Virgin Empress Ascends Byzantine Throne

After her brother Theodosius II is killed in a hunting accident, Pulcheria, daughter of Eastern Roman Emperor Arcadius, became empress of the Byzantine Empire on this day in 450. Though she took a vow of virginity, she later married Illyrian senator Marcian, who was crowned emperor.

Born Aelia Pulcheria in 398 or 399, Pulcheria was the second child of Eastern Roman Emperor Arcaius and his wife, Empress Aelia Eudoxia. When Arcadius died in 408, Pulcheria’s younger brother, Theodosius II, at just seven years old, was made Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. Several years later on 4 July 414, Pulcheria proclaimed herself, then 15, regent over her brother, then 13. As such, the Roman senate made Pulcheria Augusta in 414, as well as Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Pulcheria also took a vow of virginity, and persuaded her sisters to do the same. This may have been due to her deeply religious nature, as well as to her desire to prevent conflict over the throne by ensuring no heirs would be produced other than through Theodosius and his future wife. But this was not to be. While hunting on horseback one day, Theodosius fell from his horse and injured his spine. Two days later, on 26 July 450, he died from his injuries. On 26 August 450, a month after her brother’s death, Pulcheria became sole empress of the Byzantine Empire. But the Roman senate would not have a woman as sole ruler of the empire. Despite her vow of virginity, Pulcheria was forced to marry and co-rule with a new husband. Illyrian senator Marcian, a tribune and close associate of the Germanic general Aspar, was chosen, and the two married, making Marcian emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. Through a series of rituals and Church approvals, Pulcheria, then in her 60s, was able to keep her vow of virginity.

As empress, Pulcheria was known to have been extremely powerful, especially over theological practices and Church matters. She was known as an advocate in anti-pagan policies, church construction projects, and debate over Theotokos, the Greek title of Mary. Pulcheria died, most likely of natural causes, in the year 453. She was beloved by the people of Constantinople and her death came as a shock to them. Wrote Pulcheria scholar Kenneth G. Holum in 1982, “Mention of her death in the chronicles confirms that her passing, like that of Flacilla, struck like an earthquake in the dynastic city. Unlike Eudocia, she lived out her life in Constantinople and its suburbs, forming a bond with its people with even death could not sever.”