Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Constantine Helena |
She endeared herself to the world

Constantine Helena is drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 247, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit www.TheChristians.info.

Through her charities and an amazing journey taken in her late 70s Constantine’s mother left an indelible example for Christians

Constantine Helena - She endeared herself to the world

Constantine Helena – She endeared herself to the world
Helena has every reason to look satisfied in this statue in the Museo Capitolino in Rome. Although she had been cast aside when her husband, Constantius Chlorus, sought a more prestigious marriage, she was vindicated by her loving son, Constantine. And by the time she posed for this sculpture in 320, she enjoyed prestige well beyond what she might have expected with Constantius.

She began as a nobody from nowhere, and raised a son who would become emperor and decisively set the course for the history of the whole Western world. Most historians (though not all) believe she did not come to Christianity until in her sixties. In her late seventies, she embarked upon an unlikely pilgrimage to Jerusalem that gave rise to centuries of legends, traditions and controversies. Through the succeeding centuries, she became a model of humility, charity and faith that would greatly influence Christians for centuries to come.

This was Flavia Julia Helena, born some time between 248 and 250 in Drepanum, a town in Bithynia that served as a Roman military center in the East. Her family was of low social status: Ambrose of Milan reports that Helena was a serving maid, a stabularia, in an inn or a hostelry that was probably owned by her parents.

According to a story cherished for centuries in England, Helena was the daughter of the merry old soul King Cole of the nursery rhyme, who was in real life King Coel of Colchester. While there is no credible historical evidence to support the connection, Colchester–Britain’s oldest recorded town–makes good use of the story in tourist promotions.

Closer to what was more likely her home, Helena became, around 270, the wife of Constantius Chlorus. Some say she was his concubine, but no moral stigma was attached to the concubine relationship. It simply recognized the disparity in social position between a Roman officer with good career prospects and an innkeeper’s daughter. It meant they could not legally marry.

She gave birth to a son, Constantine, in about 274. The obvious affection and regard between mother and son in later life suggest a close and caring upbringing. In addition, descriptions of the elderly Helena’s humility, munificence and charity toward others, and of Constantius’s intelligence, temperate governance, and tolerance of Christians during the Diocletian persecution, suggest what the family’s home life must have been like for some two decades. (The thesis that Helena and her husband were closet Christians who raised Constantine in the faith, is advanced by the University of Toronto’s T. G. Elliott. (see chapter 5, this volume.)

In about 293, however, Helena’s world came apart. Constantius put her aside to marry Theodora, and thereby secure for himself the rank of caesar; and their son Constantine was sent to live with the augustus Diocletian in Nicomedia, a hostage to guarantee his father’s loyalty. Helena, now middle-aged, was left alone, and for more than a dozen years, she disappears from history’s notice.

Some time after 306, Constantine, first as caesar and then as emperor, brought Helena to live with him in Trier and Rome, respectively. She was granted the title of Most Honored and Noble Lady, reserved for immediate members of the emperor’s family, then the title Augusta around 324. The Sessorian Palace in Rome became her residence, and Constantine granted her access to the imperial treasury. Coins bore her name and likeness; statues were dedicated to her; cities and provinces were renamed in her honor, including her birthplace Drepanum, which upon her death became Helenopolis, in the province of Helenopontus.

Whatever her prior faith commitments, by 312, the sixty-something Helena had become an ardent and active Christian. She “appears to have been more spiritually minded than her son,” writes the historian Hans A. Pohlsander. “Her piety was more intense and her conduct more pure. She understood and practiced the Christian virtues of humility and charity. Her life, much more than that of her son, came to be dominated by the Christian faith.”

It is not at all clear what motivated this grandmother, something like seventy-eight years old at the time, to travel to Jerusalem on a grueling pilgrimage. Some have suggested that she undertook the journey as penance for Constantine’s murder of his wife and son. But whatever prompted Helena’s travels, it is recorded that on the road to Palestine and the Eastern provinces of the empire, she lived her faith as devoutly as she had in Rome. She attended services among the people, and used the public treasury to carry out charitable works and to sponsor and therefore accelerate church construction.

Accounts link Helena’s name with establishment of the basilica of the Holy Nativity at Bethlehem; the Church of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem; and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site of Hadrian’s temple to Venus, over the grotto where Christ was thought to have been entombed. Constantine himself is often credited with directing Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem to replace the pagan temple with the much acclaimed Christian structure. But it is Helena who is credited with having found the site of Christ’s tomb.

Helena is also credited with having discovered the true cross at nearby Mount Calvary (Golgotha). It is said that Helena was led to a certain location in Jerusalem by divine direction. Her party managed to dig up three crosses and a title board–“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” But the joy of discovery was short-lived. Which of the three crosses went with the title? Jerusalem’s Bishop Macarius suggested that a gravely ill noblewoman be placed upon each of the crosses in turn. When she was healed after resting on the third one, everyone concluded it was the true cross. Helena sent a piece of it to Constantine, who immediately ordered Macarius to build on the site “a basilica more beautiful than any on earth.”

While deep Christian devotion, tradition, literature and art over the ensuing centuries became attached to her discovery of the True Cross, its historical credentials date back only to the late fourth or fifth centuries. Credible historians of that time–Gelasius of Caesarea, Rufinus, Socrates, Sozomen and Theodoret–acknowledge the discovery and credit her with the principal role, as do Ambrose, Paulinus of Nola and Sulpicius Severus. But details vary greatly, and neither the highly regarded Eusebius, nor St. John Chrysostom, nor Athanasius mentions Helena in reference to the cross.

With or without that, however, Helena’s pilgrimage through the Holy Land is well documented. It profoundly impressed Christians throughout the empire, and prompted a constant stream of future pilgrimages. Because of her efforts, Constantine built impressive structures on many holy sites–his construction in the region, some say, actually turned Palestine into the “Holy Land.”

When her work in Jerusalem was done, Helena ended her days in Nicomedia or Constantinople. Sometime between 328 and 330, at about eighty years of age, she died with her son at her side. Her body was taken to Rome for burial in the Via Labicana mausoleum.

Without any doubt, her reported discovery of the True Cross and her establishment of many churches left a profound material legacy. But her manner of living–selfless among the helpless poor and the powerful rich, commoners and rulers, learned theologians and novices–was equally celebrated.

Medieval hymns praised Helena’s deeds; Byzantine empresses sought to emulate her humility and charity. As the devotion to Helena took root, churches and monasteries throughout Europe were dedicated to her. European colonization carried her name to South Africa, North America, and to the island in the South Atlantic where Napoleon would be exiled. Invoking her name in France and Germany was said to be helpful in catching a thief or recovering stolen goods. Sowing flax on her Eastern feast day, May 21, would produce a good harvest in Russia and Ukraine. In the West, Helena’s feast day is celebrated on August 18. And miners in the Swiss and Austrian Alps claimed her as their patron saint.

Born in obscurity, Flavia Julia Helena crossed the stage of history in a magnificent role as empress and saint, leaving a remarkable heritage in her wake. In the words of British novelist Evelyn Waugh, “What we can learn from Helena is something about the workings of God; that he wants a different thing from each of us, laborious or easy, conspicuous or quite private, but something which only we can do and for which we were created.”

This is the end of the Constantine Helena category article drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 247, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Constantine Helena from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at www.TheChristians.info