Tag Archives: eusebius

St. Helena, the First Christian Pilgrim

church santa croce de gerusalemme
Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (photo: commons.wikimedia.org)

On a visit to Rome, we sought out the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. My American Express Guide to Rome (long out of print, but still handy) says it was “One of the seven pilgrim churches of Rome, it is said to have been built to house the precious relics of the True Cross brought to Rome from Jerusalem by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine.”

It is said that Helena founded the church on land where her private palace stood. Although it was on the edgte of the city, the relics of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ that Helena brought back from Jerusalem made Santa Croce in Gerusalemme a center for pilgrimage. Most important were some pieces of Christ’s Cross (croce means “cross”) and part of Pontius Pilate’s inscription, called the Titulus Crucis, proclaiming “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews,” written in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. There is little doubt that this wooden plaque is very old, but numerous tests performed over the years have never established its authenticity absolutely. Nevertheless, even to a non-Christian observer, it is quite moving to view these relics.

titulus_teca
Remaining fragment of the plaque that was supposedly attached to the cross of Jesus, which is said to have been brought to Rome by Helena, mother of Constantine I, and placed in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (photo: photo: commons.wikimedia.org)

When we entered the church, only a few days after Easter, we seemed to be the only visitors. We walked up to the altar and around the chapel. We did not see any relics, so we made our way into the smaller side rooms and found them in a small room behind the main altar. Here we saw St. Helena’s relics: three pieces of wood set in a larger cross; they are said to be actual pieces of the True Cross. Two thorns, said to be from Jesus’ crown of thorns are mounted and stand alongside it, as does a piece of a bronze nail, said to be from the crucifixion itself. And finally, we saw the piece of wood that is said to be from the sign Pontius Pilate was said to have erected over Jesus while he was crucified.

Whether or not they are authentic relics, I cannot say. But seeing them was a fascinating experience.

It led me to recall the importance of Helena, later revered as St. Helena, to the ancient land of Israel. Hers is a real “rags to riches” story. We believe Helena was born in about 249 AD in the town of Drepanum in Bythnia, which Constantine later renamed Helenopolis. St. Ambrose referred to her as an inn-keeper, others say she was a simple bar maid in her father’s tavern. Eventually she attracted the attention of a Roman soldier, Constantius Chlorus and she became either his longtime mistress, or his wife. In either case there is no doubt that together they bore a son, Constantine.

constantius i chlorus as caesar
Constantius I Chlorus follis (307/310–337), father of Constantine I, first husband of Helena (photo: cngcoins.com)

In 292, when Constantius became Caesar of Spain, Gaul, and Britain, he dumped Helena and married Theodora, the daughter of Maximian, his patron.

Theodora, died before 337 AD, follies (photo: cngcoins.com)
Theodora, died before 337 AD, follies (photo: cngcoins.com)

Meanwhile, Helena’s son Constantine became a soldier, and spent a lot of time at Diocletian’s court. When Constantine persuaded the Roman legions in Britain to proclaim him Caesar in 306, he immediately called for his mother and installed her in his court with the appropriate honors befitting the mother of the Emperor.

Constantine I bronze struck at Constantinople. The reverse depicts a labarum crowned by a Christogram, piercing a serpent, with the legend SPES PVBLIC (hope for the public). Constantine saw the Christogram in a vision and also began to wear it on his helmet and shield (photo: cngcoins.com)
Constantine I bronze struck at Constantinople. The reverse depicts a labarum crowned by a Christogram, piercing a serpent, with the legend SPES PVBLIC (hope for the public). Constantine saw the Christogram in a vision and also began to wear it on his helmet and shield (photo: cngcoins.com)

In 312, the most significant event of Constantine’s reign occurred. While preparing for a battle with the army of his rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in Rome, he saw a cross in the sky with the inscription IN HOC SIGNO VINCES (“In this sign you will conquer”). He immediately ordered his troops to paint the monogram of Jesus, the labarum, on their shields and this extra strength enabled their victory and gave Constantine control of the West as well as the East, whereupon Constantine vowed to make the Roman Empire a Christian nation.

Vetranio bronze (c. 350 AD) struck under Constantius II (337 – 361 AD) as Siscia. The reverse legend is HOC SIGNO VICTORERIS (In this sign, you will conquer). The scene and legend on this coin provide a re-enactment of Constantine I’s victory at the Milvian Bridge. (photo: cngcoins.com_
Vetranio bronze (c. 350 AD) struck under Constantius II (337–361 AD) as Siscia. The reverse legend is HOC SIGNO VICTORERIS (In this sign, you will conquer). The scene and legend on this coin provide a re-enactment of Constantine I’s victory at the Milvian Bridge. (photo: cngcoins.com_

In 324 AD Constantine named Helena as “Augusta,” a title that was established by Augustus for Livia, but certainly not granted every empress, much less every royal mother.

