Philobiblon: Helena, politician and Christian

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Helena, politician and Christian

My recent Byzantine history postings have left me musing on how little known many of the powerful, interesting women of Byzantium are today, so I've decided to start an occasional series of posts on them.

The logical place to start is Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who is probably one of the best known, yet still much about her life remains obscure.

She's been, inevitably, captured by the Christians as the mother of the "first Christian" emperor (well, he was more a man hedging his bets in truth), but she does seem to have been genuinely converted in later life, although seems to have been a "heretic" in church terms, being at least strongly sympathetic to Arianism.

Her journey to the east of the empire in 327-328 was probably not, as described by Eusebius, a pilgrimage, but a political expedition to dampen down disaffection there about the suppression of pagan cults. She was, as befits the mother of an emperor, a political animal.

A good place to start is the biography on Feminae Romanae. She was, of course, created a saint, so this is the Catholic view.

An interesting sideline is Evelyn Waugh's short novel Helena, which he considered his best work, although few critics agreed. It is a good read - he makes Helena into a old woman pursuing a singleminded mission, a captivating character. There's an excellent essay on the novel here.


Blogger Ronnie Smartt said...

You may be interested in the chapter on Waugh in "Maria Cross" by Donat O'Donnell -aka Conor Cruise O'Brien - where he describes "Helena" as " a shapeless and sentimentalm piece of historical fiction about the piety of a British lady in the age of Constantine". Even if the stories are dubious she was at least a real person unlike, say, such saints as Catharine of Alexandria, whose day I still remember, and nearer home George and Patrick.

11/30/2004 11:37:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

The "British lady" is about right; Take the start of chapter 5: "For 13 years Helena lived alone. Her hair lost its fierce colour and, scorning dyes, she wore it always wound in a silk shawl. She thickened in limb and body, held herself firmer, moved more resolutely, spoke with authority and decision, took careful count of her possessions, gave orders and saw them obeyed." Sounds like a county matron to me.

But I think "shapeless" and "sentimental" is a bit strong; except for the last, heavily religious paragraph, which is horribly sentimental. And I think the shape of a woman who lives quite an ordinary life (after the initial extraordinary marriage to a man from far away) until very late in life she finds a mission that will drive her on until she succeeds is quite powerful.

I'd make no claim for it being a classic, or anything like it, but I think it is worth reading.

12/01/2004 01:58:00 am  

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