Empress Aelia Pulcheria

Empress Aelia Pulcheria

Roman Empress Aelia Pulcheria

Took over the Empire at age fifteen.

 (b. 399, d. 453. Empress 414 – 453)

coin showing image of Empress Aelia Pulcheria

When I researched my first novel (Selene of Alexandria) about Hypatia the Lady Philosophy, I ran across Pulcheria, the fifteen year old girl who outwitted the men of the Eastern court to become Empress and regent for her underage brother Theodosius II. Her early reign coincided with  my story and I used that in my plot. At the time I didn’t delve too deeply, but I made a note that I needed to learn more about this female prodigy. That’s how my infatuation with the Theodosian Women began.

Because Pulcheria is the protagonist of Dawn Empress, I won’t give too much away about her adult life and the plot of the story, but will give a sampling of her accomplishments—which were remarkable. Pulcheria represents in many ways the pinnacle of power that the Theodosian women attained. Daughter of the politically active Eudoxia and granddaughter of the saintly Flacilla, she emulated both and learned to wield power using the love of the people and the backing of the Church as her primary weapons. It’s what she used that power for that is the core of my novel.

As I mentioned in Eudoxia’s post, she had four children who survived in adulthood. Pulcheria, Arcadia, Theodosius, and Marina. They were orphaned young. Theodosius became emperor at age seven and Pulcheria was only nine. The boy emperor’s minority was a terribly fraught time. The Huns regularly raided the East. Persia, Rome’s traditional rival, threatened their borders.

In troubled times, ambitious men eye the throne occupied by a child and calculate their chances of successful regime change. An unscrupulous man or cabal of men might have arranged—with few consequences—any number of quiet ways to get rid of the child emperor, as has happened down through the centuries. I’m sure Pulcheria was acutely aware of these possibilities. Fear, insecurity, and lack of control probably dogged her childhood and shaped her actions into adulthood.

However, the imperial children lucked out when the Eastern Prefect Anthemius “the Great,” took over the government as regent and guardian. He saw that the children were well-cared for, educated, and prepared for their roles. Of course, he saw Pulcheria’s role as one of marriage—preferably into Anthemius’ family. The people acclaimed him as a fair man who loved his city and administered the Eastern Empire well. Anthemius built the famous walls around Constantinople that stood against enemies for a thousand years.

Even if she appreciated Anthemius’ fair dealing, Pulcheria likely felt that the only person who could adequately protect her brother and his rule, was herself. She certainly didn’t want to be sidelined with a marriage in which a mature husband might prove a threat to her young brother. Given her mother Eudoxia’s fate, she probably didn’t want children which might be a threat to her own life.

With her brother’s consent and the help of the Church, Pulcheria and her sisters took vows of chastity and dedicated their virginity to their brother’s rule. They lived as holy women, but not under any churchman’s rule, neatly maintaining their freedom from noble men and the Church. When she came of age at fifteen, Theodosius declared Pulcheria Empress, regent, and chief councilor. She took over the government and only let go when she was on the outs with her brother—which happened a couple of times over his long reign.

Pulcheria felt Theodosius was particularly susceptible to undue influence and was constantly on guard against it, causing most of the conflict between her beloved brother and herself. Some might even argue that Pulcheria WAS a threat to her brother, stifling his abilities and usurping his authority, but I doubt that she would agree. She was fierce and determined in her love for her brother, the people of Constantinople, and the orthodox Church which made her a saint. Her feast day is September 10.

As a side note, the imperial princesses Arcadia and Marina are technically Theodosian Women, but they were so overshadowed by their older sister, that they left no legacy other than their devotion to her and their brother. In my novel, I gave them a little more agency and personality, but it’s all fiction. They sadly left no clues in history to tell their own stories.

Next up is Empress Aelia Eudocia, known as Athenais before she converted to Christianity and married Theodosius II.

Image of Pulcheria on a coin licensed through Creative Common by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4995486

Empress Thermantia

Empress Thermantia

Roman Empress Thermantia

Married an Emperor. Divorced a virgin.

 (b. 386/7, d. 415, Empress 408) 

pendant of Empress Maria

Thermantia had one of the shortest stints as empress of all the Theodosian women. Her sister Maria’s body was barely cold  when her parents Stilicho and Serena forced her to marry Emperor Honorius in 408. He divorced her within the year and sent her back to her mother who resided in Rome. As I explained in the piece on Maria, Honorius was either uninterested in and/or incapable of having sex, so Thermantia, like her late sister left the marriage a virgin.

