Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Helena, St., mother of Constantine the Great
Helena (2), St., or Flavia Julia Helena Augusta, first wife of Constantius Chlorus, and mother of Constantine the Great, born c. 248, died c. 327.
Little is known for certain of her life, except that she was mother of Constantine the Great and when about 80 years old undertook a remarkable pilgrimage to Palestine, which resulted in the adornment and increased veneration of the holy places.
She was doubtless of humble parentage, being, according to one story, the daughter of an innkeeper (Anon. Valesii 2, 2, "matre vilissima," Ambrose, de Obitu Theodosii, § 42, p. 295). Constantius when he made her acquaintance was a young officer in the army, of good family and position, nearly related, by the female line, to the emperor Claudius, and appears to have at first united her to himself by the looser tie then customary between persons of such different conditions (Hieron. Chron. anno. 2322; Orosius, vii. 25; Chron. Pasch. a.d. 304, vol. i. p. 516, ed. Bonn; Zos. ii. 8). The relation of "concubinatus" might be a lifelong one and did not necessarily imply immorality. In outward appearance it differed nothing from the ordinary civil marriage by mutual consent, and was sometimes called "conjugium inaequale." Her son Constantine, apparently her only child, was born probably in 274, at Naissus in Dardania, the country where his father's family had for some time been settled. After his birth Constantius probably advanced Helena to the position of a lawful wife. That she had this position is expressly stated by some of our authorities, but the very emphasis of their assertion implies that there was something peculiar about the case (Eus. H. E. viii. 13, 12, παῖδα γνήσιον . . . καταλιπών and the inscription from Salerno given below). Respect for Constantine would naturally prevent writers in his reign from stating the circumstances in detail. It may be, however, that his law to legitimatize the children of a concubine "per subsequens matrimonium" was suggested by his mother's experience.
After living with Constantius some 20 years Helena was divorced on the occasion of his elevation to the dignity of Caesar in 292; the Augustus Maximian, in choosing him for his colleague, requiring this, as a matter of policy, in order that Constanius might marry his own step-daughter, Theodora (Eutrop. Brev. ix. 22; Victor, de Caesaribus, 39; Epitome, 54)—a proceeding which has parallels in Roman history. The looseness of the marriage tie among the Romans is a quite sufficient
explanation of these acts, without supposing any offence or misconduct on the part of the wife, or any special heartlessness on that of the husband. We know nothing of her life during the remainder of her husband's reign. When Constantine succeeded in 306, he probably recalled his mother to the court, but direct proof of this is wanting. We have a coin stamped HELENA. N.F. i.e. nobilissima femina, with a head on one side and a star in a laurel crown upon the other, perhaps struck in her honour whilst Constantine was still Caesar. The statement of Eusebius that Constantine paid his mother great honours, and caused her to be proclaimed Augusta to all the troops, and struck her image on gold coins, is no doubt correct, but is unfortunately unaccompanied by dates (Vita Const. iii. 47). Silver and copper coins are found with the name Flavia Helena Augusta, struck in her lifetime. Others with the remarkable epigraph Fl. Jul. Helenae Aug. were struck at Constantinople and Treves as memorials after her death, and Theodora was also similarly commemorated, to mark the reconciliation of the two branches of the family. Helena is styled Augusta in inscriptions, but in none necessarily earlier than 320 (Mommsen, Inscr. Neap. 106, given below; Inscr. Urbis Romae, C. I. L. v. 1134–1136).
Eusebius also tells us that through Constantine she became a Christian (V. C. iii. 57), and is supported (whatever the support may be worth) by the probably spurious letters preserved in the Acts of St. Silvester. [CONSTANTINE.] We must therefore reject the story which ascribes his conversion to his mother's influence (Theod. i. 18, and the late and fabulous Eutychius Alexandrinus, pp. 408, 456, ed. Oxon.).
The following inscription from Salerno marks the power of Helena in her son's court: "To our sovereign lady Flavia Augusta Helena, the most chaste wife of the divine Constantius, the mother of our Lord Constantine, the greatest, most pious and victorious Augustus, the grandmother of our Lords Crispus and Constantine and Constantius, the most blessed and fortunate Caesars, this is erected by Alpinius Magnus, vir clarissimus, corrector of Lucania and Bruttii, devoted to her excellence and piety" (Mommsen, u.s. Orell. 1074, Wilmanns 1079).
