Draca Wards Saga

Draca Wards Saga

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Happy Birthday!

One of the main characters in my fantasy series is a very young princess who is first in line to her father’s throne. Of the five main characters in my first two book of the series, she is my favorite, and I am trying to develop her into a well-rounded Queen of the likes of Charlemagne or Alexander. I do not know if I will succeed, but so far I really like the way she is turning out.
To help flesh out this character, I researched several female warriors and rulers. This is how I stumbled upon Pulcheria, a Byzantine princess. She was the Empress of the East when the western part of Rome fell, and the first, and probably only, female ruler that Rome recognized prior to its fall. Pulcheria first intrigued me because we share the same birthday. But as I learned more about her, I realized that her story is quite unique, and a little controversial.

Aelia Pulcheria was the daughter of Theodisius I and Eudoxia, and the older sister of Theodisius II. She had two or three other sisters but they are not relevant here. There is confusion on whether Plucheria had an older sister or not. By the time Pulcheria was nine and young Theodisius was seven, both their parents had died. The young boy became Emperor Theodisius II and the Prefect Anthemius became his regent.
Anthemius seemed to be a good choice for a regent, since not only did he take good care of the empire, he also doted over the young Emperor and protected the princesses by having them raised and educated by Joannite women. There was also another guardian, Antiochus, who either was second regent or a tutor to young Theodisius (I have seen varying accounts on this).
As soon as Pulcheria turned fifteen she took over her brother’s guardianship and was declared ‘Augusta’. It is difficult for me to explain the significance of this title in a few sentences. It goes beyond the title of Empress, and holds great reverence in both Roman and Christian aspects. Now this title, and the powers behind it, would have to be blessed by the Senate. Very few details seem to be available as to how exactly this came about, but one can only imagine how much a fifteen-year- old girl must have impressed these men to entrust her with the reins of the Empire. But the Senate seemed to have good instincts, because Pulcheria did a heck of a job.

There does not seem to be any record of Pulcheria’s appearance. As Augusta, her face was struck on coins, but 5th century Byzantine coins seem to be stereotypical effigies, not the lifelike portraits the earlier Roman coin artisans seem to have strived for. I have not seen any mention of her beauty, or lack of. Her name means ‘beautiful one’, and her mother was a striking beauty, but her father was ugly. Her brother was known to be good looking, so how attractive she was perceived at the time is anyone’s guess. It was likely a moot point with historians and scribes, since Pulcheria adopted an austere lifestyle and probably scoffed at any trappings or embellishments that would enhance her looks.
Pulcheria was a devout Catholic, and when she was proclaimed Augusta she took a vow of virginity. She seemed to have wanted to become a nun, but her future as the Emperor’s right hand killed that opportunity. So her vow was likely seen as the next best thing. But she probably had an ulterior motive as well.
Anthemius at one time seems to have pushed for one of his grandsons to marry either Pulcheria or one of her sisters. This arrangement, at a time when women were rarely educated and relegated mostly to the home and household, illustrates how any man who took a lady of means as a spouse usurped whatever power she had. And Anthemius seems to have impressed this fact early in Pulcheria’s life by trying to pull a move like this. This was something the young girl did not take to at all, even late in her life. So the chastity vow also served to keep her from marrying and handing over her power like a dowry offer.
The first thing she did as Augusta was boot Antiochus and focus the next several years on training her brother to be Emperor. She did her best to turn him into a model God-fearing ruler, but by the time Theodisius II came of age, he dismissed most of Pulcheria’s grooming. That is not to say he ignored her in all matters. The younger Theodisius is described as a nice, smart guy who loved to read and write, but he was a bit shallow compared to his sister, and preferred to let her do all the hard work when it came to running things, which she did very well. During her brother’s reign, Constantinople became a thriving city worthy of its status as ‘the Rome of the East’. She was also competent in foreign matters. By foreign matters, I mean that she was not afraid to wage war, and she did, or at least she convinced her brother to do so, against the Persians.
Pulcheria took her religious responsibilities seriously as well. The poor were cared for by charitable alms she arranged. Physicians received stipends to care for the residents, so everyone had free health care available. Food was doled out in areas where people would submit wooden tickets called tessera. A grand university was founded. She made many great contributions to the church and defended the Theotokos (Virgin Mary as Mother of God) against Nestor and his belief that Mary should be regarded as the Christotokos (Mother to the human Christ rather than the divine). Sadly, her generosity and philanthropic gestures cannot hide or erase the fact that she was very intolerant of other religions, particularly Judaism and paganism, and was known to seize property and make life difficult for these groups.
Pulcheria was a strong, intelligent woman who clearly had a lot of charisma. Keep in mind that this princess was raised in extravagant finery by a weak-willed father and decadent mother. Despite all this, she grew to become a clever, competent leader who was deeply pious and generous. Her brother the Emperor relied on her judgement and advice. Her sisters followed her example and remained virgins. The Senate loved her. She held sway over Pope Leo I. But not everyone seems to have been a fan of hers.

