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date: 29 May 2020

Pulcheria, Roman Augusta, 414–453 CE

Summary and Keywords

Pulcheria was a Roman empress in the early to mid-5th century ce, one of the sisters of the eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II (408–450). Pulcheria spent her entire life in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and its suburbs where she was a prominent public figure. She has been described as being influential in the First Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and as a significant founder of churches in Constantinople. Following the death of the childless Theodosius in 450, Marcian (450–457) became emperor and then married Pulcheria. Aged 55, Pulcheria died in Constantinople in July 453. Many ancient and modern interpretations of Pulcheria’s life rely heavily on later source material, with the result that she was more influential in historiography from the 6th century onward than in her own lifetime. She is portrayed very differently by two contemporary historians, Sozomen and Socrates Scholasticus. In Sozomen’s account, she is represented as managing the Roman Empire in the early part of Theodosius’ reign. Socrates Scholasticus, however, omits her from his history. These two different perspectives probably relate to conflict between Pulcheria and Eudocia, Theodosius’ wife from 421.

Keywords: Pulcheria, Augusta, Roman empress, Constantinople, 5th century ce, imperial family, Roman politics, historiography

Aelia Pulcheria was born in Constantinople on January 19, 399 ce, the daughter of the Roman emperor Arcadius (395–408) and Eudoxia. She was one of four sisters of Theodosius II, who was born two years later. Pulcheria was appointed Augusta on July 4, 414, at age 15. Portraits of her in this role were distributed throughout the Empire, and coins were minted showing her image on the obverse.


The histories of Socrates Scholasticus and Sozomen, both written in Constantinople in the mid-5th century, took very different approaches towards Pulcheria. Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History, published soon after 439, is complimentary to Eudocia but does not mention Pulcheria at all. About a decade later, Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History was published, also covering events up to 439. It has a long passage (HE 9.1) that is complimentary to Pulcheria but omits any mention of Eudocia and says very little about the reign of Theodosius II or events in Constantinople. Although Sozomen used Socrates’ History, which included much detail about Theodosius’ reign, he chose to omit material regarding Eudocia. There is no reason to prefer Sozomen to Socrates (or vice versa), so any description of Pulcheria must accommodate the perspectives of both historians.

Sozomen’s description of Pulcheria has three significant elements: her vow of virginity, her managing Theodosius’ education, and her management of the government of Theodosius. This account was incorporated into later Roman sources, including the Tripartite History of Theodore Lector, the Chronicle of Theophanes, and the Suda. Pulcheria took her vow of virginity, together with her sisters, before she was 15, a common practice among late antiquity wealthy Christians. At the same time as empowering her personally, the vow of virginity was a political act that promoted succession through the male line. Though this vow is often related to the cult of Mary, most modern scholarship suggests that this cult was only significant after Pulcheria’s lifetime. The statement that she guided the education of her younger brother Theodosius can be little more than a literary commonplace, since she was only two years older. Most importantly, Sozomen claims that she acted as ἐπίτροπος‎ (guardian or regent) of Theodosius. Under Roman law, any guardianship would have lasted only until Theodosius turned 14, in April 415, and so would have occurred when she was 14 to 16 years old herself. Sozomen and those later authors dependent upon him are the only sources for this guardianship, though Philostorgius does mention that she assisted Theodosius (HE 12.7). Modern perspectives on Sozomen’s claim about the regency vary, with some historians accepting it as showing she ruled the Roman state, while others are more sceptical. At any rate, the attention paid to her in 5th-century sources shows the increasing social and religious prominence of female members of the imperial household.

The events leading up to the marriage of Theodosius to Eudocia in 421 are described by the mid 6th-century writer Malalas, whose account was copied by the Chronicon Paschale. Malalas reports that Theodosius asked Pulcheria to find him a wife. Providentially, Eudocia arrived in Constantinople, was found suitable, and was married to Theodosius. Pulcheria’s role in introducing the two was well known. Once her brother was married, Pulcheria seems to have left the Great Palace. The mid-5th century Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae reports that Pulcheria had two residences, one in the Third Region of the city close to the Great Palace, the other in the Eleventh Region, near the Church of the Holy Apostles.

