Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.47
Paul Dräger (ed.), Historie über Herkunft und Jugend Constantins des Grossen und seine Mutter Helena. Von einem unbekannten Verfasser. 2., erweiterte Auflage. Trier: Kliomedia, 2010. Pp. 248. ISBN 9783898901529. €26.90 (pb).
Reviewed by Jan Willem Drijvers, University of Groningen (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Table of Contents
The life of Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, has given rise to much imaginative creativity. Not long after her death (c. 328) Eusebius presented her journey to the eastern provinces of the Roman empire as a pilgrimage and credited her with the foundation of churches in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.1 At the end of the fourth century the discovery of the Cross of Christ was ascribed to her intervention when present in Jerusalem. This tale in particular, of inventio crucis, has provided Helena with long-lasting fame. The impact of the legend of her discovery of the cross was great in the period of Late Antiquity and beyond. The legend rapidly became widespread and available in various versions in Greek, Latin and Syriac. It became part of Byzantine vitae of Constantine and Helena, and was incorporated in the Sylvester legend as well as in western medieval vitae Helenae. The story also became a popular theme in the visual arts and there are visual representations in both medieval western as well as in Byzantine art. Due to her alleged discovery of the cross and her piety, Helena was considered as the exemplary Christian empress and she became a prominent saint of both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches. Constantine has also been the subject of many literary creations in late antiquity, the Byzantine era and the western medieval period.
In this book Paul Dräger has made available the Latin text with a German translation of another tale about Helena and Constantine. This narrative by an anonymous author is not concerned with Helena’s life as an empress and her discovery of the Cross, but with her younger years and the birth and youth of her son Constantine. This text of about thirty pages was first published by Heydenreich in 1879, based on two manuscripts.2 After initial excitement the interest among historians faded and the text was almost forgotten. In the meantime two more manuscripts of the text were discovered and in 1999 Giangrasso published a new edition including an Italian translation.3 Dräger’s publication is not a new collation of manuscripts, although he made use of a fifth manuscript, and therefore not a new critical edition; Dräger’s main aim is to make not only the text available again but in particular to provide a (German) translation—he calls the translation, the first one in German, the ‘Kernstück meiner Ausgabe’—as well as an elaborate introduction and commentary to the text, which are lacking in Giangrasso’s edition. It is a little confusing that Dräger has given the text another title—Historia de ortu atque iuventute Constantini Magni eiusque matre Helena—instead of Libellus de Constantino Magno etc. under which it is normally referred. Although the edition under review is a revised one, it does not differ greatly from the original one of 2005: it has more illustrations, which, however, are not essential to a better understanding of the text; the two texts resembling the Historia with respect to content are now synoptically printed instead of one after the other as in the first edition.
The gist of the Historia is as follows. Helena, who belongs to an important family in Trier, goes on pilgrimage to Rome to visit the tombs of Peter and Paul. In Rome she catches the attention of the emperor Constantius who is impressed by her beauty and rapes her. When she discovers that she is with child, she does not return to Trier out of shame but remains in Rome where she leads a modest life with her son, whom she had named Constantine after his father. The boy, however, does not know that the emperor is his father. When he had become a young man two merchants who traded regularly with Greece, i.e. Byzantium, abduct Constantine. Constantine, who is of noble appearance, is presented by the merchants as the son of the Roman emperor and offered in marriage to the Greek emperor’s only daughter. The Greek emperor gladly accepts Constantine as the suitable candidate for his daughter (her name is not mentioned) and the two are married. After their marriage, the two merchants escort the young couple to Rome. The latter, however, leave the newlyweds on an inhabited island and rob them of their wealth presented to them by the Greek emperor and his wife. Constantine and his wife are set free from the island by a passing ship. When they arrive in Rome Helena, Constantine and his wife live together rather comfortably from the income of the sale of a dress set with valuable stones given to the girl by her mother; because she wore this dress underneath her other clothes when left behind on the island it was not discovered by the merchants. While in Rome Constantine attracts the attention of the emperor because of his way with weapons and his victories in tournaments. Constantius invites Constantine, together with Helena and his wife, to the court. Not surprisingly, it turns out that Constantine is the emperor’s son, when Helena shows the ring and valuable shoulder clasp that Constantius had given her after their intercourse. All ends well: Constantine and his wife become heirs to the Greek and Roman empires, and Constantius and Helena are united. At the end there are references to Constantine’s baptism by Sylvester and to Helena’s journey to Jerusalem and her discovery of the cross there.