When the time came for Theodisius to consider a wife, Pulcheria wanted to know what he wanted in a mate. For the Emperor, the woman’s lineage was not as important as her looks. He told his sister that if she was not pure and comely, he would not have her.
Then along comes a young Greek lady named Athenais to Pulcheria’s court to fight her two brothers for her share of their father’s inheritance. That alone reveals how much gumption Athenais has, but not only does this girl have substance, she is a hottie as well. Pulcheria has found her brother a bride. So she takes young Athenais under her wing, grooms her, gets her baptized, and presents this lovely package to the Emperor. Theodisius and Athenais fall in love. Mission accomplished. But despite stories of Athenais (renamed Eudocia at her baptism) and her selfless, forgiving nature, Pulcheria’s choice came back to haunt her, since a rivalry sprouted between these two kickass women. The struggle for power between the two Empresses reached a point where Pulcheria moved out of the palace. But Pulcheria was not the loser in this tug-of-war. Eudocia eventually gets herself in big trouble with her husband over an apple. But that is another story.

Due to the clashes with her sister-in-law and the smear campaign of a controversial bishop, Pulcheria’s influence as Augusta began to wane. But then her brother dies after falling from a horse. Eudocia is in disgrace, and the Emperor’s only child Eudoxia cannot assert her right to succession, so guess who is slated to take over?
I have read different accounts about Pulcheria’s transition to ruling Empress. She had to get married. So her marriage was either a dying request of Theodisius when he named her his successor, or a compromise with the Romans, who did not recognize female succession. Or maybe Pulcheria, after decades of ruling behind the scenes, just did not feel like reigning by herself. In any case, one month after assuming her brother’s throne, Pulcheria announced to everyone’s delight that she would wed Marcian, a Roman senator/ex-soldier who would protect her and the state. Even the Catholic Church approved of this union, spinning the marriage by announcing the approval of Christ of this platonic arrangement which would maintain her virgin status. Marcian had to abide by other terms as well, mostly revolving around his status as Emperor in name only. After Pulcheria died in 453, Marcian reigned alone for four more years until his death in 457.
Pulcheria was made a saint after her death, along with her husband. Although revered by the Church and the Eastern Roman empire, this formidable woman is not without her flaws. But you have to respect her disciplined approach to life and her many accomplishments.

1 comment:

  1. Pulcheria was certainly a remarkable woman. I did a lot of research on her for my thesis on the historical and political background of the christological controversies of the 5th century. The best single source on her is probably Holum's "Theodosian Empresses".

    The story of Pulcheria's involvement in selecting her brother's bride is probably a fabrication. It appears more likely that Athenais/Eudocia was planted in the court by the opposition faction (the old pagan nobility) in a successful ploy to dilute Pulcheria's influence over her brother. Pulcheria's influence waned for a time, but eventually her skills were needed and she reasserted herself. It is hard not to pity the weak-willed Theodosius, caught between his two brilliant empresses, each representing one of the rival factions of the empire.

    Both empresses were forced out of power by the eunuch Chrysaphius, who took over as the power behind the throne. He played off the two empresses against each other. Eudocia retired from public life under the cloud of accusations of adultery (probably false), moving to Jerusalem to take up a life of piety as a patron of that city's monks and nuns. Pulcheria retired to her own extensive estates in Constantinople, continuing to act as a patron of the city's churches, women, and monks. When Chrysaphius, who was renowned for his greed, fell from power, Pulcheria was promptly summoned back to court, where she resumed her previous role. When her brother died a few months later, she was already re-established as de facto ruler.

    Marcian, a widower with children from his previous marriage, was probably nominated as emperor by the general Aspar, an old ally of Pulcheria. Marcian's military skills were needed because this was the era of Attila the Hun. Attila died the same year as Pulcheria, making 453 the end of an era.