Pulcheria and Church Councils

Pulcheria has often been seen as a champion of pro-Chalcedonian Christian thought, on the basis of her opposition to Nestorius in the late 420s and her involvement with the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This is consistent with pro-Chalcedonian views of church politics in the 6th century but does not fit well with the primary source material from the 5th century. We are told that she clashed with Nestorius soon after his appointment as bishop of Constantinople in 428. The reason for this was that the imperial household in Constantinople had developed practices that appeared unusual to newcomers while worshipping at Hagia Sophia. Sozomen records the presence of a jewelled and inscribed altar cloth (HE 9.1), while the pro-Nestorian Ecclesiastical History of Barhadbeshabba and the Letter to Cosmas mention that Pulcheria demanded that her image be placed above the altar and that her altar cloth be used; Nestorius removed both the image and the altar cloth, upsetting her.

This personal enmity is often connected with the First Council of Ephesus, in June 431. The main cause of the Council was theological disputes between the Alexandrian and Antiochene churches, for which Nestorius’s actions provided a battleground. Despite her hostility to Nestorius, Pulcheria was not involved in this Council or in Theodosius’ decision to dismiss and then exile his bishop. Like Theodosius and the rest of the imperial family, she received letters from Bishop Cyril of Alexandria explaining his perspective, and members of her staff, like many others in Constantinople, received presents from him in an attempt to sway her to his side. These letters to female members of the imperial family show the contemporary perception that the emperor could be influenced by those around him. The same approach of sending letters to influential figures was taken by Cyril’s opponent, Theodoret, when he wrote to various figures in Constantinople c. 447, concerning taxation in his hometown of Cyrrhus. The addressees of these letters included Pulcheria, several magistrates, and Proclus, Patriarch of Constantinople (Epp. 42–47). In the eyes of contemporaries, Pulcheria was one of many figures worth appealing to. She is often presented in modern scholarship, on the basis of letters from Pope Leo requesting her help, as being opposed to the direction taken by bishop of Alexandria Dioscurus at the Second Council of Ephesus, in 449; similar letters were sent by Leo on the same day to Theodosius and to the archimandrites of Constantinople (Leo, Ep. 30–32). Despite Leo’s letters and any interventions by Pulcheria, it was Theodosius’ will that prevailed in 449, endorsing the position of Dioscurus.

Pulcheria was hostile to the eunuch spatharius (bodyguard) Chrysaphius, a hostility relevant to the relationship between Pulcheria and Eudocia. The 9th-century writer Theophanes, in his account of 447/448 (AM 5940), describes Chrysaphius pointing out to Eudocia that while Pulcheria had her own praepositus sacri cubiculi, she did not. Theophanes says that the emperor managed this provocation, but when Pulcheria heard that Theodosius (at the behest of Eudocia, who had been influenced by Chrysaphius) planned to make her a deaconess, she retired to the Hebdomon. Theophanes (like Malalas and the Chronicon Paschale) was better at weaving gossip and romance into a narrative than he was at analysing Roman imperial politics, and Marcellinus Comes explicitly asserts that Eudocia had left her husband and retired to Jerusalem by 444. However, the tensions between Eudocia and Pulcheria are reflected in the differing emphases of Socrates and Sozomen as well as in the romances and gossip recorded by Theophanes. Another fanciful story about Pulcheria comes from the 6th-century historian Theodore Lector, claiming that she exploited Theodosius’ habit of not reading papers before signing them to have him authorise the sale of Eudocia into slavery, a story repeated by Theophanes.

Pulcheria and Marcian

The childless Theodosius died in a riding accident on July 28, 450. Although there were no written rules for what happened in such a situation, the western emperor Valentinian III (423–455) was the senior Augustus and should have been consulted about the succession. He was either not consulted or no agreement was reached. Marcian was acclaimed as emperor in Constantinople on August 25, but it was not until spring 452 that Valentinian accepted Marcian as his imperial colleague. The earliest source tradition to preserve details comes from the 6th century, that of Malalas and the closely-related Chronicon Paschale. This records a discussion between the seriously ill Theodosius and Pulcheria, and then the magister militum Aspar, followed by Marcian’s proclamation by the Senate of Constantinople. Pulcheria married Marcian soon after he became emperor. Theodosius’ widow Eudocia would have been a stronger link to the previous emperor, but she preferred to remain in Jerusalem. By the time Evagrius was writing in the late 6th century, Pulcheria was being given greater prominence in the succession story, a tradition later reflected by Theophanes who claimed that Pulcheria had crowned Marcian. At the same time, anti-Chalcedonian sources attacked Pulcheria for betraying her vow of virginity by marrying Marcian.

