Helena of Constantinople

Helena of Constantinople

Infobox Saint
name=Saint Helena
birth_date=c. 250
death_date=c. 330
feast_day=August 18 (Roman Catholic Church); May 21 (Lutheran & Orthodox Churches); May 19 (Lutheran Church); 9 Pashons (Coptic Orthodox Church)
venerated_in=Roman Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Churches
Oriental Orthodoxy
Anglican Communion
Lutheran Church

caption=Eastern Orthodox icon of "Saint Constantine the Great and his mother Saint Helena"
birth_place=Drepanum, Bithynia, Asia Minor
death_place=Constantinople, Roman Empire (now modern-day Istanbul, Turkey)
titles=Empress; Mother of Constantine the Great
canonized_date=Pre-Congregation [Her canonization precedes the practice of formal Canonization by the Holy See and the relevant Orthodox Churches. cite web|url=http://www.germanculture.com.ua/august/august18.htm |title=August 18 in German History |publisher=TGermanCulture.com.ua |date= |accessdate=2006-09-23]
patronage=archeologists, converts, difficult marriages, divorced people, empresses, Helena, the capital of Montana
major_shrine=The shrine to Saint Helena in St. Peter's Basilica

Saint Helena ( _la. Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta) also known as Saint Helen, Helena Augusta or Helena of Constantinople (c. 250 – c. 330) was the consort of Emperor Constantius Chlorus, and the mother of Emperor Constantine I. She is traditionally credited with the finding of the relics of the True Cross.

Family life

Helena's birthplace is not known with certainty. The sixth-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 in 328, giving rise to the belief that the city was her birthplace. [Harbus, 12.] Although he might have done so in honor of her birthplace, Constantine probably had other reasons for doing so. The Byzantinist Cyril Mango has argued that Helenopolis was refounded to strengthen the communication network around his new capital in Constantinople, and was renamed to honor Helena, not to mark her birthplace. [Mango, 143–58, cited in Harbus, 13.] There is another Helenopolis, in Palestine, but its exact location is unknown. [Hunt, 49, cited in Harbus, 12.] This city, and the province of Helenopontus in the Diocese of Pontus, were probably both named after Constantine's mother. [Harbus, 12.]

The bishop and historian Eusebius of Caesarea states that she was about 80 on her return from Palestine. [Eusebius, "Vita Constantini" 3.46.] Since that journey has been dated to 326–28, Helena was probably born in 248 or 250. Little is known of her early life. [Harbus, 13.] 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". [Ambrose, "De obitu Theodosii" 42; Harbus, 13.] Other sources, especially those written after Constantine's proclamation as emperor, gloss over or ignore her background. [Harbus, 13.]

It is unknown where she first met her future partner Constantius. [Lieu and Montserrat, 49.] 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. 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. ["Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae" 2775, cited in Barnes, "New Empire," 36.] The precise legal nature of the relationship between Helena and Constantius is unknown: the sources are equivocal on the point, sometimes calling Helena Constantius' "wife," and sometimes calling her his "concubine." [Lieu and Montserrat, 49.] Jerome, perhaps confused by the vague terminology of his own sources, manages to do both. [Hieron., "Chron.," "s.a." 292, p. 226, 4 and "s.a." 306, p. 228, 23/4, cited in Lieu and Montserrat, 49.] 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. [Drijvers, "Helena Augusta," 17–19.] 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. [Barnes, "New Empire", 36.]

Helena gave birth to the future emperor Constantine I in 272. In 293, Constantius was ordered by emperor Diocletian to divorce her in order to qualify as Caesar of the Western Roman Empire, and he was married to the stepdaughter of Maximian, Theodora. Helena never remarried and lived in obscurity, though close to her only son, who had a deep regard and affection for her.

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 and the imperial court, and received the title of "Augusta" in 325. Helena died in 330 with her son at her side. Her sarcophagus is on display in the Pio-Clementino Vatican Museum. During her life, she gave many presents to the poor, released prisoners and mingled with the ordinary worshippers in modest attire, exhibiting a true Christian spirit.


