Seminar CCXX: rôles for superfluous imperial women

The day after the seminar I last reported on I was at yet another, back in Birmingham to hear Professor Jill Harries presenting to the General Seminar of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. Her paper was entitled “Mother vs maiden: Helena, Pulcheria and the formulation of imperial dynasty in late antiquity”, and it was fun; I haven’t seen someone presenting who enjoyed their topic so visibly for quite a while. Some interesting points came out of it, too, so I shall try and give a decent report even though the period is not my usual one; after all, these days, teaching requires that it become more familiar… Professor Harries’s paper set out to assess just how much freedom women of the late Roman imperial family actually had to decide their own fates. It doesn’t seem like too much of a spoiler to say straight away that the answer was ‘hardly any’, although I thought that more could be teased out of the material and I’ll say more about that below. But basically, the imperial women were policy tools for the emperors, and so the meat of the paper was in the changes visible in the ways in and the extent to which emperors did that.

Bronze follis of Empress Helena, paired with a personification of the Security of the State, struck at Arles in 327, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R

Bronze follis of Empress Helena, paired with a personification of the Security of the State, struck at Arles in 327, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R3141; all coins pictures given at maximum size, not to scale

Gold solidus of Empress Ælia Pulcheria, paired with a personification of imperial Victory, struck at Constantinople between 450 and 453

Gold solidus of Empress Ælia Pulcheria, paired with a personification of imperial Victory, struck at Constantinople between 450 and 453. “Pulcheria Coin” by Asybaris01 Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

There were four phases implicit in the paper, and two explicit ones, those two represented by these two ladies, Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine I (306-337), finder of the True Cross and eventual saint, and Pulcheria, daughter of the Emperor Arcadius (395-408) and thus sister of and something like religious consultant to Emperor Theodosius II (408-450), before finally becoming the wife of the Emperor Marcian (450-457) as which she died. Outwith that, however, there were implicit before and after phases, before Christianization and after the breakdown of Roman rule in the West. The latter of these was basically a point of fissure; after it, what Professor Harries observed was no longer so observable, so I won’t discuss it here. In the pre-Christian phase it is basically rare to see imperial women having had any rôle at all; in the very earliest empire Livia was arguably a serious power-broker and in the third century a small raft of women called Julia (and especially Julia Mæsa) were very important in the appointment of emperors, but these both seem to be those difficult combinations of exceptional times and exceptional women that make generalisation about such things so very hard. (I do wonder how far this is an artefact of the focus of our written sources, I have to say. One of the things that working closely with the Barber Institute’s coins made clear is that an awful lot of empresses got coin series. Again, I will say more about this below, but I feel as if the coins may be telling us that empresses had more of a rôle as faces of the state than our various chroniclers were interested in reporting, and that subsequent developments as described here might therefore look less weird.1)

Silver antoninianus of Empress Julia Mæsa struck at Rome 223-226

Silver antoninianus of Empress Julia Mæsa, paired with the mother-goddess Juno, struck at Rome 223-226

In any case, these women were exceptional in some sense at least, but this changed in the reign of Constantine. Not straight away: Helena was Constantine’s father’s first wife of two and when Constantine recalled her to the palace in 312 it was after she had endured some years of political occlusion. Professor Harries showed us that Helena had something of a rôle in Rome as Constantine’s representative, though she was not alone of the family there, and as I already knew, after a short test run in Alexandria she was featured on coins right across the Empire from 324 to 326. The thing is that she was not alone in that; not only had Constantine’s sons had their own coinages for a few years by this time, but in 324 they were joined not just by their grandmother but by their mother, Constantine’s wife, Fausta, and indeed for a very short time at Rome only, Constantine’s sister Constantia.2 His younger sons were called Constantine, Constantius (after granddad) and Constans, by the way; Constantine understood brands… His eldest son, however, was called Crispus and was murdered in 326 for reasons that have become legend to such an extent that the reality will never be known, and perhaps as part of this Fausta was also dead by the end of that year and those coinages stop.3 Showing that money isn’t everything, it was at this point that Helena suddenly became a really public figure by visiting the Holy Land and there supposedly finding the True Cross on which Jesus had been crucified, of which Constantinopolitan rulers would be handing out fragments for nine centuries thereafter. There was some kind of exercise of moral repair going on here in which Helena’s Christianity suddenly became a way out of whatever trouble Constantine’s family was in, suggested Professor Harries, and it’s as good an explanation of the changes in Constantine’s somewhat ambivalent attitude to Christianity as any I’ve heard at least.4