Marcian attempted to resolve the theological disputes hanging over from Theodosius’ reign by summoning the Council of Chalcedon in September 451. Pulcheria, like the rest of the imperial family, received further letters from and wrote more letters to Pope Leo. Similarly, Theodoret thanked correspondents for bringing his point of view before the Emperor and Pulcheria (Theodoret, Ep. 139–140). The archival collections of this Council preserve a unique letter from Pulcheria to the governor of Bithynia (ACO 2.1.1, Ep. 15). Like all the other correspondence to and from Pulcheria, it suggests a chancery system sending out many similar letters, and though probably a new practice, there is nothing in this letter to suggest the empress was acting independently. The empress attended the sixth session of the Council with Marcian. Soon after the Council, she died, in July 453.

Pulcheria, Christian Patron

Throughout her life Pulcheria was an active patron of Christianity and, like many other wealthy inhabitants of 5th-century Constantinople, built churches, imported relics, and supported monks. Most of the evidence comes from later sources, with Theophanes (AM 5943) noting that “The blessed Pulcheria erected many different churches to Christ and notably, at the beginning of the reign of the pious Marcian, the church at Blachernae.” Several scholars have suggested that her role in church building has been exaggerated and, though there are sources that make her responsible for the building of the Church of the Theotokos Hodegetria and the Church of the Theotokos in Chalkoprateia, other sources suggest these were founded by later patrons. There are similar problems with her involvement in bringing relics to the city. Her role in the transfer within Constantinople of the relics of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste is firmly attested: Sozomen himself accompanied her in the procession (HE 9.2). Less certain is her involvement in bringing the Robe and the Girdle of the Virgin to Constantinople, attested only in post-5th-century sources. According to Theophanes (AM 5920), Theodosius sent a jewelled cross to Jerusalem “under the influence of Pulcheria” and in return received the relics of the protomartyr Stephen that arrived in Constantinople in 421. However, other evidence places the arrival of these relics in 439 or around 500. Whenever they arrived, they were housed in the Church of St. Laurentius in the Great Palace, completed by Pulcheria in 453.

Discussion of the Literature

The historiography of Pulcheria changed over time. In the 5th century, she was a both a highly public and controversial figure as shown by the different ways in which Sozomen and Socrates structured their accounts. By the 6th century, a standard interpretation of Pulcheria in pro-Chalcedonian sources had evolved, heavily based on Sozomen and supplemented by colourful anecdotes recorded in Theodore Lector and in Malalas. These episodes were then recopied by later writers including John of Nikiu, Theophanes, and eventually Nicephorus Callistus. This source tradition preferred anecdotes about the rich and famous to chronology and an understanding of imperial politics. It responded to but was also shaped by a tradition hostile to Pulcheria that appeared in 5th and 6th-century anti-Chalcedonian works such as the Life of Dioscurus and John Rufus’ Plerophoriae.

Much modern scholarship focusses on imperial women, which highlights the new public role played by late 4th to mid-5th-century Augustae. Another branch focusses on the Marian cult. Both of these approaches are heavily influenced by Sozomen’s account, usually adding to later material to draw a romantic picture of Pulcheria. More recently, other scholars have taken a more critical view of her role, focussing instead on the details of Roman government and the complexities of the developing source traditions. In all of this work, however, Pulcheria represents the increasing prominence of the women of the imperial family in the late 4th and 5th centuries, a consequence of imperial support for Christianity and of the increasing imperial association with Constantinople.

Primary Texts

Schaff, Philip. Socrates and Sozomenus: Ecclesiastical History.

Schaff, Philip. Leo the Great, Gregory the Great. Letters of Pope Leo.

Schaff, Philip. Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, & Rufinus: Historical Writings. Letters of Theodoret.


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