These were turbulent times and it wasn’t certain that Thermantia would survive the marriage or the divorce. Honorius executed her father and brother in 408. The senate in Rome executed her mother in 409 for treason while the Goths laid siege to the city. I tell my version of Thermantia’s flight from Ravenna and her mother’s death in my upcoming prequel Becoming the Twilight Empress.

Her tenure as empress was so short, we don’t have a coin or statue showing Thermantia’s image. The picture I used is of an “unknown roman girl.” Our main clue to Thermantia’s disgrace  and possible irrelevancy, is when the Goths took the city in 410, they didn’t take her hostage. The ex-wife of the emperor wasn’t considered valuable leverage.

There were two other imperial ladies in residence in Rome at the time: Emperor Gratian’s widow Laeta and her mother Tisamene, but the Goths ignored all these potential hostages and took Princess Placidia. Thermantia died “in obscurity” in 415 and was likely buried with her sister in the imperial mausoleum. A sad end to a short sad life.

Up next: The prodigy Empress Aelia Pulcheria, who took over rule of the East at the tender age of fifteen.

Image of unknown roman girl available through Creative Commons licensed By Mary Harrsch from Springfield, Oregon, USA – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92418629

Empress Maria

Empress Maria

Roman Empress Maria

Married an emperor. Died a virgin.

(b. 384/5,  d. 407, Empress 398-407)

pendant of Empress Maria

There’s not much more to tell of poor Maria’s story. She was the oldest daughter of Serena and Stilicho and had no say in her marriage to her first cousin once-removed Emperor Honorius. He was fourteen and she younger. Her power-couple parents wanted a grandson who would be emperor and she was available. We don’t have any proven images of Maria, but we do have a fanciful description by Claudian that he wrote to celebrate her marriage:

“Redder than roses thy lips, whiter than the hoar-frost they neck, cowslips are not more yellow than thine hair, fire not more bright than thine eyes…” and it goes on.

Zosimus related a likely apocryphal story claiming Serena thought Maria too young “for the married state” and subjecting her to “the embraces of a man was offering violence to nature.” In order to avoid that fate, Serena drugged her new son-in-law so he would be incapable of having sex with his under-age wife. This was how people of the times explained that Maria died a virgin—nine years later.

A much more likely explanation is that Honorius was uninterested and/or incapable because of a hormone imbalance or some other physical disability. There was no gossip about extra-marital sex partners of any gender. Later there was a scandal and (likely untrue) rumors of incest because he kissed and fondled his half-sister Placidia. The faction that spread those rumors orchestrated Placidia’s banishment, so they should be taken with a large helping of salt. The descriptions of Honorius as a young man are not near as flattering as those for Maria, generally describing him as soft, effete, unfinished with only a wispy beard, and languid of temperament. His abiding passion seemed to be a flock of chickens or other fowl.

Maria died young in her early twenties, so she likely also had some physical frailties leaving her susceptible to fevers or consumption which might have affected her fertility. She does have the distinction of having the only preserved burial of the Theodosian line. Her disappointed and sorrowful parents buried her with full imperial pomp in the imperial mausoleum connected to Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. When that structure was demolished in 1544 to make way for the new St. Peter’s, they discovered Maria’s sarcophagus, buried under the floor in a niche with over sixty precious objects of gold, silver and jewels, including the pendent in the image bearing the names of Maria and her family.

The pendant reads, around a central cross (clockwise): HONORI MARIA SERHNA VIVATIS STELICHO and (on the reverse) STELICHO SERENA THERMANTIA EUCHERI VIVATIS.

Coming up next: Empress Thermantia, Maria’s unlucky sister.

Image of a pendant found in her coffin, available through Creative Commons licensed by  PHGCOM – photographed at the Musee du Louvre. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2654677

Empress Galla Placidia

Empress Galla Placidia

Roman Empress Galla Placidia

Taken by the Goths during the sack of Rome.

