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Aelia Eudocia (Wife of Theodosius II)

Geoffrey Greatrex

University of Ottawa

Aelia Eudocia, whose first name was Athenaïs, was born into a pagan family probably around the start of the fifth century. Her father, Leontius, was a prominent philosopher, who ensured that his daughter received a thorough and traditional education. He may have been Athenian - hence the name of his daughter - or a native of Antioch, a city which liked to claim a traditional link with Athens.[[1]] Probably after her father's death, the young girl came to Constantinople, where she was baptised a Christian. At some point she became known to the Emperor Theodosius, who married her on 7 June 421.[[2]] Despite her education and late baptism, her subsequent travels and endowments in Palestine, as well as her literary output (discussed below) point to a rather more Christian than pagan attitude.[[3]] Henceforth she was known as Aelia Eudocia. Her brothers, Valerius and Gessius, were promoted to important posts, as was her uncle Asclepiodotus, and she herself came to exercise an influence comparable to that of Theodosius' sister Pulcheria over the emperor.[[4]] She was swiftly able to put her literary skills to work, extolling the performance of the Roman troops in their war against Persia, which ended in 422, in a hexameter poem.[[5]]

In the same year (422), Eudocia gave birth to a daughter, Licinia Eudoxia, and no doubt in consequence she was made Augusta on 2 January 423. Gold solidi were issued with her portrait on the reverse, just as they had been for Pulcheria.[[6]] The empress continued to build upon her position and it is highly likely that she was instrumental in the setting up of what is generally known as the 'university' of Constantinople in the mid-420s. By a series of laws, Theodosius set up and endowed various chairs in the imperial capital, thus putting in order the somewhat chaotic situation of higher learning there. Eudocia's uncle Asclepiodotus, the praetorian prefect, was probably also involved. Building work at Athens in the 420s has also been associated with the rise to prominence of Eudocia's family.[[7]] Moreover, she was active in sponsoring building work in the imperial capital, founding (e.g.) the Church of St Polyeuktos. Such indeed was her reputation as a builder that one early sixth-century source, the 'Oracle of Baalbek' referred to Byzantium changing its name to Eudocopolis-Constantinopolis; the region situated between the walls built by Constantine in the fourth century and under Theodosius II in the fifth was probably known initially as Eudocopolis.[[8]] At the same time, efforts were made to curtail the persecution of the Jews, a minority who had suffered particularly during the time of Pulcheria's ascendancy.[[9]]

At some point in the 420s, however, the tide turned against Eudocia. It was Pulcheria who played a leading role in the downfall of Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, who was unseated as patriarch in 431. Nothing is heard of Eudocia in this episode. She did, however, provide the emperor with another daughter, Flaccilla, in 431, and possibly a son, Arcadius, who died in infancy.[[10]] By the late 430s, relations with her husband had deteriorated to the point that she sought his leave to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the company of Melania, a wealthy and pious widow from the West. Evidently there was no more hope of the birth of a male heir to the throne.[[11]] Eudocia's tour of the east in 438 was a success. She visited all the holy sites and made a huge impression; the scene of her kneeling before the tomb of Christ was reproduced on the wall of a church in Constantinople after her return. Her learned address to the people of Antioch won huge acclaim too; a bronze statue to her was erected outside the Museum of the city.[[12]] Her return to Constantinople in 439, armed with further relics for the capital, brought a brief resurgence of her influence: it is possible that the brilliant career of the poet Cyrus, who at one point in the 440s occupied the posts of praetorian and urban prefect simultaneously, was assisted in some measure by the empress.[[13]] But it was not to last. In 443 the eunuch spatharius Chrysaphius engineered the departure of Eudocia from the capital by having her accused of adultery with Paulinus, a good-looking friend of the emperor (who had earlier been accused of sexual relations with the virgin Pulcheria by Nestorius). Paulinus was banished to Cappadocia and executed in the following year. The empress for her part departed for Jerusalem once again.[[14]]

