Protector of the Holy Places
(c255 - c330)
Helena lived at a time of transformation in the Roman empire, at a
cross-roads in the evolution of theology, and at the genesis of Christian
archaeology - but did she really find the Cross of Christ?
Myth is more powerful than history, even where the history is often
more interesting; and distinguishing one from the other is often
difficult. According to legend, Helena was the daughter of the British
king of Colchester - ‘Old King Cole’ - making her a true Essex girl.
However she was more probably the daughter of a lowly innkeeper from
Drepanum, Bithynia in Asia Minor, born around AD 255.
She married Flavius Valerius Constantius, a distinguished Illyrian
general and by him had a son later to become the great emperor
Constantine. In 292 Helena was divorced by her husband for someone younger
and prettier - Theodora, who also just happened to be the stepdaughter of
the western emperor Maximian. Constantius soon became Maximian’s ‘caesar
of the west’ and the two men, together with emperor Diocletian and his
caesar, Galerius, formed the tetrarchy which then ruled the Roman empire.
Instead of declining in bitterness and grief Helena went on to live a
full and useful life. Had that been all, she might still be valued as a
patroness of rejected wives. However, after the abdication of Diocletian
and Maximian, and the death of Constantius a year later, the Roman army
proclaimed Constantine emperor of all Rome at York in 306 and Helena, as
his mother, became honoured as ‘dowager empress’. At what point she
became a Christian is not clear, but she used her influence to promote the
faith after Rome became a Christian empire in 312, expending vast sums for
relief of the poor. Following a complicated and catastrophic episode in
royal family relations, in which many relatives were executed, Helena made
a visit to the Holy Land in 326. This was in part an imperial progress, in
part a pilgrimage of grief and penitence for her part in the family
tragedy. There, in old age, she founded the Basilica of the Ascension on
the Mount of Olives and the Basilica of the Nativity at Bethlehem. Her
visit coincided with the building of the new basilica ordered by
Constantine on the supposed site of Christ’s tomb.
But why start building churches? The early Christians were a persecuted
minority, more concerned with the spiritual than physical aspects of life
and more concerned with the second coming than in building monuments for
the future. However, with Constantine as Christian emperor and the
imperial capital moved east to Constantinople, political necessity
required building visible symbols to reflect and reinforce the new
character of the empire - hence the rash of church-building. Christians
were able to emerge from obscurity to take part in public life and feel
they had a stake in the physical world after all.
But there were other reasons too. This was also the time of the great
Arian debate. Christians had long believed that Jesus was God, but had no
clear agreement about what this meant. The Arian view saw Jesus as somehow
‘earning’ Godhood by his life and obedience to the Father as part of a
continuing revelation of God to the world. The opposing view, held
by Athanasius (yes, he of the Athanasian Creed!) saw Jesus as God in
exactly the same way as God the Father. The life, and particularly the
death, of Jesus was a unique event of salvation unparalleled in
world history. This abstract debate between the primacy of revelation
or salvation had its effects on the ground - not least in
Jerusalem, and on the life and legacy of Helena.
In Helena’s time, although Christianity had spread widely, Jerusalem
had no special status on the Christian map. Then known as Aelia Capitolina,
it was almost exclusively a pagan city as it had been since the
destruction of the Temple in AD 70. The Christian presence was tiny and
almost invisible, as they were not allowed to build places of worship,
although some private houses were used as such. The patronage of
Constantine as a Christian emperor made change possible.
Makarios was then bishop of Aelia and took the Athanasian view in the
Arian debate, keen to emphasise the facts of God’s saving act through
physical signs of his life and death - visible buildings. He was opposed
by his more senior rival, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea and prelate of
Palestine, who held the Arian view and, though a noted historian, had a
lofty disdain for holy places. It was Makarios who proposed to the emperor
Constantine the excavation of Christ’s tomb and the construction nearby
of a major basilica. This was a fantastically daring and dangerous scheme.
It meant demolishing the Temple of Aphrodite, a principal temple of Aelia,
and risking adverse local reaction. It was a very large-scale and complex
work of excavation as well as building. It had little hope of success
given the scant evidence on which to base the search. There were severe
consequences for failure, since this could impact on the standing of
Christianity throughout the empire. Eusebius, naturally, was not keen.
However it went ahead and the results ‘surpassed all astonishment’
when they found not just a tomb but also a vertical rock which was
identified as the hillock of Golgotha. Unsuitable for building, this had
been left standing in the quarry while material around it had been
removed. They believed that the tomb, the site of Christ’s resurrection
had itself been resurrected. For some it also meant a ritual purification,
a scouring of the ‘filth’ of paganism, and the beginning of a
historical trend of which Christians today are less proud.
The magnificent Church of the Resurrection thus emerged from a cocktail
of Imperial vanity, remorse for wrongdoing, low ambition and rivalry, high
theology and religious triumphalism; characteristics still evident in
There are contemporary references to the discovery of a cross in a
nearby cave, presumed to be the cross of the crucifixion, but none mention
Helena. She died in Nicommedia around 330 and her link with the discovery
of the true cross came later - as history was overtaken by legend.
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