Bulgarian icon of Saints Constantine and Helena with a patriarchal cross

That ambivalence, of course, is a feature of modern Western scholarship which the Orthodox church, considering both son and mother saints, would dismiss or even condemn. Here is a later Bulgarian icon of them both serenely untroubled by such concerns, which the Bulgarian National Commission for UNESCO have not seen fit to attribute

There isn’t, in this, really any suggestion that the by-now-septuagenarian empress had a lot of choice in her elevation to imperial Christian patroness; her religion was convenient, her status unaffected by whatever had befallen, and Constantine had need of her. Nonetheless, argued, Professor Harries, Christianity opened up new ways for emperors to put their women to work, ways that remained options even if, as in subsequent years was usual, they were not used and imperial women were largely either hidden or married off to generals or Cæsars. Pulcheria is arguably the first flicker we get of Christianity as chosen imperial career path, and even her dedication to virginity in 413 didn’t prevent her being named Augusta in 414 (or from getting a coin series). The Church historian Sozomen, who seems to have liked to use powerful women to make points about failings of emperors as we’ve seen before, tells us a lot about her influence on Theodosius, and she seems to have lent the court a cladding of sanctity that was useful to Theodosius but which would, in time of need at his death, be dispensed with in the cause of a peaceful succession when she married Marcian after a few months as effective ruler in her own right. She was too old to continue the family by then, but it gave Marcian some kind of link to the previous régime. Interestingly, Marcian’s successor Majorian was to legislate against this kind of parking of women in religious status until convenient, and significantly increased their rights to leave. For Professor Harries, Pulcheria didn’t have such a choice; although she may have been inclined to and even happy with her intermediate status between the worlds of withdrawal and policy, it was part of the emperor’s presentation of his court, not her modification thereof.

Copy of an ivory plaque showing Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria overseeing a relic translation in Constantinople, this copy in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original in Trier

Copy of an ivory plaque supposedly showing Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria overseeing a relic translation in Constantinople, although I’m sure I’ve seen them identified as Constantine VI and Eirini before now; this copy is in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original in Trier

That is of course a reasonable default position and Sozomen is really not the source one would want for this job, since his interest was so very far from straightforward political narrative. Nonetheless, it did seem to me that some of what he apparently says had implications of something different. Professor Harries had stressed that Theodosius didn’t necessarily pay much attention to Pulcheria, as often her requests in the name of patronage could be refused. But consider that a moment: what it implies is that Theodosius didn’t necessarily approve of her requests, which in turn makes it very unlikely that he put her up to them. In which case, what we are surely seeing there is her initiative, at least in so far as she was choosing whom to try to promote. If all her requests had been granted, we might justly suspect that Theodosius had for some reason set her up as a perfect intercessor whose requests would thus doubtless have been very carefully chosen, but because she couldn’t always get her way I think we actually have some reason to believe that ‘her way’ was something that existed. This has the rather paradoxical implication that we only have good basis to believe in agency’s existence when we see it being thwarted, which feels wrong in a number of ways but might still be worth thinking with, not least as it resembles the more widely-accepted idea that we tend only to see identity being defined when it is under threat and therefore weak.5 You can already see from the above, which is based almost entirely on information Professor Harries provided in the paper (and in a ten-minute addendum during discussion), how rich a paper this was and how many little avenues of interest could have been pursued; for me, however, that extra step of thinking is the big thing this paper gave me.

