Sunday, January 16, 2022

Empress Helena of Constantinople

 Helena was a common name for Greek females all over the Mediterranean. One Helena, born to a lower-class family c.246CE, became anything but common in her lifetime. We know hardly anything of her origins and early life. Geoffrey of Monmouth's tale that she was a British princess and the daughter of "Old King Cole" is one of the more colorful theories.

Her lowly origins, even if they were known at the time, were glossed over after she became linked to Emperor Constantius Chlorus, either as his wife or concubine. Their son, Constantine I, was the first emperor to stop the harassment of Christians. His Edict of Milan in 313 stated that Christians—and, in fact, all religions—should be allowed to practice their faith openly. Constantine later in life declared himself a Christian, although he did not get baptized until he was on his deathbed.

Helena converted to Christianity after her son became emperor in 306. Constantine gave Helena the title of Augusta Imperatrix, a very high honor, and with it gave her an unlimited budget to find and retrieve Christian relics. She undertook a pilgrimage to Palestine where she built churches.

Various sites in the area had been identified as being significant to Christians. Supposedly, Helena built the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem at the site of Christ's birth, and the Church of Eleona on the Mount of Olives, from which Christ ascended to Heaven. There was already a temple on the site of Jesus' tomb, built after 130 by the Emperor Hadrian dedicated to Venus (or Jupiter).

Helena had this temple torn down, and began excavating. What happened next is a story for tomorrow.

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