Friday, January 18, 2013

Aelia Eudocia Augusta, whose husband Theodosius II built the Land Walls of Constantinople

Bust Weight of Aelia Eudocia Augusta ?, First Half of 5th century
(Istanbul Archaeology Museum)

There is a small display case in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum that holds some very intriguing objects. They are Empress Bust Weights that were used in the marketplace to weigh everyday commodities. One of the figures thought to be Eudocia, wife of Theodosius II, wears a diadem and a necklace which help to identify her as an Augusta and  a garment that tightly covers her shoulders. While she holds a scroll in one hand and with the other makes the gesture of speech. The gesture of speech normally reserved for Christ, Church figures and imperial officials and sometimes muses, refers to the empresses well-educated status.  The scroll and the wrapped garment also recall the standard gesture of orators and philosophers. With her iconography referring to her learnedness, her imperial diadem claiming her to be an augusta her wide-open eyes suggesting both piety and watchfulness,this fifth century bust weight of Eudocia would have ensured "the fairness of commercial transactions" in the marketplace. 1  

This little object is an intriguing example of all the wonderful things artifacts can relate to the contemporary viewer. Since the object is from the first half of fifth century, the museum label's suggested identity as Aelia Eudocia Augusta makes sense since she was an augusta (empress) at this particular time.  She might be of interest for any Istanbul resident and visitor alike; the land walls that are still a very prominent part of the historical peninsula were built during the reign of her husband Theodosius II.  

Theodosian Walls of Constantinople

Unlike the infamous Theodora, Eudocia is not as widely known as some of her successors. She was born Athenais, the daughter of the philosopher Leontius, and was baptized Eudocia before she married the emperor. The story of how she came to be chosen is related by the Greek Chronicler Malalas as Theodosius pestering his sister the lady Pulcheria to find him a wife stating:  
"I want you to find me a really lovely young girl, so that no other woman in Constantinople, - whether she be of imperial blood or of the highest senatorial family - may possess such beauty.  If she is not superlatively beautiful, I am not interested, neither in high rank or imperial blood or wealth, but whoever's daughter she is, providing she is a virgin and exceedingly beautiful, her I shall marry." 
After this statement Pulcheria and even Paulinus, who was the emperor's boyhood companion and partner in studies rushed around to find him a suitable wife. Finally Pulcheria, the virgin sister of the emperor is supposed to have found him this beautiful Athenian maid.2  Although the story can be regarded as typical of the time period, it is highly unlikely, that the extremely pious Pulcheria would find a pagan girl for her brother to marry no matter how beautiful a virgin she may be. 

The myth surrounding her arrival at the palace aside, we do have tangible proof of Eudocia's imperial dominion and its ascendancy in the form of coins struck by Constantinople mint.

Tremissis of Aelia Eudocia Augusta, 423-442, Mint of Constantinople

This gold Tremissis struck in the mint of Constantinople on the observe showing Eudocia in the traditional portrait bust has her nomen, Aelia and her rank, Augusta inscribed; the name Aelia was actually a Spanish aristocratic title that belonged to Theodosius the Great's first wife, Flaccilla but over time was subsumed as another title used in Theodosian empresses' coins.  Eudocia is depicted wearing a jeweled diadem with ties or ribbons and the triple pendant fibula to hold the imperial mantle, paludamentum. The diadem with ties was first introduced by Constantine in 325 and the first augusta (empress) shown wearing the imperial diadem on coins was Flaccilla.  Prior to this iconography female empresses were shown either bareheaded or with other jewels in their hair.

Solidus of Flaccilla, 383-37, Mint of Constantinople
(Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Munzkabinet)
The iconography of the traditional portrait bust with the diadem, the imperial robe held by a fibula, the regalia of an emperor, first introduced in Flaccilla's coins would become the standard for Theodosian empresses from this point on.

While Flaccilla's Solidus reverse is the personification of victory enthroned writing chi-rho on a shield resting on a small column,3 the reverse of Eudocia's coin bears the cross in a wreath, a type probably used for alms-giving.

