At last we see Christianity triumphant. What has been an obscure but hated and persecuted sect now becomes the dominant religion in the Empire; the people who had hidden underground in the Catacombs are now the favorites of the palace. It had been a conflict between spiritual forces and carnal weapons, between patient propagandism and vindictive conservatism; on one side, invincible missionary zeal joined with undefensive submission, on the other, senseless misrepresentation and cruel persecution. But what can overcome the idea for which men and women are ready to die? It was a conflict in which, on the Christian part, women were as well fitted to engage as were men. The exalted purity of Christian maidens was as effective in setting at naught the counsels of the ungodly as were the elaborate arguments of the apologists; the blood of believing matrons was as fertile for the increase of the Church as was that of bishops and presbyters. The followers of Christ clung to the Cross and conquered.
At the same time, victory did not come without heavy loss to the Church. In this loss, however, must not be reckoned the lives of the martyrs. The men and women who sacrificed themselves to the Cause were considered to have won thereby, not mere fame, but the enjoyment of celestial glory in a conscious eternal life; and their death was always repaid to the Church by an increase of a hundred-fold. But as the Church gained in extension, it lost in intention. The organization, the religion, the name won; but the spirit, the inner principles of Christianity lost. In this sense the victory was much in the nature of a compromise. Christianity became the faith of the Empire; but the Empire did not adopt for its rule the pure precepts of Christ. Constantine's court worshipped the Nazarene; but Constantine's conduct was not superior to that of many of his heathen predecessors. The ancient religion was superstitious, and it is not possible to contend that the religion of Helena was free from that fault. The women of an older Rome were greatly subject to frailties of the flesh, and like scandals were by no means uncommon in the palaces of Christian emperors. It is not difficult to match Agrippina and Poppaea in the history of Rome after the Council of Nicaea. The religious revolution which took place in the world was much more rapid in respect to theory than it was in practice.
This is the history of all evolutions of the ideal. The first missionaries are exalted by their enthusiasm above common nature; they soar to the clouds. The martyrs are not restrained by any of the ties of various sorts which bind humanity; they despise the flesh. But their converts partake of their spirit in a lesser degree; as these increase, a growing proportion of them realize that for them life must continue to be very much what it always has been. It is not possible for all to maintain themselves in an intense and eager quest for the ideal. The heroic leaders may attain the empyrean, but the multitude must drag on the ground, thankful if at the most they can keep their feet; for, be our ideals what they may, in reality the chief business of life is living.
Again, as in all other movements, when the Church began to grow in popularity, numbers came within her pale whose minds were more attracted by her philosophy than their hearts were affected by her principles. Consequently the Christians were early divided on matters of theological opinion. There were all shades of variation in belief, and each distinction of faith meant a sect more or less divided from the common body of Christians. And it must be admitted that very quickly, even before the fires of persecution had been quenched, there appeared that bitterness which has always characterized and disgraced theological differences in the Church. The leaders of orthodoxy began to deprecate deviations from the common rule of faith with greater severity than they did lapses from fundamental morality. The Church consequently lost much of its pristine influence, which had been so successful in purifying the lives of the Christians. Metaphysical dogmas were exalted at the expense of holy deeds, and it became possible for corrupt rulers to be lauded as defenders of the faith and for unchaste women to receive those ecclesiastical privileges which formerly had been but grudgingly restored to those who had done no more than burn a handful of incense on the altar of Venus to save themselves from martyrdom.
