Theodosius II, more interested in manuscript illumination than politics, let his sister Pulcheria lead the Empire. At 19, he told her that he didn’t care what they made him marry so long as it was beautiful. Athenais, a gorgeous Pagan Greek girl beggared by the death of her father, flung herself on the mercy of philanthropic Pulcheria, probably to avoid becoming a whore. Pulcheria took a look, heard the exquisite Greek, and married her to Theodosius II. He fell passionately in love with Anthenais, at first sight. She immediately converted to Christianity, and took the name Aelia Eudocia.
The beautiful, tolerant Eudocia soon gained popularity over thin-lipped ascetic Pulcheria, who began to loathe her. Eudocia and the chief minister, Eunuch Chrysaphius, convinced the affable Theodosius II to give his relentless sister less credence, causing Pulcheria to move out of the palace, but her tentacles continued to creep toward her enemies.
Eudocia wasn’t just a pretty face: she sponsored education, founded a university. But eventually Theodosius was persuaded away from her. She proclaimed herself a supporter of Nestorianism and left for the Holy Land, to die in sad obscurity. But oh, she had been loved, by her husband and by the people. Portraits abound. There are several in Istanbul’s Archeological Museum. She’s still beautiful.
After her brother’s death, Pulcheria returned to the palace and fought the Eunuch. The Senate refused to grant her sole rule, so she found a weakling who wouldn’t try to sleep with her, Marcias, and married him. Then she executed Eunuch Chrysaphius. Pulcheria continued to build churches, feed the poor, import relics, persecute Jews, and proclaim the divine nature of Christ and her own implied divinity. For her pains she was canonized. For her elevation of women throughout the Empire and down through the ages, she deserves it. This aescetic, grandiose, furious, passionate, selective philanthropist is now a Greek Orthodox saint. There’s a school named after her right here in my neighborhood, Sainte Pulcherie.