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Pulcheria (Wife of the Emperor Marcian)

Geoffrey Greatrex

University of Ottawa

Aelia Pulcheria, born on 19 January 399, was the daughter of the Emperor Arcadius and Aelia Eudoxia. She was the elder sister of the Emperor Theodosius II and of Arcadia and Marina. Her own elder sister, Flaccilla, probably died before 408. Pulcheria exercised enormous influence on her brother Theodosius for considerable periods of his reign. Numerous sources record her extensive involvement in his education: according to Theophanes, already in 412, i.e. at the age of thirteen, she dismissed the eunuch Antiochus from court, who had been Theodosius' tutor, and took over the role herself.[[1]] She quickly put her stamp on the imperial court, giving it an austere, pious atmosphere. At the same time, she secured both her own position - and, more importantly, her brother's - by vowing her virginity to God. Pulcheria's decision to refuse to marry probably stemmed both from genuine convictions, as evidenced by her life-long devotion to Mary, and from political considerations: by rejecting marriage, she prevented any noble who was aspiring to the throne from using her as a springboard to unseating her brother. The downfall of the praetorian prefect Anthemius around this time (414) may be connected with Pulcheria's decision, for it has been suggested that he was exerting pressure on her to take a husband.[[2]]

On 4 July, 414, Pulcheria was made Augusta by Theodosius. Soon afterwards, coins were minted on which she appeared on the obverse, crowned by the right hand of God - a development by no means without precedent, although all previous Augustae had received the status as the result of providing children to their husbands (the emperors).[[3]] Her influence over the government of the empire emerges clearly from a number of sources.[[4]] An immediate effect was a hardening of imperial policy towards non-Christians, and Jews in particular. Throughout her life, Pulcheria devoted her wealth to the church; in 420, for instance, she sent money to Jerusalem for those in need, inspiring Theodosius to do likewise. At the same time, at least according to the chronicler Theophanes, a golden cross was erected in Jerusalem and the right arm of Saint Stephen despatched from the holy city to Constantinople. Some scholars have suggested that the Trier Ivory depicts its arrival in Constantinople, and that the short woman standing holding a cross is Pulcheria herself; under this interpretation, the cross represents her godly resolve (to maintain her virginity).[[5]] Whether or not this identification is accepted, there is undoubtedly a link between these developments and the war which broke out between Rome and Persia in 420 and which continued until 422. Saint Stephen could be supposed to be more likely to intervene on behalf of the Roman forces, now that such an important relic had been transferred to the capital and more closely associated with the emperor. A series of gold solidi commemorating the erection of the cross at Jerusalem was minted; on the reverse of some of these issues, the emperor himself is depicted; on others, his brother Honorius; and on others still, Pulcheria - the first time that an Augusta had thus been placed on a par with the reigning emperors.[[6]] As it turned out, the war ended in 422 with a treaty which allowed both sides to claim victory; Theodosius' piety - inspired by Pulcheria - was believed to be responsible for the success of his armies in the field.[[7]]

Inevitably, the marriage of Theodosius to Eudocia in 421 (formerly known as Athenaïs), was followed by a waning of the influence of  Pulcheria. She withdrew from the imperial palace and took up residence at various other palaces in or around the capital, e.g. at the Hebdomon and at Rufinianae. The Augusta was a wealthy woman, and such was the extent of her properties in one quarter of the capital that it came to be called Pulcherianae.[[8]] She maintained strong contacts with Christians of all kinds, both those on the margins of the church hierarchy, such as Saint Hypatius, a holy man living in the vicinity of Constantinople, and the Akoimetae - the Sleepless Monks - who met with considerable hostility when they appeared first in Constantinople in the 420s, as well as with Proclus, the patriarch of Constantinople.[[9]] She continued to be a lavish patron of the church, erecting several churches in Constantinople and playing a key role in the discovery of the relics of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.[[10]]