In the letter of the bishops against Paul of Samosata, who was Metropolitan of Antioch about the year 290, he is charged with conniving at the institution of the subintroductae, -- that is, women who were pledged to virginity and who yet were so intrepid as to take up their abode in the houses of clergy who also professed celibacy. The idea of this proceeding seems to have been that the constant presence of temptation, which the people were supposed to believe was always overcome, enhanced the victory achieved by these champions of purity. The leaders of the Church, however, looked with disfavor upon this hazardous method of demonstrating the power of the new religion; but Paul of Samosata seems not only to have allowed this practice, but to have been himself far from careful to avoid suspicious appearances. The bishops, in their letter referred to above, complain thus: |We are not ignorant how many have fallen or incurred suspicion through the women whom they have thus brought in. So that, even if we should allow that he commits no sinful act, yet he ought to avoid the suspicion which arises from such a thing, lest he scandalize some one, or lead others to imitate him. For how can he reprove or admonish another not to be too familiar with women ... when he has sent one away already, and now has two with him, blooming and beautiful, and takes them with him wherever he goes.| Paul was probably not so black as he was thus painted by his enemies; especially is this likely, seeing that his patroness was Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra, who was remarkably careful in her conduct. But the point we wish to establish is found in the admission made by the bishops that, since Paul was a heretic, they had no concern about his conduct. In a note on this, Dr. McGiffert remarks: |We get here a glimpse of the relative importance of orthodoxy and morality in the minds of the Fathers. Had Paul been orthodox, they would have asked him to explain his course, and would have endeavored to persuade him to reform his conduct; but since he was a heretic it was not worth while. It is noticeable that he is not condemned because he is immoral, but because he is heretical. The implication is that he might have been even worse than he was in his morals and yet no decisive steps taken against him, had he not deviated from the orthodox faith.| All this goes to show that, after Christianity was established as the dominant religion of the empire, the life of women as well as of men was less changed by the effect of their new devotions than those devotions were altered in their form and direction. Though a new heaven was proclaimed, the new earth had not yet come into being. |The sweet reasonableness| of the Gospel was beclouded by speculation; the primitive holiness degenerated into a sickly asceticism; for half-converted pagans, the early saints served in the place of the old divinities; and human nature still remained capable of most of the vices to which it had formerly been addicted.
Yet the ideal is never without its witnesses. Very early there arose within the Church the movement known as Montanism, which endeavored to reproduce the ancient purity by an exaggerated rigidity of discipline and the early simplicity of the Church by a stern opposition to ecclesiasticism. This movement carries an interest relative to our subject, inasmuch as two women held a prominent place as its founders. The three original prophets of the sect were Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla. The former of the two women was so influential in the movement that its adherents are frequently spoken of as Priscillianists. The two women were ladies of noble birth who left their husbands in order to attach themselves to Montanus. They believed themselves to be the mediums of the divine Comforter promised by Christ. It was their habit to fall into ecstasies, in which condition they would prophesy. They claimed that their teaching was divinely inspired and consequently infallible. According to them, all gross offenders were to be excommunicated, and never afterward readmitted to the fold of the Church. Celibacy was encouraged by them, all worldly amusements were to be eschewed, and they greatly increased the number of the fasts.
Of Priscilla and Maximilla, Dr. McGiffert says: |They were regarded with the most profound reverence by all Montanists. It was a characteristic of this sect that they insisted upon the religious equality of men and women; that they accorded just as high honor to the women as to the men, and listened to their prophecies with the same reverence. The human person was but an instrument of the Spirit, according to their view, and hence a woman might be chosen by the Spirit as his instrument just as well as a man, the ignorant as well as the learned. Tertullian, for instance, cites, in support of his doctrine of the materiality of the soul, a vision seen by one of the female members of his church, whom he believed to be in the habit of receiving revelations from God.|
These people were reactionaries; they rebelled against the spirit of laxity, worldliness, and officialdom which was fast taking hold of the Church. Their prophesying women were simply a revival of what had been common in Apostolic times, when the daughters of Philip were prophetesses. But order had been evolved in the ecclesia. In fact, out of the numerous forms of evangelical activity that existed in the original unsettled condition of the Church, three orders had been established, in none of which were women represented. Moreover, the female friends of Montanus seem to have been rather unconvincing in regard to their prophecies. Maximilla declared that after her there would be no other prophet, intimating that the end of the world was about to take place, a prediction as common among such enthusiasts as it is hazardous in its nature. She also prophesied that wars and anarchy were near at hand, which, as an anonymous writer quoted by Eusebius found no difficulty in showing, was clearly false. With a jubilation which, under the circumstances, was not unwarranted, he cries: |It is to-day more than thirteen years since the woman died, and there has been neither a partial nor general war in the world; but rather, through the mercy of God, continued peace even to the Christians.| From this time, any attempt, on the part of women or men, to revive the gift of prophecy after the apostolic manner was always classed with heresy, schism, and other works of the devil, which it was the duty of the faithful zealously to cast out.
