I thought over the weekend I would share a two part series from Paul Andruss posted originally in November 2017…
As with any legend, there is usually some variations on the origins and plenty of embellishments by later historians, that need to be resolved.
Paul takes on the task and unravels the stories to reveal the probable truth behind Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor.. and his mother Helena.
The Thirteenth Apostle (and his mum) by Paul Andruss
Statue of Constantine the Great at York (source: schoolworkhelper)
This is about an illegitimate boy, who grew up to inherit a shattered empire and changed the world; who overthrew pantheons of gods for the one his old mum worshipped.
Although he was not baptised until on his deathbed, he claimed to be Christ’s most favoured disciple. At one time he was believed to be a British king who became emperor of the Romans; and his mum, Helena, a British Princess who found the true cross of Jesus and became a saint, which ain’t too shabby for a barmaid.
Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor, was once considered British born and bred. The legend went something like this. His dad, Constantius, was a Roman senator who came to Britain to meet old King Cole in Colchester. Yes, that old King Cole, although he wasn’t such a merry old soul when he thought the Romans were coming to knock him off his throne. When Cole died, Constantius took the throne for himself and married Cole’s daughter, the beautiful Princess Helena. In due course their son Constantine became king and sometime later took his army off to the continent to thrash the perfidious Romans and ended up becoming Emperor.
Head of the Colossus of Constantine in the Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori of the Musei Capitolini, (source: jacabook.it)
As with all legends, there are nuggets of truth mixed with fool’s gold. There probably was an Old King Cole (in legend called Coel Hen meaning Old Cole), but nothing is known of him except he wasn’t king of Colchester, which is named from the Roman words for ‘colony’ and ‘fort’. He probably was a warlord working for the Romans beyond Hadrian’s Wall, around 350 AD: a quarter of a century after Constantine died.
Part of Constantine’s legend is mixed up with another Roman General who left Britain to become Emperor almost a century later. Magnus Maximus, which modestly translates as Greatest of the Great, was married a British Princess called St Helena of Wales, and they had a son named Custennin (Welsh for Constantine).
Constantius Chlorus (Source: Alchetron)
Our Constantine’s dad was Constantius Chlorus, meaning pale or literally green. He may have been suffering from chlorosis: a pernicious anaemia, or even leukaemia. He was a member of the emperor’s bodyguard who worked his way up to Caesar. At this time the Empire was divided between four rulers: the Eastern and Western senior emperors called Augusti and their juniors named Caesars. Constantius came to stop the Scottish Picts raiding the Roman province of Britain.
Constantine’s mum was not a princess. She was an inn keeper’s daughter from the Black Sea and probably his common-law wife as the army did not approve of soldiers marrying.
By the time Constantius became Caesar he had dumped her for a political marriage to his Augustus’ daughter.
Constantius recognised Constantine as his son and heir meaning the lad grew up as a hostage to his father’s loyalty in the Emperor Diocletian’s court, where he became a favourite due to his military prowess. When Diocletian abdicated in May 305, rather than take his chances in the bloodbath that invariably accompanied a new Emperor’s reign, Constantine fled to his dad in Britain.
When his father died at York six months later, the soldiers elected the 32 year old Constantine to the rank of Caesar. While this was by no means unusual, you still had to fight for it. Constantine spent the next 20 years killing off his rivals to emerge as sole emperor.
His first major battle, and miracle, was at Milvian Bridge outside Rome, in 313 AD, against his rival Western Emperor. Details are sketchy. The story goes he had a dream before the battle advising him to make his soldiers paint their shields with the Chi Rho (two Greek letters X=CH & P=R) used as an acrostic for Christ. Later, this became a vision of a cross in the sun with the words ‘by this conquer’ witnessed by Constantine and his army. That story first appears in his biography written by Bishop Eusebius long after Constantine’s death.
The Chi- Ro Source: (clker .com)
The story is a good example of the propaganda obscuring Constantine’s reign. As the first Christian Emperor instead of history we have hagiography (holy-writing), usually reserved for the miraculous lives of saints. In part, this might be due to Constantine’s own influence.
Eusebius also states a year later Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, recognising Christianity as a legal religion. This is another gloss. The edict did not promote Christianity but merely affirmed the previous Edict of Toleration ending Diocletian’s Christian Persecution. It had been rescinded by the Eastern Augustus, enemy of Constantine and his Augustus Licinius. Although Constantine may have been responsible, the edict was issued in Licinius’ name. Yet when Eusebius wrote Constantine’s biography, Licinius’ was demonised.