Silver denarius of Empress Faustina I struck in Rome 139-141, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1180

Silver denarius of Empress Faustina I, paired with the mother goddess Juno, struck in Rome 139-141, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1180

Copper-alloy sestertius of Empress Faustina II, paired with a personification of public happiness, struck at Rome 145-146, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1220

Copper-alloy sestertius of Empress Faustina II, paired with a personification of Happiness, struck at Rome 145-146, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1220

Writing this up now, however, I find an urge to append my own little extra bit in the form of the promised extra point about the pre-Christian phase. The women above were also empresses, in the family of another emperor who put as many of his relations on the coins as he could, that being Antoninus Pius, still of course alive and blogging up until a few years ago. Antoninus was also, as his name suggests, something of a one for the public display of piety; but what of the empresses? Did they form part of that strategy of presentation, did they sit at court being pious in a pre-Christian Roman fashion or go out and dedicate buildings and help the poor as did Helena? Well, we just don’t know because our main source, the Historia Augusta, is not concerned with them in the way that Sozomen was with Helena and Pulcheria, though it does tell us that Antoninus established funds for destitute women in his wife’s name after her death, which of course tells us that she had not, even if he thought it a fitting tribute. But basically we don’t know, and yet we see many of the same things going on with coins here, in terms of the association of the imperial women with particular virtues, as we see with the women of Constantine, to which can be added the imperial promotion possibilities inherent in their deification, which was duly recognised after both their deaths in ceremony and on the coinage. I’m not sure I’m saying that this makes what Constantine was doing with his women any less unusual, but it might tell us where the idea was coming from, and if it did, it would most likely be telling us that it actually came from the coins…

Copper-alloy as in the name of the deified Empress Faustina I struck at Rome 141-161, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1217

Copper-alloy as in the name of the deified Empress Faustina I struck at Rome 141-161, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1217

1. For example, just listing those empresses represented in the Barber Institute’s collection gives one Livia, Antonia, Agrippina, Julia, Julia Titi, Domitia, Plotina, Marciana, Matidia, Sabina, Faustina I, Faustina II, Lucilla, Crispina, Manlia, Didia Clara, Julia Domna, Plautilla, Julia Paula, Aquilia Severa, Julia Sœmias, Julia Mæsa, Orbiana, Julia Mamæa, Paulina, Sabina Tranquillana, Otacilia Severa, Herennia Etruscilla, Mariniana, Salonina, Severina, Magna Urbica, Galeria Valeria, Helena, Fausta, Theodora I, Flaccilla, Eudoxia, Eudocia, Galla Placidia, Licinia Eudoxia, Pulcheria and Verina, which is not that far off every known emperor’s wife and a few who were not even wives. I think we would be safe to consider putting the empress on coins a usual thing to do.

2. I have become familiar with the images Helena and Fausta just because of seeing them on the Barber’s coins, not least in getting them out for Professor Harries the day after this paper but Constantia is less well-known and I know of her issue only from Harold Mattingly, C. H. V. Sutherland, R. A. G. Carson, J. P. C. Kent & Andrew Burnett (edd.), The Roman Imperial Coinage, volume 7: Constantine and Licinius A. D. 313-337, ed. Patrick M. Bruun (London 1966), from which I can’t give a detailed reference right now; she’s in one or two of the indices. On empresses on coins more generally in this period, however, see Leslie Brubaker & Helen Tobler, “The gender of money: Byzantine empresses on coins (324-802)” in Gender and History Vol. 12 (Oxford 2000), pp. 572-594, repr. in Pauline Stafford & Anneke Mulder-Bakke (edd.), Gendering the Middle Ages (Oxford 2001), pp. 42-64.