During the many and long intermissions during which the Christians were not persecuted, the Church steadily grew in prominence and in social standing. Before the time of Diocletian, large and handsome edifices had been erected in many places for the use of Christian worship. The doctrines therein taught were no longer unknown to the rulers and chief men of paganism; the faith was no longer the possession almost solely of bondservants and the lowly. Among its conquests were men and women of high position; even the imperial family was now and again strongly suspected of contributing friends to the new religion. Prisca and Valeria, the wife and daughter of Diocletian, were certainly catechumens, though they sacrificed to the heathen deities when the emperor gave his edict for persecution. The world was not to see a Roman empress playing the tragic part of a martyr to Christianity.
Of the time immediately preceding the persecution of Diocletian, Eusebius says: |It is beyond our ability to describe in a suitable manner the extent and nature of the glory and freedom with which the word of piety toward the God of the universe, proclaimed to the world through Christ, was honored among all men, both Greeks and barbarians. The favor shown our people by the rulers might be adduced as evidence; as they committed to them the government of provinces, and on account of the great friendship which they entertained toward their doctrine, released them from anxiety in regard to sacrificing. Why need I speak of those in the royal palaces, and of the rulers over all, who allowed the members of their households, wives and children and servants, to speak openly before them for the divine word and life, and suffered them almost to boast of the freedom of their faith?|
Thus it came to pass that Christianity grew to be a power which must be reckoned with in the state; all the more so, since, as the historian just quoted admits, many of the motives, influences and usages natural to the world began to be adopted in the Church. It is really doubtful whether the persecution under Diocletian was at all instigated by any animosity on the part of the rulers toward Christian principles. The Church was looked upon as a great party in the state, opposed to traditional conditions, and, while not yet strong enough to be courted, was too numerous to be tolerated. Constantine saw the futility of endeavoring to extirpate the Church, even if his disposition could have allowed him to resort to such cruel measures, and -- it is not uncharitable to his memory to say it -- he shrewdly concluded to attach this vigorously growing power to himself.
Before we enter upon the study of the character and time of a woman to whose influence the political triumph of Christianity was probably very largely due, it will not be out of place to notice a little more closely the unfortunate career of Valeria, the daughter of Diocletian. She has previously been referred to as a Christian who, with Prisca, her mother, saved herself from martyrdom by sacrificing, though very reluctantly, to the pagan deities. By her father, Diocletian, she had been given in marriage to Galerius, who at that time was made Caesar and was afterward to become emperor. In every way she proved herself a most estimable wife; and although her courage was not equal to the endurance of martyrdom, her Christian principles beautified her life with the graces of virtue and charity. Having no children of her own, she adopted Candidianus, the illegitimate son of her husband, and evinced toward him all the affection of a real mother. After the death of Galerius, the great fortune, no less than the personal attractions, of Valeria aroused the desires of Maximin, his successor. This Maximin was the most licentious man that ever disgraced the imperial throne, and to attain preeminence among such competitors required a monster of sensuality. His eunuchs catered to his passions by forcing from their homes wives and virgins of the noblest families; any sign of unwillingness on the part of these victims was regarded as treason and punished accordingly. During his reign, the custom arose that no person should marry without the emperor's consent, in order that he might in all nuptials act the part of praegustator.
