Pulcheria of Constantinople, the Girl of the Golden Horn
T HERE was trouble and confusion in the imperial palace of Theodosius the Little, Emperor of the East. Now, this Theodosius was called "the Little" because, though he bore the name of his mighty grandfather, Theodosius the Great, emperor of both the East and West, he had as yet done nothing worthy any other title than that of "the Little," or "the Child." For Theodosius emperor though he was called, was only a boy of twelve, and not a very bright boy at that.
His father, Arcadius the emperor, and his mother, Eudoxia the empress, were dead; and in the great palace at Constantinople, in this year of grace, 413, Theodosius, the boy emperor, and his three sisters, Pulcheria, Marina, and Arcadia, alone were left to uphold the tottering dignity and the empty name of the once mighty Empire of the East, which their great ancestors, Constantine and Theodosius, had established and strengthened.
And now there was confusion in the imperial palace; for word came in haste from the Dacian border that Ruas, king of the Huns, sweeping down from the east, was ravaging the lands along the Upper Danube, and with his host of barbarous warriors was defeating the legions and devastating the lands of the empire.
The wise Anthemius, prefect of the east, and governor or guardian of the young emperor, was greatly disturbed by the tidings of this new invasion. Already he had repelled at great cost the first advance of these terrible Huns, and had quelled into a sort of half submission the less ferocious followers of Ulpin the Thracian; but now he knew that his armies along the Danube were in no condition to withstand the hordes of Huns, that, pouring in from distant Siberia, were following the lead of Ruas, their king, for plunder and booty, and were even now encamped scarce two hundred and fifty miles from the seven gates and the triple walls of splendid Constantinople.
Turbaned Turks, mosques and minarets, muftis and cadis, veiled eastern ladies, Mohammedains and muezzins, Arabian Nights and attar of roses, bazars, dogs, and donkeys—these, I suppose, are what Constantinople suggests whenever its name is mentioned to any girl or boy of to-day,—the capital of modern Turkey, the city of the Sublime Porte. But the greatest glory of Constantinople was away back in the early days before the time of Mohammed, or of the Crusaders, when it was the centre of the Christian religion, the chief and gorgeous capital of a Christian empire, and the residence of Christian emperors,—from the days of Constantine the conqueror to those of Justinian the law-giver and of Irene the empress. It was the metropolis of the eastern half of the great Roman Empire, and during this period of over five hundred years all the wealth and treasure of the east poured into Constantinople, while all the glories of the empire, even the treasures of old Rome itself, were drawn upon to adorn and beautify this rival city by the Golden Horn. And so in the days of Theodosius the Little, the court of Constantinople, although troubled with fear of a barbarian invasion and attack, glittered with all the gorgeousness and display of the most magnificent empire in the world.
In the great daphne, or central space of the imperial palace, the prefect Anthemius, with the young emperor, the three princesses, and their gorgeously arrayed nobles and attendants, awaited, one day, the envoys of Ruas the Hun, who sought lands and power within the limits of the empire.
They came, at last,—great, fierce-looking fellows, not at all pleasant to contemplate—big-boned broad-shouldered, flat-nosed, swarthy, and small-eyed, with war-cloaks of shaggy skins, leathern armor, wolf-crowned helmets, and barbaric decorations, and the royal children shrunk from them in terror, even as they watched them with wondering curiosity. Imperial guards, gleaming in golden armor, accompanied them, while with the envoys came also as escort a small retinue of Hunnish spearmen. And in the company of these, the Princess Pulcheria noted a lad of ten or twelve years—short, swarthy, big-headed, and flat-nosed, like his brother barbarians, but with an air of open and hostile superiority that would not be moved even by all the glow and glitter of an imperial court.
Then Eslaw, the chief of the envoys of King Ruas the Hun, made known his master's demands So much land, so much treasure, so much in the way of concession and power over the lands along the Danube, or Ruas the king would sweep down with his warriors, and lay waste the cities and lands of the empire.
"These be bold words," said Anthemius the prefect. "And what if our lord the emperor shall say thee nay?"
But ere the chief of the envoys could reply, the lad whose presence in the escort the Princess Pulcheria had noted, sprang into the circle before the throne, brandishing his long spear in hot defiance.
"Dogs and children of dogs, ye dare not say us nay!" he cried harshly. "Except we be made the friends and allies of the emperor, and are given full store of southern gold and treasure, Ruas the king shall overturn these your palaces, and make you all captives and slaves. It shall be war between you and us forever. Thus saith my spear!"
And as he spoke he dashed his long spear upon the floor, until the mosaic pavement rang again.
Boy emperor and princesses, prefect and nobles and imperial guards, sprang to their feet as the spear clashed on the pavement, and even the barbarian envoys, while they smiled grimly at their young comrade's energy, pulled him hastily back.
