By Solomon Montagno
The story of Helena Augusta is very interesting. The of biography, Helena Augusta: From Innkeeper To Empress written by Franca Ela Consolino and was featured in the book Roman woman. In this biography the author tries to make clear points about her life. For example there is a clear focus on when she was born, where she was born, and when she died. These are good and important points to have included in a biography. However, it would be interesting to look at Helena Augusta’s life as if it were being written by the author of The Passions of Saints Perpetua and Felicity as well as Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina. Their accounts of past historical women differ from the modern day interpretation of Helena Augusta. It will be very interesting to see what will be considered important in Helena Augusta’s life through the lenses of these ancient author’s of biographies.
The passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity and the Life of Macrina start off with an introductory quote or passage. This is a theme that is included in Helena Augusta’s biography. “The Greek Helena was in possession of part of her homeland, while this woman [Helena Augusta], truly gifted with a manly spirit, with just laws and pious moderation, ruled the empire of the whole universe…our Helena, living and acting with admirable faith, exemplary devotion, modesty, and holiness of character, deserved to reach Christ, who, through the blood of his cross, brought peace to heaven and earth”(Fraschetti, 141).
The passages before the beginning of the biography praise the women for all the great deeds they performed in their life. It is an attempt by the author to show the reader how people from the time of when they lived viewed that person. The introductory passages are employed by the author to show that other’s opinions towards the women instead of just the author’s. It is a way for the author to back up their analysis of the woman in question. In Helena Augusta’s introductory passage it is obvious that she is seen as a very religious woman who had lots of power over the Roman Empire. Also, Helena was a woman who was genuinely smart and had a status that was held above other queens of her time. Helena was called the “Mother” of the Roman Empire. Although, her son Constantine was the Emperor they equally shared the burden of ruling. The accounts of Macrina and Perpetua both mention the origins of each woman. Specifically they mention the men in the lives of both women. There is a focus on the men in their lives, such as whom they married or the importance of the father. Helena’s status is in question because she came from low beginnings. There is not much about Helena’s early life. Her birth city and when she was born is unknown. She was never formally married to Constantius who was Emperor Constantine’s father. However, it is known that she gave birth to Constantine who became the future emperor. There are historians that go as far as calling her a concubine. “…Helena was not Constantius’s wife by full right, but his concubine…” (Fraschetti, 144). It is a clear that who Macrina married was of importance to the author in Macrina’s biography. It is detailed that she was to be married to a man but that he died. Macrina’s father then tried to marry her off again but adamantly refused. In today’s society a biography about woman would be more focused about what the person did in their life to make them notable and not who they married. It is important to include that Helena’s grandchild, Constantine’s son, Crispus was murdered. There is much speculation that Constantine’s wife Fausta had Crispus murdered. Helena was very distraught after Crispus’ death. Soon after Crispus was killed Fausta was also murdered. Some believe the Helena was responsible for Fausta’s death because Constantine felt bad about how his mother felt after Crispus’s death and had his wife murdered as a result. “…Constantine had his wife killed, because she had persuaded him to eliminate his own son, Crispus, and Helena, deeply stricken by the loss of her grandchild, blamed Fausta for his death” (Fraschetti, 145). This was a time of strife for Helena because of the speculations over the murders. This is in accordance to the account of Perpetua in which she experienced her own hardships; a “passion” for her religious beliefs. However, in both accounts the women emerge victorious in the eyes of God. Shortly after the tragic murders Helena left for the Holy land. While she was in Jerusalem there is mention of deeds she performed. “Generously drawing on the imperial treasury, she clothed the naked and fed the hungry…” (Fraschetti, 150). There is mention of her motives being religious and political in giving to the poor and clothing the naked. However, the author’s of the Macrina’s and Perpetua’s biographies rarely mention the reasons for their actions. Instead saying their motives were religious in nature. The same can be said for Helena because later in her trip she supposedly found the lost cross of Jesus, called the “True Cross”. Many speculate that this would have been possible if not from divine intervention from God. Perpetua and Macrina were both known for their connection to God. All three women had periods of doubt in their lives but they were able to use their strength to overcome the obstacles in their path, which is a major theme in all three accounts. Perpetua had a series of visions in which the divine talked with her. Macrina was able to inspire God in others and had a profound religious effect on those she met. Shortly after returning from the Holy Land, Helena died. She was very old at the time of her death. The exact age is unknown because historians do not know when she was born. It is speculated that she was around 80 years old when did finally die. Her journey to the Holy Land had a lasting effect. Although, it is not known whether or not she was born a Christian, it is known that she died as a Christian. Her son, Constantine, later converted to Christianity before his death too.
