As mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, St. Helena bore the honorary rank of Empress. But St. Pulcheria, eldest daughter of Emperor Arcadius of the Eastern Roman Empire, actually ruled her domain, and at the same time was defender of its Faith.
When Arcadius died in 408, his son and successor, Theodosius II, was only seven years old. Pulcheria was six years older. In 414, when she still was only fifteen, but remarkably mature and capable, she was given the title “Augusta” (Empress) and appointed regent, to act with and in the name of her brother. For ten years she and Theodosius ruled together. Pulcheria meanwhile took a private vow of virginity, and urged her sisters to do likewise. This was an act of political prudence as well as devotion for it reduced the number of Theodosius’ nieces and nephews who might intrigue for his throne.
Efficient Pulcheria trained her brother in piety and gentleness, but probably not enough in leadership; for the young emperor proved to be better at painting than at ruling. Indeed, his sister once showed him his political indifference by a test. She submitted to him a decree ordering her own execution. He signed it without reading. Then she showed him what a blunder he had committed.
In 421, Theodosius married Eudokia; and two years later declared her “Augusta”, i.e., co-ruler as his sister had been. Eudokia was jealous of Pulcheria, and soon engineered her exile. The deposed Augusta accepted the exile without complaint or contest. In 441 Eudokia herself fell into disfavor and was exiled once and for all. Pulcheria was recalled to court around 449, although her status as ruler was not then restored.
Hitherto, Theodosius II, in his typically careless way, had shown favor for the heresy of Nestorius, who was teaching that in Jesus after the incarnation there was not only a divine and human nature, but a divine and a human person! On the other hand, Theodosius, in the late 440s, was wheedled into supporting the heresy of Monophysitism, which taught just the opposite: that in Jesus after the incarnation there was only one nature, a sort of amalgam of the divine and the human. Christian leaders, from the pope down, protested the emperor’s protection of these errors. Fortunately for the Faith, Theodosius II died of a hunting accident in 450.
Pulcheria, now 51, was again proclaimed Augusta. She named the widowed general Marcian to be coruler with her. She married him on the understanding that he would respect her vow of virginity. Marcian and Pulcheria made a good team. One of their most important acts was to sponsor the fourth ecumenical council. Held at Chalcedon in 451, this council condemned both Nestorionism and Monophysitism.
Like St. Helena, St. Pulcheria built many churches, three of them honoring the mother of God. As a Greek rather than a Latin, she encouraged the establishment of a university at Constantinople (now Istanbul) to foster Greek literary culture. It was, of course, expected of bishops then that they praise the Christian emperors and empresses. But the praise given to Pulcheria by St. Proclus, Pope St. Leo the Great, and the prelates attending the Council of Chalcedon, was no formality but a heartfelt tribute.
This royal laywoman who combined so well high rank and humility, political expertise and zeal for religion, personal devotion and public piety, is properly venerated as a saint not only among Mideast Christians but in the Latin part of the Church to which most of us belong.
--Father Robert F. McNamara