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Helena Augusta in the Style of Diogenes

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by Stephen Dusel


The ultimate goal of the most basic biography is to retell the events of an individual's life. Points such as where and when the person was born, who his or her parents were, and in many cases, the circumstances of death are the building blocks of a simple retelling of someone's life. However, most writers are going to intend to have their work read by someone. They will paint a picture of the person so as to sway the reader into feeling a certain way about the individual. Certain events in the subject's life will either be included or excluded, or presented with different language to guide the reader in a certain direction.

Much of ancient Roman biography was by men and about men. Very few women were deemed important enough to have their lives retold. Society simply didn't place them up high enough. However, modern writers have written biographies about some of the great women from what texts do exist. This begs the question, what if one of the ancient biographers wrote about these women with the same intensity as he approached his actual subjects, and what message would he be trying to get across?

By Franca Ela ConsolinoEdit

In Roman Women, Consolino used old texts to attempt to piece together an accurate account of Helena Augusta's life. Franca spent a great deal of time on each fact, mentioning every source and analyzing the validity of it by matching up timelines and determining if the primary text was accurate. An example of this can be seen when Consolino is discussing the varying accounts of the "Discovery of the Cross" on pages 153 and 154. Four different sources were examined, including Paulinus's Chronicle, Ecclesiastical History, On the Death of Theodosius, and even a simple sermon on. Each of the tales was presented and each critically analyzed. He determined that Helena was inserted into the story in later accounts. He went through a great deal of trouble explaining each of these stories, even their similarities, only to say that Helena may not have even been involved in the discovery.

His writing style is easy to follow and reports every possible piece of information. He does not worry about its validity until after he has written it. Then he makes sure to carefully dissect each claim. He never denies the greatness of Helena Augusta, but seems to feel she was great for slightly different reasons than the writers of the text he analyzed. They all seemed to feel that it was her religious work that made her amazing, but Franca looks more at what she was able to do with it. He feels her greatness came in how intelligent and savvy for politics she was. He praises her while discussing her use of "Christian propaganda" (p.150), trying to lead the audience to see her as a well-rounded person who was pious but also wise in other areas. He wants us to agree that she was great due to all she accomplished.

By Diogenes LaertiusEdit

Diogenes Laertius wrote Lives of Eminent Philosophers, in which he tells of the events in the lives of many powerful men of reason. However, while many biographers are content to simply describe a life start to finish (as Consolino did), Diogenes preferred to take a more artistic approach. He did still present the important pieces about each subject, but then proceeded to describe them through their interactions with others. In the life of Diogenes the Cynic, he wrote short bursts of things Diogenes would say to people, hardly ever pausing to give the reader a break. He hardly ever explained to his readers what Diogenes was saying, but preferred to let them figure it out. He was a skilled biographer, in that he could make the readers like Diogenes, just as Diogenes contemporaries did. This is in spite of the fact that he would sit in front of targets to insult untalented archers (Lives, p. 69). No matter how much of a jerk he was, the author would still mention how beloved he was and win us over.

Diogenes was from the very time period where women were of a far lower class than men. Greatness wasn't expected of them. A great woman was praised for how unlike a woman she was. If Diogenes were to tackle a biography about Helena Augusta, his style could be quite effective. It wouldn't be particularly long, and he would have merely several accounts of the same few events, but each would be included to develop how we would see Helena through his eyes. However, unlike the work of Consolino, Diogenes would not be praising Helena for piety or astute play of the political game. While he would certainly mention those things, they would be more just to support what I think his main idea would be. He would want to praise how she rose so far above her station in several ways, almost escaping being a woman. She not only went from a bar maid/innkeeper to the mother of a great Emperor, she also went from a woman who would never have been known to a woman famed both for her deeds and for being a part of some of the great events of history. It would be a definite positive image of her, but not really based on what she did. Rather, he would want us to like the fact that she was able to do it at all. This may baffle the contemporary audience, but ancient readers would have been more swayed to his view, due to the social climate.


