Aelia Eudoxia and Aelia Pulcheria: Power and Purity Politics

Pictured above from left to right are two of my favorite historical ladies: Aelia Eudoxia (d. 404) and Aelia Pulcheria (399-453).

Aelia Eudoxia was a late fourth century, early fifth century Byzantine empress. Her husband, the Emperor Arcadius, wasn’t much of an emperor, so she was the real power behind the throne. Her power, religious politics, overtly feminine presentation, and influence over the populace pissed off St. John Chrysostom (Archbishop of Constantinople and influential preacher) so much that he declared her to be the second Jezebel, making him the second Elijah.

Her daughter, Aelia Pulcheria, was even more amazing. Her brother, Theodosius II, was the emperor, but like her mother, it was Pulcheria who held the true power. At the age of 14, she took a vow of chastity and ordered her sisters to do the same. While this may have been done out of true religious sentiment,* it is far more likely that she did it to keep hold of her power; the vow ensured that she would never be forced to marry and lose her power to a man. This, of course, pissed off loads of ambitious nobles who were hoping to gain power by marrying into the imperial family.

In short, Pulcheria manipulated the patriarchal construct of appropriate female religious behavior in order to consolidate her power and keep it out of the hands of men. She used the patriarchy against them, and there was nothing they could really do or say about it because they were the ones who created that framework in the first place. Fucking brilliant.

*This vow of chastity was influenced by her devotion to the Theotokos, or the Virgin Mary. This particular form of worship is known as Mariology.

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