The fate of Valeria is best described in the words of Gibbon: |He (Maximin) had a wife still alive; but divorce was permitted by the Roman law, and the fierce passions of the tyrant demanded an immediate gratification. The answer of Valeria was such as became the daughter and widow of emperors; but it was tempered by the prudence which her defenceless condition compelled her to observe. She represented to the persons whom Maximin had employed on this occasion, 'that, even if honor could permit a woman of her character and dignity to entertain a thought of second nuptials, decency at least must forbid her to listen to his addresses at a time when the ashes of her husband and his benefactor were still warm, and while the sorrows of her mind were still expressed by her mourning garments. She ventured to declare that she could place very little confidence in the professions of a man whose cruel inconstancy was capable of repudiating a faithful and affectionate wife.' On this repulse the love of Maximin was converted into fury; and as witnesses and judges were always at his disposal, it was easy for him to cover his fury with an appearance of legal proceedings, and to assault the reputation as well as the happiness of Valeria. Her estates were confiscated, her eunuchs and domestics devoted to the most inhuman tortures, and several innocent and respectable matrons, who were honored with her friendship, suffered death, on a false accusation of adultery. The empress herself, together with her mother Prisca, was condemned to exile; and as they were ignominiously hurried from place to place before they were confined to a sequestered village in the deserts of Syria, they exposed their shame and distress to the provinces of the East, which, during thirty years, had respected their august dignity. Diocletian (who before this had abdicated his throne and was therefore powerless) made several ineffectual efforts to alleviate the misfortunes of his daughter; and, as the last return that he expected for the imperial purple, which he had conferred upon Maximin, he entreated that Valeria might be permitted to share his retirement at Salona, and to close the eyes of her afflicted father. He entreated; but as he could no longer threaten, his prayers were received with coldness and disdain; and the pride of Maximin was gratified in treating Diocletian as a suppliant, and his daughter as a criminal.
|The death of Maximin seemed to assure the empresses of a favorable alteration in their fortune. The public disorders relaxed the vigilance of their guard, and they easily found means to escape from the place of their exile, and to repair, though with some precaution, and in disguise, to the court of Licinius. His behavior, in the first days of his reign, and the honorable reception which he gave to young Candidianus, inspired Valeria with secret satisfaction, both on her own account and on that of her adopted son. But these grateful prospects were soon succeeded by horror and astonishment; and the bloody executions which stained the palace of Nicomedia sufficiently convinced her that the throne of Maximin was filled by a tyrant more inhuman than himself. Valeria consulted her safety by a hasty flight, and, still accompanied by her mother, Prisca, they wandered above fifteen months through the provinces, concealed in the disguise of plebeian habits. They were at length discovered at Thessalonica; and as the sentence of their death was already pronounced, they were immediately beheaded, and their bodies thrown into the sea. The people gazed on the melancholy spectacle; but their grief and indignation were suppressed by the terrors of a military guard. Such was the unworthy fate of the wife and daughter of Diocletian. We lament their misfortunes, we cannot discover their crimes.| It is by no means unlikely, judging from the character of these women, that if the true facts were known, though they were not martyrs in the accepted sense of the word, it would be seen that they suffered for their Christianity, being induced by its principles to refuse their consent to such conduct as would have gained the favor of their persecutors. There have been many more martyrs for the substance of Christianity than there have been for its form; and doubtless there were not a few women, in the times of which we are writing, who would have sacrificed on pagan altars, but who would not have defiled their consciences with acts which paganism excused.
In the preceding pages of this chapter, we have attempted to indicate the fact that, while Christianity was growing in numbers and influence, its effect upon the moral conditions of the world was not so great as might be expected by a student who confines his attention to its doctrines, rather than to an investigation of the character of the men and women who made the history of that time. As has already been said, the material and political triumph of Christianity was in reality a moral compromise with the world. If the faithful practice of the teachings and the humble following of the example of Christ had been rigidly insisted upon as the sine qua non of membership in the Church, it is doubtful if Constantine would have proved a better friend to the Church than was Trajan. Nevertheless, the fact that Constantine did find himself able to favor the Christian religion, without incurring any mental discomfort in the pursuit of his own ideas, rendered it possible for earnest believers in Christ to devote themselves to their faith in perfect security.
