Helena (empress)

This article is about the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine. For the Welsh saint sometimes called Helen, see Elen (saint). For other uses, see Helen.
St. Helena

Coin of Flavia Iulia Helena, mother of Constantine I. Æ Follis (19mm, 3.45 gm). Treveri (Trier) mint. Struck 325–326 AD.
Empress; Mother of Constantine the Great
Born c.246/50
possibly at Helenopolis Bithynia, Asia Minor
Died c.327/30
Venerated in
Canonized Pre-Congregation[1]
Major shrine The shrine to St. Helena in St. Peter's Basilica
Feast 18 August (Roman Catholic Church); 21 May (Orthodox, Anglican, and most Lutheran Churches); 19 May (some Lutheran Churches); 9 Pashons (Coptic Orthodox Church)
Attributes Cross
Patronage archaeologists, converts, difficult marriages, divorced people, empresses, Saint Helena island, new discoveries[2]

Helena, St. Helena, or St. Helen (Greek: Αγία Ελένη, Latin: Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta; c.250 c.330), was a Greek native from the Greek city of Drepana (Δρέπανα) in the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor. She became the consort of the future Roman Emperor Constantius Chlorus (reigned 293-306) and the mother of the future Emperor Constantine the Great (reigned 306-337). She ranks as an important figure in the history of Christianity and of the world due to her major influence on her son. Tradition credits her with a pilgrimage to Syria Palaestina, particularly to Jerusalem, during which she allegedly discovered the True Cross.

The Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, and the Anglican Communion revere her as a saint; the Lutheran Church commemorates her.

Family life

Saint Helena with the Cross, Lucas Cranach the Elder
Helena of Constantinople by Cima da Conegliano

Helena's birthplace is not known with certainty. The 6th-century historian Procopius is the earliest authority for the statement that Helena was a native of Drepanum, in the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor. Her son Constantine renamed the city "Helenopolis" after her death around 330, which supports the belief that the city was her birthplace.[3] The Byzantinist Cyril Mango has argued that Helenopolis was refounded to strengthen the communication network around his new capital in Constantinople, and was renamed simply to honor Helena, not to mark her birthplace.[4] There was also a Helenopolis in Palestine [5] and a Helenopolis in Lydia.[6] These cities, and the province of Helenopontus in the Diocese of Pontus, were probably both named after Constantine's mother.[3]

The bishop and historian Eusebius of Caesarea states that she was about 80 on her return from Palestine.[7] Since that journey has been dated to 326–28, Helena was probably born in 248 or 250. Little is known of her early life.[8] Fourth-century sources, following Eutropius' "Breviarium," record that she came from a low background. Saint Ambrose was the first to call her a stabularia, a term translated as "stable-maid" or "inn-keeper". He makes this fact a virtue, calling Helena a bona stabularia, a "good stable-maid".[9] Other sources, especially those written after Constantine's proclamation as emperor, gloss over or ignore her background.[8]

It is unknown where she first met Constantius.[10] The historian Timothy Barnes has suggested that Constantius, while serving under Emperor Aurelian, could have met her while stationed in Asia Minor for the campaign against Zenobia. It is said that upon meeting they were wearing identical silver bracelets; Constantius saw her as his soulmate sent by God. Barnes calls attention to an epitaph at Nicomedia of one of Aurelian's protectors, which could indicate the emperor's presence in the Bithynian region soon after 270.[11] The precise legal nature of the relationship between Helena and Constantius is also unknown. The sources are equivocal on the point, sometimes calling Helena Constantius' "wife", and sometimes, following the dismissive propaganda of Constantine's rival Maxentius,[12] calling her his "concubine".[10] Jerome, perhaps confused by the vague terminology of his own sources, manages to do both.[13]

Helena's sarcophagus in the Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican Museum, Rome

Some scholars, such as the historian Jan Drijvers, assert that Constantius and Helena were joined in a common-law marriage, a cohabitation recognized in fact but not in law.[14] Others, like Timothy Barnes, assert that Constantius and Helena were joined in an official marriage, on the grounds that the sources claiming an official marriage are more reliable.[15]

Helena gave birth to the future emperor Constantine I on 27 February of an uncertain year soon after 270[16] (probably around 272).[17] At the time, she was in Naissus (Niš, Serbia).[18] In order to obtain a wife more consonant with his rising status, Constantius divorced Helena some time before 289, when he married Theodora, Maximian's daughter under his command.[19] (The narrative sources date the marriage to 293, but the Latin panegyric of 289 refers to the couple as already married).[20] Helena and her son were dispatched to the court of Diocletian at Nicomedia, where Constantine grew to be a member of the inner circle. Helena never remarried and lived for a time in obscurity, though close to her only son, who had a deep regard and affection for her.

