Equal to the Apostles Emperor Saint Constantine the Great (February 27, 272-May 22, 337) was proclaimed Augustus by his troops on July 25, 306 and ruled an ever-growing portion of the Roman Empire to his death. Constantine is famed for his re-founding of Byzantium as “New Rome,” which was always called “Constantine’s City”—Constantinople. With the Edict of Milan in 313, Constantine and his co-Emperor removed all onus from Christianity. By taking the personal step of convoking the Council of Nicea (325) Constantine began the Roman Empire’s unofficial sponsorship of Christianity, which was a major factor in the faith’s spread. His reputation as the “first Christian Emperor” was promulgated by Lactantius and Eusebius and gained ground in the succeeding generations. The Orthodox Church keeps his feast on May 21, along with his mother, Empress Saint Helen, as Holy Equals-to-the-Apostles.
He was born at Naissus, today’s city of Niš in Upper Moesia (modern Serbia and Montenegro), to Constantius I Chlorus and an innkeeper’s daughter, Helen. Constantine was well educated and served at the court of Diocletian in Nicomedia as a kind of hostage after the appointment of his father Constantius, a general, as one of the two Caesars (at that time a junior emperor), in the Tetrarchy in 293. In 305, the Augustus, Maximian, abdicated, and Constantius succeeded to the position. However, he died in 306. Constantine managed to be at his deathbed in Eboracum (York, England), where troops loyal to his father’s memory proclaimed him Emperor. For the next 18 years, he fought a series of battles and wars that left him first as emperor of the west, and then as supreme ruler of the Roman Empire.
Constantine is perhaps best known for being the first Roman Emperor to endorse Christianity, traditionally presented as a result of an omen — a chi-rho in the sky, with the inscription “By this sign shalt thou conquer” — before his victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, when Constantine is said to have instituted the new standard to be carried into battle, called the labarum.
Christian historians ever since Lactantius have adhered to the view that Constantine “adopted” Christianity as a kind of replacement for the official Roman paganism. Though the document called the “Donation of Constantine” was proved a forgery (though not until the 15th century, when the stories of Constantine’s conversion were long-established “facts”) it was attributed as documenting the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity for centuries. Even Christian skeptics have accepted this formulation, though seeing Constantine’s policy as a political rather than spiritual move.
By the end of the 3rd century, Christian communities and their bishops had become a force to contend with, in urban centers especially. Christians were preferred for high government positions; the Church was granted various special privileges; and churches like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem were constructed. Christian bishops took aggressive public stances that were unknown among other cult leaders, even among the Jews. Proselytism had had to be publicly outlawed, simply to maintain public decorum. In the essential legions, however, Christianity was despised as womanish, and the soldiers followed pagan cults of Mithras and Isis. Since the Roman Emperors ruled by “divine right” and stayed in power through the support of the legions, it was important for them to be seen to support a strong state religion. The contumely of the Christians consisted in their public refusal to participate in official rites that no one deeply believed in, but which were an equivalent of an oath of allegiance. Refusal might easily bring upon all the Roman people the loss of the gods’ support; such were the usual justifications for occasional lynchings of Christians by Roman soldiers, the fare of many martyrologies.
Constantine and Licinius’ Edict of Milan (313) neither made paganism illegal nor made Christianity a state-sponsored religion. What it did was legalize Christianity, return confiscated Church property, and establish Sunday as a day of worship. Though the church prospered under Constantine’s patronage, it also fell into the first of many public schisms. He called the First Ecumenical Council to settle the problem of Arianism, a dispute about the personhood and Godhood of Jesus Christ. It produced the Nicene Creed, which favored the position of Athanasius, Arius’s opponent, and became official doctrine.
When the Altar of Victory was desecrated and removed from its place of honor in the Senate, the Senate deputized Symmachus to appeal to the emperor for its return. Symmachus publicly characterized the late Emperor Constantine’s policy, in a plea for freedom of religion:
Beyond the limites, east of the Euphrates, the Sassanid rulers of the Persian empire had usually tolerated their Christians. A Letter from Constantine to Shapur II, supposed to have been written in 324 urged him to protect the Christians in his realm… With the edicts of toleration in the Roman empire, the followers of Christ would be regarded as allies of Persia’s ancient enemy. The persecutions began. Shapur II (ruled 310 – 379) wrote to his generals:
It was not an unreasonable demand in the circumstances. The Sassanids were perennially at war with Rome. Christians were now suspected for potential treachery. The “Great Persecution” of the Persian Christian churches occurred in a later period, 340-363, after the Persian Wars that reopened upon Constantine’s death. In 344 came the martyrdom of Catholicos Shimun bar Sabbae, with five bishops and 100 priests.
His victory in 312 AD over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge resulted in his becoming Western Augustus, or ruler of the entire western half of the empire. He gradually consolidated his military superiority over his rivals in the crumbling Tetrarchy until 324, when he defeated the eastern ruler, Licinius, and became sole emperor.
Constantine rebuilt the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, naming it Nea Roma, providing it with a Senate and civic offices similar to the older Rome. After his death it was renamed Constantinople, and gradually became the capital of the empire.
