Helena (c. 255–329)

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Helena (c. 255–329)

Roman empress and mother of Constantine the Great who made a famous pilgrimage through the Holy Land in search of relics and the sites associated with the life of Jesus, thereby helping to set a trend in religious piety which would help to define the Middle Ages. Pronunciation: HEL-in-a. Name variations: Saint Helena; Helena of Constantinople. Born around 255, of lowly origins, probably in northwestern Asia Minor; died around 329; buried in Rome, where her remains were long sought out by fellow Christians pilgrims; became consort, or possibly wife, of Constantius I Chlorus (Western Roman emperor with Galerius, r. 305–306), probably in the 270s (died 306); children: Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Magnus, known as Constantine I the Great (c. 285–337), Roman emperor (r. 306–337).

Rose to the top of Roman imperial society when she became the companion of Constantius I Chlorus (probably in the 270s); had son Constantine (c. 285) but was dismissed by the father of her child when he married the daughter of one of the two Roman senior emperors in order to assure his (and Constantine's) political future; when Constantius called Constantine to the West (306), she followed in his train, to be established in the German city of Trier; became a devout Christian and may have influenced Constantine increasingly towards Christianity (which he was the first to legalize); when Constantine defeated several rivals to control the Western Empire (312), she seems to have left Trier for Rome, where she probably remained until 326, acting as her son's liaison in the West and dispensing imperial largesse; probably called East (326) to play some role in the tragedy which saw Constantine first (unjustly) execute his oldest son for treason, and then his wife; named by her son an Augusta (324), was thereafter without peer in her son's life until she died; to atone for the family murders and to help overcome the contemporary tendency for the Church to disintegrate into different theological factions, made a famous pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where she again dispensed largesse in the name of her son, built churches, and perhaps sought religious relics (this early excursus helped to establish the Medieval passion for pilgrimage, especially to the Holy Land).

Helena was born around 255 ce into what appears to have been a family of inn or barkeepers, but her birthplace is not known for certain. Long rumored to have been a native of Britain, though no historical source says so, she was more probably from northwestern Asia Minor, both because her interest in Christianity seems to have predated that of her famous son and perhaps, even more significantly, because a city rechristened "Helenopolis," apparently in her honor, lay on the Anatolian shore of the Hellespont.

Other than the fact that she was of lowly status and had to work for a living before her association with Constantius I Chlorus, one of the most important political figures of the late 3rd century ce, we know nothing of Helena's youth. Some of her near contemporaries believed her to have been of Jewish heritage, but this is by no means certain. How she even came to meet the man who would rescue her from obscurity is unknown. Nonetheless, it is probable that Helena met Constantius through her job, for he traveled much in the imperial service and frequented numerous inns and taverns while doing so. Helena was almost certainly a remarkable as well as resourceful woman, for something brought this lowly waitress to the attention of a highly ranked imperial magistrate and kept her at his side for an extended period within a circle which was acutely status conscious. Whether Constantius actually married Helena, however, is another question. To have been the consort of such a lofty figure would not have brought shame to a woman of Helena's origin. The best evidence that Helena remained a consort dates from the year 292, when Constantius—with little ado and no scandal—put Helena aside in favor of an expedient marriage to a woman named Theodora —who was quite a political catch, being the step-daughter of Maximian, the senior emperor (Augustus) of the Roman West.

Helena's and Constantius' time together, probably at least a decade, bore much fruit in the person of their son, Constantine, born at Naissus on the lower Danubian frontier (c. 285). This future emperor, to be known as Constantine I the Great, would alter the course of Western history. In contrast to Helena, Theodora had six children—none even remotely as noteworthy. Following Helena's separation from Constantius, when Constantine was about seven, we hear little of her until the political emergence of her son, but it is probable that she continued to live at Constantine's side. This posed no embarrassment for Constantius, for he was seldom in the same vicinity as Helena, and in 293 he assumed the office of junior emperor (Caesar) of the West, with responsibilities in Britain and along the Rhine. This promotion came as part of the newly constituted "Tetrarchy" or "rule of four emperors"—two senior and two junior, one each in both the East and West. Although his father traveled west, the young Constantine remained in Nicomedia, in northern Anatolia, at the court of Diocletian, the Augustus of the East, in part as a hostage to ensure his father's loyal behavior.