After their victory, Licinius made Constantine the Western Augustus; taking for himself the more prosperous East. Constantine carried on the civil war. In 323, at the age of 50 he emerged as sole ruler after his sister had persuaded her husband Licinius to surrender in return for his life. Two months later Constantine had him murdered: no one knows why.
During his struggle for ultimate power, Constantine was careful to avoid any mention of Christ. Instead he used Sol Invictus – the Unconquered Sun (whose holy day was Sunday) – as the symbol of the supreme god. Yet while he was careful not to upset the Senate or citizens of largely pagan Rome, he refused to attend a victory sacrifice to Jupiter and spent a lot of his own money restoring Rome’s damaged churches.
Once Constantine was sole emperor he issued a proclamation, in the name of Christ, saying all citizens regardless of religious belief, should be able to enjoy a life of peace and concord. Despite this he had no compunction consulting pagan oracles or displaying himself as Sol Invictus when it suited.
It is often said Christianity’s appeal for Constantine was its unity and organisation. Different peoples united in belief are easier to control than those divided by a plethora of gods. Christians were obedient to the elders and priests, who were in turn subject to an Overseer (the original meaning of Bishop). Christians also willingly paid church taxes.
Paganism was certainly nowhere near as organised, as evidenced some 50 years later when the emperor Julian the Apostate was ridiculed and possibly assassinated for trying to reintroduce the old gods. Yet the words vicar and diocese originally came from pagan Roman politics. (Pagan is a Christian word meaning a sort of country bumpkin.)
After almost a century of civil war Constantine’s main priority was an empire united by one church and one god, under one emperor. Yet he found Christianity riven by schism. The latest dispute concerned whether Christ had the same or a similar nature to God.
Constantine wrote to the bishops concerned asking them to bury their trivial differences for the sake of the empire.
When he was ignored, he summoned all the bishops to a Synod at Nicene to thrash out their differences. Constantine flattered them, pandered to their arrogance and in the end threatened them into agreeing a common creed. Although he thought he succeeded, Christians have continued to be at each other’s throats ever since. A millennium later Roman and Greek Orthodoxy split. Soon afterwards Protestant dissidents split from Catholicism.
In 326 Constantine had his wife and eldest son executed amid rumours they had an affair. Constantine was jealous of his son’s popularity with the army and people, and may have feared for his life. Constantine’s wife, and mother of his 5 children, was killed a few weeks later in bathhouse sauna. It is unknown if she was stabbed or locked in to be suffocated by the steam and broiled alive.
One of Constantine’s first acts as Emperor was to send for his mother. He renamed her birthplace Helenopolis and awarded her the title of Augusta Imperatrix instead of his wife. It was no empty title. An Augusta could issue her own coinage, wear imperial regalia, and rule her own courts. No wonder his wife was furious; perhaps this is what prompted her, possibly real, and certainly alleged affair with his son. Finally he gave his mother unlimited access to the imperial treasury to locate holy relics.
At the age of 72 Helena enthusiastically set off to Jerusalem where, according to legend she discovered the crosses of Jesus and the two thieves and was able to distinguish the true cross when a dying woman recovered after touching it. Strangely, the normally sycophantic Bishop Eusebius fails to mention this.
Helena sent the true cross, along with some thorns from the crown of thorns, and nails from the crucifixion to aid her son; who allegedly placed one nail in his helmet and another in his horse’s bridle. She took full advantage of the imperial treasury by endowing churches at Bethlehem, in the Sinai Desert at the place of the burning bush, and the Holy Sepulchre after having the area levelled and cleared.
It is not certain what happened to Helena, some historians report she brought the treasures back in person. Others, by their silence, indicate she died in the Holy Land on pilgrimage. I rather hope it was the latter and she died enjoying thoroughly herself. Helena was declared a saint.
The Relics of St Helena were on loan in Athens from the Vatican in 2017 (Source : http://www.keeptalkinggreece.com)
Part Two Tomorrow.. same time.
©Paul Andruss 2017
About Paul Andruss
Paul Andruss is a writer whose primary focus is to take a subject, research every element thoroughly and then bring the pieces back together in a unique and thought provoking way. His desire to understand the origins of man, history, religion, politics and the minds of legends who rocked the world is inspiring. He does not hesitate to question, refute or make you rethink your own belief system and his work is always interesting and entertaining. Whilst is reluctant to talk about his own achievements he offers a warm and generous support and friendship to those he comes into contact with.
Paul is the author of two books and you can find out more by clicking the image.
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You can find all of Paul’s previous posts and gardening column in this directory: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/paul-andruss-myths-legends-fantasy-and-gardening/
Thank you for dropping in today and as always please leave your questions and comments for Paul… thanks Sally.