September 10: Saint Pulcheria, Virgin (A.D. 453)
It is characteristic of the important part played in religious and ecclesiastical affairs by the Byzantine Roman emperors and of the influence of women at the imperial court (an influence not always, perhaps not even generally, for good) that the fathers of the epoch-making Council of Chalcedon should have hailed the Empress Pulcheria as "Guardian of the faith, peacemaker, religious right-believer, a second St. Helena"--for these were not simply the flowery compliments of oriental bishops who knew from experience the importance of keeping the good-will of the imperial sovereign.
Pulcheria was granddaughter to Theodosius the Great and daughter to the Emperor Arcadius, who died in the year 408. She was born in 399, and had three sisters, Flacilla, who was the eldest but died soon, and Arcadia and Marina, who were younger than Pulcheria. Arcadius left a son, Theodosius II, who was mild, humane and devout, incapable in public affairs, and not sufficiently strong for his position; he was more interested in writing and painting than in the art of government, and was nicknamed "the Calligrapher". In the year 414 Pulcheria, though only fifteen years of age, was declared, in the name of her young brother, augusta and partner with him, and charged with the care of his instruction.
Under Pulcheria's control the court was an improvement on what it had been in the days of her mother, who had incurred the wrath of St. John Chrysostom. On becoming augusta, Pulcheria made a vow of perpetual virginity and induced her sisters to do the same. Her motive for doing this was probably not even primarily, much less wholly, religious: she was a realistic young woman of affairs, and she did not want her political administration upset and perhaps her brother to lose his throne through the aspirations of ambitious men to marry her or the princesses her sisters. But neither was the vow devoid of religion; she had called on God to be her witness and she did not take His name in vain: she kept her vow, even after she was in fact married. But to represent the court at this time as a sort of monastery is an exaggeration: the spectacle of the young princesses spending much time spinning and embroidering and in church was nothing out of the ordinary and if Pulcheria forbade men access to her own and her sisters' apartments that was a measure of elementary prudence--tongues will wag and Byzantine court officials were not consistently well behaved. We get the impression of a united and busy family, of which the main domestic concern was the education and training of the young Theodosius. Unfortunately, like so many more than ordinarily capable people, Pulcheria was too self-sufficient, and she (perhaps unconsciously at first) took advantage of her brother's lack of enthusiasm for public affairs: the result was that he grew up virtuous and scholarly but no ruler. As it has been caustically put, "His incapacity for business was so great that he is hardly accused of having augmented the misfortunes of his reign by his own acts--or the predominant good fortunes either, which can mostly be put down to St. Pulcheria. Both her thoroughness and her brother's indifference are illustrated by the story that on one occasion, in order to test him, Pulcheria drew up and presented to him a decree of death against herself. He signed it without reading it.
When the time came for Theodosius to marry, Pulcheria had again in view the avoidance of political complications and, it must be admitted, perhaps the safeguarding of her own ascendancy, which certainly in the circumstances was for the good of the state. Her choice fell on Athenais, the beautiful and highly accomplished daughter of an Athenian philosopher, who was still a pagan. She was acceptable to Theodosius and had no objection to becoming a Christian, so in 421 they were married. Two years later Theodosius declared Athenais, or Eudokia as she had been christened, augusta. It was inevitable that the Augusta Eudokia should sooner or later attempt to undermine the influence of her sister-in-law, the Augusta Pulcheria, and she worked on her feeble husband till at length Pulcheria was forced into exile at Hebdomon. This lasted for some years. We may well believe that, as Alban Butler says, St. Pulcheria "looked upon her retreat as a favor of Heaven and consecrated all her time to God in prayer and good works. She made no complaint of her brother's ingratitude, of the empress who owed everything to her, or of their unjust ministers." And no doubt she would have been glad "both to forget the world and to be forgotten by it," but for the fact that she had responsibilities in respect of that great part of the world whose metropolis was at Constantinople. For a time things went fairly well, but about the year 441 came the fall of Eudokia. She was accused, probably unjustly, of infidelity with a handsome but gouty officer named Paulinus, and she was exiled to Jerusalem, under the guise of a pilgrimage. She never came back. There was a general shuffling of offices at court, and Pulcheria was recalled; but not to her old position of control: this was now held by Chrysaphius, an old supporter of Eudokia. Under his administration the Eastern empire went from bad to worse in ten years.