Helena as Augusta 324-328/30, bronze follis (photo: cngcoins.com)
Helena as Augusta 324–328/30, bronze follis (photo: cngcoins.com)

In 325 AD, the Council of Nicea met and Constantine declared Christianity to be the nation’s official religion. Incidentally, it is not clear whether Constantine himself actually ever became a Christian. His mother, Helena, was not only converted but was so excited by her spiritual experience that it enticed her to make a pilgrimage, circa 326 AD to Judea, where she could visit all of the sites that were important in the life of Jesus. She was in her late 70s at the time she embarked. Helena’s pilgrimage was the prototype for the travels of virtually every Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land for some 1,700 years, right up to today.

Until Helena’s visit, nobody outside of the Christians in the Holy Land had paid much attention to the sites there. In Helena’s day the Jews maintained important academies at Tiberius, Sepphoris, and Lydda (Lod). Led by Rabbi Yehudah Ha’Nassi the Jewish scholars were in the final stages of developing the Talmud itself. When I was the numismatist at the Joint Sepphoris Expedition in 1985 and 1986, led by Duke’s Eric and Carol Meyers and Hebrew University’s Ehud Netzer, we discovered some remarkable mosaic floors—and many more were subsequently discovered at Sepphoris—which indicated that the city was extremely wealthy at the time Helena arrived in the country. In fact, we dated some of these mosaics by small groups of Constantinian coins lying on top of and just under them.

While there is no doubt that the local traditions held some, or perhaps many of the sites Helena visited as holy shrines, it did not hurt that the mother of the Emperor of Christian Rome further declared the sites to be true.

And indeed, Helena was said to have:

—Proclaimed the actual path Jesus took on his way to the cross, the Via Dolorosa, and declared the precise spots of all of the fourteen Stations of the Cross;

Fifth Station of the Cross (left) and the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. (photos: David Hendin)
Fifth Station of the Cross (above) and the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem (below). (photos: David Hendin)

via dolorosa dh

—Found at least several pieces of the true cross itself;

—Identified the spot near the Sea of Galilee where the miracle of fish and loaves occurred;

—Confirmed the place where Jesus stood when he gave his Sermon on the Mount;

—Marked the place of the Annunciation, where Mary learned that she would give birth to Jesus;

—And she also identified places where Joseph’s carpentry shop stood, where Jesus was born, the field in which the shepherds saw the Bethlehem Star, and the inn of the Good Samaritan.

The story of Helena’s pilgrimage is certainly not fantasy. In his Life of Constantine (c. 340 AD), Eusebius wrote (only about ten years after her death) that Helena lavished good deeds on the Holy Land, and “Although well advanced in years, she came, fired by youthful fervor, in order to know this land” and she “explored it with remarkable discernment…And by her endless admiration for the footsteps of the Savior…she granted those who came after her the fruits of her piety. Afterward she built two houses of prayer to the God she revered, one in the Grotto of the Nativity (this is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem) and the other on the Mount of the Ascension (this is the Eleona Church on the Mount of Olives).” Helena also is said to have identified the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried, and ordered the first Church of the Holy Sepulcher to be built there.

It is a matter of some interest that while Helena’s important pilgrimage is well documented, not a single numismatic memento of these events was issued. So the coins of Helena can only offer us a glimpse of the appearance of this important woman of antiquity.

War Of Queitus

There was a significant “Third Revolt” of the Jews during the reign of the emperor Trajan (98–117 AD). This war took place between the Jewish War (First Revolt: 66–70 AD) and the Bar Kokhba War (Second Revolt: 132–135 AD).

It was called “the war of Quietus” and took place between the years 115 and 117 AD. It was fought in Cyrenaica, Cyprus, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, but apparently not in Judaea.

More accurately, the “war of Quietus” was a series of revolts. These revolts were likely the direct results of both the aftermath of the reign of Domitian (who was especially hard on Christians and Jews) as well as attacks under Trajan’s rule on both Christian and Jewish leaders.

We do not know a great deal about the “war of Quietus,” and one reason is that there is not any known numismatic material that references this war. By comparison, the numismatic evidence from the First Revolt consists of both the coins of the Jews of the period, as well as the JUDAEA CAPTA coins of the Flavians, which reflect a great deal on their view of Rome’s victory.

Bar Kokhba’s coins are likewise very important to our knowledge of the so-called Second Revolt. Indeed, the first name of Bar Kokhba, “Simon” was known ONLY from his coins until 40 years ago—1960 to be exact—when the Bar Kokhba letters, discovered in caves near the Dead Sea, were discovered and translated.

Bar Kokhba bronze coin with the name of Simon. (Image © by David Hendin)
Bar Kokhba bronze coin with the name of Simon. (Image © by David Hendin)

After Domitian’s harsh rule, his successor, Nerva, was less abusive to his subjects.

There is no doubt that at this time in history there was quite a lot of animosity against the Jews. If you don’t believe it, read the very anti-Jewish first-century historian Tacitus, who in small part stated: “The other practices of the Jews are sinister and revolting, and have entrenched themselves by their very wickedness.”

Early in the second century, under Trajan’s rule, the head of the Judaeo-Christian Church, Simeon, son of Cleophas, was executed by the Roman governor of Judaea.

