Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Pulcheria, whose account is found in Volume 3 of the series.)
Saint Pulcheria, Empress of Constantinople
The leadership of the Byzantine Empire is strung out through a millennium of history as a glorious parade through centuries of heroic figures, predominantly men, with an occasional female of royalty assuming power and prestige. One such distaff ruler came along in the fifth century who was capable of making her name as well-known as that of Cleopatra, but who chose rather to cloak herself in the anonymity of complete service to Jesus Christ rather than maneuver herself into a position of power that would have made her name the proverbial household word.
The name of this beloved creature of God was Pulcheria, born in the year 399, the daughter of Byzantine Emperor Arkadios and granddaughter of Theodosios the Great. Fully capable of ruling the empire, she was named Augusta and could have reigned in sole supremacy but chose rather to share the throne with her younger brother Theodosios, whom she anticipated would one day assume full responsibility so that she might withdraw from public life to fulfill her earnest desire to serve the Messiah to whom she had pledged herself while still a girl.
Pulcheria was clearly the intellectual superior of her brother, but nevertheless imparted her administrative skill not only to him but to her sisters as well to assure a continuity of excellence in the affairs of state. She was largely responsible for distilling the cosmopolitan nature of the ancient capital into one ethnic group which, through the Greek language now made the official tongue, took on an aspect of the cultural glory that had been handed down by the ancient Greeks of pre-Christian centuries.
The cultural tie was firmly established by Pulcheria, who arranged the marriage of her brother to a girl appropriately named Athenais, the daughter of one of the most distinguished of the many philosophers of Athens. The cause of Christianity was served as well in this marriage because the pagan bride was easily converted to Christianity by Pulcheria, who gave her sister-in-law the name Eudokia, the name by which she is remembered in history.
Turning over the reins of government to her brother, Pulcheria put behind her the splendor of royalty and retired to a longed-for anonymity and tranquility of a nunnery where she could dedicate herself to Jesus Christ in the humble cloister where she was spared intrusion and the many distractions of the outside world. Her contentment in the anticipation of serving the Lord exclusively was short-lived, however, because no sooner had she immersed herself in the assistance of the afflicted and the needy than news came of the death of her brother Theodosios. She took what she thought to be temporary leave of the nunnery and returned to assume once again the responsibilities of the empire, duties for which her sisterin-law was ill-prepared.
Hoping in some way to resume her holy life in the nunnery through marriage to a qualified man, she married a highly respected general named Marcian, but with the stipulation that it would be a marriage in name only and never to be consummated. This accounts for the fact that she is referred to in ecclesiastical records with the title of St. Pulcheria, Virgin. There remained much for her to do as empress, nevertheless, and in addition to convening the great Synods of Ephesus (431) and the Fourth Ecumenical Synod of Chalcedon (451), she caused to be erected in Constantinople three magnificent cathedrals dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and known as the churches of Vlacherna, Halkopratia and the Hodegetria. In this last church was placed the most sacred icon of Orthodoxy, the icon of the Blessed Mary painted by St. Luke the Evangelist.
Pulcheria soon found that she could best serve the Lord not through seclusion but through her high office as empress. The power that she could have used for her own personal glorification she applied to the glory of God. She could still find time to seclude herself to pray and meditate without interference and is perhaps the one ruler who could lay rightful claim to “defender of the Faith,” methodically added to the many titles of other less deserving monarchs. Revered as a saint in both East and West sectors, Pulcheria died on September 10, 453.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.