BMCR 2024.01.37

Helena Augusta: mother of the empire

, Helena Augusta: mother of the empire. Women in antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 432. ISBN 9780190875299.



Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, is one of the figures of antiquity whose historical significance is evident, but whose life story is difficult to grasp in its details. For much of her long life, she remained outside the purview of ancient sources, but at times, and especially in the last ten years of her life, she emerges onto the stage of imperial politics. Analyzing her life in its political and religious importance presents a significant challenge due to the disparate sources available. In contrast to earlier works, the author of this monograph takes a new and fruitful approach. She consistently explores the changing positions that Helena held within the political networks of the Constantinian era. Hillner thus provides a precise assessment of the roles assigned not only to Helena but also to all women of the Constantinian dynasty throughout Constantine’s reign and that of his successors until the 5th century.

Hillner begins her introduction with the paradox that the memory of Helena is primarily associated with the discovery of the Holy Cross, an event she herself did not experience. How can a biography of Helena be written at all? This seems possible only by paying special attention to the gaps that make continuous reconstruction impossible but shed light on the historical context in which Helena lived during the Tetrarchic period. The idea of a linear biography, the author argues, is flawed from a female perspective, as breaks and nonlinearity were typical, especially for Roman women. It will also become evident that the significant shifts in Helena’s life followed crises in the dynasty when succession options fell apart. Therefore, Helena’s biography is closely tied to the history of Constantine’s rule.

Part I, “Extra (c. 248–c. 289)” or Chapter 1, “On the Frontiers”, initially positions young Helena at the bottom of the social pyramid. She may even have been born a slave and then freed by Constantius. Hillner discusses the significance of her name, the possible places of her birth (with Drepanon-Helenopolis being the most likely), her limited education, and her approximate birth year between 248 and 250 AD. Since ancient sources mention Helena as a young woman working as a stabularia in a mansio of the cursus publicus, it is possible that she worked as a prostitute.

Chapter 2, “Weather Eye in the Horizon”, is dedicated to the relationship between Constantius and Helena. While concubinage was widespread in the military, in this case, it also expressed the social distance between the two partners. Helena accompanied Constantius during the early stages of his career, first to Naissus, where Constantine was born, and then to Salona. Constantine received support from his father, and he may have had two full sisters, Constantia and Anastasia, from his parents’ union. In Salona, Helena likely played a leading social role for the first time in her life, but this status did not last long. As soon as Constantius married Theodora, Maximian’s daughter, Helena and probably Constantine faded into the background. Hillner now focuses her research on the many women who were connected to the Tetrarchs as mothers, wives, or daughters. They had a representative and thus political significance, even though Diocletian’s succession system did not provide for natural heirs. The Tetrarchs deliberately positioned them in public, creating options for action that could later be exploited by Constantine.

In Part II, “Off Stage (c. 289–c. 317)”, and Chapter 3 (“Sister Act”), Hillner begins with a wall fresco at the Lateran, which depicted the imperial couples Constantius/Theodora and Constantine/Fausta, while Helena had not yet appeared on the scene during this early period of her son’s rule, after he had just defeated Maxentius. Because Theodora and Fausta were the daughters of Maximian and sisters of Maxentius, Constantine was appropriating these women for his own dynastic purposes following his elimination of their father and brother. But Helena would only be incorporated into imperial representation later, after Constantine had taken the path to sole rule. Constantius’s connections first with Helena and then with Theodora led to the central and lasting problem of deriving competing claims to power for his descendants.

Chapter 4, “The Necklace Affair”, starts with the Trier ceiling painting, an archaeological artifact that has been intensely debated since its discovery and restoration. Depictions of (female) family members were commonly used instruments of imperial propaganda. However, the ceiling painting is difficult to interpret; it remains uncertain whether Helena and Fausta are actually depicted. Hillner argues for Helena because analysis of the grave finds at the imperial villa of Sarkamen, probably built by Maximinus Daia, points in that direction. Tetrarchic women like Galerius’s mother Romula, his daughter Valeria, or the mother of Daia, all buried in Sarkamen, had new opportunities for action. But political elevation also exposed the tetrarchic women to dangers, as they had to reckon with physical elimination during changes of power. Licinius, for example, was responsible for the deaths of four imperial women.