Although Helena would attain a personal fame thanks to her devotion to Christianity, it is not known for certain whether she had converted to the faith as early as the 290s. If she was a Christian at the time, she almost certainly kept quiet about the fact, for Diocletian—an enthusiastic supporter of traditional Roman religion—was no friend to Christians. In fact in 303, incited by Galerius, the Caesar of the East, Diocletian inaugurated the era of the "Great Persecution" of Christians, which lasted eight years and only ended when it became painfully obvious to all concerned that force was not going to eradicate the Church. However, it is not impossible that Helena could have been a "quiet" Christian at Diocletian's court, for others there had Christian sympathies during this period. Although not provable, all indications suggest that Helena was at least leaning towards Christianity during the period of Constantine's youth. Later developments further suggest that she reared her son to sympathize with Christianity even as it remained a technically illegal religion.

Despite their probable different approaches to religiosity, Constantine served Diocletian loyally and well in the East, both at court and as a soldier, until both Diocletian and Maximian abdicated their positions as senior emperors in 305. It should be noted that Maximian did so reluctantly, but Diocletian insisted that both step down to allow for a smooth transition of power. His own youth having been beset by bitter imperial rivalries, Diocletian wished to establish the precedent whereby aging emperors would retire so as to permit their younger imperial colleagues to ascend to the status of "Augustus." Hence, in 305 Constantius and Galerius were jointly promoted.

In early 306, Constantius (the new Augustus of the West) requested of Galerius (the new Augustus of the East) that Constantine be allowed to assume a post in Britain at his side—a request which Galerius unwillingly granted in an attempt to sustain a precarious harmony between East and West. (This peaceful, if tense, transition of power involving four emperors was unprecedented in Roman history and transpired amid much intrigue as the new players jockeyed for relative influence.) With approval granted, Constantine quickly joined his father and briefly fought at his side in southern Scotland before Constantius died suddenly and unexpectedly at York in northern England. When Constantine traveled west, Helena accompanied him but probably advanced no further than the city of Trier on the Moselle River in modern Germany, which had served as Constantius' well-fortified seat for some time. There, Helena appears in the frescoes of the city's cathedral, testifying to the local Christian community's special devotion to her—a devotion which seems to have been engendered by personal acquaintance. His mother safely established in a well-protected fortress, Constantine continued on to Britain and war. How long Helena remained in Trier is unknown, but it is most likely that she stayed there to be joined by her son when he returned to the Continent.

Constantius' sudden death precipitated a turbulent period in the history of the Roman Empire, for the shaky peace which had linked Constantius and Galerius eroded quickly after Constantius' army, now leaderless, hailed Constantine an "Augustus." This ad hoc elevation upset the delicate balance which the Tetrarchy had attempted to maintain. It angered not only Galerius, but also Severus and Maximin Daia, the two Caesars who had been promoted to their positions as junior emperors at the same time that Constantius and Galerius had been advanced to the senior posts. Open civil war was temporarily averted by Galerius granting Constantine the rank of "Caesar," but the notion of a balanced "Tetrarchy" began to erode. Moreover, this concession to Constantine prompted Maxentius, the previously overlooked son of Maximian (the ex-Augustus of the West) to claim the status of Caesar for himself. The situation rapidly deteriorated as the egos of too many ambitious men threw the empire into war. The upstarts Constantine and Maximian arranged an alliance of convenience and fortified their agreement through the political marriage of Constantine to Maxentius' sister, Fausta . (Thus, Constantine's first legitimate wife was the sister of his stepmother Theodora.) A regional division of spoils was arranged at the time of this marriage, with Constantine claiming the Rhineland as his base and Maxentius, Italy. Constantine and Maxentius initially remained allies despite the many intrigues that followed (including an attempt by Maximian to "un-retire" and seize the advantage his son Maxentius had gained after defeating first Severus, and then Galerius, in Italy). However, after the aging Maximian's attempt to reestablish himself failed (a failure which led to his suicide in 310), and, after Galerius died in 311, the new opportunities generated by a clearing of the political landscape sparked a war for the West between Constantine and Maxentius: a war which Constantine won in 312.

