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Helena Augusta (248/249-328/329 A.D.)

Jan Willem Drijvers

Coin with the image of  Helena (c)1998 Princeton Economic Institute

Flavia Iulia Helena was probably born in the city of Drepanum in Bithynia. Various sources indicate that Drepanum was renamed Helenopolis by Helena's son Constantinus I to honour and to perpetuate Helena's memory (e.g., Sozom., Hist. Eccl., 2.2.5). Procopius (Aedif. 5.2.1-5) mentions that Constantine changed the name of Drepanum to Helenopolis because his mother was born there. Her year of birth may be established on Eusebius' remark (VC., 3.46) that she died at the age of about eighty years. Since she probably died in 328/9, she must have been born ca. 248/9. Helena was of low social origin. Ambrose (De obit. Theod.,42) calls her a stabularia and Eutropius (Brev. 10.2) mentions that she was born ex obscuriore matrimonio. Philostorgius (Hist. Eccl., 2.16) calls her `a common woman not different from strumpets' (cf. also Zos. 2.8.2 and 2.9.2). Constantius I Chlorus and Helena probably met in Drepanum ca. 270. It is very likely that the pair lived in concubinage, an accepted form of cohabitation for people of different social origin. In 272/3 Helena gave birth to Constantine in Naissus. It is not known whether Helena bore any other children besides Constantine. When in 289 Constantius became Caesar and married Theodora, he separated from Helena and Helena's life recedes into obscurity for us.

The gap in our knowledge about Helena's life lasts at least until 306, when the troops in York proclaimed Constantine the successor of his father. It is probable that from this time on Helena joined her son's court. Constantine's foremost residences in the West were Trier and Rome. Ceiling frescoes in the imperial palace in Trier, on which Helena possibly is depicted, as well as a lively medieval Helena tradition in Trier and its surroundings, may be an indication that Helena once lived in this northernmost, imperial residence. After Constantine had defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, Helena probably came to live in Rome. The fundus Laurentus in the south-east corner of Rome, which included the Palatium Sessorianum, a circus and public baths (later called Thermae Helenae), came into her possession. Several inscriptions (e.g., CIL, 6.1134, 1135, 1136) found in the area, are evidence for a close connection between Helena and the fundus Laurentus. So is her interest in the newly found basilica Ss. Marcellino e Pietro which was built in the area that belonged to the fundus Laurentus (Lib. Pont., I, 183), as well as the fact that she was buried in a mausoleum attached to this basilica.

Helena must have been a prominent person at the imperial court. Before 324 she held the title of Nobilissma Femina as may be concluded from coins. In 324, after Constantine's defeat of Licinius, Helena received the title of Augusta. The increase of coins - with the legend SECURITAS REIPUBLICE - and inscriptions bearing this title indicate Helena's rise in status and her prominency within the Neo-Flavian dynasty.

Although it has been suggested that from her childhood on Helena had felt great sympathy for Christianity, it is more likely that she only converted after 312 when her son Constantine began to protect and favour the Christian church. Eusebius reports that Helena was converted by Constantine and that he made her a devoted servant of God (VC, 3.47). That she once was Jewish, as suggested by the Actus Sylvestri and taken seriously by J. Vogt is most unlikely. There are indications - e.g. her sympathy for the martyr Lucian, Arius' teacher - that Helena was favourable towards Arianism.

The most memorable event of Helena's life was her journey to Palestine and the other eastern provinces in 327-328. Because of Eusebius' description of this journey (VC, 3.42-47), it is generally looked upon as a pilgrimage. Eusebius only has eyes for the religious aspects of her journey. He depicts Helena as driven by religious enthusiasm: she wants to pray at the places where Christ's feet had touched the ground, she cares for the poor and needy, she only does good deeds and is generous, and she builds churches. However, it may also be possible that her journey to the East was a political act of conciliation. People living in the East may have been dissatisfied with Constantine's radical (religious) reforms, which included e.g. the replacement of many officials by Christian dignitaries and the rigorous suppression of pagan cults. Furthermore, Constantine's popularity may have suffered severe damage from murdering his wife Fausta and his son Crispus in 326. A reason why Helena travelled to the East may therefore have been to appease the inhabitants of the eastern regions of the Empire.

Shortly after her journey to the East Helena died in the presence of her son Constantine (Euseb., VC, 3.46). The abrupt interruption in the issue of Helena Augusta-coins in the spring of 329 suggests that she died either at the end of 328 or the beginning of 329. She was buried in Rome in the mausoleum near the Ss. Marcellino e Pietro at the Via Labicana. The porphyry sarcophagus, which contained her remains, is now in the Vatican Museum.

Her greatest fame Helena acquired by an act for which she was probably not responsible, i.e. the finding of the True Cross. Her presence in Jerusalem and the description Eusebius presented of her stay in the Holy Land led ultimately to connecting Helena with the discovery of the Cross. Remains of the Cross were already venerated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem at the end of the 340s as is clear from sermons of Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem (Cat. 4.10, 10.19, 13.4 PG 33, 467ff, 685-687, 777). After 7 May 351, Cyril wrote the Emperor Constantius II that the Cross was discovered during the reign of Constantine I; the bishop gives no indication who discovered the rel ic (Ep. ad Const., 3 PG 33, 1168B). The Emperor Julian believed in the discovery of the relic; he rebukes Christians for worshipping the object (Contra Gal. 194C). The legend of Helena's discovery of the Cross originated in Jerusal em in the second half of the fourth century and rapidly spread over the whole empire. Three versions of the legend came into existence in Late Antiquity: the Helena legend, the Protonike legend and the Judas Kyriakos legend. The Helena legend, which was known in Greek and Latin, is found in: Rufinus (Hist. Eccl., 10.7-8), Socrates (Hist. Eccl. 1.17 PG 67, 117ff), Sozomen (Hist., Eccl. 2.1-2) Theodoretus (Hist. Eccl.. 1.18), Ambrose (De obitu Theod., 40-49), Paulinus of Nola (Epist., 31.4-5), and Sulpicius Severus (Chron. 2.22-34). The Protonike legend was only known in Syriac (and later on in Armenian) and was part of the Edessene Doctrina Addai but also circulated independently in the Syriac-speaking regions. In this version of the legend Helena's role is taken over by the fictitious first-century empress Protonike. The Judas Kyriakos legend originated in Greek, but became also known in Latin and Syriac and later on in many vernacular languages. This version relates how Helena discovered the Cross with the help of the Jew Judas, who later converted and received the name Kyriakos. It became the most popular version of the three, probably because of its anti-Judaism.

Because of her alleged discovery of the Cross Helena became a saint in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church. Her feast day in the eastern church is 21 May and in the western church 18 August.


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