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Anja Busch: Die Frauen der theodosianischen Dynastie. Macht und Repräsentation kaiserlicher Frauen im 5. Jahrhundert (= Historia. Einzelschriften; Bd. 237), Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2015, 256 S., ISBN 978-3-515-11044-0, EUR 56,00
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Rezension von:
Kenneth G. Holum
Department of History, University of Maryland, College Park
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Kenneth G. Holum: Rezension von: Anja Busch: Die Frauen der theodosianischen Dynastie. Macht und Repräsentation kaiserlicher Frauen im 5. Jahrhundert, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2015, in: sehepunkte 16 (2016), Nr. 9 [15.09.2016], URL:

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Anja Busch: Die Frauen der theodosianischen Dynastie

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This book, a reworked version of the author's dissertation of 2012/13, joins numerous recent studies of Late Roman/Early Byzantine empresses, ranging from Helena, mother of Constantine, in the early fourth century, to Justinian's famous spouse Theodora in the sixth. Some were biographical studies of individual imperial women, like David Potter's new book on Theodora. [1] Other scholars, including Liz James, [2] have endeavored to explain synchronically the political action of these female figures in state and church in an era when some observers asserted that "the rule of the Roman Empire belongs not to females but to men" (Priscus frg. 15, see below). Busch strikes a middle course. Her purpose is indeed to investigate "the foundations of the social and symbolic power" of imperial women (166) - or, in Weberian terms, their Macht and Herrschaft (20) - but her purview is the women of a single dynasty, the wives, daughters, and sisters of Theodosius I (reigned 379-395) and his descendants in the east and west of the Roman Empire until the mid-fifth century. Studying a variety of imperial women in the social space of a single dynasty, Busch achieves both depth and range. In this, and in being up-to-date, her book is an improvement over my own Theodosian Empresses. [3]

After a brief introduction, the meat of Busch's Frauen is compact biographies of a dozen Theodosian females addressing the issue of women and power. First is Flaccilla (died 386), consort of Theodosius I, whose court contrived for her a style of female rule that prevailed until the end of the dynasty, especially in the east. Harking back to Helena, Theodosius made Flaccilla Augusta, "empress", and ordered the mints to issue coins with her image, crowned with the diadem and purple cloak (paludamentum), principal insignia of imperial rule. When Flaccilla died, the Christian author Gregory of Nyssa delivered a funeral oration that found in her the imperial virtues that suited a woman, notably philanthropy, piety, justice, and philandria, "love of husband". Philandria referred to her giving birth to Arcadius (died 408) and Honorius (died 423), the successors of Theodosius in east and west. As Busch argues, these remained the virtues of an empress throughout the dynasty. To them Galla (died 394), second wife of Theodosius I, added extraordinary physical beauty. In Busch's interpretation, these qualities, brought before influential circles and the general public, constituted a female side of generating "acceptance" of the monarchy. Drawing on the work of Steffen Diefenbach, Busch interprets representation of imperial women in coins, inscriptions, literature, and public ceremonial as a necessary component in the imperial "acceptance system" (17-18).

The Theodosian style for imperial females did not extend at first to the West - not to Serena, niece and adopted daughter of Theodosius, nor to her daughters Maria (died 407/8) and Thermantia (died 415?), married in succession to the western emperor Honorius (died 423). In the East, by contrast, Eudoxia (died 404), consort of Arcadius, corresponded well with the Theodosian paradigm, achieving power through beauty, piety, and philandria, presenting Arcadius with a successor, Theodosius II (died 450) and with three daughters before succumbing in childbirth. Her special piety was receptivity toward holy men, whose requirements she satisfied on one occasion by pleading with her husband while placing her child upon his knees (65). Her exercise of power, mainly in affairs of the church, provoked an epochal conflict with John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, who sermonized on the excesses of the females in power.

