PULCHERIA (399-453) (Aelia Pulcheria)

Augusta, eldest daughter of Emperor Arcadius (383-408). She showed such a precocious ability that on 4 July 414 she was given the title of Augusta and became the regent for her brother, II. Her strong, if self- willed, personality acted as a foil to the more sensitive yet not unstatesmanlike qualities of her brother. Deeply religious by nature, Pulcheria, who resolved to remain a virgin, was on excellent terms with Patriarch Atticus (406-427) of Constantinople.

While in no way opposed to the choice of NESTORIUS as patriarch in 428, she moved progressively toward support of CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA during the crisis surrounding the Council of EPHESUS. She and Eudocia, Theodosius’ wife, were recipients of a memorial by Cyril justifying his Christology, particularly by reference to the eucharistic sacrifice. This remained Pulcheria’s position. From 430 on her influence on the court of was supreme, and she gradually ousted Eudocia, her onetime protégée, from influence, until the latter withdrew in semiexile to Jerusalem in 444. About that time, however, Pulcheria’s control was threatened by the emperor’s grand chamberlain, Chrysaphius, who influenced the emperor in the more strongly Monophysite direction represented by DIOSCORUS I of Alexandria and the archimandrite EUTYCHES.

In the great crisis of 449-451 that led to the Council of CHALCEDON, Pulcheria gave consistent support to the anti- Monophysite cause. She supported Patriarch Flavian against Eutyches. The papal legates to Ephesus II (449) took with them letters from Leo to Pulcheria (Letters 30 and 31) assuring her that a vital principle was at stake in what appeared to be an abstruse wrangle. After the victory of Dioscorus at the council, Leo treated Pulcheria as his principal lifeline to the imperial court. In March 450 he corresponded with her, accepting her assurance of opposition to Ephesus II (Letter 60), and in July told her that he would recognize the choice of Dioscorus as patriarch of Constantinople if Anatolius would accept Cyril’s second letter to Nestorius and Leo’s Tome (Letter 70). The outcome of these proposals was never tested, for died suddenly, after a hunting accident, on 28 July 450, before the pope’s delegates could reach Constantinople.

Pulcheria immediately resumed the power she had been losing to Chrysaphius. The latter found himself arrested and was subsequently executed. An elderly, distinguished Thracian soldier, Marcian, was chosen as emperor, and Pulcheria married him to become his consort (24 August 450). During the next months she worked toward, first, the undoing of the decisions of Ephesus II, and second, for a new ecumenical council that would settle the Christological issue along the lines of the Tome of Leo and Cyril’s doctrine as accepted in the formula of the reunion of 433. The council delayed first by the threat from the Huns, and then by the change of location from Nicaea to Chalcedon, met on 10 451. Pulcheria accompanied her husband for the formal promulgation of the Christological definition on 25 October.

After the council Pulcheria received letters from Leo thanking her for her steadfastness in the faith but also asserting his opposition to 28 (Letters 105 and 106); however, there is no reason to think that she accepted the papal viewpoint regarding the ecclesiastical status of Constantinople. On the other hand, her commitment to the two-nature Christology made her a target for abuse from the anti-Chalcedonians. To Rufus in his Plerophoriae (early sixth century), Pulcheria was a “false virgin,” and her husband was denounced as “the new Assyrian.” She died in 453, leaving her goods to the poor.

Like her kinswoman Galla Placidia, Pulcheria was extremely able, and shared responsibility for policies that enabled the eastern provinces to survive practically unscathed the disasters that befell the West. Her influence over her brother’s education and religion is not doubted. Her letters preserved in Leo’s correspondence suggest that she may have been more propapal than most other Latin-speaking artistocrats in Constantinople. Pulcheria was one of the principal architects of the Council of Chalcedon, and the results corresponded with her consistently held views. Not unnaturally, the anti- regarded her as an opponent, while to the Latins she was a saint.

  • Ensslin, W. “Pulcheria.” In Real-Encyclopadie, Vol. 23. Stuttgart, 1959.
  • Goubert, P. “Saint Pulcherie et Chrysaphaios.” In Das Konzil von Chalcedon, ed. A. Grillmeier and H. Bacht, Vol. 1. Würzburg, 1951.
  • Kirsch, J. P. “Pulcheria.” In The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 12, New York, 1913.
  • Schwartz,   E.   “Die    Kaiserin    Pulcheria    auf    der   Synode   von Chalcedon.” In Festgabe für A. Julicher. Tübingen, 1927. Sellers, R. V. The Council of Chalcedon. London, 1961.

W. H. C.