Friday, June 07, 2019

A Pagan Convert Becomes Empress of the Romans ~ Theodosius II marries Aelia Eudocia, June 7, AD 421

A modern mosaic portrait of Empress Eudocia featured on the exterior of
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria.
On June 7, AD 421, the 20 year-old Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II married a beautiful young Greek girl. Though born into a pagan family and given the name Athenais, the young bride had converted to Christianity shortly before her nuptials and took the name Aelia Eudocia. She would go on to become a devout Christian and a controversial figure in the Eastern Roman court dominated by another powerful woman, the empress Pulcheria.

Here is the brief biography of Eudocia provided in the 6th century Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus, written about a century after her death:
Theodosius II espoused Eudocia, who had previously participated in the saving baptism—an Athenian by birth, and distinguished by poetic skill and beauty of person—through the offices of his sister, the princess Pulcheria. By her he had a daughter, Eudoxia, whom when she had reached a marriageable age, the emperor Valentinian afterwards espoused, for which purpose he made a voyage from the elder Rome to the city of Constantine.
Eudocia later went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and made a stop in Antioch on her way. There, she delivered a celebrated speech to the people in which she said, paraphrasing Homer: “It is from your blood I proudly trace my line,” in reference to the Greek colonists who had founded Antioch centuries before. Evagrius continues:
Click for more info.
On this occasion, the sons of the Antiochenes honored her with a skillfully executed statue in brass, which has been preserved even to our times. At her suggestion, Theodosius considerably enlarges the bounds of the city, by extending the circuit of the wall as far as the gate which leads to the suburb of Daphne: of which those who are disposed, may assure themselves by visible proof; for the whole wall may still be traced, since the remains afford a sufficient guidance to the eye. Some, however, say that the elder Theodosius extended the wall. He gave, besides, two hundred pounds' weight of gold for the restoration of the baths of Valens, which had been partially burnt.
Evagrius then tells how Eudocia proceeded to Jerusalem, hinting at the scandals and accusations that had forced her out Constantinople and letting the reader know that he does not believe them to be true. He describes the work she did in the city as follows:
When visiting the holy city of Christ, she did many things for the honor of our Savior God, even so far as to erect holy monasteries, and what are termed laurae.…
Evagrius here goes on a long tangent about the life and practices of the various anchorites near Jerusalem. Getting back to Eudocia, he concludes:
After having conversed with many persons of this description, and founded, as I have already said, many such seats of contemplation, and, besides, restored the walls of Jerusalem, the consort of Theodosius also erected a very large sanctuary, conspicuous for elevation and beauty, in honor of Stephen, the first of deacons and martyrs, distant less than a stadium from Jerusalem. Here her own remains were deposited, when she had departed to the unfading life.
Eudocia’s Church of Saint Stephen would later be destroyed by the Persians in AD 614, restored by Saint Sophronius and destroyed again in the aftermath of the Crusades. It would be rebuilt in the late 19th century by French Dominicans.

The above passages were taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius, Book I, Chapters XX through XXII, a work that is well worth reading for those interested in this period.

Later in her life, Eudocia became embroiled in the theological controversies surrounding the Council of Chalcedon. Uncertain of which side to follow, Eudocia wrote a letter seeking advice to one of the most famous saints of the age: Saint Simeon the Stylite. From atop his pillar, 60 feet off the ground, Saint Simeon responded to the Empress, and his letter has been preserved as follows:
Click for more info.
"Know, my child, that the devil, seeing the wealth of your virtues, sought to sift you as wheat; moreover, that corrupter Theodosius, having become the receptacle and instrument of the evil one, both darkened and disturbed your God-beloved soul. But be of good courage, for your faith has not left you. I wonder, however, exceedingly at this, that having the fountain close at hand you do not recognize it, but hasten to draw the water from afar. You have near by the inspired Euthymius; follow his counsels and admonitions, and it will be well with you." [Taken from The Life of Saint Simeon Stylites translated by Frederick Lent]
For the record, Saint Euthymius was a champion of Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

Though by most accounts a very devout Christian (and considered a saint in the Eastern Churches to this day), Eudocia retained the classical education imparted to her by her pagan father, Leontius, a teacher of rhetoric at Athens. She wrote poetry, including a lyrical rendering of the legendary passion of the early 4th century martyr saints, Cyprian and Justina. Here is an excerpt from this work which may, in fact, contain elements of Eudocia’s own conversion story:
Followers of Christ!
You who truly cherish in your hearts
the well-praised Savior,
see my streaming tears
and learn whence flows my grief.

And you who are still snared
in the dark illusions of idolatry,
mark what I relate of its lies and deceptions.
For never has one lived
more wholly devoted to false gods than I.

To none but me have the demoniac arts
been so deeply taught.

Yes, I am Cyprian, whom my parents
dedicated to Apollo as a child.

The orgiastic tumults of the festival
of the grey dragon were my lullaby.

At seven, I was presented
to the sun-god Mithras.

I lived in the glorious city of Athens
and as it pleased my parents, became its citizen.

When I had attained the age of ten,
I kindled the torch of Demeter
and immersed myself in Cora’s dirge.
I bore Palla’s serpent
to the citadel as a temple-lad.

Then, to the summit
of wooded mount Olympus
I climbed like the fools
who seek there the radiant habitation
of the holy gods.

I saw the hours and found there
the multitudinous winds,
day’s clamorous chorus,
and all the winged fantasies
in whose illusions life slips away….

Then, for the first time,
the demons’ weakness was revealed to me….
[Taken from: Teetgen: The Life and Times of the Empress Pulcheria, pp. 88-89.]
A more thorough biography of this fascinating late Roman woman, including a detailed look at the scandals that caused her exile from the Capital, may be found at the De Imperatoribus Romanis site here.

No comments: