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.
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.