The mother of Constantine the Great, born about the middle of the third
century, possibly in Drepanum (later known as Helenopolis) on the Nicomedian
Gulf; died about 330. She was of humble parentage; St. Ambrose, in his
de obitu Theodosii, referred to her as a stabularia, or inn-keeper.
Nevertheless, she became the lawful wife of Constantius Chlorus. Her first and
only son, Constantine, was born in Naissus in Upper Moesia, in the year 274. 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 misinterpretation of a term
used in the fourth chapter of the panegyric on Constantine's marriage with
Fausta, that Constantine, oriendo (i. e.,
by his beginnings,
from the outset)
had honoured Britain, which was taken as an allusion to his birth, whereas the
reference was really to the beginning of his reign.
In the year 292 Constantius, having become co-Regent of the West, gave
himself up to considerations of a political nature and forsook Helena in order
to marry Theodora, the step-daughter of Emperor Maximianus Herculius, his patron,
and well-wisher. But her son remained faithful and loyal to her. On the death of
Constantius Chlorus, in 308, Constantine, who succeeded him, summoned his mother
to the imperial court, conferred on her the title of Augusta, ordered that all
honour should be paid her as the mother of the sovereign, and had coins struck
bearing her effigy. Her son's influence caused her to embrace Christianity after
his victory over Maxentius. This is directly attested by Eusebius (Vita
Constantini, III, xlvii):
She (his mother) became under his (Constantine's)
influence such a devout servant of God, that one might believe her to have been
from her very childhood a disciple of the Redeemer of mankind. It is also clear
from the declaration of the contemporary historian of the Church that Helena,
from the time of her conversion had an earnestly Christian life and by her
influence and liberality favoured the wider spread of Christianity. Tradition
links her name with the building of Christian churches in the cities of the West,
where the imperial court resided, notably at Rome and Trier, and there is no
reason for rejecting this tradition, for we know positively through Eusebius
that Helena erected churches on the hallowed spots of Palestine. Despite her
advanced age she undertook a journey to Palestine when Constantine, through his
victory over Licinius, had become sole master of the Roman Empire, subsequently,
therefore, to the year 324. It was in Palestine, as we learn from Eusebius (loc.
cit., xlii), that she had resolved to bring to God, the King of kings, the
homage and tribute of her devotion. She lavished on that land her bounties and
good deeds, she
explored it with remarkable discernment, and
visited it with
the care and solicitude of the emperor himself. Then, when she
had shown due
veneration to the footsteps of the Saviour, she had two churches erected for
the worship of God: one was raised in Bethlehem near the Grotto of the Nativity,
the other on the Mount of the Ascension, near Jerusalem. She also embellished
the sacred grotto with rich ornaments. This sojourn in Jerusalem proved the
starting-point of the legend first recorded by Rufinus as to the discovery of
the Cross of Christ.
Her princely munificence was such that, according to Eusebius, she assisted not only individuals but entire communities. The poor and destitute were the special objects of her charity. She visited the churches everywhere with pious zeal and made them rich donations. It was thus that, in fulfilment of the Saviour's precept, she brought forth abundant fruit in word and deed. If Helena conducted herself in this manner while in the Holy Land, which is indeed testified to by Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, we should not doubt that she manifested the same piety and benevolence in those other cities of the empire in which she resided after her conversion. Her memory in Rome is chiefly identified with the church of S. Croce in Gerusalemme. On the present location of this church formerly stood the Palatium Sessorianum, and near by were the Thermae Helenianae, which baths derived their name from the empress. Here two inscriptions were found composed in honour of Helena. The Sessorium, which was near the site of the Lateran, probably served as Helena's residence when she stayed in Rome; so that it is quite possible for a Christian basilica to have been erected on this spot by Constantine, at her suggestion and in honour of the true Cross.
Helena was still living in the year 326, when Constantine ordered the
execution of his son Crispus. When, according to Socrates account (Hist. eccl.,
I, xvii), the emperor in 327 improved Drepanum, his mother's native town, and
decreed that it should be called Helenopolis, it is probable that the latter
returned from Palestine to her son who was then residing in the Orient.
Constantine was with her when she died, at the advanced age of eighty years or
Vita Const., III, xlvi). This must have been about the
year 330, for the last coins which are known to have been stamped with her name
bore this date. Her body was brought to Constantinople and laid to rest in the
imperial vault of the church of the Apostles. It is presumed that her remains
were transferred in 849 to the Abbey of Hautvillers, in the French Archdiocese
of Reims, as recorded by the monk Altmann in his
Translatio. She was revered
as a saint, and the veneration spread, early in the ninth century, even to
Western countries. Her feast falls on 18 August. Regarding the finding of the
Holy Cross by St. Helena, see CROSS AND CRUCIFIX.
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