Eudocia was never to return to the imperial capital. Even in Jerusalem, her situation worsened almost as soon as she arrived: Theodosius despatched the comes domesticorum Saturninus to execute two of her confidants, the priest Severus and the deacon John. According to Holum, '[n]ot to be outdone in brutality, Eudocia struck Saturninus down with her own hands', reporting the brief entry of the chronicler Marcellinus about the episode. If this is indeed the meaning of Marcellinus' text, Eudocia's strength and determination were indeed remarkable. More likely, however, it was members of her entourage who assassinated Saturninus; as a consequence, the emperor deprived her of her household, although she retained the title of Augusta.[[15]] Eudocia retained her wealth and influence, however, and continued to be surrounded by literary figures. It was probably in this period that she took part in the composition of the Homerocentones, biblical stories moulded to fit Homeric verse. These verses survive, as does her eight-book poem recounting the martyrdom of St Cyprian. The quality of her literary work has not found general favour with modern scholars, however: in the words of Alan Cameron, 'Eudocia cannot but seem uncouth and ignorant - and that without the redeeming virtue of freshness and simplicity.'[[16]] At her palace in Bethlehem and in Jerusalem she continued to receive petitions and sought to alleviate the persecution of the Jews, in spite of the unpopularity of such a stance. With her wealth she endowed the city of Jerusalem with a new set of walls and erected numerous other buildings throughout the Near East.[[17]] In the wake of the Council of Chalcedon, called by Theodosius' successor Marcian in collaboration with his wife Pulcheria, Eudocia placed herself firmly on the side of the local populace, which fiercely opposed the Council's decisions, perceived as being too close to Nestorianism. The chronicler Theophanes, followed in this by the much later church historian Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopulus, claims that she aligned herself with the eunuch Chrysaphius in backing the archimandrite Eutychius, whose views were upheld by the `Robber Council' at Ephesus in 449 but then condemned by Chalcedon; his evidence is suspect, however, since Nicephorus at least seems to believe that she was still in Constantinople at this time, whereas, as we have seen, she had already been forced by Chrysaphius' machinations to return to Palestine in the early 440s.[[18]] Throughout her time in Palestine, it is clear that she was a well known figure, thoroughly immersed in local ecclesiastical issues.[[19]] Although troops had to intervene to restore order in the region, the Augusta herself did not suffer any reprisals. Two years later, distressed at the sufferings of her family in the West, where her daughter and her children had been taken captive by the Vandal king Geiseric, she accepted the decisions of the Council, having taken the preliminary step of consulting the local holy man, Symeon the Stylite. Despite this, the anti-Chalcedonian church (often called 'Monophysite') continued to regard her as a champion of its cause.[[20]] She died on 20 October 460 in Jerusalem, where she was buried in the church of St Stephen.[[21]]


PLRE. Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, ed. J. Martindale, vol.2. Cambridge, 1980.

Blockley, R.C. 1981-3. The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, 2 vols. Liverpool.

Blockley, R.C. 1998. 'The dynasty of Theodosius' in Cameron and Garnsey, eds.: 111-37.

Cameron, Alan. 1982. 'The empress and the poet: paganism and politics at the court of Theodosius II', Yale Classical Studies 27: 217-89.

Cameron, Averil, and Garnsey, P., eds. 1998. The Cambridge Ancient History, vol.13. Cambridge.

Cameron, Averil, Ward-Perkins, B. and Whitby, M., eds. 2000. The Cambridge Ancient History, vol.14. Cambridge.

Chitty, D.J. The Desert a City. Oxford.

Croke, B. 1995. The Chronicle of Marcellinus Comes. Sydney.

Cyril of Scythopolis, ed. E. Schwartz, Kyrillos von Skythopolis, Texte u. Untersuchungen XLIX.2. Leipzig 1939, tr. R.M. Price with J. Binns, The Lives of the Monks of Palestine. Kalamazoo, Mich., 1991.

Downey, G. 1974. A History of Antioch in Syria. Princeton.

Drake, H. 1979. 'A Coptic Version of the Discovery of the Holy Sepulchre', GRBS 20: 381-92.

Evagrius, Evagrius, Ecclesiastical History, edd. Bidez, J. and Parmentier, L. London, 1898. Tr. Whitby 2000 (see below).

