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July 4 Pulcheria and the Theotokos

Today in 432 a large crowd descended on the church in Constantinople cheering “Many years to Pulcheria! Many years to the empress!” They were expressing their support for her influence on the Council of Ephesus. Pulcheria, was the Eastern Roman empress and trusted adviser to her younger brother emperor Theodosius II. Remembered for her religious devotion, she had significant, though changing, influence and political power during her brother's reign. When her brother died, Pulcheria married Marcian to become empress.


Their parents had died leaving behind four young children, including Theodosius then 7 years of age who automatically became emperor. Pulcheria acted as her brother's guardian even though he was emperor and with her sisters made a vow of virginity, to keep off potential suitors. Under her considerable influence the imperial palace assumed a monastic tone described in an Ecclesiastical History: "They all pursue the same mode of life; they are sedulous in their attendance in the house of prayer, and evince great charity towards strangers and the poor…and pass their days and their nights together in singing the praises of God." Rituals within the imperial palace included chanting , reciting passages of scripture and fasting twice per week. The sisters relinquished luxurious jewellery and clothing which was the norm of the imperial court. Pulcheria trained her young emperor-brother in good deportment, horsemanship, and how to don clothes. Under her guidance he would understand the duties and customs of imperial office. In a letter from Pope Leo I, a contemporary of Pulcheria, Leo complimented her great piety and how she despised the errors of heretics.

Her influence extended into Church politics, which has resounded down through the ages. The First Council of Ephesus, during Theodosius's reign, involved two rival bishops: Nestorius of Constantinople (see pod of July 2nd) and Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria. The dispute grew from their disagreement over the nature of Christ. Nestorius advocated diminishing the influence of the doctrine of the "Theotokos", i.e., "the one who gives birth to the One Who is God" or more commonly translated simply as "Mother of God". This title of Mary was important as it reflected your Christology – i.e what you understood about the nature of Jesus Christ which was not a settled issue in the early church. Nestorius also conflicted with the religious beliefs of Pulcheria, as she was a virgin empress, a rivalry between them ensued, during which Nestorius launched a smear campaign against her. He also tried to remove her image and altar cloth from the altar, against her wishes. However, the Council, teeming with Cyril's allies, condemned Nestorius' position. The emperor first tried to find a middle ground but eventually favoured Cyril. The title of "Theotokos" was decreed as orthodox and Nestorius deposed and banished.

While hunting on horseback in 450, Theodosius II fell from his horse and injured his spine and died 2 days later from the injury. Pulcheria reigned over the Empire alone for about one month after the death of Theodosius, and as the deceased emperor lacked surviving male children, Pulcheria could bestow dynastic legitimacy on an outsider by marrying them. She married Marcian, a Roman tribune and close associate of general Aspar, also seen as a man of little substance, with no ancient aristocratic or imperial blood. One condition of the marriage was that Marcian obey and respect Pulcheria's vow of virginity, and he complied with it. In order for the marriage to not seem scandalous to the Roman state, the church proclaimed that "Christ himself sponsored the union and it therefore should not provoke shock or unjustified suspicions

Just before she died, Pulcheria and Marcian (who had replaced Theodosius as emperor) summoned the Council of Chalcedon, attended by 452 bishops. It condemned the doctrines of Nestorius and developed the doctrines of Cyril and Pope Leo I, declaring the doctrine of the "Theotokos" orthodox. A subsequential council, it also developed and clarified the creed of Nicaea, by further proclaiming that Christ was at all times after the Incarnation fully God and fully human. Pulcheria and Marcian were both hailed as the "new Constantine" and "new Helena" at the council in references to the Roman Emperor and his mother who had established Christianity. They were popularly acclaimed today with a large crowd marching to the church. Pulcheria devoted the last years of her life to the "Theotokos", and had three churches in Constantinople dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Popular amongst the people, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church subsequently recognized her as a saint, however her zeal would at times would leave a darker side to that legacy, For instance under her influence a law that forbade the construction of synagogues and required the destruction of those in existence was passed. .And when the Persian King executed a Christian bishop who had destroyed a Zoroastrian altar. Theodosius sent troops into battle, and was described by Socrates as "ready to do anything for the sake of Christianity. Theodosius thus made his sister's virginity a tool of war propaganda, and because of her vow to be faithful only to God, the hand of God would help Roman troops in battle against Persia.


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