How large a share may be rightfully imputed to Helena of the honor of influencing her son's mind to the support of Christianity it is impossible to determine, but that some credit is due to her in this respect the nature of the circumstances warrants us in believing. In any case, Helena was so important a figure in early Church history that her life and doings were a favorite theme for the chroniclers of her time and a welcome opportunity for the legendists of the mediaeval age. These latter have so glorified her ancestry and confused the place of her birth that it is entirely impossible to harmonize their statements with those of the former. As an example of the legends of the Middle Ages we give the account of her as it is found in Hakluyt's Voyages and quoted by Dr. McGiffert in his Prolegomena to Eusebius's Constantine the Great. |Helena Flavia Augusta, the heire and only daughter of Coelus, sometime the most excellent king of Britaine, by reason of her singular beautie, faith, religion, goodnesse, and godly Maiestie (according to the testimonie of Eusebius) was famous in all the world. Amongst all the women of her time there was none either in the liberall arts more learned, or in the instruments of musike more skilfull, or in the divers languages of nations more abundant than herselfe. She had a naturall quicknesse of wit, eloquence of speech, and most notable grace in all her behaviour. She was seen in the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin tongues. Her father (as Virumnius reporteth) had no other childe, ... Constantius had by her a sonne called Constantine the great, while hee remained in Britaine ... peace was granted to the Christian churches by her good meanes. After the light and knowledge of the Gospel, she grew so skilfull in divinity that she wrote and composed divers bookes and certaine Greek verses also, which (as Ponticus reporteth) are yet extant... went to Jerusalem... lived to the age of fourscore yeeres, and then died at Rome the fifteenth day of August, in the yeere of oure redemption 337.... Her body is to this day very carefully preserved at Venice.| As the learned author of the Prolegomena says, this is |a matter-of-fact account of things which are not so.|
There is another story, to the effect that Helena was the daughter of a nobleman of Treves. While on a pilgrimage to Rome she was seen by Emperor Constantius, and he, falling in love with her beauty, caused her to be detained in the city until after her companions had returned home. The result was disastrous to Helena's character as a virgin. To assuage her grief, the emperor presented her with an ornament of precious stones and his ring. She continued to remain in Rome with the son that was born to her, allowing it to be understood that her husband was dead. Constantine, her son, grew up to be a young man of remarkably fine presence and unusual parts. These qualities in him attracted the attention of some rich merchants, who conceived the project of palming him off on the Emperor of the Greeks as the son of the Roman emperor, so that the former might accept him as a son-in-law.
This scheme was successful, and after a time the merchants reembarked for Rome, taking with them the princess as Constantine's wife, and also much treasure, which presumably was the object of the adventure. One night they went ashore on a little island, and in the morning the young people awoke to find that they were deserted. Constantine then confessed to the princess the fraud that had been practised upon her; but she magnanimously declared that she was satisfied with him as her husband, whatever his family might be. After some days of privation, they were rescued by passing voyagers and taken on to Rome. There, with the treasure which the princess had managed to retain, they purchased an inn, and, with Helena's assistance, supported themselves by its means. Constantine became so famous through his prowess at tournaments that he attracted the attention of the emperor, who refused to believe that he was of low extraction. Helena was sent for, and, after much questioning, she at last confessed as to who she and her son really were. The truth of her statement was confirmed by the ring which Constantius had given her. The emperor then caused the merchants to be put to death and their property given to Constantine. A treaty was made with the Greek emperor, and Constantine was recognized as the heir to the whole Empire. This story may be regarded as a sort of Middle Age historical novel, the history being metamorphosed without stint in order to enhance the interest of the tale.
The old chroniclers, such as Henry of Huntington, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Pierre de Langtoft, assert that Helena was the daughter of Duke Coel of Colchester, who became King of Britain. She was the most beautiful and cultivated woman of her time-the attribute of beauty is always awarded to women who have been so fortunate as to become legendary. The most interesting thing about this story is the fact that modern students have identified Duke Coel, the alleged father of Helena, with |Old King Cole,| who was the |merry old soul| immortalized in the Mother Goose rhymes.
Let us now turn to what may be seriously regarded as history and therein ascertain what may be known of the life and character of the empress-mother Helena. It must be taken as a well-established fact that her father, so far from being either a king or a duke of Britain, was indeed an innkeeper at Drepanum, a town on the Gulf of Nicomedia. The story suggested by this circumstance is the commonplace one of a soldier in the service of the emperor Aurelian passing a brief sojourn at the hostelry in Drepanum, and, with the proverbially quick susceptibility of the men of his calling, falling in love with the daughter of his host. The necessary negotiations were easy, for a man like Constantius was an unusual catch for a girl in the position of Helena. No time was lost over preliminaries; in fact, the marriage was so little noted that some historians claim that it never took place at all. These hold that Helena was never anything more than the concubine of Constantius; but the fact that Diocletian insisted upon her divorce proves that she was legally married. That, as is often stated, the birth of Constantine took place before the marriage of Helena may not be untrue. Some have found a support for this allegation in the fact that |he first established that natural children should be made legitimate by the subsequent marriage of their parents.| From the fact that a number of places lay claim to the honor of being the birthplace of Constantine, it would seem that Helena accompanied her husband in the wanderings consequent to the profession of a soldier. Gibbon thinks that the historians who award this distinction to Naissus, in Dacia, are the best authorities, though later writers think it rightly belongs to Drepanum, the home of Helena. This place was afterward called Helenopolis by Constantine, in honor of his mother.