Part 3, “Center stage (c. 317–c. 329)”, brings Chapter 5 (“Keeping Up Appearances”), which offers a detailed analysis of archaeological and numismatic sources. Hillner demonstrates how the portrayal of Fausta and Helena was embedded in the struggle between Constantine and Licinius. Licinius remained a threatening brother-in-law and colleague as long as Constantine lacked heirs. When Fausta finally gave birth to a son, Constantine could contemplate sole rule and dynastic succession. When the birth of a second son secured the dynastic future, Constantine removed Licinius from power and sidelined his own half-brothers. At the same time, Helena was elevated to the status of Augusta. In November 324, Constantine declared both Helena and Fausta as Augustae, using the Gentile name Flavia for both, and he used bronze coinage to advertise this as a form of family and imperial propaganda. While Helena’s coin portrait was physiognomically linked to Constantine, Fausta took the forefront in coinage. Gold multiples were also produced for her. Fausta’s portrait was found on various other objects, making her the embodiment of the Constantinian empress by 325.

Chapter 6, titled “Roman Holiday”, is dedicated to the significance of Rome for Constantine and the presence of his mother in this city. Hillner assumes that Constantine became a Christian here, in the context of his battle against Maxentius. He didn’t spend much time by the Tiber; his imperial representation was taken over by Helena, who also had the responsibility for overseeing major construction projects. Helena served as Constantine’s representative and the leading public figure in Rome. While Helena oversaw several construction projects, the exact attribution of church buildings to her is challenging. However, the construction of her mausoleum on the fundus Lauretum is a well-documented fact, and it was intended to be used for other members of the dynasty as well.

In Chapter 7, titled “Four Deaths and an Anniversary”, Hillner compares the Hague Cameo and the later Nantes Medallion to show how Fausta and Crispus were removed from representation. Between these two representations lies the so-called “family tragedy,” which cost at least five lives and led to Helena’s reappearance. “While she did have an interrupted life, she was also a serial survivor of family ruptures” (p. 182). After conquering the East, Constantine eliminated Licinius, possibly in response to unrest that his pro-Christian measures in the East may have triggered. In 326, the year of his Vicennalia, his eldest son Crispus was put on trial and executed, which must have shocked subjects all around in the empire. Similar to the case of Licinius, the exact reasons behind this execution remain unclear. Hillner emphasizes that there is no solid evidence of Helena’s involvement in the events leading to Fausta’s death also. However, it becomes clear how Constantine sought to compensate for the loss of his wife and son. He introduced his half-brothers into the political arena, especially highlighting their mother, Eutropia, as well as his sister Constantia, Licinius’s wife, and, most importantly, his mother Helena. She was now the sole Augusta and was presented as the progenitor of the dynasty.

Chapter 8, titled “From Here to Eternity”, explores the best-documented period of Helena’s life: her journey to the Holy Land. Hillner’s starting point for this exploration is the account in Eusebius’ Vita Constantini. However, the claim that Helena went to the Holy Land to “settle a debt” should not be interpreted as evidence of penance following the family tragedy. The concept of a pilgrimage is anachronistic; such a concept did not exist at that time. Therefore, a comparison with Emperor Hadrian, who spent a lot of time travelling through the East, is more appropriate. Hadrian’s intentions were primarily political, involving the personal exercise of imperial authority. Helena’s journey can be understood in a similar light, as the East had experienced a civil war followed by significant religious reforms. As the emperor’s representative, Helena ensured the implementation of these reforms and served as a guarantor of the emperor’s care. In Jerusalem, Helena met with Bishop Macarius, who likely inspired the search for Christ’s tomb, though this occurred years before Helena’s visit. Constantine had already ordered the construction of a church upon the discovery of the tomb in 328. This chronology clearly discredits the alleged finding of the Cross by Helena as a legend.

The fourth major section, “Curtain and Encores (c. 329–c. 600)”, begins with Chapter 9, “Burying an Empress”. Helena likely did not return from Palestine before the summer of 328. She died in the presence of her son, probably in Serdica, possibly without baptism and Christian rites. Constantine sent her remains to Rome, which is evidence of the importance he attached to this city. The connection of her Roman mausoleum with a basilica, known as “ad duas lauras,” was also both innovative and influential. The emperor also commissioned buildings in her memory in Palestine and Constantinople. Additionally, he renamed the province of Diospontus after her and even several cities in the East. This created a “circumscribed topography of remembrance” for Helena (p. 261).

