Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In Memoriam: Pulcheria

To anyone who despairs at the supposed moral failings of modern royalty may I suggest a brief visit now and then with their counterparts in the Byzantine Empire? There are hardened criminals in our society today with a greater sense of right and wrong, not to mention propriety, than the best of the Byzantine rulers. Vicious schemers, poisoners, zealots, back-stabbers - and those were the good ones! - is it any wonder the Byzantine Empire still holds so much fascination for us today? It all makes even the best soap opera look tepid by comparison...


One such ruler was born into the House of Theodosius on this day in 399 CE; the daughter of Eastern Roman Emperor Arcadius and Aelia Eudoxia, Pulcheria seems to have delighted in palace intrigues, yet managed to avoid creating much of a body count in the process, at least amongst her royal brethren.

PhotobucketAs the elder sister of the boy emperor Theodosius II, Pulcheria wielded tremendous power, even going so far as to take a vow of chastity... Not out of any sense of decorum, mind you, but to avoid being forced into a dynastic marriage, which she knew well enough would lead to no good and, considering the primitive midwifery of the times, possibly even assassination by childbirth. She even went so far as to declare herself Empress in 414 CE - at the precocious age of 15!

For her part in the conversion of her pagan sister-in-law Eudocia - in fact, for her vicious suppression of all pagan influence in the civil service as well as her part in the exile of the Jews and the destruction of all the synagogues in Constantinople - Pulcheria comes down to us through history as a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Of course, to the Byzantines, saintliness was next to intolerance, making her not only a very holy figure indeed but one who only got holier the older she got.

Originally a supporter of Archbishop Nestorius and unopposed to the Germanic brand of Christianity called Arianism, her religious fervour naturally deepened with age, and she later called the Council of Chalcedon to condemn Nestorianism, having enlisted the help of Cyril of Alexandria to help the errant cleric see the error of his ways. They still sent him into exile, but at least they did so convinced his conscience was clear...

In 441 CE a eunuch named Chrysaphius seems to have convinced Theodosius to set aside his sister and install him in her place, after which she retired to a nunnery; where better, I ask you, to plot one's revenge? Following the death of Theodosius in 450 CE she returned to court and, via a hastily arranged marriage to the German Marcian - who gracefully agreed to respect his 51 year-old wife's vow of chastity! - she then proceeded to leverage her husband into the imperial throne. One of his first acts as emperor was to order the execution of Chrysaphius... Three guesses as to whose idea that was?

Having established many churches to the Virgin Mary in Constantinople, including the Church of St. Mary of the Blachernae, Pulcheria died in July 453 CE, leaving her husband to let the Western Roman Empire continue its long topple (especially after the Vandals sacked Rome in 455 CE); during the last four years of his rule he was mainly under the influence of his mentor, the Alan general Aspar, who'd been as influential as his late wife in bringing Marcian to power in the first place.

share on: facebook

No comments: