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F - 27 : Saint Helena - Why Constantine's Mother was more important than the Emperor

The Statue of Saint Helena in Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican in Rome, 1635 by A Bolgi

Three days into this summer’s journey, on 18th of August, Catholics and Orthodox celebrate Saint Helena’s Feast Day to commemorate the mother of Constantine the Great. The Roman Emperor abolished prosecution of Christians in 313 AD and paved the way for Christianity to become Rome’s state religion. On our way through the Aegean Sea, we will discover monasteries, churches and chapels dedicated to her, a Saint almost forgotten in the protestant world. Helena is the patron saint of people in difficult marriages, divorcees, recently converted and archeologists.

Church of Nativity in Bethlehem in Palestine - built by Saint Helena in 326 AD

Empress Helena was the first pilgrim to the Holy Land. Upon her conversion in 312 AD she promised to visit the land where Jesus had preached and lived. In 326 AD, she finally set sail from Constantinople, travelled down the Aegean, followed the south coast of Asia Minor, crossed over to Cyprus before landing in Palestine.

The Orthodox Monastery of Stavrovouni high up in the Mountains of Southern Cyprus

Her path is dotted with places reminding us of her journey. The most prominent is the Stavrovouni Monastery in Cyprus where she stopped on her return. She is said to have left parts of the True Cross, a holy nail and the rope used to pull up Jesus.

Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD - painted in the Pope's Private Chamber by Raffael and his School between 1520 - 1524

Helena was the closest advisor Emperor Constantine ever had. He listened to his mother whom he had formally made Augusta Imperatrix, Empress. After his victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, which gave him complete control over the Western Roman Empire, she suggested reconciliation with the Christian minority. His predecessor Domitian started prosecuting them in 303 AD since they refused to worship him as a God. Despite torturing and killing thousands, his policy was a failure. The ranks of Christians kept swelling. 5 million or 10% of the Empire’s population had openly or secretly converted.

Contemporary Painting of St Constantine and his Mom

St Helena - Constantine the Great was not canonised

Constantine lived his life as a pagan. He was only baptized on his deathbed. His imperial agenda was too complex to convert earlier. There were many factors he had to consider: the loyalty of his Legions (many Legionnaires were Christians), the old Roman nobility with their vested interests, the pagan religions and their powerful priests, the dire state of Rome’s public finances, the rampant inflation, the frontier threats from the restive Visigoths and Franks, the decaying state of his capital and the fact that his 60’000 mercenaries demanded payment in gold when he had none.

The Roman Army under Constantine had up to 60'000 German Mercenaries on its payroll

He adopted an integrating strategy, portrayed himself publicly as Helios, the God of the Sun, whilst building churches and chairing over ecumenical meetings with church leaders. Moving the capital from Rome to Byzantium allowed him to eliminate the influence of the Roman elite and being close to the strategically important Danubian border. Legalizing and supporting the church made it possible to confiscate large treasures from pagan temples and use the seized gold and silver to pay his soldiers, deal with the external threats and build the new capital.

Basilica San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome, the first legal Church in Europe

Since Constantine could not openly act as Christian, his mother played the role. When her son entered Rome in 312 AD with the head of his rival Maxentius on a pike and paid tribute to the Roman nobles, Helena built the first legal church in Rome, the Basilica of the Lateran. A statue of Emperor Constantine still guards the entrance. She also gave her own land, the Vatican fields, to build a church where Saint Peter had been executed. It would become the Basilica of Saint Peter.

A Statue of Constantine the Great still "protects" the Lateran Church

But most importantly, she convinced her son to formally end the Christian prosecution in 313. It would guarantee the eternal loyalty of his Christian legionnaires. In today’s narrative, Constantine gets credit for all these actions. But you only need to look at his triumphal arch next to the Coliseum to find out he truth. There are no Christian symbol on any of the reliefs. Finished in 315 AD, it was too early for Constantine to show his true colors.

Constantine's Arch next to the Coliseum was completed in 315 AD - it is full of Pagan Symbols but there are no Chi-Rho or anything else related to Christianity

It would take Constantine the next 12 years to get control over the eastern part of the Roman Empire, which was ruled by his rival Licinius. Eventually, in 324 AD, he defeated him at the Battle of Adrianople. For the next 13 years, Constantine would reign unopposed. He selected Byzantium as the site his new capital and called it New Rome. Construction started the very same year. Finally, he was able to show his true intentions. Constantine was now not only Rome’s sole Augustus, be also assumed the title Pontifex Maximus – Rome’s highest priest. In 325 he invited the 2’000 bishops in the empire to the Council of Nicaea to clarify a few important issues in Christian doctrine. Wonder how anybody believes that he could have done this without his mother’s guiding hand.

Constantinople by 1'000 AD - in Constantine' s time the town had only half the size

Life seem to settle down in a peaceful pattern when the Imperial household was struck with disaster. In 326, Constantine killed his son Crispus; a few days later his wife, Fausta. Several sources mention that the two had an affair but I believe that Fausta accused Crispus of plotting against the emperor. In his rage, Constantine killed his son – Roman emperors were brutal. When he learnt that his wife had made up the story to improve the chances of her three sons for the succession, he killed her in her steam bath.

Constantine's Statue in Laterano - closer Look

His mother Helena was grieve-stricken by her son's crimes and the loss of her beloved grandson. It was this event that triggered her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She wanted to pray for forgiveness for her son’s brutal actions and did what he could not do – showing everyone Christian values matter. Once in Palestine, she built the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of Eleona on the Mount of Olives, brought the stairs of Pilatus’s residence in Jerusalem to the Lateran in Rome and apparently found the True Cross on Golgotha which she cut in pieces and distributed all over the Empire. After her death, Constantine erected the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the site where his mother had found the three crosses.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has a Chapel for Saint Helena

Helena died in 328 or 329. It is not clear where exactly but she was buried outside Rome. Her sarcophagus is today in the Vatican Museum. In my view, it is doubtful whether Rome could have become a Christian Empire without her in the back. She steered her son in all his important decisions and took his place when he could not. We will never know whether Constantine was a true Christian or whether he saw himself as a God of Gods – just as all his predecessors. There is evidence for both. But nobody doubts Helena’s commitment to the Lord. She was a true believer.

Saint Helena's Sarcophagus is now exhibited in the Vatican Museum in Rome

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