(b. 388-90 d. 450 Empress: 421-450)

Coin image of Empress Galla Placidia

The sole surviving child of Theodosius and Galla, Placidia led a storied life which I chronicle in my novel Twilight Empress. Because I cover her adulthood in my book, I’ll just provide the bones here and fill in with information that I had to cut from the novel for brevity. One of the first things we learn about the little princess is that her oldest brother Arcadius was jealous. OR that the nobles and eunuchs who surrounded him didn’t want the Empress Galla in charge of her weak-minded stepson.

When Galla brought her infant daughter Placidia to Constantinople while Theodosius was on campaign, she clashed with her stepson and ended up leaving the imperial palace for a separate residence. In spite of Arcadius’ dislike, his father doted on the little girl. He provided Placidia with her own palace and gave her the title nobilissima puella (“most noble girl”—the closest Roman title to princess).

Her father also made sure Placidia rode in a procession with her brothers, who were named co-emperors, wearing matching cloth of gold and a radiate headdress, showing the people of Constantinople that Theodosius felt his daughter equal to his sons in worth and affection. The historians claim that Arcadius continued to hold a grudge against the little girl and she did not return to Constantinople after her father’s death in 395. She finally returned when she was an adult with children of her own. That rift between the oldest son of Flacilla and the daughter of Galla continued for many decades until it was resolved in a traditional way: marriage (see Licinia Eudoxia coming up).

Orphaned as a young girl of six or seven, Placidia and her brother Honorius were taken into Serena and Stilicho’s household where they were educated in traditional Roman and orthodox Christian values. Some historians believe that during this time Placidia came to resent her cousin/foster mother, feeling that Serena shunted her aside. We have no direct evidence of this, only the fact that Placidia did sign Serena’s death warrant in 409 when the barbarians were at the gates of Rome. As I mentioned in the Serena post, I propose an alternative motive in my prequel Becoming the Twilight Empress. 

Gothic King Alaric and his brother-in-law General Ataulf laid siege to Rome three times in three years and Emperor Honorius did little to help the city or his female relatives residing there. Finally in 410, the Goths entered the gates in triumph and took Placidia hostage for the next five years until she married Ataulf in a lavish imperial-style wedding. Ataulf had become King upon Alaric’s death. Supposedly it was a love match and Placidia bore Ataulf a son named Theodosius who died in infancy.

The couple sent gifts and pledges of loyalty to Emperor Honorius, but he rebuffed them. He sent General Constantius to bring his wayward sister and her upstart barbarian husband to heel. 

During the next decades Placidia—Gothic Queen and Roman Empress—would bear two more children to her second husband Constantius III: a daughter Empress Justa Grata Honoria and a son Emperor Valentinian III. She faced tragic loss, led armies, executed usurpers, and ruled as regent for her underage son all while staving off constant barbarian incursions, rebellious generals, and family betrayals. When she died in 450, Empress Placidia was buried in the family mausoleum on the site of the old St. Peter’s Basilica, next to the tiny silver coffin of her first-born, the son of her great love King Ataulf of the Goths.

Fun Fact: Alice Krige played Placidia in the 2001 two-part TV series Attila with Gerard Butler playing the infamous King of the Huns. Krige, a prolific actress, also played the Borg Queen in the Star Trek series.

Coming up next: Empress Maria, Placidia’s cousin and sister-in-law.

Image of single solidus face featuring Galla Placidia available through Creative Commons and licensed by Sailko. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40866956

Empress Aelia Eudoxia

Empress Aelia Eudoxia

Roman Empress Aelia Eudoxia

Jezebel of the East?

(b.?, d. 404, Empress 395-404)

Coin image of Empress Aelia Eudoxia

Was she or wasn’t she? It depends on whether you’re a modern historian who admires assertive women or a fifth century bishop. Eudoxia was the attractive daughter of a Romanized Frankish General and—initially—a pawn in a palace intrigue. After Theodosius’ death in early 395, his oldest son Arcadius became co-Emperor in Constantinople. The nobles and palace eunuchs schemed for control of the “lethargic” emperor. The eastern Prefect had a marriageable daughter, but the chief eunuch of the imperial household got there first. Before Theodosius’ body could arrive in Constantinople for burial, the eunuch’s choice, Eudoxia, married the new emperor while the prefect was out of town.

Once in power, Eudoxia proved she was no longer a pawn. She modeled herself on her dead mother-in-law, the sainted Flacilla, taking her nomen Aelia, and proving her fertility by having five living children. After three daughters, she finally gave birth to a male heir Theodosius II. Her oldest daughter Flacilla died young, but Pulcheria, Arcadia, and Marina lived well into adulthood and I chronicle their stories in Dawn Empress: A Novel of Imperial Rome.