The shrine to Saint Helena in St. Peter's Basilica

Constantine was proclaimed Augustus of the Roman Empire in 306 by Constantius' troops after the latter had died, and following his elevation his mother was brought back to the public life in 312, returning to the imperial court. She appears in the Eagle Cameo portraying Constantine's family, probably commemorating the birth of Constantine's son Constantine II in the summer of 316.[21] She received the title of Augusta in 325 and died around 330, with her son at her side. She was buried in the Mausoleum of Helena, outside Rome on the Via Labicana. Her sarcophagus is on display in the Pio-Clementine Vatican Museum, although the connection is often questioned. Next to her is the sarcophagus of her granddaughter Saint Constantina (Saint Constance). Her skull is displayed in the Cathedral of Trier, in Germany.


Orthodox Bulgarian icon of Constantine and St. Helena

Helena is considered by the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern and Latin Catholic churches, as well as by the Anglican Communion and Lutheran Churches, as a saint, famed for her piety. She is sometimes known as Helen of Constantinople to distinguish her from others with similar names.

Her feast day as a saint of the Orthodox Christian Church is celebrated with her son on 21 May, the "Feast of the Holy Great Sovereigns Constantine and Helen, Equal to the Apostles."[22] Likewise, Anglican churches, and some Lutheran churches, keep the Eastern date. Her feast day in the Roman Catholic Church falls on 18 August. Her feast day in the Coptic Orthodox Church is on 9 Pashons.

Eusebius records the details of her pilgrimage to Palestine and other eastern provinces (though not her discovery of the True Cross). She is the patron saint of new discoveries.

Her discovery of the Cross along with Constantine is dramatised in the Santacruzan, a ritual pageant in the Philippines. Held in May (when Roodmas was once celebrated), the procession also bears elements of the month's Marian devotions.

Letter From Constantine to Macarius of Jerusalem
"Such is our Saviour's grace, that no power of language seems adequate to describe the wondrous circumstance to which I am about to refer. For, that the monument (the cross) of his (Christ) most holy Passion, so long ago buried beneath the ground, should have remained unknown for so long a series of years, until its reappearance to his servants now set free through the removal of him who was the common enemy of all, is a fact which truly surpasses all admiration. I have no greater care than how I may best adorn with a splendid structure that sacred spot, which, under Divine direction, I have disencumbered as it were of the heavy weight of foul idol worship;(Roman temple of Venus) a spot which has been accounted holy from the beginning in God’s judgment, but which now appears holier still, since it has brought to light a clear assurance of our Saviour’s passion. "[23]

"There was a temple of Venus on the spot. This the queen (Helena) had destroyed."[24]

Relic discoveries

Titular statue of Santa Liena, Birkirkara Malta, during the village festa procession, 21 August 2011

Constantine appointed his mother Helena as Augusta Imperatrix, and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to locate the relics of Judeo-Christian tradition. In 326-28 Helena undertook a trip to the Holy Places in Palestine. According to Eusebius of Caesarea she was responsible for the construction or beautification of two churches, the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, and the Church of Eleona on the Mount of Olives, sites of Christ's birth and ascension, respectively. Local founding legend attributes to Helena's orders the construction of a church in Egypt to identify the Burning Bush of Sinai. The chapel at Saint Catherine's Monastery—often referred to as the Chapel of Saint Helen—is dated to the year AD 330.

Jerusalem was still being rebuilt following the destruction caused by Titus in AD 70. Emperor Hadrian had built during the 130s a temple over the site of Jesus's tomb near Calvary, and renamed the city Aelia Capitolina. Accounts differ concerning whether the temple was dedicated to Venus or Jupiter[25] According to tradition, Helena ordered the temple torn down and, according to the legend that arose at the end of the 4th century, chose a site to begin excavating, which led to the recovery of three different crosses. The legend is recounted in Ambrose, On the Death of Theodosius (died 395) and at length in Rufinus' chapters appended to his translation into Latin of Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, the main body of which does not mention the event.[26] Then, Rufinus relates, the empress refused to be swayed by anything short of solid proof and performed a test. Possibly through Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, she had a woman who was near death brought from the city. When the woman touched the first and second crosses, her condition did not change, but when she touched the third and final cross she suddenly recovered,[27] and Helena declared the cross with which the woman had been touched to be the True Cross. On the site of discovery, Constantine ordered the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; churches were also built on other sites detected by Helena. Sozomen and Theodoret claim that Helena also found the nails of the crucifixion. To use their miraculous power to aid her son, Helena allegedly had one placed in Constantine's helmet, and another in the bridle of his horse.

