Contents - Previous Article - Next Article

Helena - The Tavern Girl Who Became an Empress and a Saint

Wife of Constantius I and mother of Constantine

The story of Saint Helena is one of the most famous classic Cinderella tales of all time in many countries and cultures. She is one of the most honored of the saints in the Eastern or Greek Orthodox Church. Strangely, her story is not a very well known one outside the Orthodox Church in the United States, even amongst the Roman Catholic community to which she is also a symbol of goodness and piety. It is one of those strange paradoxes of literature that the fairy tale is passed along by parents to their children from generation to generation while some of the stories of real people are all but forgotten.

Helena was born and grew up in the Roman province of Illyricum (modern Bosnia, Serbia, and Herzegovina) in the mid 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 in the Roman army serving on the frontiers far from their homes. 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 was later to become the emperor Constantius I. Our pale soldier might have married his local girl, but there was always the chance that he might be stationed back in 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 army 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 now came to pass that brought sadness into the couple's life but ensured a prominent place in the history books for all three members.

The Roman emperor at that time was Diocletian, who had come to the throne in A. D. 284 after a fifty year period during which the man who was emperor seemed to receive the kiss of 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 favorite, put him on the throne, and then murder him after a short reign had made it clear that some changes were needed in the government. Diocletian came up with an idea that 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 hard to murder both emperors at the same time. Furthermore, the colleague would be bound to the senior augustus by family, friendship, and political ties that would hopefully ensure that he would not turn and become a rebel. For the post of imperial colleague in the West, Diocletian now chose Maximianus, who became the Roman emperor in the West in April, A. D. 286. Diocletian would continue to rule in the East. In 293, Diocletian chose a caesar who would succeed him on 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 an unbreakable bond between the two augusti, and their two caesars, Maximian 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 then be promoted to augusti and would presumably have the experience to govern well. In this way the succession was not left up to chance and the new emperors would be prepared to rule. In A. D. 305, Diocletian willingly and Maximianus reluctantly gave up their thrones and passed along the leadership of empire in front of their troops.

Meanwhile, the seeds of jealousy which would tear this very sensible system apart had been sown. Constantine had become a popular general in his own right and Constantius immediately invited his son to join him in Britain. Galerius really did not want the young man to leave, considering hi almost a hostage to ensure that his father did not make any moves against Galerius. He grudgingly gave permission for Constantine to leave. Constantine left in the middle of the night before he was expected to and made a wild ride towards 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 joyously reunited after thirteen years. It appears that no one remembered the woman, Constantine's mother, that Constantius had loved so deeply twenty years ago.

The happy reunion of father and son was to be a very brief one. In 306, Constantius 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 having returned 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 now elevate Helena to the position of respect and honor that her husband was unable or unwilling to do. In an age when royal titles were multiplying and becoming ever more grandiose sounding, Constantine reverently bestowed upon his mother the title of NOBILISSIMA FEMINA, meaning "Most Honored and Noble Lady." Evidence of being accorded this title is symbolized on coins of the period by the adding of the letters NF in the obverse legend after the noblewoman's name. This title is also the one chosen for the introduction to the section on Roman women in this author's present work. 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 son with wise counsel, she became as much the powerful woman behind the throne that Livia, Julia Domna, and Julia Maesa 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 Church tradition. In A. D. 326, work was officially begun on the transformation of the small and ancient Greek town of Byzantium into the New Rome of Constantine's ambitious dreams. This city was to be named Constantinople and was a capital of Christianity and the Roman East until A. D. 1453. 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 and expressed their love for their empress. Helena performed acts of charity, endowed churches, and collected holy relics in her travels. When she passed through a place, prisoners were granted a pardon.

The climax of Helena's storybook life was her discovery of the True Cross, which she duly brought back to be given a place of reverence in Constantine's new city. With a true flair for the dramatic, the bishop at Jerusalem unearthed a three - hundred year old cross from the earth of Calvary that had mysteriously never seen the ravages of time, soil, and wood - boring insects. While this relic may have been planted in an ingenious plot by the bishop to create an ancient artifact, a holy relic, and a miracle before the eyes of the eighty - year old empress, let us not allow the intrusion of archaeological facts ruin the impact of 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.

Go to next article: on Aelia Flaccilla
Go back to previous article: on Fausta

Return to Roman Women Table of Contents
Return to History and Technology Back Pages - The home page for this entire site.