He was succeeded by his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans, who secured their hold on the empire with the murder of a number of relatives and supporters of Constantine. The last member of his dynasty was his grandson, Julian the Apostate, who attempted to restore paganism.
The religion of Constantine the Great, while generally assumed to be Christian in view of his pro-Christian policies, is disputed by some secular historians, however the Church from the earliest times has considered him to be a devout Orthodox Christian.
One aspect of Constantine’s life that secular historians use to indicate Constantine’s incomplete acceptance of Christianity (from a modern view) was his notorious cruelty: he executed his own wife and eldest son in 326. He also had Licinius, the East Roman emperor, strangled after his defeat, something he had publicly promised not to do. It should be noted, however, that Constantine’s wife attempted to seduce Constantine’s son (her step-son) and when he refused her advances, she accused him of raping her. The penalty for doing this to an Empress was death, as was any act considered to be treason. Later, St. Constantine discovered the truth and had his wife executed. Licinius, in his bitter hatred of Constantine and of Christianity, began to persecute the Church in the Eastern half of the Empire. Constantine eventually could not stand Licinius’ cruelty and relieved him of his co-rulership of the Empire.
The controversy that has surrounded Constantine’s baptism is based upon the legend arising from the discredited documents of the Donation of Constantine, forged documents that date from about the mid eighth century. The story in the Donation of Constantine was built on a legend that arose during the fourth century within the Western Church which thought it inappropriate that Constantine could be baptized on his death bed by a bishop whose orthodoxy was in question and thus was an act that was a snub to the authority of Pope. The legend presents a story that earlier in Constantine’s career Bishop Sylvester I of Rome had baptized Constantine after curing him of leprosy. Eusebius of Caesarea recorded that the bishops “performed the sacred ceremonies according to custom”  of baptizing Constantine in May 337 by the bishop Eusebius of Nicomediabefore Constantine’s death on May 22, 337 at age of 65.
During his life and those of his sons, Constantine was presented as a paragon of virtue. Even pagans like Praxagoras of Athens and Libanius showered him with praise. When the last of his sons died in 361, however, his nephew Julian the Apostate wrote the satire Symposium, or the Saturnalia, which denigrated Constantine, calling him inferior to the great pagan emperors, and given over to luxury and greed. Following Julian, Eunapius began—and Zosimus continued—a historiographic tradition that blamed Constantine for weakening the Empire through his indulgence to the Christians.
In medieval times, Constantine was presented as an ideal ruler, the standard against which any king or emperor could be measured.
The Renaissance rediscovery of anti-Constantinian sources prompted a re-evaluation of Constantine’s career. The German humanist Johann Löwenklau, discoverer of Zosimus’ writings, published a Latin translation thereof in 1576. In its preface, he argued that Zosimus’ picture of Constantine was superior to that offered by Eusebius and the Church historians, and damned Constantine as a tyrant. Cardinal Caesar Baronius, a man of the Counter-Reformation, criticized Zosimus, favoring Eusebius’ account of the Constantinian era. Baronius’ Life of Constantine (1588) presents Constantine as the model of a Christian prince.
For his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89), Edward Gibbon, aiming to unite the two extremes of Constantinian scholarship, offered a portrait of Constantine built on the contrasted narratives of Eusebius and Zosimus. In a form that parallels his account of the empire’s decline, Gibbon presents a noble war hero corrupted by Christian influences, who transforms into an Oriental despot in his old age: “a hero…degenerating into a cruel and dissolute monarch”.
Modern interpretations of Constantine’s rule begin with Jacob Burckhardt’s The Age of Constantine the Great (1853, rev. 1880).
Troparion (Tone 8)
Kontakion (Tone 3)
Flavia Iulia Helena was probably born in the city of Drepanum in Bithynia. Various sources indicate that Drepanum was renamed Helenopolis by Helena’s son Constantinus I to honour and to perpetuate Helena’s memory (e.g., Sozom., Hist. Eccl., 2.2.5). Procopius (Aedif. 5.2.1-5) mentions that Constantine changed the name of Drepanum to Helenopolis because his mother was born there. Her year of birth may be established on Eusebius’ remark (VC., 3.46) that she died at the age of about eighty years. Since she probably died in 328/9, she must have been born ca. 248/9. Helena was of low social origin. Ambrose (De obit. Theod.,42) calls her a stabularia and Eutropius (Brev. 10.2) mentions that she was born ex obscuriore matrimonio. Philostorgius (Hist. Eccl., 2.16) calls her `a common woman not different from strumpets’ (cf. also Zos. 2.8.2 and 2.9.2). Constantius I Chlorus and Helena probably met in Drepanum ca. 270. It is very likely that the pair lived in concubinage, an accepted form of cohabitation for people of different social origin. In 272/3 Helena gave birth to Constantine in Naissus. It is not known whether Helena bore any other children besides Constantine. When in 289 Constantiusbecame Caesar and married Theodora, he separated from Helena and Helena’s life recedes into obscurity for us.