Chapters follow on the big three among Theodosian women, Galla Placidia (died 455), Pulcheria (died 453), and Eudocia (died 460). Placidia, daughter of Theodosius I by his second wife Galla, was carried off by the Goths when they sacked Rome in 410, married the Gothic king Athaulf, and gave birth to a short-lived son. Then, after the king's death and her release, she became consort of the ephemeral Augustus Constantius III (died 421), bearing by him a second son, the later Valentinian III, emperor in the west (died 455). In this woman, elevated to Augusta apparently in 424, the Theodosian style of female rule arrived late in the western Empire, Busch affirms, but it would be incorrect to make her regent for the child emperor, for such a position did not exist (100, note 90). Having little to do with the West's faltering defenses, Placidia did manage the boy's upbringing and hence garnered blame for his inability to forestall military defeats.

The career of Pulcheria, made Augusta in 414, was even more remarkable. The eldest of four orphaned imperial siblings, she had seized control in Constantinople in 412, devoted herself and her younger sisters to perpetual virginity, and turned the eastern court into a virtual monastery. Her virtue was extreme piety. Hence also she secured the rule of her younger brother Theodosius II (died 450) from the threat of an older male married to one of the imperial sisters. Though court eunuchs would often challenge her influence, she remained powerful through much of the reign, clashing horribly, for instance, with Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, over the propriety of defining the Virgin Mary as theotokos, Mother of God. The emperor favored Nestorius, but Pulcheria secured the heresiarch's deposition and exile. Busch accepts the view that Pulcheria, a virgin herself, identified with the Virgin and favored veneration of the Theotokos (119-20). When Theodosius died she accepted a chaste marriage (Josefsehe) with the officer Marcian, promoted to Augustus, the imperial rank in this case as in others being communicated in the creation of the marriage bond. With Marcian she organized the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and received praise from the assembled bishops as "the new Helena" for defeating the Miaphysite heresy.

Pulcheria's counterpart was Eudocia. Born Athenaïs, child of an Athenian sophist named Leontius, this young woman came to Pulcheria's attention, it is alleged, as she sought a mate for her brother, and it was extraordinary physical beauty that caused him to accept Athenaïs despite inherited paganism. Converted to Christianity and fitted with a Christian name, she became Augusta in 423 upon giving birth to a daughter, Licinia Eudoxia. Clearly, however, in Busch's view, Eudocia did not match Pulcheria's influence until 438/439, when, under the influence of the holy woman Melania the Younger, she undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Jerusalem, bringing with her, when she returned, relics of St. Stephen. Rumors soon surfaced, however, of an extra-marital affair with the high official Paulinus. Her marriage disintegrated, and she departed again for Jerusalem never to return. There she remained Augusta and established an independent position for herself, taking the side of Miaphysite monks in their resistance to the decisions of Chalcedon.

Finally, Busch studies Licinia Eudoxia and Justa Grata Honoria. The former, daughter of Theodosius II and Eudocia, became Augusta in 438, the year after her long-planned marriage to Valentinian III and her departure for the West. After Valentinian's death in 455, the newly-declared emperor Petronius Maximus forced Licinia Eudoxia to marry him so as to associate himself with the Theodosian dynasty, much as Marcian had already done with apparent success. A similar case was that of Justa Grata Honoria, sister of Valentinian III, Augusta perhaps since 425 and perhaps, like Pulcheria, a consecrated virgin. About 449, pregnant from an illicit relationship, in consequence turned out of the palace and stripped of imperial rank, she sent a messenger to the Hun king Attila, pleading that he rescue her and offering her hand in marriage -at least so Attila interpreted her intention. As he prepared to attack the Empire, Attila put forward as one of his demands that the woman be delivered over to him as his bride, and that the "scepter of empire" be restored to her. It was on this occasion that the eastern court declared the "scepter of empire" to belong to men only, never to women. Since Marcian, Petronius Maximus, and others had clearly acted on the opposite principle, Busch suspects a lack of clarity in contemporary debate about the meaning of female rule (174-176, cf, 235).

Having explored thus the biographies of Theodosian empresses, Busch draws out what can be learned from their various careers in a final synchronic section on representation of empresses -meaning titles and insignia (189-207) - and their "institutional role", including childbearing, public deportment, accessibility and exercise of patronage, and the doctrine of "sharing" the empire (213-230). The imperial title Augusta brought no specific ruling power with it, Busch argues, but social eminence higher than anyone else other than an Augustus. To Flaccilla's purple cloak and diadem, the hand of God crowning the empress was added from Eudoxia on, perhaps reflecting a woman's special authority in matters of religion. Secondary insignia were the orb (globus) in the right hand and the scepter in the left, the latter meaning for Attila that Justa Grata Honoria had a claim to the Empire itself.