In Chapter 10, titled “Silence of the Empress”, Hillner describes how the memory of Helena receded into the background after her death. The women of the Constantinian dynasty, especially Constantine’s daughter Constantina, had their own legitimizing options and role models. It would take until the 5th century for Helena to once again become one, if not the most important, female reference point for later empresses. Constantina could afford to forego such a reference, while Ambrosius established the reputation of Justina, who connected the Valentinian dynasty with the Constantinian through her marriage, by turning the conflict over the churches in Milan into “a battle between an irrational woman and a holy man” (p. 307) in which he contrasted the supposed heretic with the image of the orthodox Helena.

Ambrosius’ portrayal of Helena is the starting point for the final chapter, “New Model Empress”. Ambrosius’ funeral oration for Theodosius in 395 is the first significant depiction of Helena’s life since Eusebius’ Vita Constantini. After Ambrosius, Helena is perceived either as part of an imperial couple, with the emperor being referred to as a new Constantine, or as a model for an independent female role, although this mainly occurred outside the empire. Ambrosius’ image of Helena is very positive; she is the true founder of the Christian empire because she had gained Christ through her humility. Helena had the nails from Christ’s cross incorporated into the imperial diadem, and this diadem, now worn by Honorius, secured the existence of the Christian Empire. The theology of the Nails-Diadem also served to legitimize the position of the young and potentially vulnerable Honorius.

Hillner’s detailed study goes far beyond a purely biographical approach, as shown. The author convincingly describes Helena’s role within the (family) politics of Constantine, considering all her areas of action and effects. The overall perspective that this work grants to the female members of the Constantinian dynasty strongly emphasizes that there were hardly any freedoms or coincidences in family policy: Constantine’s mother, his wife Fausta, and his sisters were strategically used as tools of imperial communication to represent or stabilize the rule in changing political situations, especially after significant crises. This overall assessment of the study represents a significant advancement in understanding the history of the fourth century AD. Additionally, the study stands out for its meticulous examination of all available literary sources and previous research, as well as for its careful and clear statements on the historical issues of the Constantinian era. Furthermore, the study excels in its precise examination of the archaeological evidence, which is often used as the starting point for individual chapters. Another strength of the work is Hillner’s keen focus on the regional contexts of the presentation of imperial female roles and functions. New approaches to the representative use of imperial women were often not directed at the entire empire but targeted urban or provincial recipient groups. With this research approach, the author consolidates her detailed network and communication analysis, which, as mentioned, proves to be highly productive for the Constantinian era.

However, two aspects remain somewhat unclear. The first concerns the central question of Constantine’s personal religious development during the Constantinian era. Hillner assumes that the emperor converted to Christianity in 312. This aligns with the prevailing interpretation today and appears to be a compelling conclusion, given the extensive church-building policies enacted by the emperor after his victory over Maxentius: “Constantine clearly felt compelled to repay his personal debt to his new God quickly” (p. 155), as Hillner explains the measures taken in Rome, which Helena oversaw for her son. However, it seems that Constantine had a very distinctive understanding of the new faith, especially of his own position within the Christian framework. Hillner touches on this point when she notes that an altar was located in Helena’s mausoleum, where cult rituals were probably conducted. According to Hillner, Helena’s burial represented a “unique combination of funerary and imperial cult” (p. 255). If one thinks about this aspect further and also of Constantine’s concept for his own burial and cultic worship in the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople (and the corrections that were made to it after the emperor’s death), the emperor appears less so Catholic than is expressed here.

The second aspect relates to historical psychology. Hillner sensitively comments on individual experiences or developmental stages in Helena’s life, beginning with her seemingly hopeless social position as a young woman, her experiences during her life with Constantius, to her evidently very trusting exchange with Constantine, who could completely rely on his mother’s loyal commitment even in her old age. Hillner also attributes human emotions to the emperor himself, as she interprets the measures taken by Constantine in memory of his deceased mother as evidence that he “was also gripped by a profound feeling of loss and grief” (p. 261). While these assumptions are plausible, one wonders if the psychological dimension, especially in the relationship between the incredibly elevated Helena and Constantine, who initially stood as the illegitimate son of a Tetrarch against a much better-positioned second family of his father, should be emphasized even more. Constantine’s reign might be interpreted as a reaction to his family background and, thus, as compensatory in some of his actions and decisions, such as his willingness to take military risks, and Helena could have been the most significant recipient of this dynamic. Admittedly, this field carries the risk of speculative interpretations. But precisely because the author succeeds so excellently in dealing with the problem of the gaps in Helena’s life, one would still have liked her to look at this last deepening of Helena’s biography from the perspective of historical psychology.