“A Pagan source tells us that Helena’s contemporaries saw a connection between Constantine’s growing pro-Christian religious policies after 326 and the bloody events that had just occurred at court. This source claims that the guilt-ridden Constantine had been refused absolution by pagan priests, and thus had turned to the Christian clergy, who promised to wash his sins away through baptism” (Fraschetti, 149).
It is possible that Helena’s religious beliefs influenced those of Constantine. Women in past biographies have been the religious leaders in their families often converting their family members to Christianity. The same can be said of Helena that she was able to use the guilt Constantine felt over Crispus’ and Fausta’s death as a method to convert him to Christianity because the Pagan priests would not forgive him of his sins.
Looking through lenses of the ancient biographers of Perpetua and Macrina and applying them to the story of Helena involves picking and choosing what is important to include in the analysis of Helena Augusta. There were many details that were included in Helena’s original biography that were omitted because they would not have been important enough to be included in the eyes of ancient biographers. In the biographies of Perpetua and Macrina their early history is mentioned. Next after that was who they married or the effect of some male on their life. For Pepetua it was how her father treated her while she was in jail. In Macrina’s biography her father, who is described as a “shrewd” man, tries to marry her off. When her first husband dies he attempts to marry her off again but she refuses saying that she is committed to her previous husband. It was important to include that Helena was not actually married to Constantius but instead his concubine. This would have been very important to the biographers of Perpetua and Macrina if they had written her biography. There was a lot of focus on the reputation of the woman being written about. Also, in both biographies each woman has something negative happen to them. For Perpetua it was being in jail separated from her family and her eventual passion. Macrina’s was relatively minor but still negative, the death of her brothers as well as her mother. It was then imperative to include the controversy over Helena’s involvement in the murders of Crispus and Fausta. Macrina and Perpetua’s biographies then had the uplifting of each woman. Therefore, the inclusion of Helena’s journey to the Holy Land and the finding of the “True Cross” was very important. However, there was significant doubt about the validity of Helena finding the “True Cross.” The same can be said of the visions that Pepetua had in jail, however, Perpetua does not question the validity of the visions but reports them as how she saw them. The same can be said of Helena. It is said that she found the cross and it was a major moment in her life. Each story end with death of the protagonist which why the analysis of Helena’s life was ended with her death.
Fraschetti, Augusto. Roman Women. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2001. Print.
Comments by Stephen DuselEdit
I feel like you were about to hit on something huge in the beginning when you were discussing the use of quotations as the introductions for the three lives. The quote included that Helena Augusta had a "manly spirit," which was a big part of both the lives of Perpetua and Macrina. The authors of the two latter lives made sure to play up that the women they were writing about were so much more than women, possessing qualities that put them in a class with men. This can be seen in Perpetua's dream about becoming a man and in Gregory of Nyssa's constant reminders that Macrina never acted womanly ["who so surpassed her sex" (Life of Macrina page 6) and "nor did she behave in any ignoble and womanish way" (page 10)]. This was a major theme in these two lives, but it never really came up in the biography for Helena Augusta. The hypothetical biography written by one of the two other authors would have likely included more about her greatness making her more man-like.