The importance of Pulcheria emerges very clearly from the Nestorian controversy. Nestorius, who became patriarch of Constantinople in 428, clashed with the Augusta almost immediately, refusing to admit her to the sanctuary of the Great Church in Constantinople only days after his enthronement. Scholars have not unreasonably perceived a link between Nestorius' christological position, downgrading the status of the Virgin Mary from Theotokos (Mother of God) to Christotokos (Mother of Christ), and his hostility towards Pulcheria. Equally, her fierce defence of the Virgin Mary was certainly connected with her own vow of virginity and the status this conferred upon her.[[11]] The story of Nestorius' downfall and the Council of Ephesus in 431 has been told many times and need not be related here. It is sufficient to note that the Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria, who emerged the victor after the Council, believed that Pulcheria was instrumental in bringing about the fall of his rival; it is also worthy of note that Theodosius, who had initially given his backing to Nestorius, ended up having to give way to his sister.[[12]]

Pulcheria's position appears to have remained strong for much of the 430s. By 438 the rift between the emperor and his wife Eudocia had become evident; in that year she obtained leave from him to pay a visit to Jerusalem and the holy sites.[[13]] However, the rise to prominence of the eunuch Chrysaphius, the spatharius of Theodosius, brought with it a decline in Pulcheria's influence. She was forced again to withdraw to the Hebdomon palace, this time to avoid being consecrated as a deaconess.[[14]] Her final resurgence came when a new christological debate was sparked. Again, her brother Theodosius was on the opposite side, according his support to the archimandrite Eutyches, who took the view that Christ was entirely God - what is known as the 'Monophysite view', i.e. that Christ had one nature, and that this nature was divine. Eutyches enjoyed the vigorous backing of Dioscorus, Cyril's successor as patriarch of Alexandria. A council was held in Ephesus in 449 (later known as the 'Robber Council' [latrocinium] because of various irregularities in procedure) from which this party emerged triumphant. In the wake of this victory for Dioscorus and Eutyches, Pope Leo sought the aid of Pulcheria (among others) to reverse the council's decisions.[[15]]

The situation changed abruptly on 26 July 450 with the unexpected death of Theodosius. Within a month, however, a somewhat obscure former tribune and domesticus named Marcian had been acclaimed emperor and had married Pulcheria. The circumstances surrounding the elevation of Marcian, who was shortly to preside over the Council of Chalcedon (see below), were a source of much debate and polemic, both at the time and for long afterwards. Those opposed to the outcome of the Council insisted upon the illegitimacy of Marcian's accession, which was not acknowledged in the west until 452; they were also fiercely critical of Pulcheria, portraying her as enamoured of Marcian and engineering his accession to satisfy her lusts. Supporters of Chalcedon, on the other hand, affirmed that Marcian agreed to respect the empress' virginity and sought to give the emperor's accession as much legitimacy as they could. To what extent Pulcheria actually made the choice of Marcian is open to doubt: one scholar sees behind his elevation the machinations of the powerful general Aspar, with whom Marcian was certainly connected. At any rate, there are no grounds for supposing that Pulcheria actually crowned Marcian herself; rather, he was probably acclaimed by the assembled soldiers in the Campus Martius, outside the city, and raised aloft on a shield.[[16]] Coins issued depict the imperial couple with Christ himself sponsoring their marriage - perhaps an attempt to deflect criticism of Pulcheria, whose vow of virginity was called into question by her marriage.[[17]] Pulcheria lost no time in restoring the balance of church politics in favour of her line. At the Council of Chalcedon, held in 451, a more moderate christological position was proclaimed, which held that Christ was 'in two natures', rather than being entirely God (or entirely man). The assembled bishops eagerly offered up acclamations to the empress, on some occasions placing her before Marcian. As he was declared a 'New Constantine', so she was hailed as a 'New Helena' (the mother of Constantine).[[18]]