Theodoret seems to have thought that Helena gave her son a Christian education, while, on the other hand, we are plainly told by Eusebius that she was indebted to Constantine for her knowledge of Christianity. It is very easy to entertain a doubt of both these theories. If Helena was a Christian when Constantine was a child, and if she trained him in that belief, his after conduct shows extremely unsatisfactory results of a mother's teaching. Constantine certainly did not withdraw his support and patronage from the ancient religion until he was past forty years of age; and it is well known that he delayed his baptism until near the end of his life, so as to enjoy the advantage of its purifying effect at the latest possible moment. These cumulative circumstances render us exceedingly sceptical of the possibility of so zealous a convert as was Helena resulting from so indifferent a teacher as was Constantine.
When his son was eighteen years old, Constantius was promoted to the rank of Caesar. This majesty, however, Helena was not allowed to share with her husband. The innkeeper's daughter was displaced by a more advantageous match with Theodora, the daughter of the Augustus Maximian. Later on, Fausta, another daughter of Maximian, was married to Constantine, and thus Theodora was made sister-in-law to her own stepson. Such intricate matrimonial alliances were not uncommon among rulers, where the main object is to conserve the family prestige.
How Helena consoled herself in her humiliation, or in what way she occupied herself during the interval between her divorce and the accession of Constantine, we do not know. As is the wont with women in such circumstances who are no longer young, she turned her thoughts to religion. It was most probably at this time that Helena became a Christian openly, though she may have been friendly to the Church while she was still the wife of Constantius.
In the year 306 Constantius died. He left three sons and three daughters, who had been born to him by his second wife Theodora; but the son of Helena, a mature man and an experienced soldier, was immediately promoted by the army from the Caesarship to the Empire of the West. It is much to his credit that in that age when family ties were no safeguard against inhuman treatment by close but stronger relatives, who sought to secure themselves in the possession of a throne, Constantine nobly cared for the children of the woman for whose sake his own mother had been repudiated. Unfortunately for his reputation, he was not always so humane.
The three half-sisters of the emperor were Constantia, Anastasia, and Eutropia. This is perhaps as good a place as any in which to glance at the history of these women, who did not greatly affect the course of events. Constantia married the Emperor Licinius. She was greatly beloved by Constantine, and at times seemed to wield some influence over his decisions, not sufficient, however, to save the life of her husband or that of her young son. It was during the magnificent festivities occasioned by her marriage at Milan that the two emperors made the first proclamation of religious liberty that was ever heard in an imperial edict by the subjects of Rome. |Religious liberty,| they said, |should not be denied, but it should be granted to every man to perform his duties toward God according to his own judgment.| Licinius, however, did not live up to this decision, nor was he loyal to his brother-in-law in other matters. Civil war followed, in which Constantine was victorious, and through his victory he became sole emperor. Constantia pleaded for the life of her husband, and gained from her brother the promise that he should suffer no severer punishment than banishment; but, notwithstanding this brotherly pledge of mercy, a motive was soon discovered which seemed to justify the death of Licinius. Gibbon remarks: |The behavior of Constantia, and her relation to the contending parties, naturally recall the remembrance of that virtuous matron who was the sister of Augustus and the wife of Antony.| In later years, when Constantine had become the arbiter of the theological disputes which rent the newly established Church and had banished Arius for his heresy, Constantia again acted the part of peacemaker and, on her deathbed, warned the emperor to |consider well lest he should incur the wrath of God and suffer great temporal calamities, since he had been induced to condemn good men to perpetual banishment.| It was probably largely owing to these good offices that Arius was recalled. Notwithstanding her indulgent attitude toward heretics, Constantia seems to have been a woman of genuine Christian feeling, honoring her faith by the nobility of her life, a comment which cannot justly be passed upon all the Christian princesses of her time.