She is considered by the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches as a saint, famed for her piety. Her feast day as a saint of the Orthodox Christian Church is celebrated with her son on May 21, the "Feast of the Holy Great Sovereigns Constantine and Helen, Equal to the Apostles." [cite web|url=http://www.goarch.org/en/special/listen_learn_share/constantineandhelen/learn/ |title=May 21: Feast of the Holy Great Sovereigns Constantine and Helen, Equal to the Apostles |publisher=Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America |date= |accessdate=2008-03-28] Her feast day in the Roman Catholic Church falls on August 18. 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 archaeologists. The names "Saint Eleanor" and "Saint Eleanora" are usually synonymous for Saint Helen.

Relic discoveries

In 325, Helena was in charge of a journey to Jerusalem to gather Christian relics, by her son Emperor Constantine I, who had recently declared Rome as a Christian city. Jerusalem was still rebuilding from the destruction of Hadrian, a previous emperor, who had built a temple to Venus over the site of Jesus's tomb, near Calvary.

According to legend, Helena entered the temple with Bishop Macarius, ordered the temple torn down and chose a site to begin excavating, which led to the recovery of three different crosses. Refused to be swayed by anything but solid proof, a woman from Jerusalem, who was already at the point of death from a certain disease, was brought; 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 and Helena declared the cross with which the woman had been touched to be the True Cross. On the site of discovery, she built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, while she continued building churches on every Holy site.

She 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 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 Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

Depictions in British folklore


At least twenty-five holy wells currently exist in the United Kingdom that are dedicated to Saint Helen or Elen. She is also the patron saint of Colchester and Abingdon.

Depictions in fiction

Helena is 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 Evelyn Waugh's novel "Helena". In the anime and manga, "Hellsing", the Nail of Helena is a powerful artifact used by the Paladin Alexander Anderson to gain supernatural power.



*Barnes, Timothy D. "Constantine and Eusebius," Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.
*Barnes, Timothy D. "The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine," Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
*Drijvers, Jan Willem. "Helena Augusta: The Mother of Constantine the Great and her Finding of the True Cross," Leiden & New York: Brill, 1992.
*Drijvers, Jan Willem. " [http://www.classicsireland.com/2000/drijvers.html Evelyn Waugh, Helena and the True Cross] ," Classics Ireland 7 (2000).
*Elliott, T. G. "The Christianity of Constantine the Great," Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 1996.
*Harbus, Antonia. "Helena of Britain in Medieval Legend," Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2002.
*Hunt, E.D. "Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Later Roman Empire: A.D. 312–460," Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.
*Lenski, Noel. "The Reign of Constantine," The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine, edited by Noel Lenski, 59–90, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
*Lieu, Samuel N. C. and Dominic Montserrat. "From Constantine to Julian: Pagan and Byzantine Views," New York: Routledge, 1996.
*Mango, Cyril. "The Empress Helena, Helenopolis, Pylae," Travaux et Mémoires 12 (1994): 143–58.
*Odahl, Charles Matson. "Constantine and the Christian Empire," New York: Routledge, 2004.
*Pohlsander, Hans. "The Emperor Constantine," London & New York: Routledge, 2004.

External links

* [http://www.roman-emperors.org/helena.htm A more detailed biography of the Augusta based on the historical sources]
* [http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/ric/helena/t.html Coinage of Helena]
* [http://www.stsconstantinehelen.org/heritage_room/sts_constantine_and_helen.asp#st_h The Lives of Sts. Constantine & Helen]
* [http://www.cretan-homes.com/index2.php?option=com_content&do_pdf=1&id=79. St. Constantine and St. Helen]
* [http://www.martyrsandsaints.org/main/era_of_martyrdom/04th_century/Saint_Helen.htm Saint Helen, and Emperor Constantine the Great]
* [http://www.sainteleanor.org/STEleanor.htm Reference to Saint Helen as Saint Eleanor]

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