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Helena (wife of Julian)

Roman empress
The basics
Date of death Nov 01, 360 Vienne
Mother: Fausta
Spouse: Julian the Apostate
Brother(s): Constans Constantius II Constantine II Crispus
Father: Constantine the Great
The details

Helena (died 360) was the wife of Julian, Roman Emperor in 360–363. She was briefly his Empress consort when Julian was proclaimed Augustus by his troops in 360. She died prior to the resolution of his conflict with Constantius II.


Helena was a daughter of Constantine I and Fausta. She was sister to Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans and Constantina and half-sister of Crispus.

Her paternal grandparents were Constantius Chlorus and Helena. Her maternal grandparents were Maximian and Eutropia.


On 6 November 355, Julian was declared Caesar by Constantius II. The new Caesar was a paternal first cousin to Helena and her siblings. He was a son of Julius Constantius and his second wife Basilina. His paternal grandparents were Constantius Chlorus and his second wife Flavia Maximiana Theodora. At the time of his declaration Julian was the only viable candidate for this position, at least within the ranks of the Constantinian dynasty. The various other males of the family had died out.

The marriage of Helena and Julian took place days after his proclamation. The marriage confirmed the alliance of Julian to her brother. According to Ammianus Marcellinus:"This happened on the sixth of November of the year when Arbetio and Lollianus were consuls. Then, within a few days, Helena, the maiden sister of Constantius, was joined in the bonds of wedlock to the Caesar." Zosimus reports: "Constantius declared him Caesar, gave him in marriage his sister Helena, and sent him beyond the Alps. But being naturally distrustful, he could not believe that Julian would be faithful to him, and therefore sent along with him Marcellus and Sallustius, to whom, and not to Caesar, he committed the entire administration of that government."Eutropius narrates: "Constantius then remained sole ruler and emperor over the Roman dominions. He then sent into Gaul, with the authority of Caesar, his cousin Julian, the brother of Gallus, giving him his sister in marriage, at a time when the barbarians had stormed many towns and were besieging others, when there was everywhere direful devastation, and when the Roman Empire was tottering in evident distress." According to Socrates of Constantinople: "The emperor recalled him [Julian], and after created him Caesar; in addition to this, uniting him in marriage to his own sister Helen, he sent him against the barbarians. For the barbarians whom the Emperor Constantius had engaged as auxiliary forces against the tyrant Magnentius, having proved of no use against the usurper, were beginning to pillage the Roman cities. And inasmuch as he [Julian] was young he [Constantius] ordered him to undertake nothing without consulting the other military chiefs."

Sozomen apparently confused Helena with her sister, calling her Constantia He narrates:"Constantius recalled him [Julian], and proclaimed him Caesar, promised him his sister Constantia in marriage, and sent him to Gaul; for the barbarians whose aid had been hired by Constantius previously against Magnentius, finding that their services were not required, had portioned out that country. As Julian was very young, generals, to whom the prudential affairs were turned over, were sent with him; but as these generals abandoned themselves to pleasure, he was present as Caesar, and provided for the war." Philostorgius reports: "He [Constantius] summoned Gallus' brother Julian from Ionia and appointed him Caesar in Milan, giving his own sister Helena to him as his wife and taking oaths with him. He then sent him to Gaul to watch over the realm there.". The marriage is also recorded in the Chronicon Paschale.

None of the primary sources mention the age of Helena at the time of her marriage. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon does comment on her age. "If we recollect that Constantine, the father of Helena, died above eighteen years before, in a mature old age, it will appear probable, that the daughter, though a virgin, could not be very young at the time of her marriage."

Constantine I had died in 337. Fausta had died in 326. Which would mean Helena was at least twenty-nine years old at the time of her marriage.

Caesar's wife

Helena seems to have followed her husband to Gaul and is next reported being pregnant with his child. This pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Ammianus reports on further miscarriages: "Meanwhile Constantius' sister Helena, wife of Julian Caesar, had been brought to Rome under pretence of affection, but the reigning queen, Eusebia, was plotting against her; she herself had been childless all her life, and by her wiles she coaxed Helena to drink a rare potion, so that as often as she was with child she should have a miscarriage. For once before, in Gaul, when she had borne a baby boy, she lost it through machination: a midwife had been bribed with a sum of money, and as soon as the child was born cut the umbilical cord more than was right, and so killed it; such great pains and so much thought were taken that this most valiant man might have no heir." In the historical study "Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality" (1998) by Timothy Barnes, the birth of this stillborn son is estimated to 356. The miscarriage in Rome to 357. Barnes considers the story of the potion-induced miscarriages to be an allegation without further reference. Gibbon had not completely dismissed the report:"even the fruits of his [Julian's] marriage-bed were blasted by the jealous artifices of Eusebia herself, who, on this occasion alone, seems to have been unmindful of the tenderness of her sex, and the generosity of her character" ... "For my own part I am inclined to hope that the public malignity imputed the effects of accident as the guilt of Eusebia." He left the question of the existence of such a poison open and to be determined by physicians rather than historians. "A History of Medicine" (1995) by Plinio Prioreschi dismisses the account as an example of a very common error in accounts of ancient medicine, "the attribution to drugs of properties that they could not have". In this case, a potion which is consumed just once and keeps having effect for years. Prioreschi regards it as "an obvious impossibility in the light of modern pharmacology".

