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Helena Augusta

Mother of the Empire

Julia Hillner

Publication Date - 29 November 2022

ISBN: 9780190875305

432 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches

In Stock


In the middle of the third century, a girl was born on the north-eastern frontier of the Roman empire. Eighty years later, she died as Flavia Iulia Helena, Augusta of the Roman world and mother of the first Christian emperor Constantine, without ever having been married to an emperor herself. In Helena Augusta: Mother of the Empire, Julia Hillner traces Helena's story through her life's peaks, which generated beautiful imperial artwork, entertaining legends as well as literary outrage. But Helena Augusta also pays careful attention to the disruptions in Helena's life course and in her commemoration--disruptions that were created by her nearest male relatives.

Hillner shows that Helena's story was not just determined by the love of a son or the rise of Christianity. It was also--like that of many other late Roman women--defined by male violence and by the web of changing female relationships around her, to which Helena was sometimes marginal, sometimes central and sometimes ancillary. Helena Augusta offers unique insight into the roles of imperial women in Constantinian self-display and in dynastic politics from the Tetrarchy to the Theodosian Age, and it also reminds us that the late Roman female life course, even that of an empress, was fragile and non-linear.


  • Offers a biography of a woman central to late Roman history and early Christianity
  • Provides a political and narrative history from the late third to the fifth century, through the lens of imperial women
  • Presents new and unique insights into Helena's life and her role at the Constantinian court

About the Author(s)

Julia Hillner is Professor of Ancient History at the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn. She is the author of Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity.


"Using tools developed for feminist historiography, Hillner has retrieved the historical mother of Constantine the Great from the realm of legend. Her reconstruction is engaging, filled with shrewd insight, and well-grounded in ancient sources. She is especially good at using material culture to lead into deeper discussions. Instead of the saintly Helena who discovered the True Cross, we now have a living, breathing person who can teach us a great deal about the history of women in the fourth century." -- H. A. Drake, author of A Century of Miracles: Christians, Pagans, Jews and the Supernatural, 312-410

Table of Contents

    Timeline of the Constantinian, Valentinian and Theodosian Dynasties
    Dramatis Personae
    Family Tree
    Introduction: Writing Helena
    The Case for (Chronological) Biography
    Writing Helena's Life Forwards: Of Places, Gaps and Relationships
    Helena, Dynasty, and Power

    Part I: Extra (c. 248-c.289)

    Chapter 1: On the Frontiers
    Helena and the 'Crisis of the Third Century'
    Meeting Constantius

    Chapter 2: Weather Eye on the Horizon
    Helena at Naissus and Salona
    Helena's Tetrarchy

    Part II: Off-Stage (c. 289-c. 317)

    Chapter 3: Sister Act
    Lost Girl: Theodora
    Fausta's Nose
    Pruning the Tree
    Waiting in the Wings, Becoming Christian?

    Chapter 4: The Necklace Affair
    The Tomb at Šarkamen
    Divine Mothers
    The Augusta in the East
    Fair Game: Empresses as Prey

    Part III: Centre-Stage (c.317-c.329)

    Chapter 5: Keeping Up Appearances
    The Road to Thessalonica: A Wedding, a Conspiracy, and a War
    The Augusta-Double
    Fausta, Super Star

    Chapter 6: Roman Holiday
    Palace Life
    Helena and Constantine's Churches in Rome
    New Look

    Chapter 7: Four Deaths and an Anniversary
    Murders in the Family
    Becoming Genetrix

    Chapter 8: From Here to Eternity
    The Travelling Empress: Conflicting Portraits
    Helena, the Pilgrim?
    On the Road
    A New Jezebel
    Empresses in the Holy Land

    Part IV: Curtain and Encores (c.329-c. 600)

    Chapter 9: Burying an Empress
    Final Honours
    Rebranching the Tree
    Coming Through Slaughter

    Chapter 10: Silence of the Empress
    Extending Helena: Constantina
    Burying Empresses, One More Time
    Countering Helena: Justina

    Chapter 11: New Model Empress
    Ambrose's Helena
    Reviving Helena's Look: Flaccilla and Thermantia
    Reviving Helena in Action
    Emulating Helena: Galla Placidia and Eudocia
    A 'New Helena' in Name: Pulcheria
    Being Helena: Radegund


    Ancient Sources
    Modern Studies