The gap in our knowledge about Helena’s life lasts at least until 306, when the troops in York proclaimed Constantine the successor of his father. It is probable that from this time on Helena joined her son’s court. Constantine’s foremost residences in the West were Trier and Rome. Ceiling frescoes in the imperial palace in Trier, on which Helena possibly is depicted, as well as a lively medieval Helena tradition in Trier and its surroundings, may be an indication that Helena once lived in this northernmost, imperial residence. After Constantine had defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, Helena probably came to live in Rome. The fundus Laurentus in the south-east corner of Rome, which included the Palatium Sessorianum, a circus and public baths (later called Thermae Helenae), came into her possession. Several inscriptions (e.g., CIL, 6.1134, 1135, 1136) found in the area, are evidence for a close connection between Helena and the fundus Laurentus. So is her interest in the newly found basilica Ss. Marcellino e Pietro which was built in the area that belonged to the fundus Laurentus (Lib. Pont., I, 183), as well as the fact that she was buried in a mausoleum attached to this basilica.
Helena must have been a prominent person at the imperial court. Before 324 she held the title of Nobilissma Femina as may be concluded from coins. In 324, after Constantine’s defeat of Licinius, Helena received the title of Augusta. The increase of coins – with the legend SECURITAS REIPUBLICE – and inscriptions bearing this title indicate Helena’s rise in status and her prominency within the Neo-Flavian dynasty.
Although it has been suggested that from her childhood on Helena had felt great sympathy for Christianity, it is more likely that she only converted after 312 when her son Constantine began to protect and favour the Christian church. Eusebius reports that Helena was converted by Constantine and that he made her a devoted servant of God (VC, 3.47). That she once was Jewish, as suggested by the Actus Sylvestri and taken seriously by J. Vogt is most unlikely. There are indications –e.g. her sympathy for the martyr Lucian, Arius’ teacher – that Helena was favourable towards Arianism.
The most memorable event of Helena’s life was her journey to Palestine and the other eastern provinces in 327-328. Because of Eusebius’ description of this journey (VC, 3.42-47), it is generally looked upon as a pilgrimage. Eusebius only has eyes for the religious aspects of her journey. He depicts Helena as driven by religious enthusiasm: she wants to pray at the places where Christ’s feet had touched the ground, she cares for the poor and needy, she only does good deeds and is generous, and she builds churches. However, it may also be possible that her journey to the East was a political act of conciliation. People living in the East may have been dissatisfied with Constantine’s radical (religious) reforms, which included e.g. the replacement of many officials by Christian dignitaries and the rigorous suppression of pagan cults. Furthermore, Constantine’s popularity may have suffered severe damage from murdering his wife Fausta and his son Crispus in 326. A reason why Helena travelled to the East may therefore have been to appease the inhabitants of the eastern regions of the Empire.
Shortly after her journey to the East Helena died in the presence of her son Constantine (Euseb., VC, 3.46). The abrupt interruption in the issue of Helena Augusta-coins in the spring of 329 suggests that she died either at the end of 328 or the beginning of 329. She was buried in Rome in the mausoleum near the Ss. Marcellino e Pietro at the Via Labicana. The porphyry sarcophagus, which contained her remains, is now in the Vatican Museum.
Her greatest fame Helena acquired by an act for which she was probably not responsible, i.e. the finding of the True Cross. Her presence in Jerusalem and the description Eusebius presented of her stay in the Holy Land led ultimately to connecting Helena with the discovery of the Cross. Remains of the Cross were already venerated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem at the end of the 340s as is clear from sermons of Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem (Cat. 4.10, 10.19, 13.4 PG 33, 467ff, 685-687, 777). After 7 May 351, Cyril wrote the Emperor Constantius II that the Cross was discovered during the reign of Constantine I; the bishop gives no indication who discovered the rel ic (Ep. ad Const., 3 PG 33, 1168B). The Emperor Julian believed in the discovery of the relic; he rebukes Christians for worshipping the object (Contra Gal. 194C). The legend of Helena’s discovery of the Cross originated in Jerusal em in the second half of the fourth century and rapidly spread over the whole empire. Three versions of the legend came into existence in Late Antiquity: the Helena legend, the Protonike legend and the Judas Kyriakos legend. The Helena legend, which was known in Greek and Latin, is found in: Rufinus (Hist. Eccl., 10.7-8), Socrates (Hist. Eccl. 1.17 PG 67, 117ff), Sozomen (Hist., Eccl. 2.1-2) Theodoretus (Hist. Eccl.. 1.18), Ambrose (De obitu Theod., 40-49), Paulinus of Nola (Epist., 31.4-5), and Sulpicius Severus (Chron. 2.22-34). The Protonike legend was only known in Syriac (and later on in Armenian) and was part of the Edessene Doctrina Addai but also circulated independently in the Syriac-speaking regions. In this version of the legend Helena’s role is taken over by the fictitious first-century empress Protonike. The Judas Kyriakos legend originated in Greek, but became also known in Latin and Syriac and later on in many vernacular languages. This version relates how Helena discovered the Cross with the help of the Jew Judas, who later converted and received the name Kyriakos. It became the most popular version of the three, probably because of its anti-Judaism.
Because of her alleged discovery of the Cross Helena became a saint in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church. Her feast day in the eastern church is 21 May and in the western church 18 August.