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Helena (empress)

Helena (empress)

Helena, or Saint Helena (Greek: Ἁγία Ἑλένη, Hagía Helénē, Latin: Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta; c. 246/248  – c. 330), was an Empress of the Roman Empire, and mother of Emperor Constantine the Great. Born outside of the noble classes,[6] a Greek, possibly in the Greek city of Drepana, Bithynia in Asia Minor, she became the consort of the future Roman Emperor Constantius Chlorus and the mother of the future Emperor Constantine the Great.

Helena ranks as an important figure in the history of Christianity and of the world due to her influence on her son. In her final years, she made a religious tour of Syria Palaestina and 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.

Empress of the Roman Empire
Reign325–330 (5 years)
Reign325–330 (5 years)
Bornc. 246/48
Drepanum, Bithynia and Pontus
Diedc. 330
Rome, Tuscania et Umbria
Mausoleum of Helena
SpouseConstantius Chlorus
IssueConstantine the Great
Full name
Flavia Julia Helena
Regnal name
Flavia Julia Helena Augusta
ReligionNicene Christianity
Full name
Flavia Julia Helena
Regnal name
Flavia Julia Helena Augusta
Saint Helena of Constantinople
Saint Helena.jpg
Empress, Mother of Saint Constantine and Equal to the Apostles
Venerated in
  • Latin Catholicism
  • Eastern Catholicism
  • Eastern Orthodoxy
  • Oriental Orthodoxy
  • Anglican Communion
  • Lutheran Church
Major shrineThe shrine to Saint Helena in St. Peter's Basilica
Feast18 August (Roman Catholic Church); 21 May (Orthodox, Anglican, and most Lutheran Churches); 19 May (some Lutheran Churches); 9 Pashons (Coptic Orthodox Church)
Roman imperial dynasties
Constantinian dynasty
Constantine I as Caesar307–311
-with Maximinus II as Caesar307–311
-with Galerius and Severus as Augusti307–308
-with Galerius and Licinius as Augusti308–311
-with Maxentius as usurper in Rome (and Asia Minor 311–312)308–312
Constantine I as Caesar (self proclaimed Augustus)311–312
-with Maximinus II and Licinius as Augusti of East and West311–312
Constantine I as Augustus of the West312–324
Licinius as Augustus of the East312–324
-with Constantine II, Crispus and Licinianus as Caesares317–324
Constantine I as sole Emperor324–337
Constantine II as Augustus of Gaul, Britannia and Hispania337–340
Constans as Augustus of Italy and Africa (and Gaul, Britannia and Hispania 340–350)337–350
Constantius II as Augustus of Asia and Egypt337–350
Constantius II as sole Emperor350–361
Preceded by
Followed by
Jovian and Valentinian dynasty

Early life

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 Greek 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 indeed her birthplace.[7] The Byzantinist Cyril Mango has, however, argued that Helenopolis was refounded to strengthen the communication network around Constantine's new capital in Constantinople, and was renamed simply to honor Helena, not to necessarily mark her birthplace.[8] There was also a Helenopolis in Palestine[9] and a Helenopolis in Lydia.[10] These cities, and the province of Helenopontus in the Pontus, were probably all named after Constantine's mother.[7]

The bishop and historian Eusebius of Caesarea states that Helena was about 80 on her return from Palestine.[11] Since that journey has been dated to 326–28, she was probably born around 246 to 248. However, little is known of her early life.[12] Fourth-century sources, following Eutropius' Breviarium, record that she came from a humble background. Bishop Ambrose of Milan, writing in the late 4th century 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".[13] Other sources, especially those written after Constantine's proclamation as emperor, gloss over or ignore her background.[12]

Marriage to Emperor Constantius

Statue of Saint Helena in St. Peter's Basilica

Statue of Saint Helena in St. Peter's Basilica

It is unknown where she first met Constantius.[14] 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.[15] 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,[16] calling her his "concubine".[14] Jerome, perhaps confused by the vague terminology of his own sources, manages to do both.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19]

Helena gave birth to the future emperor Constantine I on 27 February of an uncertain year soon after 270[20] (probably around 272).[21] At the time, she was in Naissus (Niš, Serbia).[22] 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.[23] (The narrative sources date the marriage to 293, but the Latin panegyric of 289 refers to the couple as already married).[24] 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.

After Constantine's ascension to the throne

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.[2] She received the title of Augusta in 325. According to Eusebius, her conversion to Christianity followed her son becoming emperor.

Pilgrimage and relic discoveries

Helena finding the True Cross, Italian manuscript, c. 825

Helena finding the True Cross, Italian manuscript, c. 825

St Helena in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

St Helena in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Constantine appointed his mother Helena as Augusta Imperatrix, and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to locate the relics of the Christian tradition. In 326–28 Helena undertook a trip to Palestine.[25] According to Eusebius of Caesarea (260/265 – 339/340), who records the details of her pilgrimage to Palestine and other eastern provinces, 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.

