Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Pulcheria ~ Powerful Roman empress and beloved saint

January 19 is the birthday of Saint Pulcheria. Though little remembered today, Pulcheria played an important role in helping the Eastern Roman Empire survive the 5th century intact.
Roman gold solidus showing
Pulcheria Augusta, crowned by God.

Daughter of the Eastern Emperor Arcadius and granddaughter of Theodosius the Great, Pulcheria was pushed into imperial politics at the tender age of 10. When her father died in AD 408, her younger brother, Theodosius II, inherited the throne as a small child, under the regency of two powerful men at court, the praetorian prefects Anthemius and Antiochus. Pulcheria became her brother's confidant and guardian, and by her 15th year, she felt strong enough to dismiss the regents, guiding Theodosius II in her own right.

Below is an account from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen which was written soon after Pulcheria's death. It offers a first-hand glimpse into the life of this powerful, holy woman of the early Church.
[The emperor] Arcadius died. He left Theodosius, his son, who was just weaned, as his successor to the empire. He also left three daughters of tender age, named Pulcheria, Arcadia, and Marina....The Divine Power which is the guardian of the universe foresaw that the emperor would be distinguished by his piety, and therefore determined that Pulcheria, his sister, should be the protector of him and of his government.
This princess was not yet fifteen years of age, but had received a mind most wise and divine above her years. She first devoted her virginity to God, and instructed her sisters in the same course of life. To avoid all cause of jealousy and intrigue, she permitted no man to enter her palace. In confirmation of her resolution, she took God, the priests, and all the subjects of the Roman empire as witnesses to her self-dedication. In token of her virginity and the headship of her brother, she consecrated in the church of Constantinople, a holy table, a remarkable fabric and very beautiful to see. It was made of gold and precious stones, and she inscribed these things on the front of the table, so that it might be patent to all.

This detail of the Trier Ivory is thought by some
to show the diminutive Pulcheria (right) receiving
relics of saints from her brother, Theodosius II (left).
After quietly resuming the care of the state, she governed the Roman empire excellently and with great orderliness. She concerted her measures so well that the affairs to be carried out were quickly decreed and completed. She was able to write and to converse with perfect accuracy in the Greek and Latin languages. She caused all affairs to be transacted in the name of her brother, and devoted great attention to bringing him up as a prince in the best possible way and with such information as was suitable to his years. She had him taught by the most skilled men, in horsemanship, and the practice of arms, and in letters. But he was systematically taught by his sister to be orderly and princely in his manners. She showed him how to gather up his robes, and how to take a seat, and how to walk. She trained him to restrain laughter, to assume a mild or a formidable aspect as the occasion might require, and to inquire with urbanity into the cases of those who came before him with petitions. But she strove chiefly, to lead him into piety, and to pray continuously. She taught him to frequent the church regularly, and to honor the houses of prayer with gifts and treasures. And she inspired him with reverence for priests and other good men, and for those who in accordance with the law of Christianity, had devoted themselves to philosophy.

She provided zealously and wisely that religion might not be endangered by the innovation of spurious dogmas. That new heresies have not prevailed in our times, we shall find to be due especially to her, as we shall subsequently see. With how much fear she worshiped God, it would take long for any one to say, and how many houses of prayer she built magnificently, and how many hostelries and monastic communities she established, the arrangement for the expenses for their perpetual support, and the provision for the inmates. [Read more here.]
When Theodosius II died tragically after a fall from a horse in AD 450, Pulcheria played an active role in choosing his successor. According to the Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius, Pulcheria herself recommended Marcian based solely on his virtues, and consented to marry him to solidify his claim to the throne, though extracting from him a promise to respect her virginity.

Shortly thereafter, Pulcheria and Marcian, with the support of Pope Saint Leo the Great, assembled the Council of Chalcedon which dealt a decisive blow to the Nestorian heresy and would have a tremendous impact on the Church going forward. A great tribute to her life was given by Leo who wrote to her in AD 451, saying:
"However varied may be the attacks of wicked men upon the Christian Faith, yet when you are present and prepared by the Lord for its defense, it cannot be disturbed. For God will not forsake either the mystery of His mercy or the deserts of your labors, whereby you long ago repelled the crafty foe of our holy religion from the very vitals of the Church." [Read more here.]

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