Under pressure from this man, and with a fine disregard for theological consistency seeing that he had formerly favored Nestorius, Theodosius gave support to Eutyches and the Monophysite heresy. In 449 Pope St. Leo the Great appealed to St. Pulcheria and to the emperor to reject Monophysism, and the answer of Theodosius was to approve the acts of the "Robber Synod" of Ephesus, and to drive St. Flavian from the see of Constantinople. Pulcheria was firmly orthodox, but her influence with her brother had been weakened. The pope wrote again, and the archdeacon of Rome, Hilarus, wrote, and the Western emperor, Valentinian III, with Eudoxia his wife (Theodosius II's daughter) and Galla Placidia, his mother--and amid all these appeals Theodosius II suddenly died, killed by a fall from his horse while hunting.
St. Pulcheria, now fifty-one years old, nominated as emperor a veteran general of humble origin, seven years older than herself. His name was Marcian; he was a native of Thrace, and a widower. Pulcheria, judging it would be of advantage to the state and secure his title to the purple, proposed to marry him, on condition she should be at liberty to keep her vow of virginity. Marcian agreed, and these two governed together like two friends who had in all things the same views and sentiments, which centered in the advancement of religion and the public weal. They welcomed the legates sent by St. Leo to Constantinople, and their zeal for the Catholic faith earned the highest commendations of that pope and of the Council of Chalcedon which, under their protection, condemned the Monophysite heresy in 451. They did their utmost to have the decrees of this synod executed over all the East, but failed lamentably in Egypt and Syria. St. Pulcheria wrote herself two letters, one to certain monks, another to an abbess of nuns in Palestine, to convince them that the Council of Chalcedon did not (as was averred) revive Nestorianism, but condemned that error together with the opposite heresy of Eutyches. Twice already, in 414 and 443, Pulcheria had been responsible for remissions of arrears of unpaid taxes, covering a period of sixty years, and she and her husband followed a policy of low taxation and as little warfare as possible. The admirable spirit in which they undertook their duties was expressed by Marcian in his dictum, "It is our business to provide for the care of the human race." But the excellent partnership lasted only three years, for in July 453 St. Pulcheria died.
This great empress built many churches, and among them three in honor of the all-holy Mother of God, namely, those of Blakhernae, Khalkopratia and the Hodegetria, that were among the most famous Marian churches of Christendom. In the last she placed a famous picture of the Blessed Virgin, which had been sent from Jerusalem as the reputed work of St. Luke the Evangelist. She and Theodosius II were the first rulers of Constantinople who were Greek rather than Latin she encouraged the establishment of a university there, with an emphasis on Greek literature and the recognition of Greek as an official language, which her brother carried out; and she gauged the needs of rulers and people for fixed principles of law which were met by the Code of Theodosius. If we consider her actions and virtues we shall see that the commendations which St. Proclus, in his panegyric on her, Pope St. Leo, and the Council of Chalcedon, bestowed on this empress were, so far from being compliments or mere eloquence, thoroughly well deserved. St. Pulcheria is named on this day in the Roman Martyrology, having been inserted by Cardinal Baronius, a happier and more worthy addition than some that we owe to that venerable and learned scholar; her feast is kept by the Greeks, and at one time she had a certain cultus in the West, her feast being observed, e.g. throughout Portugal and the kingdom of Naples.
Herbert Thurston, S.J. and Donald Attwater, Butler's Lives of the Saints (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1956), vol. 3, pp.528-531.