During this conflict, Constantine's open affiliation with Christianity began. To start, Constantine issued the famous "Edict of Milan," which legalized Christianity. (Contrary to popular perception, this edict did not end the Great Persecution—that had already occurred in 311, when a dying Galerius lifted the purges. However, Galerius did not take the next step and legalize Christianity.) Although Constantine long continued to respect the ancient Roman religious tradition (there remained among his subjects many pagans) and although he never outlawed paganism, by the second decade of the 4th century he had begun to lavish increasing attention and greater largesse upon the Church, apparently convinced that the power of the Christian God had played a critical role in his victory over Maxentius.

By 313, a temporary calm descended upon a Roman Empire divided into two halves. This was so because, while Constantine was consolidating his Western base, a newcomer Licinius, who began his rise under Galerius and was the husband of Constantine's half-sister Constancia (c. 293–?), struck down Maximin Daia in the eastern portion of the empire. Then began a nervous period as the two ambitious and leery survivors began to spar with an eye to the future elimination of the other. Although half-hearted attempts were made to secure peace between Constantine and Licinius, these had no chance of success. Both Augusti had but one aim—to re-unite the empire under one emperor. A new phase of civil war opened in 314 with Constantine the aggressor in Thrace. Thereafter, Constantine, the greatest general of his time, maintained the pressure on his eastern rival. The loser of several major battles, Licinius abdicated and was summarily executed in 324. After 18 years of civil war, the pauses in which were filled with campaigns against barbarians, Constantine stood as the empire's sole imperial master. Nevertheless, foreign affairs, personal tragedies, and religious squabbles combined to undermine whatever notions Constantine might have had about a peaceful reign. However, the very problems which beset Constantine during his period of absolute dominance led him to turn increasingly to Helena as a potent public and private ally.

This is not to say that Helena had not been a valuable ally previously, for she had. It is probable that while Constantine was battling Licinius, Helena remained in Rome where she continued to represent Constantine's interests which appear to have been identical with her own. There she seems to have dispensed various forms of expected imperial largesse, such as restoring public baths and undertaking new building projects—including the construction of Christian churches. Her own palace would be turned into a church after her death. It is not known how long she remained in Rome, but she certainly was fondly remembered there and throughout the West, and a number of inscriptions suggest that her stay in the West was an extended one—perhaps lasting until 326, when Constantine returned to the old imperial capital to celebrate his vicennalia (the 20th anniversary of his reign).

But to appreciate fully Helena's importance, we must recognize the empire's situation at the time of, and immediately after, the Edict of Milan. When Constantine legalized Christianity, the vast majority of Christians lived in the East, where his pagan rival, Licinius (himself once intimately associated with the Great Persecution), reigned. The practical impact of the Edict in lands controlled by Constantine was minimal as of 312, but by legalizing Christianity as a showdown with Licinius loomed, Constantine not only wanted to acknowledge his debt to the Christian God, but also to create a kind of fifth column of loyal allies in the land of his opponent. What Christian would fight against the first emperor to legitimize Christianity? The tactic was so successful that, when open war developed, Licinius could not count on the support of a significant number of his subjects. Although the Christians were still a minority in the East even at this late date, they were a united and motivated block, whose unity Constantine desperately wished to maintain for political as well as religious reasons.

Fausta (d. 324)

Byzantine and Roman empress. Name variations: Flavia. Born Flavia Maxima Fausta; died in 324 (some sources cite 326); daughter of Maximian, senior emperor (Augustus) of the Roman West (r. 285/286–305), and Eutropia ; sister of Maxentius and Theodora (fl. 290s); married Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Magnus, known as Constantine I the Great (285–337), Roman emperor (r. 306–337, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, who founded Constantinople), in 307; children: Constantine II (b. 317); Constantius II (b. 323), Roman emperor (r. 337–361); Constans (b. 324); Constantina (c. 321–c. 354); Helena (c. 320–?, who married Julian, Byzantine emperor).