Anastasia, the second sister of Constantine, was married to Bassianus, a man of high position, who, on being favored with this imperial alliance, was further promoted to the rank of Caesar. He was later discovered in a conspiracy against Constantine and put to death. Further than this there is nothing noteworthy to be told of Anastasia. Eutropia was espoused to Nepotianus. Of her history there is nothing remarkable recorded except that after the death of her great brother she was slain with her son, who in Rome had headed the rebellion against the usurpation of Magnentius.
We will return now to the court of Constantine, where we shall find his mother installed in great honor and dignity and not without an influence of her own. Whatever may have been the faults of her son, Helena had no cause to complain of any lack of duty on his part toward herself.
The court of Constantine, nominally Christian though it was, exhibited the same characteristics of jealousy and intrigue as had the palaces of the pagan emperors. Before his marriage with Fausta, the emperor had, like his father, contracted a |left-handed| marriage, in his case with a woman named Minervina, whom he repudiated for the sake of an alliance which policy dictated. Some authors, seem to insinuate, as in the case of Helena, that there was no marriage in the legal sense; but the testimony rather points to the contrary. However this may have been, Crispus, the son of Minervina, was retained by his father and brought up as a legitimate heir to the purple. This naturally resulted, on the part of Fausta, in jealousy for the rights of her own children. This whole story is deeply shrouded in mystery, as is the wont with the domestic affairs of court; but the few rays of historical light which do penetrate the gloom reveal to us nothing but a horrible intricacy of moral turpitude. The murder of Crispus by the order of his father was the outcome. Some ancient writers accuse Fausta of indulging an unchaste passion for her stepson and of bringing about his death in revenge for his disappointing her desires. They represent her as charging the young man with an attempt of which his innocence was in reality the cause of her malice toward him; but it is more likely that her fear of his standing in the way of her own sons was the motive for bringing about his downfall. Whether innocent or guilty, Crispus perished, for Constantine, whatever may have been his religion, was as implacably cruel as Tiberius. He even put to death the twelve-year-old son of his favorite sister Constantia, for no other reason than that the lad's existence might prove an injury to his own sons.
But, as Victor Duruy writes, |the tragedy was not yet ended. In the imperial palace lived Helena, the aged mother of the emperor, a rough-mannered, energetic woman, to whom the murder of Crispus was a horrible crime. Repudiated by Constantius Chlorus, she had seen the imperial title and honors pass to a rival; when policy expelled Minervina, as it had driven out herself, from an emperor's dwelling, this similarity in misfortune attached her to the son whom that daughter-in-law had borne to Constantine, and who was to grow up with a stepmother in his father's house. Helena watched over the boy with anxiety, and toward the children of Fausta she felt the same aversion that the latter manifested toward Crispus. Between these two women, no doubt, a mutual hatred existed. How did Helena succeed in making Fausta appear the author of abominable machinations? This we do not know; but we have the fact that, by order of Constantine, the empress was seized by her women, shut up in a hot bath, and smothered.|
It must be admitted, however, that all the information that we have on this subject is very hazy. The treatment which the ancient authors gave to the reputation of Fausta depended very considerably upon their purpose of either eulogizing or denouncing Constantine. While some justify him by declaring that the empress was discovered in the arms of a slave of the stables, -- a most incredible story as told of a middle-aged empress, -- others speak of her as the most divine and pious of empresses. There is in existence a bronze medallion showing a portrait of Fausta; the strongly marked Grecian features are those of a woman who is evidently fully conscious of the dignity which pertained to |the daughter, wife, sister, and mother of emperors.|
After these tragedies had taken place, it is not surprising that Helena decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, this being considered, even in times so early, as one of the most effective of moral purgatives. It is asserted that she was directed by dreams to repair to Jerusalem and there search for the Holy Sepulchre. The difficulty of this task was so great that there need be no wonder that the ancient chroniclers believed that she was divinely led. The place of the tomb had been covered with earth, and a temple to Venus erected thereupon. This, Helena caused to be destroyed; and, after much excavating, the sacred cave was found. What emotion, what pious promptings she must have then felt as she stood where, a little over three centuries earlier, the trembling feet of the holy women of Galilee had halted as they fearfully wondered how they should remove the great stone from the mouth of the Sepulchre, when lo! the stone was removed, the entrance was open, and before them stood an angel all in white who announced to them that the Lord had arisen!