Pulcheria died in 453, bequeathing her worldly goods to charity. She is regarded as a saint in both eastern and western churches.[[19]] Butler's Lives of the Saints concludes its remarkably glowing assessment of Pulcheria thus: 'If we consider her actions and virtues we shall see that the commendations which St Proclus, in his panegyric on her, Pope St Leo, and the Council of Chalcedon, bestowed on this empress, so far from being compliments or mere eloquence, are thoroughly well deserved. St Pulcheria is named on this day [10 September] in the Roman Martyrology having been inserted by Cardinal Baronius, a happier and more worthy addition than some we owe to that venerable and learned scholar; her feast is kept by the Greeks, and at one time she had a certain cultus in the West, her feast being observed, e.g. throughout Portugal and the kingdom of Naples.'[[20]]


Allen, P. 2000. 'The definition and enforcement of orthodoxy' in Cameron, Ward-Perkins and Whitby, eds: 811-54.

Bardill, J. and Greatrex, G. 1996. 'Antiochus the Praepositus: A Persian Eunuch at the court of Theodosius II', DOP 50: 171-97.

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.

Burgess, R.W. 1993/4. 'The accession of Marcian in the light of Chalcedonian Apologetic and Monophysite Polemic', BZ 86/7: 47-68.

Cameron, Alan, Long, J., with Lee, S. 1993. Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius. Berkeley.

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.

Eunapius, fragments, in Blockley 1983: 1-127.

Flusin, B. 1998. 'Le Christianisme impérial et ses expressions: théologie, spiritualité, piété' in Pietri, ed., 1998: 609-57.

Fraisse-Coué, C. 1995. 'Le débat théologique au temps de Théodose II: Nestorius' in Pietri, ed.: 499-550.

Fraisse-Coué, C. 1998. 'D'Éphèse à Chalcédoine: la ?paix trompeuse? (433-450)' in Pietri, ed.: 9-77.

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.

Holum, K. and Vikan, G. 1980. 'The Trier Ivory, Adventus Ceremonial and the Relics of St Stephen', DOP 33: 113-33.

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.

Maraval, P. 1998. 'Le Concile de Chalcédoine' in Pietri, ed. 1998: 79-106.

McCormick, M. 2000. 'Emperor and Court' in Cameron, Ward-Perkins and Whitby, eds.: 135-63.

Pietri, L. 1995. Histoire du Christianisme des origines à nos jours, vol.2, Naissance d'une chrétienté (250-430). Paris.

Pietri, L. 1998. Histoire du Christianisme des origines à nos jours, vol.3. Les églises d'orient et d'occident (432-610). Paris.

Socrates, Kirchengeschichte, ed. Hansen, G.C. Berlin, 1995.

Sozomen, Kirchengeschichte, edd. Bidez, J. and Hansen, G.C. Berlin, 1960.

Suda, Lexikon, ed. Adler, A. Leipzig, 1928-38.

Theodore Lector (= Theodore Anagnostes), Kirchengeschichte, ed. Hansen, G.C. Berlin, 1971.

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

Thurston, H. and Attwater, D. 1956. Butler's Lives of the Saints. Complete Edition, vol.3. New York.

Treadgold, W. 1997. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford.

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

Wortley, J. 1980. 'The Trier Ivory Reconsidered', GRBS 21: 381-94.


[[1]]Theophanes, A.M. 5901, 5905. See Holum 1982, 90-1 with Bardill and Greatrex 1996, esp. 179-80, on Antiochus (and Anthemius); Antiochus later returned to prominence, see Bardill and Greatrex, art. cit.

[[2]]So Holum 1982, 94. Cameron and Long 1993, 399-403, stress how remarkable this development was, and suggest collaboration between Pulcheria and Aurelian, praetorian prefect from the end of 414. See also Bardill and Greatrex 1996, 191-3, on the transfer of power in 414 (noting that Cameron 1981, 271-2, suggests that Anthemius willingly retired and was acting in concert with Pulcheria).