In 308, the Roman Empire obeyed six masters: Galerius, Licinius, and Maximin Daia in the East; as well as Maximian, Maxentius, and Constantine I the Great in the West (the father, brother, and husband, respectively, of Fausta). In 307, the union of the Western Augusti had been cemented by the marriage of Constantine to Fausta, daughter of Maximian, at the same occasion when Maximian and his son Maxentius acknowledged Constantine as Augustus. Before long Maximian was forced by disagreements to flee from his son Maxentius and to take refuge with Constantine. Once more Maximian abdicated the throne, but while Constantine was on campaign Maximian began plotting with his son to overthrow him. Constantine discovered the rebellion and pursued Maximian to Marseilles where he besieged the town. The inhabitants gave up Maximian, and Constantine quelled the rebellion. Despite his status as Fausta's father, Maximian was put to death in 309. Constantine's authority was now secure in Britain, Gaul, and the recently acquired Spain.

Fausta's brother Maxentius, however, was gathering a large force in Italy with which to invade Gaul. But Constantine, with a large veteran army and many German auxiliaries, secured the loyalty of more of his subjects by ordering a stop to the persecutions of the Christians in his dominions. He then crossed the Alps into Italy, inflicting defeats on Maxentius' forces at Turin and Verona. On October 28, 312, at a battle fought outside Rome, Maxentius was finally defeated, his forces routed, and he himself drowned in the Tiber as he was driven off the Milvian Bridge—six years from the day that his rebellion had brought him to power. Constantine, now emperor of the entire West, added Italy and Africa to his holdings, and entered Rome. But in 324, personal upheaval marred imperial peace. Constantine's wife Fausta was accused of high treason, arrested, and put to death. (Another source maintains that Fausta was charged with adultery because of a liaison with a palace official.) She was either boiled in oil or died from suffocation in an overheated bath.

But, immediately after the legalization of Christianity, the solidarity of the Church began to unravel. An illicit sect and once persecuted, Christianity had long been unified primarily by its opposition to the pagan empire. Of course, Christians believed in the resurrection of Christ as their name attests, but, beyond a few core beliefs, there were numerous differences of opinion as to exactly what must be accepted as part of the essential faith. To add to the problem, in the early 4th century there was no accepted head of the entire Church: the Roman papacy was yet to emerge as a See with extensive influence, and no bishop anywhere could claim to speak authoritatively for all on behalf of orthodox doctrine. As long as Christians were unified by their hatred of the empire and its devotion to the pagan gods, the diversity within the Christian Church hardly mattered, for all Christians could rally around their opposition to the way things stood. However, as soon as a friendly emperor embraced the Church, and even began to delegate certain imperial duties to bishops, it could no longer stand united by its antagonism to imperial society.

In the first decade of its legalization, two major heresies—that is, positions held by significant minorities within the Church—were denounced by the majority. These were sparked by priests named Donatus and Arius, neither of whom believed himself to be anything but devout and "orthodox." In lieu of any other extant authority, Constantine stepped in to enforce the will of the majority, with the result that both movements came to be persecuted by their Christian brethren. The punitive actions taken by Constantine to enforce "truth" created rifts in the Church, sent the Donatists and Arians underground and/or beyond the empire, and, was much resented by those who saw little difference between the persecutions of pagan and "Christian" emperors. Constantine did all he could to prevent the splintering of the Church, including hosting the famous Council of Nicaea in 325, but no power could overcome the differences in doctrinal opinion held by his contemporaries. Nevertheless, Constantine attempted to maintain the unity of the Church both for reasons of conscience and because Christians were among his most rabid supporters in the wars against Licinius, not completed until 324.

Another problem which beset Constantine was more mysterious in nature, probably involved Helena in the intrigue, and ended somewhat gruesomely. Constantine had sons by two different women, Minervina and Fausta. Minervina was probably a consort (being to Constantine what Helena had been to Constantius), and although she gave birth to his first-born son, Crispus, around 305, she was either dead or dismissed before Constantine's marriage to Fausta. Fausta, married to kindle Constantine's imperial ambitions, produced three sons and two daughters: Constantine II (b. 317), Constantius II (b. 323), Constans (b. 324), Constantina (c. 321–c. 354), and Helena (who married the Byzantine emperor Julian).