Helena's head relic in the crypt of Trier cathedral

Helena left Jerusalem and the eastern provinces in 327 to return to Rome, bringing with her large parts of the True Cross and other relics, which were then stored in her palace's private chapel, where they can be still seen today. Her palace was later converted into the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. This has been maintained by Cistercian monks in the monastery which has been attached to the church for centuries.

Tradition says that the site of the Vatican Gardens was spread with earth brought from Golgotha by Helena[28][29] to symbolically unite the blood of Christ with that shed by thousands of early Christians, who died in the persecutions of Nero.[28]

According to one tradition, Helena acquired the Holy Tunic on her trip to Jerusalem and sent it to Trier.

According to Byzantine tradition, Helena is responsible for the large population of cats in Cyprus. Local tradition holds that she imported hundreds of cats from Egypt or Palestine in the fourth century AD to rid a monastery of snakes. The monastery is today known as "St. Nicholas of the Cats" (Greek Άγιος Νικόλαος των Γατών) and is located near Limassol.[30]

Several relics purportedly discovered by Saint Helena are now in Cyprus, where she spent some time. Among them are items believed to be part of Jesus Christ's tunic, pieces of the holy cross, and pieces of the rope with which Jesus was tied on the Cross. The rope, considered to be the only relic of its kind, has been held at the Stavrovouni Monastery, which was also founded by Saint Helena.

Depictions in British folklore

Helena finding the True Cross, Italian manuscript c.825

In Great Britain, later legend, mentioned by Henry of Huntingdon but made popular by Geoffrey of Monmouth, claimed that Helena was a daughter of the King of Britain, Cole of Colchester, who allied with Constantius to avoid more war between the Britons and Rome.[31] Geoffrey further states that she was brought up in the manner of a queen, as she had no brothers to inherit the throne of Britain. The source for this may have been Sozomen's Historia Ecclesiastica, which however does not claim Helena was British but only that her son Constantine picked up his Christianity there.[32] Constantine was with his father when he died in York, but neither had spent much time in Britain.

The statement made by English chroniclers of the Middle Ages, according to which Helena was supposed to have been the daughter of a British prince, is entirely without historical foundation. It may arise from the similarly-named Welsh princess Saint Elen (alleged to have married Magnus Maximus and to have borne a son named Constantine) or from the misinterpretation of a term used in the fourth chapter of the panegyric on Constantine's marriage with Fausta. The description of Constantine honoring Britain oriendo (lit. "from the outset", "from the beginning") may have been taken as an allusion to his birth ("from his beginning") although it was actually discussing the beginning of his reign.[33]

At least twenty-five holy wells currently exist in the United Kingdom dedicated to a Saint Helen. She is also the patron saint of Abingdon and Colchester. St Helen's Chapel in Colchester was believed to have been founded by Helena herself, and since the 15th century, the town's coat of arms has shown a representation of the True Cross and three crowned nails in her honour.[34] Colchester Town Hall has a Victorian statue of the saint on top of its 50-metre-high (160 ft) tower.[35] The arms of Nottingham are almost identical because of the city's connection with Cole, her supposed father.[36]

Depictions in fiction

In medieval legend and chivalric romance, Helena appears as a persecuted heroine, in the vein of such women as Emaré and Constance; separated from her husband, she lives a quiet life, supporting herself on her embroidery, until such time as her son's charm and grace wins her husband's attention and so the revelation of their identities.[37]

Helena is the protagonist of Evelyn Waugh's novel Helena. She is also the main character of Priestess of Avalon (2000), a fantasy novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxson. She is given the name Eilan and depicted as a trained priestess of Avalon.

Helena is also the protagonist of Louis de Wohl's novel The Living Wood, 1947, in which she is again the daughter of King Coel of Colchester.