But ere the prefect Anthemius could sufficiently master his astonishment to reply, the young Princess Pulcheria faced the savage envoys, and pointing to the cause of the disturbance, asked calmly:
"Who is this brawling boy, and what doth he here in the palace of the emperor?"
And the boy made instant and defiant answer:
"I am Attila, the son of Mundzuk, kinsman to Ruas the king, and deadly foe to Rome."
"Good Anthemius," said the clear, calm voice of the unterrified girl, "were it not wise to tell this wild young prince from the northern forest that the great emperor hath gold for his friends, but only iron for his foes? 'T is ever better to be friend than foe. Bid, I pray, that the arras of the Hippodrome be parted, and let our guests see the might and power of our arms."
With a look of pleased surprise at this bold stroke of the Princess, the prefect clapped his hands in command, and the heavily brocaded curtain that screened the gilded columns parted as if by unseen hands, and the Hunnish envoys, with a gaze of stolid wonder, looked down upon the great Hippodrome of Constantinople.
It was a vast enclosure, spacious enough for the marshalling of an army. Around its sides ran tiers of marble seats, and all about it rose gleaming statues of marble, of bronze, of silver, and of gold—Augustus and the emperors, gods and goddesses of the old pagan days, heroes of the eastern and western empires. The bright oriental sun streamed down upon it, and as the trumpets sounded from beneath the imperial balcony, there filed into the arena the glittering troops of the empire, gorgeous in color and appointments, with lofty crests and gleaming armor, with shimmering spear-tips, prancing horses, towering elephants, and mighty engines of war and siege, with archers and spearmen, with sounding trumpets and swaying standards and, high over all, the purple labarum, woven in gold and jewels,—the sacred banner of Constantine. Marching and counter-marching, around and around, and in and out, until it seemed wellnigh endless, the martial procession passed before the eyes of the northern barbarians, watchful of every movement, eager as children to witness this royal review.
"These are but as a handful of dust amid the sands of the sea to the troops of the empire," said the prefect Anthemius, when the glittering rear-guard had passed from the Hippodrome. And the Princess Pulcheria added, "And these, O men from the north, are to help and succor the friends of the great emperor, even as they are for the terror and destruction of his foes. Bid the messengers from Ruas the king consider, good Anthemius, whether it were not wiser for their master to be the friend rather than the foe of the emperor. Ask him whether it would not be in keeping with his valor and his might to be made one of the great captains of the empire, with a yearly stipend of many pounds of gold, as the recompense of the emperor for his services and his love."
Again the prefect looked with pleasure and surprise upon this wise young girl of fifteen, who had seen so shrewdly and so well the way to the hearts of these northern barbarians, to whom gold and warlike display were as meat and drink.
"You hear the words of this wise young maid," he said. "Would it not please Ruas the king to be the friend of the emperor, a general of the empire, and the acceptor, on each recurring season of the Circensian games, of full two hundred pounds of gold as recompense for service and friendship?"
"Say, rather, three hundred pounds," said Eslaw, the chief of the envoys, "and our master may, perchance, esteem it wise and fair."
"Nay, it is not for the great emperor to chaffer with his friends," said Pulcheria, the princess. "Bid that the stipend be fixed at three hundred and fifty pounds of gold, good Anthemius, and let our guests bear to Ruas the king pledges and tokens of the emperor's friendship."
"And bid, too, that they do leave yon barbarian boy at our court as hostage of their faith," demanded young Theodosius the emperor, now speaking for the first time and making a most stupid blunder at a critical moment.
For, with a sudden start of revengeful indignation, young Attila the Hun turned to the boy emperor: "I will be no man's hostage," he cried. "Freely I came, freely will I go! Come down from thy bauble of a chair and thou and I will try, even in your circus yonder, which is the better boy, and which should rightly be hostage for faith and promise given
"How now!" exclaimed the boy emperor, altogether unused to such uncourtier-like language; "this to me!" And the hasty young Hun continued:
"Ay, this and more! I tell thee, boy, that were I Ruas the king, the grass should never grow where the hoofs of my war-horse trod; Scythia should be mine; Persia should be mine; Rome should be mine. And look you, sir emperor, the time shall surely come when the king of the Huns shall be content not with paltry tribute and needless office, but with naught but Roman treasure and Roman slaves!"
But into this torrent of words came Pulcheria's calm voice again. "Nay, good Attila, and nay, my brother and my lord," she said. "'T were not between friends and allies to talk of tribute, nor of slaves, nor yet of hostage. Freely did'st thou come and as freely shalt thou go; and let this pledge tell of friendship between Theodosius the emperor and Ruas the king." And, with a step forward, she flung her own broad chain of gold around the stout and swarthy neck of the defiant young Attila.