"The Propaganda of Power: The Role of Panegyric in Late Antiquity" (1998) contains a number of essays on the subject of panegyrics. Among them is "In praise of an Empress:Julian's speech of thanks to Eusebia" by Shaun Tougher, discussing a "Panegyric In Honour Of Eusebia" written by Julian himself. Tougher examines the relationship of Julian and Eusebia, commenting on whether Helena was affected by it. The historian considers that the image of a politically influential but "kind-hearted and philanthropic" Eusebia is directly based on her depiction in the works of Julian. According to Tougher, later historians have tended to accept this depiction with little to no questioning of it. He regards Eusebia to be the greatest threat to Julian for the duration of his term as Caesar. This rank effectively made Julian heir presumptive to the imperial throne. His position as such relied solely on Constantius and Eusebia remaining childless. Had an heir been born to the imperial couple, Julian could find himself outliving his usefulness to his imperial patrons. Tougher follows the example of senior historian Noël Aujoulat in considering the story of Helena's miscarriages being the result of abortifacients to be entirely plausible. Both historians consider Ammianus' allegations, casting Eusebia as the orchestrator of such a plot, should be taken into consideration and "not be lightly dismissed".

Whatever the case, "The Cambridge Ancient History" notes that the occasion of her presence in Rome were the Vicennalia of Constantius II, a celebration in honor of completing twenty years on the throne. Constantius and his Milan court moved to Rome for the occasion, marking the first and only known visit of this particular Augustus in the ancient capital of the Roman Empire. Constantius was following the examples of Diocletian and Constantine I who also visited Rome during their own Vicennalia. The presence of Constantius, Eusebia and Helena marked this as a dynastic display.


By 360, Julian had restored peace to Gaul and reached a ceasefire with the Alamanni in particular. This secured the local borders for a while. Meanwhile, Constantius was involved in a conflict against Shapur II of the Sassanid Empire, another phase of the Roman–Persian Wars. He took advantage of the peace achieved by Julian, sending orders that would transfer many officers and units from Gaul to the Persian borders. The Petulantes, one of the units ordered to the eastern border, revolted and proclaimed Julian to be their Augustus. Soon their cause was joined by the rest of the Gallic troops. Julian accepted his proclamation with some initial reluctance. The exact date of his proclamations in unknown, estimated to February or March, 360. Helena served as his Empress consort. She is mentioned being alive at the time of his proclamation in Julian's "Letter To The Senate And People of Athens".

The Letter was written in 361. At the time Julian and his forces were marching east to face Constantius. Julian took the time to write a series of public letters which explained and justified his course of action. These letters were addressed to several cities of the empire which Julian was attempting to win over, including (at least) Athens, Corinth, Rome and Sparta. The letter to Athens happens to be the only one preserved to modern times. Among other subjects, Julian narrates the conditions of his proclamation to the throne by army revolt.

Julian was attempting to convince his audience that Constantius was to blame for their conflict, not himself. His narrative suggests Helena was alive early in his new reign, attended by soldiers and in close proximity to her husband at Gaul. As an officer of her guard was able to contact Julian with no prolonged journey mentioned. He does however claim to have slept alone without stating a reason. Her role in the conflict between her husband and brother is left unmentioned.


Helena is next mentioned by Ammianus as already deceased for some time: Julian "being now an Augustus, he celebrated quinquennial games; and he wore a magnificent diadem, set with gleaming gems, whereas at the beginning of his principate he had assumed and worn a cheap crown, like that of the director of a gymnasium attired in purple. While these games were going on, he had sent to Rome the remains of his deceased wife Helena, to be laid to rest in his villa near the city on the Via Nomentana, where also her sister Constantina, formerly the wife of Gallus, was buried." In his assessment of Julian, Ammianus claims Julian practiced chastity and avoided sexual intercourse for the rest of his life. "He was so conspicuous for inviolate chastity that after the loss of his wife it is well known that he never gave a thought to love: bearing in mind what we read in Plato, that Sophocles, the tragic poet, when he was asked, at a great age, whether he still had congress with women, said no, adding that he was glad that he had escaped from this passion as from some mad and cruel aster. Also, to give greater strength to this principle, Julianus often repeated the saying of the lyric poet Bacchylides, whom he delighted to read, who declares that as a skilful painter gives a face beauty, just so chastity gives charm to a life of high aims. This blemish in the mature strength of manhood he avoided with such care, that even his most confidential attendants never (as often happens) accused him even of a suspicion of any lustfulness." Barnes notes that Ammianus offers much praise of both Julian and Eusebia. In contrast, there is no such praise for Helena, nor an actual assessment of her.

The "Funeral Oration upon the Emperor Julian" by Libanius elaborates on the subject of Julian's chastity:"This was the pleasure our emperor reaped from the length of the nights, whilst others were following the business of Venus. But he was so far from inquiring where there was a fair daughter, or wife, that had he not once been tied by Juno with the bond of marriage, he would have ended his days knowing nothing of sexual intercourse but by name. But as it was he regretted his wife, yet did not touch another woman, either before or after her; being by his constitution enabled to be continent, and his constant occupation in the art of soothsaying concurring to require this restraint. ... Being exhorted by his relations to marry, that he might get children for heirs to his power, "It was out of fear of this very thing," replied he, "that I have neglected to do so, lest they, succeeding by hereditary right, should turn out bad and ruin the state, experiencing the same fate with Phaethon." Thus did he regard his own want of children as a lighter calamity than the chance of mischief to the provinces."

Gibbon notes that Helena's "pregnancy had been several times fruitless, and was at last fatal to herself." Gibbon used as his source another work by Libanius, "a very weak apology, to justify his hero [Julian] from a very absurd charge of poisoning his wife, and rewarding her physician with his mother's jewels." An entry of the Liber Pontificalis, the one covering Pope Liberius, mentions Helena being a devout Christian and an adherent of the Nicene Creed. However, like Sozomen, the entry writer confused her with her sister and calls her "Constantia Augusta".

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