  1. Her canonization pre-dates the practice of formal canonization by the Holy See and by the relevant Orthodox Churches. "August 18 in German History". TGermanCulture.com.ua. Retrieved 2016-10-16. Her designation as a saint precedes the practice of canonization by the Pope.
  2. Compare: Draco, Melusine (2016). "7: The Church Calendar". The Secret People: Parish-Pump Witchcraft, Wise-Women and Cunning Ways. Alresford: John Hunt Publishing. ISBN 9781785354458. Retrieved 2016-10-17. St Helena, patron of new discoveries, archaeologists, converts, difficult marriages, divorced people and empresses.
  3. 1 2 Harbus, 12.
  4. Mango, 143–58, cited in Harbus, 13.
  5. Günter Stemberger, Jews and Christians in the Holy Land: Palestine in the fourth century, 2000, p. 9 full text
  6. Hunt, 49, cited in Harbus, 12.
  7. Eusebius, Vita Constantini 3.46.
  8. 1 2 Harbus, 13.
  9. Ambrose, De obitu Theodosii 42; Harbus, 13.
  10. 1 2 Lieu and Montserrat, 49.
  11. Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 2776, cited in Barnes, "New Empire," 36.
  12. Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Roman Emperor, Christian Victor, 2010:126f.:130.
  13. Hieronymus, Chronica, s.a. 292, p. 226, 4 and s.a. 306, p. 228, 23/4, cited in Lieu and Montserrat, 49.
  14. Drijvers, Helena Augusta, 17-19.
  15. Barnes, New Empire, 36.
  16. Barnes, CE, 3, 39–42; Elliott, Christianity of Constantine, 17; Odahl, 15; Pohlsander, "Constantine I"; Southern, 169, 341.
  17. Barnes, CE, 3; Barnes, New Empire, 39–42; Elliott, "Constantine's Conversion," 425–6; Elliott, "Eusebian Frauds," 163; Elliott, Christianity of Constantine, 17; Jones, 13–14; Lenski, "Reign of Constantine" (CC), 59; Odahl, 16; Pohlsander, Emperor Constantine, 14; Rodgers, 238; Wright, 495, 507.
  18. Barnes, CE, 3.
  19. Barnes, CE, 8–9.
  20. Origo 1; Victor, Caes. 39.24f; Eutropius, Brev. 9.22.1; Epitome 39.2; Pan. Lat. 10(2).11.4, cited in Barnes, CE, 288 n.55.
  21. The cameo was incorporated in the rich binding of the Ada Gospels; the date 316 is argued in Stephenson 2010:126f.
  22. "May 21: Feast of the Holy Great Sovereigns Constantine and Helen, Equal to the Apostles". Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Archived from the original on 2007-11-07. Retrieved 2008-03-28.
  23. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iv.vi.iii.xxx.html
  24. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iv.iii.iv.viii.html
  25. Stephenson 2010:252.
  26. Noted in Stephenson 2010:253f, who observes "None of this is true" noting Rufinus' source in a lost work of Gelasius of Caesarea.
  27. There are actually several different accounts: Catholic Encyclopedia: Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix: "Following an inspiration from on high, Macarius caused the three crosses to be carried, one after the other, to the bedside of a worthy woman who was at the point of death. The touch of the other two was of no avail; but on touching that upon which Christ had died the woman got suddenly well again. From a letter of St. Paulinus to Severus inserted in the Breviary of Paris it would appear that St. Helena herself had sought by means of a miracle to discover which was the True Cross and that she caused a man already dead and buried to be carried to the spot, whereupon, by contact with the third cross, he came to life. From yet another tradition, related by St. Ambrose following Rufinus, it would seem that the titulus, or inscription, had remained fastened to the Cross."; see also Socrates' Church History at CCEL.org: Book I, Chapter XVII: The Emperor’s Mother Helena having come to Jerusalem, searches for and finds the Cross of Christ, and builds a Church.
  28. 1 2 "MO Plants: Vatican Gardens". © 2006 MoPlants.com. Retrieved 2008-11-21. External link in |publisher= (help)
  29. Patron saint of archaeologists
  30. Dubin, Marc (2009). The Rough Guide To Cyprus. Rough Guide. pp. 135–136.
  31. The purely legendary British connection is traced by A. Harbus, Helen of Britain in Medieval Legend, 2002.
  32. "Socrates and Sozomenus Ecclesiastical Histories". Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 2008-03-28.
  34. "Colchester In The Early Fifteenth Century". Dur.ac.uk. Retrieved 2013-03-26.
  35. "Colchester Town Hall:: OS grid TL9925 :: Geograph Britain and Ireland - photograph every grid square!". Geograph.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-03-26.
  36. "Nottinghamshire history > Articles > Articles form the Transactions of the Thoroton Society > An itinerary of Nottingham: St Mary's churchyard". Nottshistory.org.uk. 2010-06-01. Retrieved 2013-03-26.
  37. Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p29 New York Burt Franklin,1963


Further reading

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Helena of Constantinople.
Wikisource has the text of an 1879 American Cyclopædia article about Helena (empress).
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/19/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.