3. It is tempting to suggest that the reason was that he wouldn’t change his name to fit, but the basic problem is that contemporary sources obviously knew it was unwise to discuss this affair in writing, later sources therefore don’t know what happened and then it gets wrapped into the Legend of Constantine as the reason for the curse of leprosy of which Pope Sylvester supposedly cured the emperor and after that no possibility of factual report remains…

4. The obvious rival candidate is Timothy Barnes, author of Constantine: Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire (Oxford 2011), who came in for a good deal of good-natured criticism in this paper. Prof. Harries’s own views are evident in her Imperial Rome AD 284 to 363: The New Empire (Edinburgh 2012) but this paper was part of a more focused study on Constantine that we can only await eagerly! As for Pulcheria, there there is Ada B. Teetgen, The Life and Times of the Empress Pulcheria A. D. 399-452 (London 1907) and now all over the web, and there must be more recent stuff too but I don’t know it, sorry.

5. This is perhaps the single most powerful critical insight I got from my undergraduate study of history. Of course, it is in some ways just the carrying into discourse of the Shakespearian formulation about protesting too much, and I’m certainly not claiming I thought of it—I’m pretty sure, instead, that I got it from Matthew Innes‘s teaching—but it is still worth having as a tool. If a source is all up about something being natural, traditional, well-established, old or usual, it’s often because they’ve met people who think it’s not…

7 responses to “Seminar CCXX: rôles for superfluous imperial women

  1. Dear Jonathan,
    Thanks again for a most interesting piece. I suggest Galla Placidia is worth pursuing further. I have a small complaint. Is it possible to have a few paragraph breaks – I know the pictures break the text, but I’m lefter a bit breathless at the end with the current format.

    • This is a denser one than usual, I admit; so much to say… My usual rule of practice unless I just can’t find images (usually because something abstract is under discussion) is to make some change in format – a picture, bullets, a table – between every paragraph to try and achieve that pause for breath. But there still isn’t a lot of white space, is there? I must think about that. Does anyone else feel the same way?

      As for Galla, well, there’s so much one could say, and if one did the coins should be in there as, if we had nothing else, they would give the impression that she was minting in her own right, using just the same types as Theodosius II. I’m not sure that impression’s even wrong, but obviously it’s not the whole story and would be unsafe to use by itself. As with the above, what empress’s coinage seems to tell us is that an empress was a public figure who needed to be recognised; it doesn’t tell us whyThere is a lot of work on Galla, but mostly in Italian and often concentrated on her mausoleum, understandably since it still stands; there was a 1960s biography in English, however, Stewart Irvin Oost, Galla Placidia Augusta. A Biographical Essay (Chicago 1968), which may be of some use to anyone wanting to know more about this politically-crucial, but not very fortunate, woman.

  2. Just wanted to say thanks for your blog, I know it’s a lot of work. Enjoy reading it.

  3. I don’t know if Harries’ position is a bit too minimalist considering the status of women in ancient and medieval Roman societies. I think there’s a factor which wasn’t explored: who was in power. Was the Emperor a general, a bureaucrat or a child? The answers to this also determined the margin of manoeuvre for imperial women. If the ruler was someone like Diocletian or Constantine I, women’s power was more likely to be null, but if the “ruler” was Valentinian III or Helogabalus, for instance, then women like Galla Placidia or Julia Maesa had a great role in imperial politics. I could also give the case of more women in ancient Roman History with political influence like Aggripina the Younger, Plotina, Ulpia Severina (the only regnant Empress in classical times), Justina or even Theodora (although her real power is usually a bit exaggerated).

    Besides that, I think we could also say late antique religiosity helped women to assume positions from which they could gain influence in the imperial court. Pulcheria is a great case of that. Perhaps our biggest problem is the nature of our sources, which were often hostile to women in charge or used them as a mean of political attack (that’s surely the case of Prokopios regarding Theodora).

    • While I agree with you about Procopius’s portrayal of Theodora, as who couldn’t, when it comes to regencies and so on I think it’s important to remember that even empresses regent struggled to monopolise or hold that position; they certainly weren’t guaranteed influence or even respect in those circumstances, though I grant you that those circumstances were opportunities. An emperor with whom they could agree a cooperation would still have been a surer, but to us less visible, way of being able to affect their societies, all the same.

  4. Pingback: Seminar CCXXXI: the disappearing Byzantine teenager | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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