly image of Mary, mother of God’. Some also link her with the beginnings of what is termed ‘The Cult of the Virgin Mary’ in the fifth century.