Few women have performed such indispensable service to the whole Church as Pulcheria, the late Roman empress who towered over sacred and secular affairs alike for the better part of half a century.
She was born in 399 living just past the mid-century. This was a period marked by two of the greatest heresies of the early Church—Nestorianism and Monophysitism. Pulcheria was to play a leading role not only in defeating both heresies, but also in putting the final stamp of orthodoxy on what Christians believe about the dual natures and single person of Christ.
Pulcheria lived in the sunset years of the old Roman Empire (its fall is traditionally dated to 476 AD). But she was in the Eastern Empire, which was at the beginning of a millennium-long arc through world history. Pulcheria presided over it all from the highest levels of society from an early age.
Pulcheria, whose traditional feast day is September 10, was the oldest daughter of the Eastern Emperor, Arcadius. A few years after he died, Pulcheria became the effective emperor for her brother, Theodosius II, who, at 13 years old, was too young to rule. Pulcheria herself was just 15 but she had “matured early and had great administrative ability,” as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it.
She was far more than just a substitute emperor for her brother. Pulcheria had a hand in every aspect of his upbringing: she was his teacher, foster parent, and imperial tutor. She supervised his education in everything from horsemanship to letters. She also personally instructed him in how to behave like an emperor, “showing him how to gather up his robes, and how to take a seat, and how to walk” (as recounted by early Church historian Sozomen). Pulcheria even went so far as to pick his wife for him.
All this is to say that even though her brother officially took over as emperor in 416, Pulcheria continued to exert an extraordinary influence (his marriage, for example, didn’t happen until 421). Pulcheria was to put this influence to the service of the Church as it confronted the first great heresy of that century, Nestorianism, which rejected Mary was the Mother of God and ultimately denied the full union of Christ’s human and divine natures.
The Nestorian controversy flared up in Constantinople at the end of 428 after its namesake, Nestorius first aired his heretical musings in a series of Christmas sermons. That sparked a fierce war of letters between Nestorius, who was patriarch of Constantinople, and his counterpart in Alexandria, Cyril.
It’s usually said that Nestorians was finally condemned as heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The real story of what happened is, of course, more complex. For one thing, there were actually two councils: the officially sanctioned one that upheld orthodoxy and a rump council convened by supporters of Nestorius. The official council sent its decrees to Emperor Theodosius, but so did the Nestorian one.
The emperor’s own household was divided: Pulcheria was firmly on the side of Cyril while his wife, Eudocia, favored Nestorius. Unable to decide, Theodosius took the extraordinary step of ratifying the decrees of both councils and then promptly had both Nestorius and Cyril incarcerated.
Eventually, the emperor warmed up to the orthodox view and Nestorius opted for retirement while Cyril was restored to his see. In this we can see, perhaps, the enduring influence of Pulcheria on her brother. “There is no doubt that the final acknowledgement by the emperor of the condemnation of Nestorius was largely due to Pulcheria,” declares the Catholic Encyclopedia in its entry on Pulcheria.
Pulcheria’s commitment to orthodox Christian teaching sprang from a profound personal piety. When she became empress, at the age of 15, she took a vow of virginity and her sisters followed suit. Pulcheria, her sisters, and her brother were committed to daily prayer, rising “early in the morning” to recite hymns to God, according to the ancient Church historian Socrates Scholasticus. The imperial palace, as he puts it, became “little different than a monastery.” (Pulcheria’s name, by the way, is from the Latin word for “beautiful.”)
After the Nestorian controversy had simmered down, Eudocia was able to take her revenge on Pulcheria, successfully exiling her from the imperial court in 439.
But her story doesn’t end there. Pulcheria was to have a second act in this, a most crucial century for deciding the shape of Christian orthodoxy for so many more to come. In 450, her brother died in a fall from a horse. Pulcheria swept back to power. (Eudocia was long gone at that point having been exiled in 442 on suspicion of adultery.)
Pulcheria’s return was just in time to address the rise of the Monophysite heresy—an over-reaction to the old Nestorian heresy that went in the opposite direction, insisting on such a close union between Christ’s human and divine natures that the distinction between them starts to become blurred.
Within a year of her return, the Council of Chalcedon was convened and Monophysitism was condemned. This time, as before, Pulcheria played a role both behind the scenes and publicly. Unlike before, she didn’t have the encumbrance of an indecisive and feckless brother.
It’s a great credit to Pulcheria’s theological acumen and spiritual insight that she was able to help the Church steer a course through the two heretical extremes of both Nestorianism and Monophysitism. Few women have wielded such influence in secular affairs, let alone in the religious realm.
In a way, Pulcheria is a virtuous version of the fated Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra. Both women remained forces to be reckoned with as a succession of male rulers faded in and out of the picture. Both were masters of imperial politics. And both proved to be a nearly irresistible influence on the men around them. For Cleopatra, it was the allure of her legendary beauty. For Pulcheria, it was the power of her inner beauty. Cleopatra was out for personal gain while Pulcheria served a higher purpose. Cleopatra’s story ended in the tragedy of suicide, while Pulcheria’s ended in the triumph of sainthood.