Fowden, G. 1990. 'The Athenian agora and the progress of Christianity', Journal of Roman Archaeology 3: 494-501.

Fowden, G. 1995. 'Late Roman Achaea: identity and defence', Journal of Roman Archaeology 8: 549-67.

Frend, W.H.C. 1972. The Rise of the Monophysite Movement. Cambridge.

Goubert, P. 1951. 'Le rôle de Sainte Pulchérie et de l'eunuque Chrysaphius' in Grillmeier, A. and Bacht, H., Das Konzil von Chalkedon: 303-21. Würzburg.

Greatrex, G. and Lieu, S.N.C. 2002. The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars, A.D. 363-630. London.

Holum, K. 1982. Theodosian Empresses. Berkeley.

Hunt, E.D. 1982. Holy Land Pilgrimate in the Later Roman Empire, A.D. 312-460. Oxford.

Kennedy, H. 2000. `Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia' in Cameron, Ward-Perkins and Whitby, eds.: 588-611.

Kent, J.P.C. 1994. The Roman imperial coinage, vol.10, The divided empire and the fall of the westernparts, AD 395-491. London.

Lee, A.D. 2000. 'The eastern empire: Theodosius to Anastasius' in Cameron, Ward-Perkins and Whitby, eds.: 33-62.

Malalas, Chronographia, ed. J. Thurn. Berlin, 2000; tr. and annot. E. and M. Jeffreys and R. Scott. Melbourne, 1986.

Maraval, P. 1985. Lieux saints et pèlerinages d'Orient: histoire et géographie des origines à la conquête arabe. Paris.

Maraval, P. 1998. 'La réception de Chalcédoine dans l'empire d'Orient' in Pietri, L., ed. Histoire du Christianisme des origines à nos jours, vol.3. Les églises d'orient et d'occident. Paris: 107-45.

Marcellinus comes, Chronicon in T. Mommsen, ed., Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi, XI, 60-104, repr. in Croke 1995 (above).

Mundell Mango, M. 2000. 'Building and Architecture' in Cameron, Ward-Perkins and Whitby, eds.: 918-71.

Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopulus, Ecclesiasticae Historiae, ed. J.-P. Migne, PG 145-7.

Sironen, E. 1990. 'An honorary inscription for Empress Eudocia in the Athenian Agora', Hesperia 59: 371-4.

Sironen, E. 1999. 'Eudocia' in Bowersock, G., Brown, P., and Grabar, O. , eds., Late Antiquity: 436. Cambridge, Mass.

Theophanes, Chronographia, ed. de Boor, C. Leipzig, 1883. Tr. Mango, C. and Scott, R. Oxford, 1997.

Whitby, M. 2000a. The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus. Liverpool.

Whitby, M. 2000b. 'The Balkans and Greece 420-602' in Cameron, Ward-Perkins and Whitby, eds.: 701-30.

[[1]]See Holum 1982, 117, for the suggestion that she was from Antioch rather than Athens. Whitby 2000, 48 n.173, prefers the traditional view that she was Athenian; see below n.7 for building work at Athens, which tends to confirm the Athenian connection. On Leontius see Cameron 1982, 274-5.

[[2]]We pass over the romantic tales surrounding Theodosius' decision to marry Eudocia, which implausibly associate Pulcheria with the selection of the girl. As we might expect of any fairy-tale princess, she is described by Malalas (XIV.4) as 'a very good-looking young woman, refined, with a good figure, eloquent, from Hellas, a virgin and the daughter of a philosopher' (tr. Jeffreys and Scott), who naturally therefore caught the attention of the emperor. For a full discussion see Holum 1982, 112-20.

[[3]]So (rightly) Cameron 1982, 278-82.

[[4]]On her brothers, see PLRE II, Valerius 6 and Gessius 2; also Holum 1982, 118. On Asclepiodotus, PLRE II, Asclepiodotus 1.

[[5]]So recounts Socrates, HE VII.21.6; see Holum 1982, 123. The work does not survive. On the war see Greatrex and Lieu 2002, 36-43.

[[6]]See Holum 1982, 123 with Kent 1994, 77-8 and pl.10, nos.255-6.

