Helena ~The Tavern Girl who became an Empress and a Saint
Wife of Constantius 1 and mother of Constantine
The story of S. Helena is one of the most famous classical Cinderella tales of all times in many countries and cultures. She is one of the most honoured of the saints in the Eastern and Greek Orthodox Churches. Strangely her story is not a very well known one outside the Orthodox Church in the United States, even among the Roman Catholic community to which she is a symbol of goodness and piety. It is one of those strange paradoxes of literature that a fairy tale is passed along by parents to their children from generation to generation while some of the stories of real people are almost forgotten.
Helena was born and grew up in the Roman province of Illyricum, which is now the modern Bosnia, Serbia and Herzegovina, in the middle of the third century. Not much is known about her family, but they were probably quite poor because she found it necessary to work in a tavern as a servant girl, an occupation no daughter of a wealthy man would choose. In fact the status of STABVLARIA, or tavern girls were little better than prostitutes in the Roman world.
In her line of work Helena was bound to gain the attention of men. These were often soldiers of the Roman army serving on the frontiers far from home. These soldiers, who spent their lives guarding Rome's frontiers, often took a local wife or mistress to ease the loneliness and discomfort of an army camp far from the civilized world they knew. Such was the case with Helena. A handsome, but pale skinned Roman general, had soon fallen deeply in love with the young Helena and took her as his mistress. This was Constantius Chlorus, who later became the emperor Constantius 1. Our pale soldier might have married his local girl, but there was always the chance that he might be stationed back to the civilized world someday and be married into a family with influence and power. During ancient times love was not considered an important reason to marry. Allying oneself with the proper family and making the right political connections were much more important reasons.
Like many frontier families had done in the past Constantius and Helena settled down to a life together on the edge of the empire. Before too long their union produced a son, who was named Constantine. We might never have heard of this little family except for an event which came to pass that brought sadness into the couple's life but ensured a prominent place in the history books for all three members of the family.
The Roman emperor at the time was Diocletian, who had come to the throne in AD 284 after a fifty year period during which the man who was emperor seemed to receive the kiss death as soon as he ascended the throne. Wars against external enemies, rebels at home, and the disconcerting tendency for the praetorian Guard to choose a favourite, put him on the throne, and then murder him after a short reign had made it clear that somme changed were needed in government. Diocletian came up with an idea which made the job of emperor a much safer one and greatly strengthened the Roman Empire during this period of crisis. He would share the government of the Roman Empire with another man, an imperial colleague. The colleague would set up his court in a distant city, which made it much harder to murder both emperors at the same time. Furthermore the colleague would be bound to the senior augustus by family, friendship and political ties which would, hopefully, ensure that he would not turn and become a rebel. For the post of imperial colleague in the west Diocletian chose Maximianus who became Roman emperor in the west in April AD 286. Diocletian would continue to rule in the east. In AD 293 Diocletian chose a caesar who would succeed him to the throne. Maximianus was told to do the same and chose the successful and loyal general Constantius Chlorus to be his caesar.
As part of the process of building up an unbreakable bond between the two augusti and their two caesars, Maximianus ordered Constantius to forsake Helena and take his own step daughter Theodora as his wife. The boy Constantine was sent away to be raised in the household of Galerius, who was Diocletian's caesar.
Diocletian's plan was for the two augusti to rule for twenty years and then abdicate. The two caesars would hen be promoted to augusti and would presumably have the experience to govern well. In this way the succession was not left to chance and the new governors would be prepared to rule. in AD 305 Diocletian willingly and Maximanius reluctantly gave up their thrones and passed on the leadership of the empire in front of their troops.
Meanwhile the seeds of jealously had ben sown which would tear this very sensible system apart. Constantine had become a popular general in his own right and Constantius immediately invited his son to join him Britain. Galerius really did not want the young man to leave, considering him almost a hostage to ensure that his father did not make moves against Galerius. He grudgingly gave permission for Constantine to leave. This he did in the middle of the night before he was expected to do so and made a wild ride to the coast of Gaul where his father was about to set sail for Britain. Constantine arrived just in time to catch the fleet before it left. Father and son were now reunited after thirteen years. It appears that no one remembered the woman, Constantine's mother, that his father had loved so deeply twenty years ago.
The happy reunion of father and son was to be a very brief one. In AD 306 Constantine became sick and died at York, probably within shouting distance of the place where another emperor, Septimius Severus, had died almost two hundred years before. By one of those amazing coincidences of history, both emperors had died after returning from a military campaign against the Picts in the north of Britain, a land that would later be called Scotland.
It was now after all these years that her son could elevate Helena to a position of respect and honour that her husband was unable or unwilling to do. In an age when royal titles were multiplying and becoming ever more grandiose sounding Constantine bestowed upon his mother the title NOBILISSIMA FEMINA meaning "Most honoured and noble lady". Evidence of being accorded this title is symbolised on coins of the period by adding the letters NF to the obverse legend after the noblewoman's name. As time went on the role of Helena grew to where she held a position of power and influence in Constantine's government. By providing her som with wise counsel she became as much the powerful woman behind the throne that Livia and others had been in previous ages.
The events of Helena's later life contain the elements of legend which have given her such a prominent place in Roman Catholic tradition. In AD 326 work was officially begun on the transformation of the small and ancient town of Byzantium into the New Rome of Constantine's ambitious dreams. This city was to be named Constantinople and was to become the capital of Christianity and Roman East until AD1453. Helena was by now an old woman of eighty but she found the energy to embark on a lengthy pilgrimage to the holy places of Christianity. All along the path of her journey the people venerated her and expressed their love for their empress. Helena performed acts of charity, endowed churches and collected holy relics in her travels. When she through a place prisoners were pardoned.
The story of Helena's storybook life was her discovery of the True Cross which she duly bought back to be given a place of reverence in Constantine's new city. With a true flair for the dramatic, the bishop of Jerusalem unearthed a three hundred year old cross from the earth of Calvary that had mysteriously never seen the ravages of time, earth and wood boring insects. While this relic may have been planted by an ingenious plot by the bishop to create an ancient artifact, a holy relic, and a miracle before the eyes of an eighty year old empress let us not allow the intrusion of archaeological facts ruin a good story. Regardless of the genuineness of the cross that had been discovered these events helped to create a popular Church legend and secure a permanent place in history for this remarkable woman
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