St. Pulcheria: Shadow Empress of Byzantium

I had never heard about this lady, but she is awesome!

St. Aelia Pulcheria was the daughter of Emperor Arcadius and Empress Eudoxia. After they died in AD 408, her brother, Emperor Theodosius II, went under a regency by the praetorial prefect Anthemius. (He built walls. Not a bad thing.)

Then in AD 414, at the age of fifteen, she was appointed Augusta and given the regency. So she swore virginity along with her sisters, in order to protect the right to rule of their now thirteen-year-old brother, to prevent civil war and intrigues by any husbands they might have. She served as Theodosius’ regent for two years, and then ended up having to continue doing the work of a prime minister or emperor after he was grown.

Then she found him a smart and beautiful wife, a young convert who was the daughter of a Greek philosopher, and ended up retiring to the country to get out of the way of her jealousy. (To be fair, an empress would want to be empress.) Unfortunately, things didn’t go well without Pulcheria around, so she was recalled after seven years.

But her brother passed away in AD 450 without having had any children, and the empire demanded that Pulcheria become Empress for real. So she picked out an honest sixty-year-old general named Marcian to be her partner, got the Church’s permission to get married, and became empress when over 50. There were no kids, unsurprisingly, since a condition of the marriage was that he should not make her break her vow of virginity. Pulcheria died three years after ascending the throne (traditionally on July 7), but her husband Marcian served as a good emperor for seven more years. One of their first acts was to repudiate paying off Attila the Hun, a policy started by Theodosius II when he was on his own.

St. Pulcheria was also known for protecting the Church, bringing St. John Chrysostom’s body home to Constantinople with a procession of public apology for her parents’ exilings of him, and spreading devotion to Mary. She built three great churches in Constantinople. She also helped run the Council of Chalcedon (because women totally have no voice at all in the Church, you know).

St. Empress Pulcheria’s feast day is September 10. St. Emperor Marcian’s is February 17.


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