[[7]]Holum 1982, 126, on the university, with the rather downbeat assessment of Cameron 1982, 285-7. See Whitby 2000, 722-4, on the developments at Athens, with Fowden 1995, 559-62, 566 (cautious), idem 1990, 499-500, and Sironen 1990 (inscriptions commemorating Eudocia at Athens).

[[8]]See Fowden 1995, 562 with Alexander 1967, lines 91-3 and notes at 80-2. Alexander reports also that four cities of Asia Minor were renamed Eudocias in honour of the empress. Cameron 1982, 278, notes that she also began work on the basilica of St Lawrence in Constantinople, in which were placed the relics of St Stephen which she brought back with her in 439 from Jerusalem. It was Pulcheria, however, who completed work on the basilica, shortly before her death in 453. Whether this needs to be taken as implying `co-operation' between the two empresses, as Cameron argues (1982, 278), may be doubted. See also Holum 1982, 196.

[[9]]See Holum 1982, 124-7. Asclepiodotus' toleration towards Jews was fiercely criticised by Christian sources, notably in the Syriac Life of Symeon the Stylite: see Holum, loc. cit. and Whitby 2000, 36 n.129. On university, check Cameron 1982.

[[10]]Details in PLRE II, Aelia Eudocia 2. Sironen 1999 is doubtful about Arcadius' existence.

[[11]]Cf. Holum 1982, 178-9, 184-5, Hunt 1982, 222-3, 229-34.

[[12]]Holum 1982, 186-9; Downey 1974, 450-1 (discussing also her building work in the city, on which see below).

[[13]]So Holum 1982, 189-90. See also PLRE II, Cyrus 7. The bibliography on Cyrus is considerable; note especially Cameron 1982.

[[14]]The date of her downfall is not entirely clear. Holum 1982, 193, places it in 443, as does PLRE II. Kennedy 2000, 607, however, states that she was in Jerusalem from 441, and this date is also preferred by Sironen 1999, 436. Argumentation for this earlier date is provided by Cameron 1982, 258-63; see also Hunt 1982, 235-6.

[[15]]The key text here is Marcellinus comes s.a.444.4, tr. by Croke 1995, 18. See Holum 194 for the quotation. Blockley 1983, 388 n.86, discussing Saturninus, assumes that it was 'at the order' of Eudocia that the count was killed; this seems also to be the interpretation of Croke, op. cit., 87. Marcellinus himself found the empress' ferocity surprising, describing her as being 'spurred on by some grief or other' (nescio quo excita dolore).

[[16]]See Holum 1982, 118, 220-1, PLRE II, Eudocia 2. Quotation from Cameron 1982, 279, who also notes the rather tepid verdict of the patriarch Photius.

[[17]]Holum 1982, 217-19. Evagrius, HE I.21, stresses her generosity. See Hunt 1982, 237-43, Maraval 1985, 69, Drake 1979, 388 and Whitby 2000, 49 n.179 for an assessment of her benefactions. Nor did she neglect secular buildings: she restored the Baths of Valens at Antioch already in 438, for instance, and later the baths at Gadara. See Mundell Mango 2000, 936 and 938 on these projects.

[[18]]Theophanes, A.M. 5940, pp.99-100, cf. A.M. 5942, pp.101-2, Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopulus, HE XIV.47 in PG 146/2, 1224-5 with Goubert 1951, 312. At 1224A Nic. clearly refers to Eudocia as 'not yet' having departed for Palestine.

[[19]]A good account may be found in Chitty 1966, 89-95.

[[20]]See Holum 1982, 224 and Drake 1979, 390-1. On the circumstances of her conversion, see Hunt 1982, 243-4 and Frend 1972, 153-4 (based on Cyril of Scythopolis' Life of Euthymius, ch.30). On the imposition of the council in the region see (e.g.) Maraval 1998, 109-11.

[[21]]PLRE II, Aelia Eudocia with Evagrius, HE I.22 and Whitby 2000, 53 n.186.

Copyright (C) 2004, Geoffrey Greatrex. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
Comments to: Geoffrey Greatrex

Updated:2 August 2004

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