St Pulcheria’s parents were the Byzantine Emperor Arcadius and Empress Aelia Eudoxia, who had five children. Flacilla (397) died young. The younger siblings were Arcadia (400), Theodosius II (401), the future Emperor and Marina (401).
Empress Eudoxia died in 404 and Emperor Arcadius in 408. Theodosius II had been proclaimed nominal co-Emperor in 402 and was now Emperor. Anthemius, his Praetorian Prefect, was Emperor Theodosius’ guardian and the effective Regent of the Eastern Empire. In 414 he disappears from view and Pulcheria is proclaimed Augusta and ruled as regent for her brother. Theodosius “was, vacillating and easily led.” Pulcheria, “by contrast, was strong and determined, with a love of power for its own sake; but she was also excessively, extravagantly pious, taking a particular pleasure in the rebuilding of the ruined Haghia Sophia…her two younger sisters Arcadia and Marina developed similar inclinations…the prevailing mood in the imperial palace, it was said was more that of a cloister than a court,…”
“When Arcadius himself died in 408, he left Theodosius in a precarious situation, with the danger that as Pulcheria and her sisters approached marriageable age an ambitious politician might arrange a union which would destroy the independence of the dynasty. Thus in her fourteenth year (412-13) Pulcheria devoted herself to virginity and persuaded her sisters to do likewise. According to Sozomen, a contemporary author who presumably knew the truth, she acted “in order that she might not bring another male into the palace and might remove every opportunity for competition and plotting.”
Pulcheria’s choice of remaining a virgin, like the Virgin Mary, came out of religious conviction but also political expediency. She proved herself to be a strong, astute woman in her dealings with the political and religious administrators that she as Augusta found herself encountering. She was a stronger ruler than her brother who was more like their father Arcadius. However, unlike Eudoxia, their mother, another strong woman, Pulcheria was overtly Christian and evoked the ire of the religious authorities in different ways to what Eudoxia had done by her flagarant disrespect of the Church. Eudoxia had been censored by St John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Constantinople, because of the golden statue of herself that Eudoxia had erected outside Haghia Sophia. Pulcherie and Nestorius had a serious confrontation a few days after Nestorious was appointed Bishop of Constantinople.
“On an Easter Sunday, probably April 15, 428, only five days after Nestorius was ordained bishop of Constantinople, Pulcheria appeared at the gate to the sanctuary of the Great Church,expecting to take communion within in the presence of the priests and her brother, the emperor. The archdeacon Peter informed Nestorius of her custom, and the bishop hurried to bar the way, to prevent the sacrilege of a lay person and woman in the Holy of Holies. Pulcheria demanded entrance, but Nestorius insisted that “only priests may walk here.” She asked “Why? Have I not given birth to God?” He replied: “You? You have given birth to Satan!” And then Nestorius drove the empress from the sanctuary…In (Nestorius’) view Pulcheria could not claim Marial dignity – that she had (mystically) “given birth to God” – to justify ceremonial equality with her brother. Like any woman, Pulcheria was a daughter of Eve, through whom sin had come into the world.”
This illustrates the way that Pulcheria identifiedwith Mary, the Mother of Jesus. As explained above, her commitment to remaining a virgin was probably an astute move to protect herself and her sisters from marriage to men who might come into the palace circle and exploit the situation for their own dynastic ambitions. This move also enable her to take power and exercise that power over her brother and the Eastern Empire for many years. Nestorius’ accusation that “you have given birth to Satan!” comes from a belief that sin came into the world only through Eve, the woman, succumbing to temptation whereas Genesis 3seems to state that both Adam and Eve succumbed to Satan’s temptation and through both of them sin came into the world.
Prior to the confrontation with Nestorius on Easter Sunday 428 Pulcheria’s robe had been used as an altar cover during communion and Pulcheria’s portrait was above the altar of the Great Church. Nestorius got ride of the robe and also effaced Pulcheria’s portrait above the altar of the Great Church.
