One Empress Shaped Catholicism 1,600 Years Ago

pulcheria, the power behind theodosius ii's throne, influenced church's position on virgin mary

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Veneration of the Virgin Mary owes largely to Pulcheria. In the 5th century CE, she revolutionized the Catholic Church and its practices. How did this Roman empress forever alter Catholicism?

In the 4th century CE, the Roman empire split in two. A century later, the dynasty of Theodosius faced trouble when the ruling emperor, Arcadius, died while his son Theodosius II was just seven years old—clearly too young to rule. Arcadius’s daughter, Pulcheria, took the reins and established the honoring of the Virgin Mary that Catholicism is often known for today.

How did this historic event come to pass from such an inauspicious precedent? In her video series Warriors, Queens, and Intellectuals: 36 Great Women before 1400, Dr. Joyce E. Salisbury, Professor Emerita of Humanistic Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, connects the dots.

The Woman behind the Throne

“When her grandfather, Theodosius the Great, had established the Roman Catholic Church as the only permitted religion, he united religion and rule,” Dr. Salisbury said. “With his action, people believed that God was on the side of the House of Theodosius, and his family claimed to rule with God’s blessing.

“The idea that God supported the Theodosian dynasty helped the women of the House of Theodosius rule, because they ruled by the blessing of God, not by the strength of their military power.”

Pulcheria took a public vow of virginity and insisted her sisters do the same thing. At one of the biggest churches in Constantinople, she donated an altar and had it inscribed with her vow. This ensured her baby brother’s reign since the only other challenger to it would be if Pulcheria or her sisters bore a son. She groomed her sisters and brother while they grew, and when Theodosius II began his rule, she continued to help make decisions behind the scenes.

“Throughout his reign, Pulcheria spent large amounts of money on public charitable foundations, and through these, she became very popular with the people of Constantinople,” Dr. Salisbury said. “Pulcheria founded churches and monasteries, but she also provided refuges for beggars and the homeless, and provided generously for their support from her personal funds.”

All Due Respect

A newly appointed archbishop named Nestorius, who was also ardently sexist, inadvertently led to the high profile of Mary in Catholicism. It began when he sought to restrict the influence of Constantinople’s noblewomen, forbade women to participate in the evening services’ psalms and prayers for the dead, claimed Pulcheria had slept with several lovers, and removed her portrait and robe from above the royal church’s altar.

“On Easter Sunday, probably April 15, 428, shortly after Nestorius took office, the imperial family, all dressed in their silk robes wearing glittering jewels, slowly walked toward the entrance of the sanctuary as the citizens of Constantinople looked on,” Dr. Salisbury said. “Suddenly, Archbishop Nestorius stepped forward and boldly barred the way. Pulcheria demanded entrance, but Nestorius persisted, claiming, ‘Only priests may walk here.'”

Pulcheria asked if she had not given birth to God and he replied that she had given birth to Satan. He then drove her from the church. This odd exchange happened because Pulcheria had believed her own body to be sacred like the Virgin Mary’s, while Nestorius believed women’s bodies were temptations—beginning with Eve—so he saw her as the origin of the original sin of lust and downplayed Mary’s place in Christianity. The news reached far and wide, citizens took sides—even Theodosius sided against his own sister with the archbishop—and the issue escalated.

Straight Outta Ephesus

“Finally, Theodosius called a council—the third ecumenical council—to convene in 431 to settle the question of whether Mary gave birth to God,” Dr. Salisbury said. “Although Theodosius was sure the council would vindicate Nestorius, he wanted to keep some peace in his household; so, he accommodated Pulcheria and agreed to have the council held in Ephesus. That was his big mistake.”

Residents of Ephesus venerated Mary so much that many of them believed she lived in Ephesus. The council itself was held in the Church of the Virgin Mary. To little surprise, local women marched in the streets in the name of the Virgin Mary and the cause was spread to Constantinople itself. Theodosius renounced and exiled Nestorius, while both Mary and Pulcheria were praised for saving the church, boosting both their popularities.

In Mary’s case, that boost was permanent.

Warriors, Queens, and Intellectuals: 36 Great Women before 1400 is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily