As we all know, May 21 is the official name day of all Constantines and Helenas and the derivative names thereof. Nevertheless, how much do we really know about the lives of Constantine the Great and his mother the Empress Helena? What really lies behind his conversion to Christianity and her famous quest for the True Cross?
If one were to take a closer look at the life of Constantine the Great, s/he would discover many contradictory behaviours which are explained one way in the historical texts and another in the religious texts. Constantine was born in 272 AD in Serbia and, despite being exposed to Christianity by his mother Helena from an early age, he did not openly declare his conversion to Christianity until he reached his early forties. Up to that time, he continued to take part in pagan rituals and he was not baptised until just before his death. Some historians claim that these are indications that he was not the pious convert the religious texts would have us believe. In his defence, however, the religious historians simply claim that his military obligations and duties as general prevented him from fully expressing his Christian beliefs.
Christian texts refer to Constantine’s conversion as marking the triumph of Christianity and allowing it to develop from a persecuted underground sect into an officially accepted and established religion. Moreover, his numerous military successes have been attributed to the ‘holiness’ of his campaigns. On the other hand, it has been suggested that Constantine’s conversion to Christianity acted as a veil to mask his true political motivations and purposes. It simply depends on the type of text one opts to read and the perspective of the author of that text.
One disturbing event, however, is difficult to dispute. Constantine the Great, at some stage during his early fifties, ordered the execution of his eldest son Crispus (from his first wife), and shortly thereafter, the execution of his second wife, Fausta. He even ordered that their names be erased from all inscriptions and records of the time. Religious sources argue that unless we know what really prompted Constantine to kill his son and wife, then we cannot judge him fairly. The historical sources do not agree on what brought about these executions; one prevalent argument claims that Constantine had his son executed after Fausta accused Crispus of conspiring against his father and once Constantine realised his mistake he ordered the execution of Fausta, since her motivation was to promote her own sons.
At the end of the day, it is Constantine the Great’s legacy which serves to override all texts and arguments, religious or secular. He united the entire Roman Empire and converted that empire to Christianity, putting an overdue end to the brutal persecution of its followers. By building the majestic Constantinople, commissioning the Bibles and implementing widespread reforms, he laid the foundations for the great Byzantine Empire which was to come.
So, what about Helena? In the literature, there are not many references made to her life prior to her union with Constantine’s father, Constantius. In fact, there is not an awful lot to read on her life prior to Constantine being declared Emperor after his father’s death. The historical sources do not even agree on Helena’s specific birthplace, but the general consensus is that she was born in Asia Minor, around 250 AD.
It is certain, however, that Helena came from humble beginnings. Her father was an inn-keeper and so at some stage during her youth, she most probably assisted her father in running the inn. Some historical texts suggest that she did more than simply assist her father and that she took on the role of ‘entertaining’ the male guests of the inn. Indeed, it is proposed that it was in her father’s inn that she met Constantius, during one of his campaigns. After spending the night together, he gave her a purple robe and it was that very robe that reunited Constantine with this father many years later. However, none of these claims have been substantiated. Interestingly enough, the religious texts tend to ‘gloss over’ Helena’s early life.
It was Helena’s low social standing that stood as an obstacle to her and Constantius’ official marriage. It is more than likely that she had to settle for concubine status, as Constantius later abandoned her in order to marry Theodora, who was his social equal. Helena and Constantine were very close throughout his childhood, but they appear to have spent these years living quietly in the background. Once Constantine took over the Empire after his father, he immediately brought his mother into the limelight and bestowed upon her all the trimmings and honours befitting an empress.
In her later years, Helena made a pilgrimage to Palestine and the holy sites. This has been interpreted by strictly historical sources as a mission assigned to her by Constantine to further the political purposes of the Empire and boost the Emperor’s falling popularity in the East. Others even claim it was an act of atonement by Helena for (supposedly) prompting Constantine to have Fausta executed. On the other hand, religious sources describe this as a purely pious deed, with Helena’s sole purpose being to facilitate the proliferation of Christianity throughout the Empire, as she had a large number of churches built and established organisations for the relief of the poor. She oversaw the construction of churches at the holy sites in order to honour Jesus’ life and death: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Golgotha.
Constantine’s fixation with the True Cross added another dimension to Helena’s pilgrimage to Palestine, although some sources claim that it has not been sufficiently established that Helena was directly involved in the discovery of the True Cross. How, then, did she find the Cross of the Crucifixion? One version of the tale unfolds as follows: in Jerusalem, she assembled the bishops and employed one of them, Macarius, to help her accomplish her mission. She was apparently hindered by the Jewish rabbis, since it was not in their interests for the Christian faith to spread and for its followers to recover such an important relic, and so they ensured that the site was kept a secret. Legend has it, however, that Helena was not to be deterred and in true empress fashion promptly blackmailed the rabbis into revealing what they knew of the whereabouts of the cross. She allegedly threatened their leader, Judas, with starvation before he indicated to Helena and Macarius where they should search.
Where was this site? During Hadrian’s reign, in his efforts to transform Jerusalem into a pagan capital, he had a temple built over the tomb of Jesus and dedicated it to Venus. Helena is said to have issued orders that the temple be destroyed and that excavations commence at the site immediately. In the depths of the earth, the tomb of Jesus was found, along with three crosses – that of Jesus and the two thieves crucified beside him – and nearby the nails were discovered, supposedly shining like gold.
How was the True Cross identified? Generally, the sources claim that it was Macarius who suggested to Helena that a sick woman in her final hours in a nearby village would be able to make the distinction. The three crosses were taken to her and she was prompted to touch the first two – there was no reaction. However, upon touching the third cross, she immediately recovered. Another version of this miracle states that a dead man was taken to the three crosses and when he was touched by the Holy Cross, the corpse came back to life.
It is then alleged that Helena, wanting to take full advantage of the miraculous relics and to help her son in his campaigns, sent a piece of the wood from the True Cross to Constantine, along with the nails. He then secretly had the wood embedded into his statue in the main square and the nails made into a bridle for his horse. In any case, the relics that Helena took back with her to Rome are on display in the private chapel of her palace, which was converted into the Basilica of the Holy Cross.
Whatever Helena’s motivations might have been, her deeds have left behind a lasting legacy for Christians all over the world. There is no doubt that she undertook many important works involving the relief of the poor and built many churches in the Holy Land (in excess of eighty, it is said). The historical and religious sources present conflicting information regarding the ‘factual’ aspects of the lives of Constantine and Helena. Whatever the truth may be, it cannot be disputed that these two figures hold more than a distinguished place in the history of Christianity.
* Maria Zapantis is an English teacher and translator, born and raised in Melbourne, currently living in Korinthos, Greece.