Indeed, lack of clarity on this point is one of Busch's effective points, reinforced by the variety of empress careers that she presents. Clearly, childbearing was an institutional task, well-represented in the case of Eudoxia, because it guaranteed both the stability and the longevity of the dynasty, yet the virginity of imperial sisters also had a dynastic purpose. No imperial sister married while the possibility remained of progeny of the emperor himself, and a sister could communicate legitimate emperorship even by means of a chaste marriage. In her communication with the public the Theodosian "acceptance system" also required of an empress both civility and humility, and demonstrations of piety in the construction and maintenance of churches, hospitals, and other charitable institutions, in this age more and more concentrated on the imperial cities Constantinople and Ravenna - except in the case of Eudocia who exploited pilgrimage and charity in the Holy Land to acquire "acceptance". Further, "acceptance" entailed that an empress be accessible, that she be ready to bring the pleas of a holy man or an ordinary person to the ears of the emperor. That contemporaries wrote of an empress as consors imperii, as "sharing in rule", means for Busch that an empress possessed genuine power (Macht) in Weber's sense, at least in the religious realm, and, specifically in the case of Pulcheria, that conferring the title of Augusta sanctioned her as an "authorized voice" in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu. An empress needed an emperor, however, to make her power effective.

Altogether, I find Anja Busch's agenda in this volume well-conceived, competently executed, and thoroughly convincing, but I do need to register two reservations. First, we must regret lack of attention to the material foundations of female power and of the ability of an empress to organize "acceptance". Lately scholars of Late Antique society, in what Peter Brown called "an age of gold", have become more attuned to how the powerful employed concentration of wealth to establish and maintain hierarchy. [4] In passing, Busch does mention a palace of Placidia attested in Constantinople (97) and the "landed property" of Licinia Eudoxia in the hinterland of the eastern capital (188), while Eudocia's ability to maintain a separate imperial lifestyle in the Holy Land and to build churches and charitable institutions there demonstrates her command of revenue-producing properties (162). Assessing the sources and nature of an empress' power, however, scholars have attended too little to their palatial establishments and estates in and near the capitals and throughout the provinces, administered for them by procurators who channeled streams of cash into the coffers of an empress. [5] Secondly, it will surprise no one that I do not agree with Busch - or with Alan Cameron, whose position she largely adopts - in rejecting my own view, expressed in my Theodosian Empresses, that the account of Eudocia's marriage in the sixth-century chronicler John Malalas is largely romantic fiction, especially when Malalas makes Pulcheria the sponsor of the marriage. [6] Pulcheria might indeed have sought a consort for her brother, but this "young girl, a Greek maid, very beautiful, pure and dainty, eloquent as well, daughter of a philosopher" - and a pagan to boot (Malalas 14.3-8) - was hardly the kind of bride the emperor's sister would have introduced as competition into the palace. Instead, one should interpret this imperial marriage as the successful effort of a court faction, alarmed at Pulcheria's stiff-necked piety, to bring the emperor, through his bride, under their own sway. Of course, I find my position more than amply documented in reliable sources, and Busch herself admits both fictionalized elements in Malalas' account ("an episode suggesting fairy-tale", 208) and some rivalry between the two empresses in the court of Theodosius II, or differentiation of roles (146-151). My hypothesis, moreover, adds weight to her valid point that a Theodosian empress possessed political power in part because she had the ear of an emperor and, circumstances being right, could assert that power by laying her child across the imperial knees.


[1] Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint, New York - Oxford 2015.

[2] Empresses and Power in Early Byzantium, London - New York 2001.

[3] Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity, Berkeley - Los Angeles 1982.

[4] Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, Princeton 2012.

[5] Cf. Holum: Theodosian Empresses, 131-132, 135.

[6] Alan Cameron: The Empress and the Poet: Poetry and Politics in the Court of Theodosius II, Yale Classical Studies 27, 1982, 217-289; Holum: Theodosian Empresses, 79-146, 175-216.

Kenneth G. Holum