Solidus of Aelia Eudocia Augusta, 430-440, Mint of Constantinople

The Solidus of Eudocia struck 430-440 (class 3 type) corresponds to the main coinage of Theodosius in the 430's. 5 On the observe of the coin the Augusta is depicted in the traditional profile bust wearing the diadem and earrings, as well as the imperial mantle that is held in place with a fibula, but with one very significant attribute - a disembodied hand reaching down to crown her head with a wreath. This was an iconography that had been used since Eudoxia (Eudocia's late mother-in-law), the wife of Arcadius (r.395-408). This was identified as the dextera Dei, the right hand of God; this iconography that had been used for Agustus in the previous century was not utilized anymore since the emperor was supposed to receive his power directly from the troops.6  In the case of empresses, since they could not have anything to do with the troops their basileia (imperial dominion) could be identified as being of divine conferment.  On the reverse of Eudocia's coin is the personification of Constantinople, representing both the city and the empire, her left foot on prow, holding an orb surmounted by a cross (globus cruciger) a form her sister-in-law, Pulcheria is attributed as implementing.7 The foot on the prow of a ship, alludes to Constantinople's location on the Bosphorus.

the Hodegetria Icon, 14th century replica
Eudocia is thought to have been the most learned of all Byzantine empresses; she even wrote several poetic works. Her rhetorical skills are always mentioned in reference to a speech she gave in the Senate of Antioch while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 438 where seated upon a throne of gold and precious stones, she uttered the famous lines : "Of your proud lie and blood I claim to be,"8 a late antique version of "Ich bin ein Berliner." Her Christian patronage is very well known also; she has gone down in history as the  one who brought to Constantinople the Hodegetria icon, the supposed portrait of the Virgin and Child painted from life by Saint Luke as well as the relics of St Stephen.

All her education and piety, could not ensure a happy end for Eudocia augusta. The story of how she left the palace was just as fanciful as the way she came in.  According to legend, a very rare Phyrigian apple had been brought to the palace by a very poor man that Theodosius presented to his wife before leaving for church, the empress in her turn had the apple sent to her husband's friend Paulinas. When Theodosius entered the palace, Paulinus who had stayed back because  he had been indisposed, presented the apple to Theodosius.  Even though Eudocia swore she ate the apple, Theodosius believed this was the sign of her disloyalty. She was banished to Jerusalem while Paulinus was executed. This story went down in history as "the Apple of discord."9 Eudocia is supposed to have sworn her innocence even at her death bed.

Remains of the Church of St Polyeuktos, 6th century
Finally, there is one other structure in modern day Istanbul that recalls Eudocia to us. It's the remains of the once magnificent church of St Polyeuktos which was built by Anicia Juliana, Eudocia's great-granddaughter. There is even an epigram revealing the origins of the church as belonging to Eudocia... but that is another colorful story that I wrote about in another post.


1 Ioli Kalavrezou,Angeliki E. Laiou, Elizabeth A. Gittings, Byzantine Women and Their World, Cambridge, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2003

2 John Malalas, The Chronicle of John Malalas translation by Elizabeth Jeffreys,Michael Jeffreys, Roger Scott, and Brian Croke, Byzantina Australiensia 4, 1986, Book 14.3, 4; p. 191-193

3 Kenneth G. Holum, Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity, Berkley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1982, p.32

4 Philip Grierson, and Melinda Mays,Catalogue of Late Roman Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection: From Arcadius and Honorius to the Accession of Anastasius,Washington, D.C: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1992, p. 156

5 Ibid., p. 156

6 Holum, p. 66

7 Grierson and Mays, p. 152

8 Holum, p. 186

9 Malalas, Book 14.8, p.194


  1. Hi Sedef --
    Oh, that's just mean! I want to hear the next story!:) Once again, your post encourages me to look at medals and coins, which I often overlook. I love the way you tie them together with the Theodosian walls and the Church of St Polyeuktos. Thanks for another great post and a thought-provoking approach!

  2. Karen,

    I find numismatics fascinating because it was such a very powerful tool for propaganda, for rulers to circulate their message and it reached the mass populace.
    I love to find things from my daily life that help me to engage with historical figures or artifacts. Next time you are in Istanbul and passing by the Walls or the Church of St Polyeuktos I hope you will remember Eudocia.


  3. Thank you very much for sharing. If you want to know some interesting facts about coins, visit this website It's one of the best numismatic page.


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