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.
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
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.
THE VIRGIN EMPRESS
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.
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.