Saint Helena, the Roman Empress

Saint Helena is known for her discovery of the True Cross of Jesus Christ. What you might not know is the turbulent family and political events that formed the backdrop of her life.

On a recent episode of Your Next Mission From God, host Julie Onderko dives into the story of a Saint who went from a poor, single mother to the second most powerful person in the Roman Empire.

Listen to the episode or read a summary below!

Trials & Conversion

Helena was a single mom, poor, a commoner in the very early fourth century Roman empire. She had been the common-law wife of Constantius, an ambitious commander in the Roman military who was moving up the ranks. But her hope of moving up with him were dashed because he cast her off, along with their son Constantine, because he needed to marry another woman for political gain.

Helena was left on her own during a tough time in history, especially given the fierce persecution of the Church. In the Roman circuses, Christians were thrown to the lions or to some animal that had been half starved as a spectator sport. If somebody was in the military and they didn’t make the offering to an idol before a campaign, they were found out as a Christian and executed immediately. While it might not have always been that extreme in all years or locations, overall the Roman Empire was definitely not a good place to be a Christian.

Sometime during this period is when Helena converted to Christianity, and she was a very strong Christian for the rest of her life. We don’t know what age her son Constantine was at the time, but history gives us a lot of evidence that she and Constantine were very close.

Constantine’s Rise to Emperor

When Constantine was old enough, he joined the military to serve with his father, who was the Augustus governing the Western province at this time. Constantine was a natural leader with a mind for strategy. When this father grew sick and died during a campaign, the troops immediately chose Constantine to be their leader as the new Western Augustus. Though very young, history shows us that Constantine went on to become the Emperor over a unified Roman empire.

As the most powerful ruler in the whole world at this point, Constantine names his mother Helena as “Augusta,” and she became the most influential and powerful person in the world next to him. Because she was also a Christian, things begun to change. Christianity became legalized and received the support of the government. Crucifixion, which has been part of Roman culture for hundreds of years, was abolished because it was the way that our Lord was killed. A massive paradigm shift took to promote Christianity in Western civilization.

Helena’s story is interesting enough just in the fact that she went from having been a commoner and a single mom to the most powerful woman in the world. Eusebius, a Roman bishop and historian, described Saint Helena in this way: “Especially abundant were the gifts she bestowed on the naked and unprotected poor. To some she gave money, to others an ample supply of clothing; she liberated some from imprisonment, or from the bitter servitude of the mines; others she delivered from unjust oppression, and others again, she restored from exile.”

Family Troubles

There was another event in Helena’s family that many people might not be familiar with. Constantine, like his father, cast off his first wife, who he also had a son with. This son, Crispus, showed the same abilities that Constantine had, such as a mind for strategy and leadership. He was popular and seemed to be in line to follow in his father’s footsteps someday as Roman Emperor. But after the divorce, Constantine married a younger woman, Fausta, who he had three sons with.

Crispus was on a campaign in one of the provinces when his father Constantine suddenly ordered Crispus to be jailed, and shortly after ordered his execution in his cell without a trial. We don’t know why this happened, but most historians speculate that Fausta orchestrated this, perhaps through a false accusation, because Crispus was in the way of one of her own sons becoming emperor (and thus Fausta becoming the Augusta).

We can only speculate, but it seems that Helena was able to reveal the deception to Constantine, who then tried to rescind the execution order. However, it was too late – his son Crispus was killed in his jail cell while proclaiming his innocence. Constantine then ordered the execution of his wife, Fausta, by gruesomely overheating her in the Roman baths she enjoyed.

Let’s think now about Helena. She had experienced deep, gut-wrenching loss. She lost her grandson, but also loved her son Constantine and now she feared for his soul. Even though he allowed her to influence and Christianize the Roman empire, Constantine had not converted or been baptized at this point. Helena probably also considered the bigger picture of the potential loss of so many Roman souls. Christianity was still new, and for the ruling family to behave in this way would undercut the spread of Christianity in Western civilization.

Seeking the Lord’s Will

There was a lot at stake. What did Helena do? She went to the Lord and she asked that question – the question we should all ask the Lord – what do you want me to do? She discerned that the Lord wanted her to go to the Holy Land and recover the one True Cross, and so unify the empire under the Cross.

This pilgrimage expedition took at least three years, and by this time Helena was at least in her late seventies. By the standards of the time Helena was absolutely ancient, but she did not let her old age deter her from the mission that God had for her at this crucial juncture in human history. There is convincing, compelling evidence that she did indeed succeed in finding the True Cross. She returned to Rome – her job done, her mission accomplished, before dying shortly after.

Helena did not get to see her son’s conversion before her death, although accounts say that Constantine was baptized near the end of his life. Many of us pray for our children, our friends, our relatives, and we might die without seeing the Lord’s work in their life. We might not always witness the fruits of our prayers or the mercy of God working in the lives of others, but we still have a mission. You have yours, and I have mine, and God always has a plan.