In 326 Crispus was put to death on an obscure charge by his father's orders. Tradition attributes this dark act to Fausta; and Helena's bitter complaints about her grandson's death are said to have irritated Constantine to execute his wife by way of retribution (Vict. Epit. 41, Fausta conjuge ut putant suggerente Crispum filium necari jussit. Dehine uxorem suam Faustam in balneas ardentes conjectam interemit, cum eum mater Helena dolore nimie nepotis increparet).
Eusebius speaks strongly of her youthful spirit when she, in fulfilment of a vow, made her pilgrimage to the Holy Land, notwithstanding her great age, nearly 80 years (V. C. iii. 42, cf. 46). She received almost unlimited supplies of money from her son and spent it in royal charities to the poor and bounties to the soldiery; as well as using her power to free prisoners and criminals condemned to the mines and to recall persons from exile (ib. 44). She was a frequent attendant at the church services, and adorned the buildings with costly offerings (ib. 45). Her death cannot have been earlier than 327, because she did not make her pilgrimage until after the death of Crispus. Tillemont puts it in 328, and it may leave been later. (See further, Clinton, F. R. ii. 80, 81.) Her body was carried with great pomp to "the imperial city," i.e. probably, Constantinople (Eus. V. C. iii. 47; Socr. i. 17, thus glosses the phrase—εἰς τὴν βασιλεύουσαν νέαν Ρώμην). It was believed, however, in the West that she was buried at Rome, and there is a tradition that in 480 her body was stolen thence by a monk Theogisus and brought to Hautvilliers in the diocese of Rheims. Others say that it is still in the porphyry vase in the church of Ara Coeli (Tillem. Mém. t. vii. n. 7). The place too of her death is strangely uncertain. Eusebius's silence would imply that she died in Palestine; but if the traditions of her bounty to the people and church of Cyprus on her way home are of any value, it must have been somewhere nearer Rome or Constantinople. These traditions may be seen in M. de Mas Letrie's Hist. de l᾿Ile de Chypre sous les Lusignan (Paris, 1852–1861); Church Qtly. Rev. vol. vii. pp. 186 f.
Invention of the Cross.—It is in connexion with this famous story that the name of Helena is especially interesting to the student of church history. Its truth has been much discussed, and we will briefly summarize the evidence of the ancient authorities.
(1) In the very interesting itinerary of the anonymous Pilgrim from Bordeaux to Jerusalem, generally referred to a.d. 333, seven years after the date assigned to the finding of the cross (Migne, Patr. Lat. xiii. 771), we have a description of the city, and many traditional sites of events both in O. and N. T. are mentioned. Among these are the house of Caiaphas with the pillar at which our Lord was scourged, the praetorium of Pontius Pilate, the little hill (monticulus) of Golgotha, and, a stone's throw from it, the cave of the resurrection. On the latter spot a beautiful basilica erected by Constantine is noticed, as also on Mount Olivet and at Bethlehem. Yet there is no allusion to the cross, nor is the name of Helena mentioned.