The book opens with the Latin text and German translation of the Historia (pp. 11-55) and is followed by two texts which are similar as far as contents are concerned, the Instoria Helene matris Costantini inperatoris que requisivit crucem Domini Nostri Jesu Christi and the De nativitate Constantini imperatoris; Dräger gives German translations of these additional texts and adds a few explanatory notes (pp. 57-86). Next comes a comprehensive and detailed commentary on the Historia, which deals inter alia with historical, topographical, literary as well as philological aspects of the text. This commentary is very useful for a better understanding of the text itself as well as for the position of the text within the large corpus of late-antique and medieval legendary textual material of both Latin and Greek (Byzantine) origin about Helena and Constantine. After indices of e.g. words, concepts, names, and bible references mentioned in the commentary (pp. 160-171), there follows a detailed introduction (‘Einführung’) of the Historia (pp. 172-243). Dräger discusses the genre of the text and although he agrees that there are remarkable similarities with the ancient novel and the medieval romance, he prefers to consider the text as historia rather than fabula and has therefore entitled the text as such. A large part of the ‘Einführung’ is dedicated to other texts which deal with the two main themes of the Historia, i.e. the relationship between Helena and Constantius, and the birth of Constantine; the abduction of Constantine by the two merchants and his marriage with the Greek princess. The first theme goes back to a Byzantine origin—the (Martyrium Eusignii, Nikephoros Kallistos, and the Suda, of which Dräger presents German translations—and the second theme is based on the many narratives about pirates kidnapping princes of which the 14th-century Storia o Leggenda di Manfredo imperadore di Roma is a prime example. The are several late medieval texts the contents of which are very much alike to the Historia; Dräger gives German translations of all of them. An interesting aspect of the Historia is that it is, according to Dräger, not only linguistically but also with respect to content influenced by bible texts. In particular the apocryphal book of Tobias seems to have been one of the models for the author of the Historia. This could be, but Dräger may also be reading too much into the Historia. Dräger also discusses aspects of language and style. The author of the text, unfortunately, remains unknown; as to the date of composition Dräger plausibly suggests sometime in the 12th-14th century.
Dräger does not deal with the question why and where the Historia was composed in the first place, nor with the ‘Sitz im Leben’ of the text. The central role of Rome as a city of imperial prominence—it was the residence of Constantius and Helena and the city of Constantine’s birth—as well as a Christian centre is, I believe, striking, as is the subordinate role of the Greek/Byzantine empire and its imperial couple (whose names are not mentioned). The incorporation of elements from Byzantine texts into the Historia is likewise remarkable. In Constantinople and the Greek east in general, Helena and Constantine were prominently present as the ideal Christian, imperial couple. It seems that Rome and the Latin west by way of the Historia are claiming Helena and Constantine for themselves and making Byzantium subsidiary to the west.
The publication of the text of the Historia and its translation are a valuable contribution to the growing knowledge of the legends about Helena and Constantine. So are Dräger’s discussion and commentary of the text.
1. Vita Constantini 3.41-47.
2. Incerti auctoris de Constantino Magno eiusque matre Helena libellus. E codicibus primus edidit Eduardus Heydenreich, Leipzig 1879. The text is also known as Anonymus Heydenreichianus.
3. Libellus de Constantino Magno eiusque matre Helena. La nascita di Constantino tra storia e leggenda, a cura di Giulietta Giangrasso, Florence 1999.