Not much is known about her early life. Unlike another of the same name, no Delphic oracle predicted the European and Asian ramifications of her birth and life. The very place and date of her birth are still deduced only from later events and accounts. Her story was already age old when it happened to her -- a local girl picked up, lived with, married, perhaps, in a local ceremony that had less meaning to her traveler spouse, a child -- a son who eventually leads a people, sires absolute rulers. But, before that happened, she was abandoned when the traveler needed a socially acceptable wife from his own people and class. (Even Father Abraham, you'll remember, did the same thing a few centuries before and a few countries down the road.) Her son eventually did the right thing by her: brought her back into the spotlight; gave her regal titles; glorified her. He even set her up to be a Saint.
Helen was at best a bar-maid (and she may have been in the oldest profession) when, in around 270 AD, Constantius rolled into Depranum in Bithynia. That's modern Karamursel on he southern shore of the Bay of Izmit (with a "t", not an "r ") an eastward extension of the Sea of Marmara, in Turkey. Nothing really is known about the marital arrangements, if any, between the Roman military commander and the local girl, but they probably lived in a "concubinage" arrangement. That was a recognized legal relationship in which persons of different classes could live together (literally, they could share a sleeping room) without attracting opprobrium. Whatever their relationship, it's clear that she had enough legal status and he had enough clout to allow Helen to follow Constantius when his unit was rotated to other military theaters. The relationship developed rapidly and little Constantine was born in Naissus, (modern Nish, in Serbia) on February 27, 271 (or 272 or 273 -- it's never been determined precisely). Helen would have been about 23 or 24 years old at the time. It's not known if Helena had any other children.
Constantius continued to rise through the ranks -- Tribune, Provincial Governor, probably Praetorian Prefect, and on March of 1, 293, he was raised to the rank of Caesar (junior Emperor) in the First Tetrarchy set up by Diocletian. The "four rulers" of the Tetrarchy were two senior "Augusti" and two cadet "Caesari". Constantius was the Caesar in the West, and served there under Maximian, the other Augustus, who shared that rank with Diocletian.
From that point, Constantius' 23-year relationship with Helena was no longer socially acceptable. Under pressure from Diocletian, he put Helen aside and married Theodora, a Daughter of Maximian. Constantius, of course, got custody of the 20-year old Constantine -- as "Pater Familias" a Roman father had real legal custody of all his children until they established their own families (sons) or were transferred to the custody of a husband (daughters). Theodora gave Constantius several more children, but Constantine, a whole generation older than his half siblings, remained the acknowledged favorite. Diocletion and Maximian abdicated on May 1, 305, and Constantius became one of the two new Augusti, taking over the West from Maximian.
Constantius had spent much of his time as a Caesar in military campaigns along the fringes of the Western half of the Empire, and, almost immediately after becoming the Augustus of the West, he had to cross the English Channel to put down a Pictish uprising. Constantine, now himself a young Adjutant, joined his father in Britain. In July of 306, Constantius died unexpectedly at Eburacum (York) with Constantine at his side.
The troops of Constantius immediately proclaimed Constantine as the successor of his father, not only to the local military command, but also to the Augustan purple: the worst thing that could happen to an army would be to have a low ranking commander, so, in desperation, armies that lost their commanders often immediately tried to elevate a successor to imperial rank. The first thing Constantine did after his abrupt field-promotion was to repeat his father's pattern: he put aside his long-term concubine, Minervina, (who had also born him a son, named Crispus) and married Fausta, a younger daughter of Maximian. The second thing he did was to rehabilitate his mom, then 58 years old, and soon he had also granted her the first of her Imperial titles.
Like many of his contemporary generals, it's likely that Constantine had always had an Imperial plan in his back pocket. Of course, such arrogation of power as he was now attempting always meant war: Constantine's legions in Britain and other legions in Gaul, whose loyalty he had also inherited, had to fight to make him the real master of what he and they had claimed. Constantine, as we all know, made his pretense stick by defeating Maxentius, the other immediate pretender. Maxentius was a son of Maximian and thus the brother of both Constantine's step-mother, Theodora, and of his wife, Fausta. Theodora apparently backed Maxentius, and Fausta backed Constantine. After several years of maneuvering and skirmishing, the climactic running battle of 312 AD, from Saxa Rubra, nine miles north of Rome, to the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber, ended with Maxentius drowned in the River. Maxentius deserved his fate if only for his stupidity in going to fight outside of Rome right after he had finished making the city impregnable by doubling the height and thickness of Aurelian's Walls. (The "Aurelian Walls" we see today are thus really "Aurelian/Maxentian Walls".)
With Maxentius dead, Constantine was the sole ruler of the West, and, having received his famous "miraculous vision" on the eve of the battle (for more on that story, see http://www.roman-emperors.org/conniei.htm), he decided to legalize and then support the Christian faith. The mythology has it that Helena was a long time Christian who brought her son to the faith -- it's what we all learned in school, isn't it? -- but in reality, it's clear from contemporary accounts that her baptism occurred after Constantine had already started to support Christianity. Some of those sources say explicitly that Constantine converted Helena rather than the other way around. It's true that she was baptized before he was, but only because he delayed his actual ritual immersion -- possibly for political reasons -- until he was on his deathbed. But before he reached his deathbed, Constantine still had a lot to accomplish -- his conquest of the rest of the old empire is covered at the Internet site given a few lines above and at http://www.roman-emperors.org/helena.htm.