Although Crispus' lineage through his mother was not as lofty as that of his half-brothers, Constantine nevertheless entrusted him with important commands, among them one at Trier, and elevated him to the rank of Caesar at about the time he reached puberty. Crispus had proved himself a worthy heir to his father's military talent, but his very success threatened the dynastic interests of Fausta, whose three sons were far younger than Crispus and unable as yet to establish themselves in their father's service. Crispus' achievements undoubtedly troubled Fausta and certainly were on her mind when she brought charges of treason against him in 326. Constantine came to believe these charges and had Crispus executed. This was not the end of the affair, however, for not long after Crispus' death, Constantine, convinced that Fausta had borne false witness against Crispus and feeling exceedingly guilty over his role in the execution of his first-born son, had Fausta executed in a harrowing way—she was boiled in oil.

What plots and counterplots lay behind these two executions are irretrievable, since the whole affair was hushed up as much as possible. However, certain rumors spread which suggested that the ease with which Fausta originally convinced Constantine as to Crispus' guilt, and Constantine's brutal treatment of Fausta later, may have had something to do with accusations of an attempted rape, or seduction, of Fausta by Crispus. Incestuous sexual attraction may have played some part in the affair, but if so, it is not clear whether Crispus was attracted to Fausta, or vice versa. If the latter, than a rejection of Fausta by Crispus may have lain behind her first strike. Regardless, sex and marriage were never far from politics in the 4th century, so that the whole lurid episode undoubtedly had a taint of treason somewhere—but by whom and for what purpose is lost in the mists of time.

And what of Helena at this time? As the grandmother of Crispus, Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans, she had no dynastic interest one way or the other in the rivalries between the half-brothers. In addition, Helena's probably extended absence from Constantine's presence—it is likely that she came East with him only shortly before or after the death of Crispus—undoubtedly meant that she was not completely familiar with the intrigue of the eastern court. However, both Helena and Fausta had jointly been elevated to the status of "Augusta" (empress) in 324. Their elevation to this exalted status is confirmed numismatically, for their portraits appear on some of the obverses of Constantine's coins along with their new titles. Such honors were reserved for those whose imperial standing was being broadcast for all to respect.

An Augusta was an influential presence at court, and the fact that Constantine named both his mother and his wife to this status implies that he equally valued their advice and political acumen. Yet, built into their joint elevation was a natural rivalry for Constantine's ear, so that it is likely that both queens maneuvered to surpass the other when it came to influencing Constantine, that is, once Helena had been reunited with her son. With this reunion, Fausta undoubtedly took offense that, even though she had produced three sons for her husband, he nevertheless denied her an unparalleled position at court by looking with equal favor to mother and wife. For her part, Helena may have been jealous that Fausta could come between her and Constantine emotionally. Regardless, although Helena probably had no foreknowledge of the intrigues leading to Crispus' fall, she did come to denounce Fausta's role in the affair—a denunciation which led to Fausta's destruction. Perhaps coming to have a familiarity with the ins and outs of the women's quarters at Constantine's court gave Helena access to damaging information originally unavailable to her son. Notwithstanding, Helena's attacks quickly turned Constantine against Fausta, and his revenge was brutal. Whether or not the fate of Fausta was welcomed by Helena, from the time of Fausta's execution until her own death some three years later, the mother of Constantine was without feminine peer in the Roman Empire. In addition, during this period she acted as her son's agent in a policy intended both to purify Constantine's dynasty and to rally all Christians around common interests. Helena became a pilgrim.

Helena may not have made the first Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but her well-publicized visit in part to consecrate sites associated with the "historical" Jesus helped to launch a movement which may have crested in the Middle Ages, but which remains intact to the present time. Her trip began soon after the deaths of Crispus and Fausta and must on one level be understood as a pilgrimage undertaken to expiate her son's guilt in the gruesome affair. On another level, moreover, it appears that her visit to the Holy Land was also intended to heal the wounds which had splintered the Christian community of her time. By focusing much of her attention on retracing the steps of the living Jesus, it seems clear that through her, Constantine intended to reestablish the common ground which linked all Christians. On this plane too, the emperor seems to have been seeking repentance, for the theological arguments which had led to the definition of distinct heresies had caused Constantine, in the name of orthodoxy, to punish (sometimes with death) many heretics who remained convinced that they were as good Christians as anyone else. Although her publicized journey did not reunify either the Church or her own family for very long, as a result of it, Helena attained a widespread popularity among Christians of all hues. She became so revered that in the eastern calendar of saints, she shared a Holy Day (May 21) with her son. Her veneration became so pronounced that at least one subsequent empress (Pulcheria , c. 398–453) would name herself a "new Helena," and in the 6th century Justinian would name a whole province after her.