(2) The Life of Constantine by Eusebius was written probably in 338, five years after the visit of the Bordeaux Pilgrim. He records the visit of Helena to Jerusalem, but does not connect her name with the place of Crucifixion nor with the Holy Sepulchre. He tells us that Constantine built a house of prayer on the site of the Resurrection and beautified the caves connected with our Lord's Birth and Ascension, and that he did so in memory of his mother, who had built two churches, one at Bethlehem, the other on the Mount of Ascension. Thus of the three famous caves, Eusebius connects Helena not with that of the Resurrection, but only with the other two. He indeed says that these were not the only churches she built, but it is hardly conceivable that he should have left the one on the site of the Resurrection unspecified. The original motive of her journey, he says, was to return thanks to God for His peculiar
mercies to her family and to inquire as to the welfare of the people of the country. His account of the discovery of the Holy Sepulchre by Constantine is not free from difficulty. It is not easy to say whether he represents its discovery as being before or after the death of Helena. His language is general, but the presumption is that, if it had been before, her name would have been connected with the event. He does not imply that any difficulty was experienced in finding the site of the tomb, but there is nothing as to the cross. All his words bear upon the Resurrection, not the Passion, of our Lord. But in Constantine's letter to Macarius, bp. of Jerusalem, which he inserts, there are one or two expressions of which the same cannot be said. Allowing for the excesses of hyperbolical language, it is still hard to understand the words, "When the cave was opened, the sight which met the eyes excelled all possible eulogy, as much as heavenly things excel earthly," unless some kind of memorial other than the tomb itself was discovered; and immediately afterwards we have two expressions referring definitely to our Lord's Passion. The first is, τὸ γὰρ γνώρισμα τοῦ ἁγιωτάτου ἐκείνου πάθους ὑπὸ τῇ γῇ πάλαι κρυπτόμενον; and the second, ἀφ᾿ οὗ (since) τοῦ σωτηρίου πάθους πίστιν εἰς φῶς προήγαγεν (sc. the tomb). At the same time it is difficult to believe that, had the cross or any part of it been discovered, it should not have been more exactly described, and the most probable explanation is that πάθος is used to describe the whole scene of Redemption, of which the Resurrection was a part (Eus. Vit. Const. iii. 26–42, Patr. Gk. xx. 1086). That the place was very early venerated is proved by Eusebius's statement (Comm. on Ps. lxxxvii. 18) that marvels (θαύματα) were even then wrought at the tomb of Christ.
(3) Cyril of Jerusalem, whose catechetical lectures were delivered, he says, upon the very spot where our Lord was crucified, and, as we know from other sources, not more than 20 years after the alleged discovery (viz. in 346), has three allusions to the wood of the cross (iv. 10, x. 19, xiii. 4). The most definite is in x. 19, where he describes it as "until to-day visible amongst us" (μεχρὶ σήμερον παῤ ἡμῖν φαινόμενον), "and now filling nearly the whole world by means of those who in faith take from it." In his letter to Constantius, which, however, is of doubtful authenticity [CYRIL], it is distinctly stated that the cross was discovered in the reign of Constantine (c. 3). The first quotations prove that it was believed in his day that the real wood of our Lord's cross had been discovered, but do not give the grounds of the belief. Nor, though he speaks of the cross, does he connect it with St. Helena. Thus none of our three earliest authorities speak of her as the discoverer.
(4) St. Chrysostom, writing probably before 387, speaks of the wood of the true cross (Patr. Gk. xlviii. 826).
(5) Sulpicius Severus (c. 395) tells us that Helena built three basilicas (not two, as in Eusebius), one on each of the sites of the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. The site of the Passion, he says, was discovered by Helena, but he does not add that it was by supernatural help. Three crosses were discovered, and the right one ascertained by the miraculous restoration to life of a dead body (Hist. Sacr. i. 33, Patr. Gk. xx. 148).
(6) St. Ambrose, writing in 395, says that Helena was inspired by the Spirit with the desire to search for the cross, that she distinguished the true cross by its title (thus differing from Sulpicius and all later writers), that two of the nails were used by the emperor, one being fixed in his crown and the other employed as a bit for his bridle (de Obitu Theodosii c. 41 ff., Patr. Gk. xvi. 1399).
(7) Rufinus (writing in 400, according to the Life in Migne's ed.) tells us further that not only was the journey inspired by God, but that the place of the Passion was miraculously revealed; that the three crosses were found "confuso ordine," and the title separately; that the true cross was discovered by the miraculous healing of a sick lady (not the revival of a corpse, as above); that part of the wood was sent to Constantine, and part left at Jerusalem in a silver casket (cf. μεχρὶ σήμερον φαινόμενον in Cyril's description above). (H. E. i. 7, 8, Patr. Gk. xxi. 475.)
(8) Paulinus of Nola, writing (c. 403) to Sulpicius Severus, and sending him a piece, as he says, of the true cross brought from Jerusalem by Benedicta Melanius, adds an account of its original discovery, because, as he says, it is so difficult to credit. He says that Helena went to rescue the holy places, adorned the site of our Lord's Birth in addition to the other three sites, and discovered the place of the Passion by the concurrent testimony of many Jews and Christians in the city. He adds that, though pieces were frequently taken from the cross, its original bulk was miraculously preserved (Ep. xxxi. 4, Patr. Gk. lxi. 325).