The "True Cross" and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Helena of Constantinople by Cima da Conegliano, 1495 (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

Helena of Constantinople by Cima da Conegliano, 1495 (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

Saint Helena with the Cross, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525 (Cincinnati Art Museum)

Saint Helena with the Cross, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525 (Cincinnati Art Museum)

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.[26] According to Eusebius, "[t]here was a temple of Venus on the spot. This the queen (Helena) had destroyed."[27] 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.[3] 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,[4] 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.

The "Letter From Constantine to Macarius of Jerusalem", as presented in Eusebius' Life of Constantine, states:

"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 of his [Christ's] 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 [the Roman temple]; 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."[28]

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


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 said to have been founded by Helena. According to 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 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.[29]


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.

Death and burial

Helena 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).


Orthodox Bulgarian icon of Saint Constantine and Saint Helena

Orthodox Bulgarian icon of Saint Constantine and Saint Helena

Baroque statue of "Santa Liena" in the 2011 village festa procession of Birkirkara, Malta

Baroque statue of "Santa Liena" in the 2011 village festa procession of Birkirkara, Malta

Helena is considered by the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern and Roman 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, and is "Ilona" in Hungarian, and "Liena" in Malta.

Her feast day as a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church is celebrated with her son on 21 May, the "Feast of the Holy Great Sovereigns Constantine and Helena, Equal to the Apostles".[30] Her feast day in the Roman Catholic Church falls on 18 August. Her feast day in the Coptic Orthodox Church is on 9 Pashons. Anglican churches, and some Lutheran churches, keep the 21 May date.

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. Helena is the patron saint of new discoveries.


Her skull is displayed in the Cathedral of Trier, in Germany. Portions of her relics are found at the basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli in Rome, the Église Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles in Paris, and at the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers.

The church of Sant'Elena in Venice claims to have the complete body of the saint enshrined under the main altar. In 1517, the English priest, Richard Torkington, having seen the relics during a visit to Venice described them as follows: "She lith in a ffayr place of religion, of white monks, ye may see her face perfythly, her body ys covered with a cloth of whith sylke ... Also there lyes upon her breast a lytell crosse made of the holy crosse ..."[31] In an ecumenical gesture, these relics visited the Orthodox Church of Greece and were displayed the church of Agia Varvara (Saint Barbara) in Athens from 14 May to 15 June, 2017.[32]

Later cultural traditions

In British folklore

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.[5] 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.[33] 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.[34]

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.[35] Colchester Town Hall has a Victorian statue of the saint on top of its 50-metre-high (160 ft) tower.[36] The arms of Nottingham are almost identical because of the city's connection with Cole, her supposed father.[37]

Medieval legend and 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.[38]

Modern fiction

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.


Citation Linkwww.germanculture.com.uaHer 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 16 October 2016. Her designation as a saint precedes the practice of canonization by the Pope.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgThe cameo was incorporated in the rich binding of the Ada Gospels; the year 316 is argued in Stephenson 2010:126f.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgNoted in Stephenson 2010:253f, who observes "None of this is true" noting Rufinus' source in a lost work of Gelasius of Caesarea.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkwww.ccel.orgThere 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 the 1955 Roman Catholic Marian Missal: St. Helen, the first Christian Empress, went to Jerusalem to try to find the True Cross. She found it in 320 on September 14. In the eighth century, the feast of the Finding was transferred to May 3rd and on Sept. 14 was celebrated the "Exaltation of the Cross," the commemoration of a victory over the Persians by Heraclius, as a result of which the relic was returned to Jerusalem. 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.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgThe purely legendary British connection is traced by A. Harbus, Helen of Britain in Medieval Legend, 2002.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkpenelope.uchicago.eduAnonymus Valesianus 1.2, "Origo Constantini Imperatoris".
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgHarbus, 12.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgMango, 143–58, cited in Harbus, 13.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkbooks.google.comGünter Stemberger, Jews and Christians in the Holy Land: Palestine in the fourth century, 2000, p. 9 (full text).
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgHunt, 49, cited in Harbus, 12.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgEusebius, Vita Constantini 3.46.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgHarbus, 13.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgAmbrose, De obitu Theodosii 42; Harbus, 13.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgLieu and Montserrat, 49.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgInscriptiones Latinae Selectae 2776, cited in Barnes, "New Empire," 36.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgPaul Stephenson, Constantine, Roman Emperor, Christian Victor, 2010:126f.:130.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgHieronymus, Chronica, s.a. 292, p. 226, 4 and s.a. 306, p. 228, 23/4, cited in Lieu and Montserrat, 49.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgDrijvers, Helena Augusta, 17–19.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgBarnes, New Empire, 36.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgBarnes, CE, 3, 39–42; Elliott, Christianity of Constantine, 17; Odahl, 15; Pohlsander, "Constantine I"; Southern, 169, 341.
Sep 21, 2019, 12:47 AM