Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Dawn Empress by Faith L. Justice introduces a powerful woman from the 5th-century Eastern Roman Empire

“You may not be able to pass laws or lead armies,” Princess Pulcheria’s religious tutor tells her as a child, “but the love of the people is no small thing. That power, used wisely… can be just as effective in ruling.”

History abounds with accomplished women whose stories have undeservedly been forgotten. Aelia Pulcheria Augusta is among them, and I hadn’t so much as heard her name until a few weeks ago, when a blog tour invitation appeared in my inbox.

A strong political force in the fifth-century Eastern Roman Empire, Pulcheria guided her younger brother, Theodosius II, during his minority and served as his influential advisor – on and off – through his decades-long reign. With Dawn Empress, second in a series about the Theodosian imperial women, Faith L. Justice gathers up the known facts about Pulcheria and offers a well-rounded, human portrait of this accomplished woman.

The story follows Pulcheria from her youth at the imperial court in Constantinople through the end of her life, with the chapter headings noting the year and place. Pulcheria is intelligent, pious, and frequently stubborn, a combination that doesn't endear her to her brother Theo’s advisors, who want her safely married and out of the picture. Pulcheria has other plans, though. She mingles with the common people, demonstrates charity toward them, and cleverly finds a way to bring honor to the Church and simultaneously remain by her brother’s side. She also persuades her two younger sisters to follow her example.

Pulcheria isn’t always a comfortable heroine. Her judgmental nature and forthrightness are off-putting (just ask her aunt, Galla Placidia), her jealousy of Theo’s wife Athenais gets her into trouble, and she sometimes missteps when it comes to Theo, too. But when it comes to ruling prudently and identifying threats to the realm, her heart is in the right place. With the Huns and other “barbarians” advancing on Rome, and Theo falling under the influence of unsuitable people, Pulcheria can’t let her guard down. The Roman Empire at this time was a hot spot for ecclesiastical heresies, and the author navigates a clear path through these theological disputes without overburdening the reader. Some character names (Anthemius, Asclepiodotus, Olympiodorus, and more) are a mouthful, but the character list helps keep track of who’s who.

It’s a recommended read for historical fiction old-timers who enjoyed the works of Gillian Bradshaw, and for anyone seeking out fresh subjects in historical fiction about world rulers or influential women.

Dawn Empress was published by Raggedy Moon Books on May 31 in hardcover, paperback, and ebook, and I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy.


  1. So glad to read your review. An unknown snippet of history and such an intriguing character too.

  2. Yes, I was glad to know more about her through the novel. Thanks for commenting!

  3. I have never heard of any writer using the 5th century eastern Roman empire for a historical novel. I love reading about new (to me) eras and am going to have to read this one.

  4. Same here. This period was new to me for historical fiction also.