Helen, meanwhile, was back in favor and appears to have been the number two in her son's court. Constantine's two main residences, Trier and Rome, both have "Helen " traditions, and it's likely that she really lived at both places. Coins issued before 324 when Constantine decamped to his "New Rome" (Nea Roma, quickly renamed "Constantinopolis") show her profile and the title "Nobilissma Femina" ("most noble woman"). And, after Constantine mopped up the last opposition in the East in that year, he gave Helen the title of "Augusta." The number of coins issued over the next few years with her countenance and name indicates that she must have been an extremely powerful figure. Somewhere around here, Constantine also started to embellish Depranum, Helen' old home town near Izmit (not Izmir!), and he eventually renamed it Helenopolis in her honor.
Helena's most remembered activities are associated with her visit to the provinces east of Constantinople in 327-328 AD when she was already in her late seventies and only a year or two before her death. The trip is now usually given a religious spin, but that's because the Christian historian Eusebius gave it that spin by writing about it as a pilgrimage to the holy places in Jerusalem and the Roman province of Palestine. However, there would certainly also have been political overtones. Constantine needed to mend fences east of Constantinople because he had agreed to the suppression of "eastern religions" there (other than Christianity), and because of the burgeoning disputes over "Arianism" -- Constantine had found it impossible to please either side in the Christian church which was in danger of splitting. (For a concise Catholic version of the Arian controversy, see http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01707c.htm). Who better to soothe frayed pagan and Christian nerves than the "Asian" mother of the Emperor. (In fact, a case could even be made that Constantine's rehabilitation of his mom was, from the beginning, a cynical play of the "Asian card".)
Soothing was also necessary after a "family crisis" scandal that ended in the apparent murder of Constantine's wife Fausta shortly after the execution of his son Crispus (Minervina's son). There were rumors of an affair between Fausta and her step-son, and other rumors that Constantine, enraged, had slain Fausta with his own hands. But no one has ever been able to separate gossip from fact.
Regardless of any political or public-relations reasons for her trip, its historical significance was profoundly religious. Documentary and traditional sources all agree that, once she arrived in Palestine, Helena started several of the major church-building projects of the era -- the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Churches of the Eleona ("of the Disciples", only ruins extant, destroyed by the Persians in 614 AD) and of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. Her connection with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem appears to be only slightly more removed: Constantine, rather than Helen, appears to have been responsible for the construction of the core church over the traditional burial site of Christ, site, but the site had been "discovered" by Helen. Several additional churches were soon built adjoining the tomb church, including one on the supposed "Golgatha" site of the Crucifixion, and one on the back slope of the Golgatha, where the "True Cross" was "invented". Christian sources invariably speak of the "invention" of the cross rather than of its discovery. All of these adjoining churches were later welded into what is now called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The invention of the cross was, of course, also said to be Helen's work. According to her legends, she went to the place where local tradition said crosses had been discarded after criminal executions. She soon found the crosses of Jesus and of the two thieves executed with him. The correct one was identified by the simple expedient of touching them to a cadaver: only one brought the dead back to life. Helen, the stories said, divided the "true cross" into three sections, depositing one part in the chapel she built at the discovery site, the second in Constantinople, and the third in a big new church, called Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, which she caused to be built in Rome. Thus the legend as still piously recounted today in various Christian churches. Voragine, in his "Golden Legend" (Genoa, 1275) tells an even more complex mythic tale, which also prominently features Helen as the inventor of the cross. (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/goldenlegend/GoldenLegend-Volume3.htm
-- scroll down and click on number 78 in the table of contents.)
But there is clear documentary evidence that the cross was already being worshipped at a Jerusalem shrine before Helen's arrival in that city. What actually appears to have happened was that Helen went to the shrine and, with the authority of the Emperor behind her, took away two big pieces of the cross. She compensated the previous custodians for the "translation" (movement) of the relics by a grand indemnification in the form of new churches at the most important Christian shrines in Jerusalem and Palestine.
The three pieces of the "true cross" were, through the centuries, fought over, lost and won back to Christian custody, subdivided into Splinters and larger relics, and spread to churches worldwide. Supposed fragments became the centerpieces of collections of relics and often became objects of worship -- until the Church banned actual worship of the cross and called for "veneration" instead. Helen's legendary "invention", therefore, became, and until recent years has remained, the central cult object of "Western civilization.
Some Helen myths that almost nobody believes any more:
There is no evidence that Helen was Jewish -- a mistranslation/misinterpretation somewhere along the line.
Only some folks of Colchester England still believe Helen was the daughter of a British local king named Coel -- yes, the "merry old soul" Cole. The Rhyme, those Colchestrians say, memorializes Coel's merriment over the good marriage that ensured the peace of his kingdom and allowed him to kick back and enjoy his pipe, his bowl, and his musicians. See http://homepage.ntlworld.com/orthodox.colchester/equals.htm
As you might imagine, Helen and her boy, Constantine, are all over the Internet. There is undoubtedly a lot of chaff mixed in with the grains of truth: Helen is one of those historical personages that is still so deeply embedded in modern belief that all you can do is read the various stories and doctrines and draw your own conclusions.
A few of the Internet sites I used in preparation of this article are given in the text. Some others are at:
Catholic Encyclopedia -- Helenopolis
Catholic Encyclopedia -- St. Helena
Church of Eleona and Church of the Ascension
Colchester's Claim to Fame
DIR - Helen (links to other protagonists)
Feminae Romanae: The Women of Ancient Rome
Helena and Jerusalem
Helena - Saint and Mother of the Emperor Constantine
History of Constantine the Great
Ptolemy's Geography -- LacusCurtius
For articles on other subjects, go to http://www.mmdtkw.org/Veneto2002.html.