Helena Augusta was great without a doubt. She acted selflessly with the extravagance she came into, but knew when to use her acquired fame to solidify her son's empire. This was all during the time when women had very few rights or privileges, and they were not expected to do much outside the home. She has been immortalized in a biography praising her achievements, if discrediting some others, by a modern writer. A very specific picture was painted of her. Were Diogenes to write about her, we would see a similar picture. However, the intent would be very different, probably due to the time period of the writers. It seems that Diogenes' style would be able to very effectively deliver his message, as it would offer him chance after chance to show her acts and then state quickly how above women of her time she was.

Works CitedEdit

Fraschetti, Augusto. Ed. Roman Women [Helena Augusta: From Innkeeper to Empress]. Edited. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001. 141-59. Print.

Laertius, Diogenes. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. 11th. 2. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. 23-85. Print.

Depicting a Significant Life: Including the "Good" and the "Bad"Edit

by Emily Lnenicka (Project 1 - Part 2)

Stephen Dusel imagines that if Diogenes Laertius were to construct a biography of Helena Augusta, he would present a favorable portrayal of the type of person she was. Dusel explicitly states that, “It would be a definite positive image of her, but not really based on what she did.” While I agree that positive aspects of Helena’s life would certainly be included in Diogenes’ account, I am not convinced that Diogenes would limit his account to include only positive aspects, as Dusel suggests.

Dusel primarily bases his determination on Diogenes’ portrayal of Diogenes the Cynic. He notes that, “[Diogenes Laertius] was a skilled biographer, in that he could make the readers like Diogenes [the Cynic]… No matter how much of a jerk he was, the author would still mention how beloved he was and win us over.” However, I have a somewhat different impression of how Diogenes Laertius chose to portray Diogenes the Cynic. Contrary to what Dusel articulated, I was particularly struck by Diogenes’ readiness to include many negative opinions of Diogenes the Cynic. In actuality, the mere fact that Dusel described Diogenes the Cynic as a “jerk” demonstrates that Diogenes Laertius must have included some negative content in his biography. Otherwise, we would come away with the impression that Diogenes the Cynic was a saint among men!

Through many of Diogenes the Cynic’s interactions with Plato, the reader often gets a less than positive depiction of Diogenes’ character. For instance, Diogenes Laertius writes, “…Diogenes trampled upon [Plato’s] carpets and said, ‘I trample upon Plato’s vainglory.’ Plato’s replay was, ‘How much pride you expose to view, Diogenes, by seeming not to be proud” (Laertius 29). Here, Diogenes is portrayed quite negatively, as an extremely arrogant individual. Why would Diogenes Laertius include this anecdote if his aim were to craft an overwhelmingly positive portrayal throughout his biography? My inclination is to say that he would omit such information if he were, in fact, focused on articulating a positive account. At the same time, one could argue that since Plato was such a notorious character, any interaction with someone of his stature begs inclusion. So, perhaps if Diogenes Laertius included negative opinions of Diogenes the Cynic that did not come from such a well-known figure, the claim that Diogenes was not focused on articulating a positive account would have more cogent support.

As it happens, one needn’t look too far before finding just such an inclusion. Diogenes describes, “On being asked by somebody, ‘What sort of man do you consider Diogenes to be?’ ‘A Socrates gone mad,’ said he” (Laertius 55). Clearly, if Diogenes were focused on providing a positive account of Diogenes the Cynic’s life, he would have no cause to include information from an anonymous source that called Diogenes the Cynic deranged, or “mad.” Therefore, if Diogenes Laertius is not focused on crafting a positive account of the subjects of his other biographies, then we have no reason to assume that he would have such a focus in a biography of Helena of Augusta.