(9) St. Jerome, in his Comm. on Zech. xiv. 20 (Patr. Lat. xxv. 1540), probably written a.d. 406, mentions the nail from the cross which was used for the emperor's bridle, as related in many other writers, and in Ep. lviii. (ib. xxii. 581) speaks of the images of Jove and Venus which stood until the time of Constantine on the sites of the Resurrection and of the Passion respectively.
(10) St. Cyril of Alexandria (c. 420) mentions as a report (φασί) that the wood of the cross had been found at different times (κατὰ καιρούς) with the nails still fixed in it (Comm. on Zech. xiv. 20, Patr. Gk. lxxii. 271).
(11) Socrates (c. 430) informs us that Helena was told in a night vision to go to Jerusalem; that she found the site of the Passion with difficulty, though he alludes to no supernatural aid; that Macarius suggested the means of distinguishing the true cross, viz. by applying it to a woman on the point of death; that the empress erected "new Jerusalem" on the site (a phrase evidently taken from Eusebius); and that the emperor put one of the nails on his statue at Constantinople, as many inhabitants testified (H. E. i. 17, Patr. Gk. lxvii. 118).
(12) Sozomen (c. 430) claims good authority for his account, and states that Constantine, in gratitude for the council of Nicaea, wished to build a church on Golgotha; that Helena about the same time went to Palestine to pray and to look for the sacred sites. He does not, however, mention any divine impulse. The
difficulty of discovery was caused, he says, by the Greeks having defiled them to stop the growing θρησκεία; the site of the Sepulchre was made known, as some say, by a Hebrew living in the East, from documentary evidence, but more probably by signs and dreams from God. He says that the crosses were found near the same spot (ἑτέρωθι περὶ τὸν αὐτὸν τόπον) as they had been left by the soldiers in confused order, the inscription still remaining on the tablet. He mentions two miracles: the healing of a woman with an incurable disease and the raising of a corpse, combining the other accounts; and adds that the greater part of the cross was still preserved at Jerusalem (H. E. ii. 1, 2, Patr. Gk. lxvii. 929).
(13) Theodoret (c. 448) inserts the letter of Constantine to Macarius, and follows the order of Eusebius, representing, however, Helena's journey, more definitely than Eusebius does, as consequent upon the finding of the Sepulchre by Constantine. But his account seems inconsistent. The crosses, he says, were found near the Lord's tomb—παρὰ τὸ μνῆμα τὸ Δεσποτικόν (H. E. i. 16, 17, Patr. Gk. lxxxii. 955).
(14) St. Leo (454), in writing to Juvenal, bp. of Jerusalem, speaks of the constant witness borne at Jerusalem to the reality of Christ's Passion by the existence of the cross (Ep. cxxxix. 2, Patr. liv. 1106).
(15) St. Gregory of Tours (d. 595) adds that discovery was made on May 3, 326; that, during a great storm which occurred soon after, Helena put one of the nails into the sea, which was at once calmed; that two more were used for the emperor's bridle, and the fourth placed on the head of his statue; that the lance, crown of thorns, and pillar of scourging were preserved and worked miracles (Lib. Mirac. i. 5, Patr. Lat. lxxi. 709), and the cross found by the aid of a Jew, afterwards baptized as Quiriacus (Hist. Franc. i. 34, Patr. Lat. lxxi. 179).
Thus no detailed story is found until nearly 70 years after the event, and then in the West only. The vagueness of St. Cyril of Alexandria is particularly observable. Small differences of detail occur; the last author cited adds several particulars not included in the other accounts, and there are features in the story which look like invention or exaggeration. On the whole, considering that our earliest authorities do not represent Helena as the discoverer and that the story gradually develops, it seems probable that she had no part in the discovery of the cross, even if it took place, which itself seems exceedingly doubtful. That the site of the Holy Sepulchre was discovered, or supposed to be discovered, in the reign of Constantine, there seems every reason to believe; and it is easy to understand how marvels would grow up around it.