Also like her predecessor, she turned her eyes to the Church to enhance the imperial reign. Eudoxia lavished money on silver candle sticks and acquired saints’ relics to adorn the churches, but she went a step beyond Flacilla. Instead of serving the poor and destitute, Eudoxia engaged in politics directly affecting Church doctrine. When Arcadius’ advisors refused a petition from prominent Churchmen to demolish a pagan temple in Gaza, she arranged for her infant son to grant the request. She ordered her agent to “demolish to their foundations all temples of idols.”

In spite of these and other “good deeds” she ran afoul of the Bishop of Constantinople who considered her arrogant and greedy. And the nobles she bested didn’t like having an uppity woman in control of the emperor either. They openly gossiped about the parentage of the young heir, and named a favorite courtier of Eudoxia’s, Count John, as the true baby-daddy. That gossip still shows up in the history books, but without a paternity test, we can’t know the truth.

Bishop Chrysostom denounced the empress as a modern Jezebel, the embodiment of queenly evil, but he didn’t like women much. He preached against women taking on any role other than one of subservience. When the city prefect erected a silver statue of Eudoxia before the senate house, Chrysostom thundered another sermon, this time comparing the empress to Herodias who aimed “to have the head of John on a platter.” Eudoxia had him banished.

Unfortunately, Eudoxia didn’t have long to relish her victory. She died of a miscarriage on October 6, 404, but left a potent legacy for her daughter Pulcheria, when she came to power.

Coming up next: Empress Galla Placidia, the Twilight Empress, daughter of Theodosius.

Coin image available through Creative Commons, licensed By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47717643

Princess Serena

Princess Serena

Roman Princess Serena

Executed for treason.

(b. ?, d. 409)

Roman Princess Serena

Theodosius took his niece Serena into his household when his brother Honorius died. She became a powerful influence on him. He called her “daughter” and it’s said she was the only person who could soothe his frequent rages. To keep his best general Stilicho closely allied, he married him to Serena in 384. In spite of Stilicho spending much time in the field fending off invading Goths, they had three children: Maria, Thermantia, and Eucherius.

By all accounts it was a successful marriage between two astute political operators. When Theodosius died, he left his minor children (Emperor Arcadius in the East, Emperor Honorius and Princess Placidia in the West) in their care. Here’s where things get complicated. The noblemen and eunuchs of the Eastern court didn’t want the half-barbarian Stilicho anywhere near their dim-witted Emperor. Stilicho couldn’t run the entire empire as regent without their cooperation, so he retired to the West and left them to fight the Goths on their own.

In the meantime, Serena developed a “wicked step-mother” image—at least in later historian’s eyes. She promoted her own children by marrying her eldest daughter Maria to Honorius when they were just fourteen. When Maria died, she married Thermantia to Honorius and arranged an engagement between her son Eucherius and Princess Placidia. Some historians believed she stifled Honorius and Placidia and shunted them aside at court. Supposedly, they hated her for it which had dire consequences later.

Honorius was only slightly more capable than his older brother. When he came of age, he also came under the influence of an anti-barbarian faction at his court. He executed Stilicho and his son, murdered the Arian wives and children of his barbarian auxiliary troops, and divorced Thermantia. Serena, as his first cousin, was spared and she retired to Rome with her remaining child. The Goths, bolstered by thousands of vengeful Roman-trained auxiliaries invaded Italy and laid siege to Rome while Honorius stayed safe behind the sheltering swamps of Ravenna.

Panic roiled the streets of Rome. Rumors flew that Serena sympathized with the barbarians because of her marriage to Stilicho and she planned to open the gates to the invaders. A delegation of senators appealed to Placidia who also was in residence. She signed her cousin/foster mother’s death warrant. Serena was strangled (the traditional way of executing enemies of the state) in 409.

Most historians agree that the accusations against Serena were false and assumed Placidia’s motives for signing the death warrant were dislike or jealousy. I have an alternative theory which I explore in an upcoming novella Becoming the Twilight Empress.

Coming up next: Empress Aelia Eudoxia, married Theodosius’ son Arcadius.

Cropped image of ivory triptych showing Serena, Stilicho, and Eugenius; in the Public Domain.