Furthermore, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, a leading gentile Christian, was sent to Rome and executed about the year 110. Grant describes him as “the first significant Christian churchman.” (At this point in the history of Christianity there were both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Originally Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism, thus the earliest Christians needed first to be Jews. Later, as Paul spread the gospel throughout the world, he preached that non-Jews could convert directly to Christianity without becoming Jewish first.)

The reasons for these executions are not clear, but they are probably part of a religious persecution by Rome that also underscored the Jewish unrest.

In 110, Trajan moved against Parthia, thus ending a 50-year peace that Nero had established. The Parthians had been weakened by the new and powerful Kushan kingdom in eastern Iran. A few years later, Trajan also annexed Armenia, and moved his armies into upper Mesopotamia and Adiabene. Adiabene is a country of special interest, since its ruling dynasty (led by Queen Helena) had voluntary converted to Judaism in the first century. (Helena’s tomb stands today in East Jerusalem, it is known as the “Tomb of the Kings.)

During these various military operations, a large number of Jewish communities came under Trajan’s control.

The first uprising came in Cyrenaica, where a Jewish king named Lukuas (also called Andrew) violently attacked the local Greek governments and Roman provincial authorities—all of whom had been weakened in favor of Trajan’s Parthian campaigns.   Cassius Dio painted a grim picture of Jewish atrocities, culminating with the Jews forcing the Romans and Greeks to fight with wild animals, or as gladiators in the arena. This sounds almost as if the Jews were exacting revenge for similar fates suffered by so many Jewish captives in Rome some 45 years earlier after the First Revolt.

The outbreak had meanwhile spread to Cyprus, and Eusebius, the “father of church history” reports its capital Salamis was laid waste by them. There is no information about how the Cyprus revolt was ended, but we know of the consequence, Cassius Dio reports that from that time forward Jews were not allowed to appear on the island, under penalty of death. Violent fighting also followed in Egypt and the synagogue of Alexandria, said to be a marvel of Egyptian architecture, was destroyed. To quell these Jewish outbreaks, Trajan’s first move was to call in a general named Martius Turbo. By repeated onslaughts against the Jews he overcame the rebellions in Cyprus, Egypt, and Cyrenaica.

To oppose the Jews closer to his own army, in the district of the Euphrates, Trajan turned to his favorite general, Lucius Quietus, a Moorish prince, known for his unpleasant disposition.

Emil Shurer writes in The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ that “with barbarous cruelty Quietus executed his commission and laid waste to the mostly Jewish towns of Nisibis and Edessa. Thousands of Jews were put to death. Thus was order restored, and Quietus, in recognition of his services, was appointed governor of Palestine.”

Even though accounts of the “war of Quietus” are skimpy, some sources say that as many as half a million casualties occurred amongst the foes.

Apparently as a reward for his good work, in about 117 AD Trajan sent Quietus to Judaea as governor of Palestine with unlimited power. This seems to indicate that there was also a certain level of Jewish rebellion in Palestine. However, the main Jewish insurrections at this time were clearly outside of Judaea. On the other hand, it is quite probable that the Jewish restiveness in Judaea at the time was the precursor to the Bar Kokhba War which erupted only 14 years later in 131/132 AD.

Possibly partly because of the Jewish uprisings, Trajan was finally unsuccessful in his Parthian campaign and he eventually had to give up on his grandiose plan to turn Parthia into a Roman province. At this time Trajan became very sick. He was taken to Antioch, and died a few months later in Cilicia. His wife, Plotina, told the army that before his death Trajan had named Hadrian as his adopted son and successor.

When Hadrian became emperor, he removed Quietus from this post, probably because the Moorish General had favored Trajan’s expansionism, which was not Hadrian’s style. Quietus was executed in Rome the following year, accused of participating in a conspiracy against the emperor.

I discussed the “war of Quietus” with Rabbi Benjamin Yablok, a numismatist and Talmudic scholar. He pointed out that the “war of Quietus” had at least one interesting, long-lasting effect on Jewish tradition. Based on writings in the Talmud, Rabbi Yablok explains, when Jewish women were married they would wear golden tiaras or crowns to the ceremony. But, “in commemoration of the misfortunes caused by Lucius Quietus, the Rabbinical sages decreed that brides should no longer wear crowns.” Jewish women have not worn golden marriage crowns since that time.

There is no numismatic evidence of the Jewish War of Quietus, 115-117 AD. However, this eastern issue semis of Trajan gives him the title PARTHICO “The Parthian” which refers to his early success against the Parthians during this period. The Jewish Talmud refers to this denomination as a “mismis.” (Image courtesy cngcoins.com)
There is no numismatic evidence of the Jewish War of Quietus, 115–117 AD. However, this eastern issue semis of Trajan gives him the title PARTHICO “The Parthian” which refers to his early success against the Parthians during this period. The Jewish Talmud refers to this denomination as a “mismis.” (Image courtesy cngcoins.com)

by David Hendin, ANS Adjunct Curator