The Apple Of Empress Eudocia

I came across a poignant little tale yesterday, languishing in a forgotten volume of history on the reign of the Roman emperor Theodosius II (A.D. 401-450).  The book is the Chronographia of the ecclesiastical historian John Malalas (c. 491-578).

The wife of Theodosius was a beautiful and vigorous woman named Aelia Eudocia (c. 401-460).  She was a learned and capable empress, even producing literary works of merit in their own right.  Naturally such a personality had a zest for life, and all it had to offer.  Like the learned Hypatia of Alexandria, who also combined potent feminine charms with regal bearing, the empress attracted both intense admiration and repressed resentment.  This tragic story is related about Eudocia.

One day the emperor Theodosius was on his way to visit a church during the Feast of the Epiphany with his retinue.  A citizen who approached him gave the emperor as a gift a Phrygian apple that was extremely large.  The emperor’s entourage were impressed by this oddity.  The citizen was awarded with a sum of money (150 nomismata) for his trouble.  Theodosius sent the apple to the empress Eudocia.  Eudocia, in turn, sent the large apple to her favorite, Paulinus, who also happened to be the emperor’s magister officiorum (master of offices), which was a top government rank.

We should note here that in old Greek culture, the gift of an apple from a woman to a man was a symbol of love.  The woman who bestowed such a gift on a man did so to communicate special feeling.  Paulinus, we should also mention, was a very handsome man and long-time friend of Theodosius from childhood.  Paulinus did not know that the apple he received from Eudocia had originally come from Theodosius.  He therefore gave it to the emperor, who recognized it immediately.  This act sealed his fate.

Theodosius concealed the apple and approached Eudocia; he then began to question her about the apple.  “Where is the apple?  What has happened to it?” he asked her.  “I ate it,” was Eudocia’s reply.  He asked her to swear to the truth of her statement, to swear that she did not give it to any man, and she swore that it was true.  The emperor then produced the hidden apple, proving her to have lied.  Thus were the seeds of suspicion sown in his mind about the nature of the relationship between Eudocia and his friend and minister Paulinus.  Rumors of their liaison swirled around the court.  Eventually, he had Paulinus executed in A.D. 444.

Everyone knew that Paulinus had been put to death on account of Eudocia.  In grief and mourning, she left Constantinople to pray and work in Jerusalem.  She retained her rights as empress, but focused her energies on social work.  Her work was so successful and effective in Jerusalem that again the jealousies of Theodosius were aroused.  He sent one of his men, named Saturninus, to probe into the activities of Eudocia in Jerusalem.  Saturninus even had two close confidants of the empress, priests named Severus and John, slain.

But Eudocia took her revenge on Saturninus by causing him to be assassinated soon after this.  She spent the remainder of her life in charitable and religious work in the Jerusalem area.  Theodosius made no further effort to monitor her.

The turbulent passions of men and women provide a rich tapestry to adorn the walls of historical chronicles; and the fates of us all are woven into this rich brocade.


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4 thoughts on “The Apple Of Empress Eudocia

  1. The story need not be taken literally. The apple (aka forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden) represents a literary device to imply an amorous (presumably sexual) relationship. Whether or not such existed between Eudoxia and Paulinos is debatable. They certainly knew each other before she was married to Theodosius II, and it was probably Paulinos (rather than Pulcheria, Theodosius’s elder sister) who met her first. Either way, the introduction to the emperor, who at 20 years was socially (and probably hormonally) ripe for marriage, was successful.
    Pulcheria was a domineering elder sister, who after being proclaimed Augusta (regent) at the age of 15 (when Theodosius was 13) did not relinquish this role till Eudocia demanded it three years into her marriage… Not surpisingly whatever initial friendship there was between Pulcheria & Eudoxia soon waned. The sanctimonious piety surrounding the court gradually disappeared and Eudoxia won great acclaim in her contributions to the rebuilding of Constantinople after a serious earthquake in 437. Pulcheria was “retired” from an active role in state affairs, and no doubt resented this.
    It is highly likely that the accusation of Eudoxia’s infidelity (hardly likely to be something new if true at all, seeing Eudoxia was 40 years old by this time) came from Pulcheria. Eudoxia only left Constantinople three years after Paulinos’s execution (which hardly implies her guilty of adultery) three years later. It was Pulcheria who schemed later to have her friends in Jerusalem executed on a pretext.
    Eudoxia had found a theologian she could sympathize with (given her Greek philosophical background, having been well tutored by her father Leontius) in Nestorius, whose antipathy to the cult of Mary veneration, alrerady strong by the fifth century, was, in his view, getting out of hand. Nestorius proposed that the term ‘theodotos’ (mother of God), evidently logically impossible, should be dropped in favour of ‘christodotos’. Pulcheria styled herself as the “eternal Virgin”, which Nestorius famously claimed she definitely was not, even suggesting, like Jesus meeting the woman at the well, that she had had 7 “husbands”. The notion of “eternal virgin”, carefully cultivated, merged with that of Mary in public announcements and the popular mind, not surprising in an era where the emperor till recently had been deemed a deity.
    Consequently Pulcheria, in 451, now conveniently wife of the new emperor Marcian following Theodosius’s sudden death from falling from a horse, summoned the famous Council of Chalcedon, with the primary aim of getting rid of Chrysaphius (Theodosius’s eunuch who stood in her way) and Nestorius whose theology undermined her position.
    The famous theological conclusions of the Council of 452 bishops on the Incarnation of Jesus were a grand compromise (still not acceptable to all) but the real purpose was to sideline Nestorius.
    Pulcheria only lived four years after marrying Marcian and so her glory was short-lived, while Eudoxia survived in Jerusalem till 67 years old. By then Theodosius’s dynasty (even though he was the longest reigning Roman emperor, and had preserved the East from the ravages of Attila the Hun) was extinct.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is one of the best comments I’ve ever gotten. Thank you so much, Mike. Fantastic erudition and background knowledge here, and it puts an entirely new dimension on the story.


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