How did she come to be so revered? Although it is difficult to differentiate myth from fact in regards to her pilgrimage, a few things can be confidently asserted. First, Helena did not travel as a humble penitent but as the "Augusta," dispensing generous largesse upon towns, soldiers, and especially upon Christian projects. In addition, she measured out imperial mercy by releasing prisoners, restoring exiles, endowing the poor, and establishing relief funds. In order to carry out her mission, Helena had complete access to the imperial treasury, and it is clear that she was meant to maintain the highest possible profile. In short, she was to be, on Constantine's behalf, a "doer of good deeds."

Minervina (fl. 290–307)

Roman consort. Flourished around 290 to 307; consort, possibly first wife, of Constantine I the Great, Roman emperor (r. 306–337); children: Crispus (b. around 305); possibly Constantina (c. 321–c. 354).

Minervina was either dead or dismissed before Constantine's marriage to Fausta (d. 324), in 307.

Helena (c. 320–?)

Byzantine and Roman empress. Born around 320; daughter of Constantius also known as Constantine I the Great, Roman emperor (r. 306–337), and Fausta (d. 324); granddaughter of Helena (c. 255–329); married Julian, Roman emperor and Byzantine emperor (r. 361–363).

Nevertheless, posterity came to remember this imperial progress most for the building it stimulated at holy places associated with Jesus' life. At least three important churches—at Golgotha, Bethlehem, and the Mount of Olives—were begun, or at least proceeded, under her direction. Each of these was subsequently adorned in her memory by Constantine. Somewhat more tenuous is Helena's association with the contemporary excavation of Jesus' tomb and the discovery of the "True Cross." Whether or not she had a role in "archaeological" discoveries of a Christian nature, Helena later came to be associated with them, if for no other reason than that her visit stimulated in many an active interest in the physical topography of Jesus' life. Although contemporary evidence is lacking, by the end of the 4th century Helena was reputed to have gone to the Holy Land primarily to seek out the True Cross, to have discovered it (it being identified by an inscription referring to "Jesus, King of the Jews" and the miracles thereafter attributed to it), and to have sent it, along with the nails which had pierced Jesus' flesh, to Constantine at his new capital in Constantinople. Thus, whether or not Helena actively sought such relics, many soon came to think that she did, and, spurred by her example, a passion for religious relics spread like wildfire.

Where and exactly when Helena died is unknown, but it seems that she died about 329, perhaps while still in the Holy Land. Where to bury her for the most political effect undoubtedly cost Constantine emotionally, for it is clear that he always remained close to his mother. Nevertheless, she died before Constantinople had become firmly established in everyone's mind as the new center of the Roman world—even though the emperor had taken up residence there and was undertaking a lavish building program of his own. Thus, to inter her in a city with which she had so little association, which was so far from the geographical heart of the empire, and which had yet to assert its superiority over Rome as the empire's emotional capital, seemed inappropriate. In Constantine's mind, the only possible choice of burial sites was Rome itself, where Helena had already constructed a mausoleum for their family, even if few of its members would subsequently be buried there. Although he would not dwell near the place of her burial, Constantine made evidence of his maternal piety by having Helena buried in the sarcophagus elaborately decorated with symbols of victory, symbolic of both worldly success and salvation, he had intended for himself. Always the political animal as well as a devoted son, Constantine intended Helena's burial place to reflect the military success, made possible through his and Helena's devotion to the Christian God, which had won him an empire and seen his mother, a one-time waitress, esteemed throughout the Roman world as an Augusta.


Eusebius. The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, esp. 3.42–3.47, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Ser. 2, vol. 1. Edited by P. Schaff and H. Wace. New York, 1890 (reprinted 1952).

suggested reading:

Grant, Michael. Constantine the Great. NY: Scribner, 1993.

Hunt, E.D. Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Later Roman Empire. London: Oxford University Press, 1982.

W. S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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Helena (c. 255–329)

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