So, through a girl's ready tact and quiet speech, was the terror of barbarian invasion averted. Ruas the Hun rested content for years with his annual salary of three hundred and fifty pounds of gold, or over seventy thousand dollars, and his title of General of the Empire; while not for twenty years did the hot-headed young Attila make good his threat against the Roman power.
Anthemius the prefect, like the wise man he was, recognized the worth of the young Princess Pulcheria; he saw how great was her influence over her brother the emperor, and noted with astonishment and pleasure her words of wisdom and her rare common-sense.
"Rule thou in my place, O Princess!" he said, soon after this interview with the barbarian envoys. "Thou alone, of all in this broad empire, art best fitted to take lead and direction in the duties of its governing."
Pulcheria, though a wise young girl, was prudent and conscientious.
"Such high authority is not for a girl like me, good Anthemius," she replied. "Rather let me shape the ways and the growth of the emperor my brother, and teach him how best to maintain himself in a deportment befitting his high estate, so that he may become a wise and just ruler; but do thou bear sway for him until such time as he may take the guidance on himself."
"Nay, not so, Princess," the old prefect said. "She who can shape the ways of a boy may guide the will of an empire. Be thou, then, Regent and Augusta, and rule this empire as becometh the daughter of Arcadius and the granddaughter of the great Theodosius."
And as he desired, so it was decided. The Senate of the East decreed it and, in long procession, over flower-strewn pavements and through gorgeously decorated streets, with the trumpets sounding their loudest, with swaying standards, and rank upon rank of imperial troops, with great officers of the government and throngs of palace attendants, this young girl of sixteen, on the fourth day of July, in the year 414, proceeded to the Church of the Holy Apostles, and was there publicly proclaimed Pulcheria Augusta, Regent of the East, solemnly accepting the trust as a sacred and patriotic duty.
And, not many days after, before the high altar of this same Church of the Holy Apostles, Pulcheria the princess stood with her younger sisters, Arcadia and Marina, and with all the impressive ceremonial of the Eastern Church, made a solemn vow to devote their lives to the keeping of their father's heritage and the assistance of their only brother; to forswear the world and all its allurements; never to marry; and to be in all things faithful and constant to each other in this their promise and their pledge.
And they were faithful and constant. The story of those three determined young maidens, yet scarcely "in their teens," reads almost like a page from Tennyson's beautiful poem, "The Princess," with which many of my girl readers are doubtless familiar. The young regent and her sisters, with their train of attendant maidens, renounced the vanity of dress—wearing only plain and simple robes; they spent their time in making garments for the poor, and embroidered work for church decorations; and with song and prayer and frugal meals, interspersed with frequent fasts, they kept their vow to "forswear the world and its allurements," in an altogether strict and monotonous manner. Of course this style of living is no more to be recommended to healthy, hearty, fun-loving girls of fifteen than is its extreme of gayety and indulgence, but it had its effect in those bad old days of dissipation and excess, and the simplicity and soberness of this wise young girl's life in the very midst of so much power and luxury, made even the worst elements in the empire respect and honor her.
It would be interesting, did space permit, to sketch at length some of the devisings and doings of this girl regent of sixteen. "She superintended with extraordinary wisdom," says the old chronicler Sozemon, "the transactions of the Roman government," and "afforded the spectacle," says Ozanam, a later historian, "of a girlish princess of sixteen, granddaughter and sole inheritor of the genius and courage of Theodosius the Great, governing the empires of the east and west, and being proclaimed on the death of her brother, Augusta, Imperatrix, and mistress of the world!"
This last event—the death of Theodosius the Younger—occurred in the year 449, and Pulcheria ascended the golden throne of Constantinople—the first woman that ever ruled as sole empress of the Roman world.
She died July 18, 453. That same year saw the death of her youthful acquaintance, Attila the Hun, that fierce barbarian whom men had called the "Scourge of God." His mighty empire stretched from the great wall of China to the Western Alps; but, though he ravaged the lands of both eastern and western Rome, he seems to have been so managed or controlled by the wise and peaceful measures of the girl regent, that his destroying hordes never troubled the splendid city by the Golden Horn which offered so rare and tempting a booty.
It is not given to the girls of to-day to have any thing like the magnificent opportunities of the young Pulcheria. But duty in many a form faces them again and again, while not unfrequently the occasion comes for sacrifice of comfort or for devotion to a trust. To all such the example of this fair young princess of old Constantinople, who, fifteen centuries ago, saw her duty plainly and undertook it simply and without hesitation, comes to strengthen and incite; and the girl who feels herself overwhelmed by responsibility, or who is fearful of her own untried powers, may gather strength, courage, wisdom, and will from the story of this historic girl of the long ago—the wise young Regent of the East, Pulcheria of Constantinople.