Some authorities assert that, believing the Jewish inhabitants possessed definite knowledge that would solve her difficulties, she determined to secure it by the means usually employed by Christians in dealing with reluctant Jews. First, she commanded that all the Jewish rabbis should be assembled. They came in great fear, suspecting that the object of her visit was to find the Cross. The whereabouts of this precious relic they knew; but they had pledged themselves not to reveal it, even under torture. When they would not satisfactorily answer Helena's questions, she commanded that they should all be burned. This sufficiently overcame their resolution to induce them to deliver up Judas, their leader, saying that he could give the desired information. At first he was obstinate; but Helena gave him the choice of either telling what he knew or of being starved to death. Six days of total abstinence was sufficient to bring him to terms. He was conducted to the place which he indicated; and after prayer by the Christians, there occurred an earthquake, and a beautiful perfume filled the air, because of which Judas was converted. Then he set to digging vigorously, and at a depth of twenty feet came upon three crosses. But how to know which was the cross of the Saviour was the next puzzle to be solved. Macarius, the Bishop of Jerusalem, was equal to the occasion. According to Socrates: |A certain woman of the neighborhood, who had long been afflicted with disease, was now just at the point of death; the bishop therefore arranged that each cross should be brought to the dying woman, believing that she would be healed on touching the precious Cross. Nor was he disappointed in his expectation: for the two crosses having been applied which were not the Lord's, the woman still continued in a dying state; but when the third, which was the true Cross, touched her, she was immediately healed, and recovered her former strength.|
Helena then set Judas to work at searching for the nails. They were found shining like gold. These, with the larger portion of the Cross, she sent to Constantine. The nails he converted into bridle-bits, and the wood of the Cross he secretly enclosed in his own statue, which was set up in the forum at Constantinople.
Helena erected a magnificent church on the site of the Holy Sepulchre, calling it New Jerusalem. She also built a Christian temple at Bethlehem, and still another on the Mount of the Ascension.
Sozomen tells us that |during her residence at Jerusalem, she assembled the sacred virgins at a feast, ministered to them at supper, presented them with food, poured water on their hands, and performed other similar services customary to those who wait upon guests.| It is no wonder that the Christian devotees of celibacy came to believe that virginity conferred upon them a rank superior to that obtained from nobility of birth.
It is also recorded of Helena that she not only enriched churches, but that she liberally supplied the necessities of the poor, and released prisoners and those condemned to labor in the mines. Sozomen writes: |It seems to me that so many holy actions demanded a recompense; and indeed, even in this life, she was raised to the summit of magnificence and splendor; she was proclaimed Augusta; her image was stamped on golden coins, and she was invested by her son with authority over the imperial treasury to give it according to her judgment. Her death, too, was glorious; for when, at the age of eighty, she departed this life, she left her son and her descendants masters of the Roman world. And if there be any advantage in such fame -- forgetfulness did not conceal her though she was dead -- the coming age has the pledge of her perpetual memory; for two cities are named after her, the one in Bithynia, and the other in Palestine. Such is the history of Helena.|
Of the fact that Helena is rightly regarded as a prominent character in the history of women there can be no question; that she was the mother of Constantine and the first avowed Christian empress is enough to warrant this opinion. Her virtue and charity may also be regarded as unimpeachable. Her canonization as a saint, however, is founded upon her alleged discovery of the Cross. Apart from the other difficulties which a sceptical mind may find in this story, there is the fact that Eusebius, who in the lifetime of Constantine wrote the account of Helena's journey to Jerusalem, makes no mention whatever of the Cross, notwithstanding his recital of the appearing of the sacred sign to the emperor and its adoption as the Roman ensign. But the legend, be it true or false, has highly glorified the name of Helena in the religious history of the world.