Using the title of ‘Theotokos’ (Mother of God) or ‘Christotokos’ (Mother of Christ) was an indicator of the user’s belief about the nature of Christ. In Constantinople Pulcheria strongly supported those who referred to the Virgin Mary as ‘Theotokos’ such as Proclusand Cyril of Alexandria. The ensuing controversy led to the Council of Ephesus (431) which was held in the Church dedicated to St Mary. This council was primarily to discuss the nature of Christ although one of the decisions of the council was to give the Blessed Virgin Mary the title of ‘Theotokos’. But that wasn’t the prime purpose of the council.
Pulcheria adopted the 433 Formula of Union as the key to the Christological riddle: “For there has been a union of the two natures; wherefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord.”
Theodosius, Pulcheria’s brother died in 450 as a result of a hunting accident. She was barred from continuing as Augusta after her brother died so she married Marcian, an elderly soldier. Marcion was Emperor in the east from 450 to 457.
Pulcheria’s actions and plotting are well documented in records written at the time or soon after. She was a powerful woman who took action in affairs of religion and state in order to achieve the ends she believed in. She also had a hand in the Council of Chalcedon which met in 451. Chalcedon is just across the Bosphorus from Constantinople in the Asian Side suburb of Kadıköy. The Council was supposed to convene in Nicea but in order that Marcian, the Emperor and Pulcheria’s husband could attend it’s meeting place was transferred to Chalcedon. There is evidence that suggests Pulcheria used her influence to ensure that only compliant Bishops and Clergy attended.
During the course of the deliberations the Bishops called out their acclamations of Pulcheria and Marcion: “The Emperor believes thus! The Augusta believes thus! Thus we all believe!” They greeted Emperor Marcian as the “New Constantine, New Paul, New David” and praised Pulcheria because she had restored harmony:
“Many years to the Augusta! You are the light of orthodoxy! Because of this there will be peace everywhere! Lord protect those who bring the light of peace, those who lighten the world!”
The assembled clergy identified Pulcheria with the famous mother of Constantine the Great:
“Marcian is the New Constantine, Pulcheria the New Helena! You have shown the faith of Helena! You have shown the zeal of Helena! Your life is the security of all! Your faith is the glory of the churches!
But all is not good:
“From the inception of the Eutychian crisis, this woman had acted in the manner of her grandfather Theodosius, convinced that the Christological formula she had adopted was correct, and that to restore harmony she had to impose it on her subjects. For this reason she had returned from ascetic retreat and had married after her brother’s death, that she might prolong her dynasty sufficiently and secure the necessary military backing. During the year of Chalcedon she directed preparations from the palace, and the council unfolded according to her plan. The Fathers of Chalcedon admitted as much in the warmth of their acclamations, but they did not declare this to be Pulcheria’s council or recognize in it the ultimate dynastic victory of the Theodosian house.”
Holum’s damming inditement shows Pulcheria’s involvement as political, motivated by the desire for power to achieve her own pre-conceived ends. A Christian becomes so by a personal commitment to faith, faith involves personal choice, personal commitment not being told by the Augusta, the Empress, what to believe. It is easy at first glance to think that Pulcheria is of pure motive and pure faith in her commitment to staying a virgin. Yes, probably an astute move to protect her and her sisters from unwanted sexual advances but neither she nor others had the right to dictate a particular belief, even though it was an orthodox belief. No right to bully or harass those who thought otherwise.
History leaves us with the perception of Pulcheria being a person consumed with a love for power rather than motivated the power of God’s love.
Image from: https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2016/09/saint-pulcheria-empress-of-romans.html
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: the earlier centuries,(London: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 140
K Holum, Pulcheria’s Crusade and the Ideology of Imperial Victory, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 18
Haghia Sophia, the Cathedral Church of Istanbul.
Holum K Theodosian Empresses (University of California Press, USA, 1982) p 153-4.
Some might of course say she was deluded.
It’s no accident that the entry of sin into the world is referred to as ‘The Fall’ – ie The Fall from Grace.
He had been ordained Bishop of Cyzicus by Sisinnius but was unable to enter his see because the local clergy and people elevated their own candidate.See Holum p.155
Copyright © 2018 Rev Ros Wilkinson