It is hard to imagine what unfavorable information Diogenes Laertius might include in a biography of Helena Augusta. As Dusel notes, however, Helena lived during a “time when women had very few rights or privileges.” Since society did not value the contributions of women, or women in general, it is certain that many people during that time would have had very negative opinions of the way in which Helena conducted herself. Diogenes Laertius would include statements from people who said, “As a woman, Helena had no business ascending the social hierarchy, and her actions have, quite frankly, offended me,” for example. Such an inclusion would exemplify how Helena’s contemporaries viewed her actions, and give a richer understanding of the social climate of the time, as well as the impact that Helena’s life had on it. Diogenes Laertius was not concerned with depicting positive biographies of his subjects; rather, he was interested in depicting lives that were significant, in one way or another. It is, therefore, consistent with this understanding of Diogenes’ overall aim that we determine he’d be likely to construct a biography of Helena Augusta that would not be limited to positive or favorable information, but would also include unfavorable information about her life.

Works Cited

Laertius, Diogenes. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. 11th. 2. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. 23-85. Print.

More Ideas on Laertius' Version of Helena Augusta

Project 1 Part 2

By Solomon Montagno

In the introduction paragraph of Helena Augusta in the Style of Diogenes Stephen states that most ancient biographies were written by men and only about men. This is true, very rarely during ancient time was there a biography dedicated to a woman. If one does come across a biography of notable ancient women they are often said to have had man like personalities or qualities. The ancient style of writing biographies is considerably different from how modern biographers write today. Stephen mentions this in his essay. Franca, the author of Helena Augusta: From Innkeeper to Empress tries to report all the information he gathered on Helena and then in the biography decides by analyzing the text what is true and what is false. He does not try to diminish Helena’s character but rather tries to praise her for things that are more concrete and not based off claims that can’t be proven, such as Helena finding the true cross of Jesus. For example Franca, notes many times in his biography of Helena that she was a very smart women who used her intelligence to improve her life. Diogenes Laertius has a different way of writing biographies. As Stephen said ancient biographies are rarely written on women, also, Laertius wouldn’t focus on every facet of her life. He would only discuss the note worthy aspects of her life. His style of biographies would take on that of biographies written about men. In the first paragraph of the Laertius’ version of Helena Augusta he would compare her to other famous men. Laertius would describe her as having qualities of that of a man. It is hard to find actual text of Laertius writing about how a famous woman was like a man in these aspects of her life. This is due to the fact that Laertius doesn’t have any biographies about ancient women. Or least he does not have any in his book, Lives of Eminent Philosophers. This furthers the idea that most men and men who were biographers did not think women led lives of merit. Laerius would definitely praise Helena for starting off as a innkeeper who eventually gave birth the emperor of Rome. He would also praise her intelligence and wisdom but there would not much written about her intelligence compared to what acts she performed in life and how people reacted to them. Laertius understands that Helena was able to perform all of the acts she did because of the facilities she possessed. He would be more focused how others reacted to her rather than how she was able to do it or that she was able to do it in general. Laertius would discuss her religiousness and philosophy and then show the reader with of real examples of how she lived life in that way. This style of writing is evident in his works of Diogenes. Laertius basically just gives accounts of what Diogenes said to people and how they reacted, for example “Plato had defined Man as an animal, biped and featherless, and was applauded. Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it into the lecture-room with the words, ‘Here is Plato’s man.’ In consequence of which there was added to the definition, ‘having broad nails’ (Laertius, 43). Diogenes disproves Plato’s analyses of man very easily and has the definition changed though only by a little. Laertius would use the same technique with Helena Augusta. He might give us an account of how she might have found the true cross of Jesus and then give the response of the people. Laertius would not try to get the reader to be amazed about how she accomplished everything in her life. This would add bias to his biographies something that Laertius tries not to include. He does not want the reader to come away with how he viewed Helena. Moreover, he would want the reader to come away with an idea of what made her so great and how people reacted to her so that the reader might form their own opinion about Helena. Laertius has a very specific style. His version of Helena’s biography would certainly compare her to men and discuss her manly qualities. He would report the most notable achievements in her life while leaving out ones that are not of importance. Stephen writes this in his project. However, Laertius would be less focused on that fact she was able to lead a great life because she was women and more interested in what she did in her life and others viewed her. Laertius’ writing does not change very much from each biography that he writes and while he would definitely make it clear that Helena was a women, he would not change how he goes about writing her biography because of her gender.

Diogenes, Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers :. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000. Print.

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