[[3]]Holum 1982, 97, Kent 1994, 74 with pl.7, nos.205-6. Note also the portrait busts of Theodosius, his uncle the western emperor Honorius, and Pulcheria, erected by Aurelian, the new praetorian prefect in late 414 (reported by Chr. Pasch. 571).

[[4]]Especially Sozomen, HE IX.1.2, 6-8, Theophanes, A.M. 5901, Theodore Lector 301, 336, cf. Suda 2145. Eunapius, frg.72 (Blockley), is seen by Holum (1982, 100) as further proof of this, but Blockley dates this fragment to 404 and suspects that the reference to Pulcheria should rather be to Eudoxia. Blockley 1998 devotes a section of his account of Theodosius' reign to the period of 'the ascendancy of Pulcheria', 133-5.

[[5]]Theophanes, A.M. 5920. Holum 1982, 103-8, on the identification of the Trier ivory; also Holum and Vikan 1980. Wortley 1980 is sceptical about whether any relic of St Stephen was transferred to Cosntantinople in 421, since Theophanes is the only source for the translation.

[[6]]See Holum 1982, 109 with Kent 1994, 75 and pl.8, nos.218-21. On the war itself, see Greatrex and Lieu 2002, 36-43.

[[7]]Socr. HE VII.19-23, cf. Lee 2000, 36.

[[8]]Holum 1982, 131-2, cf. Janin 1969, 137, 139, 151, 215 (on the Pulcherianae). But her role in promoting the cult of Mary and in the building of churches dedicated to her may have been exaggerated in certain sources: see Flusin 1998, 639-40.

[[9]]Holum 1982, 134-6, 138.

[[10]]Holum 1982, 136-7, 142-3 with Soz. HE IX.2. See also Theodore Lector 302 and esp. Soz. HE IX.1.10 on her benefactions.

[[11]]Holum 1982, 152-3 (with references). Note (e.g.) Theodore Lector 340 for the hatred between Nestorius and Pulcheria.

[[12]]See Holum 1982, 159-70, Fraisse-Coué 1995, 499-550, Allen 2000, 811-12.

[[13]]See Holum 1982, 184-5 and EUDOCIA.

[[14]]See Holum 1982, 191, 195, PLRE II, Chrysaphius, Goubert 1951, 306-7, 312-13 with Theophanes, A.M. 5940, p.99.

[[15]]Holum 1982, 199-205, on Leo's correspondence with Pulcheria. In this case, her reply to Leo has not been preserved. On the council and its origins, see Fraisse-Coué 1998, 9-65, Allen 2000, 813-14. On the roles of Chrysaphius and Pulcheria see Goubert 1951, 312-15. The eunuch fell from power before Theodosius' death, it is worth noting, see e.g. Holum 1982, 207.

[[16]]This account follows Burgess 1993/4, who rightly rejects the version of Holum 1982, 208, who has Pulcheria crowning Marcian. He offers a detailed consideration of all the traditions surrounding Marcian's accession (and Pulcheria's role in it). Whitby 2000, 60 n.12 (commenting on Evagrius, HE II.1), is sceptical about Aspar's role. Cf. McCormick 2000, 146-7, who is inclined to take seriously the power of empresses in this period.

[[17]]Holum 1982, 208-9.

[[18]]On the council, see (e.g.) Fraisse-Coué 1998, 65-77, Maraval 1998, 79-106 and Allen 2000, 814, and the brief account in Treadgold 1997, 97-9. On Pulcheria's role and correspondence with Leo (including one letter of her's which has survived), see Holum 1982, 211-16 and Frend 1972, 45-50 (esp. 50). Goubert 1951, 321, sees in Pulcheria a 'Joan of Arc' in her strong support of the papacy.

[[19]]See Holum, 227,

[[20]]Thurston and Attwater 1956, 530-1. On patriarch Proclus' praise for Pulcheria see Holum 1982, 137-8. Butler curiously associates Pulcheria with the establishment of the university there in the 420s, a development more often associated with Eudocia.

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:3 August 2004

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