The ‘Halkin’ Life of Constantine in English


Vita Constantini e cod. Patm. 179, s. XII-XIII, f.4-25 (BHG 365n)

[Translated by Mark Vermes][2]

 1. Diocletian and Maximian Galerius were in charge of the Roman empire.[3] Maximian Herculius came from a humble garrison town now called Ardamares, but formerly Hercula.[4] As he was poor he was hired by a widow woman to carry for sale on his own shoulders every day seething charcoal into the city of Thessalonici which was nearby. He went on a military expedition and showed acts of great bravery in war in view of Diocletian. So Diocletian chose him as husband for his daughter[5] and made him emperor equivalent to the others. They divided the empire and Diocletian himself was appointed to rule Rome, with Maximian Galerius in charge of the Eastern empire, while Maximian Herculius was master of the islands of Europe and the gulf of Thessaly.[6] In their time countless numbers known only to God were wreathed in the garland of martyrdom. The impious Diocletian and Maximian Herculius were now as it were filled to satiety with those suffering for Christ, and carried away by the madness of arrogance. Moreover they were affected by indignation that they might become patrons to the martyrs of the eternal blessings which they had rightly heard described by many saints. So by arrangement they gave up the emperorship to follow a simple private lifestyle. In their folly they considered that as they were now approaching old age they would die very shortly, and that if their death took place in private they would be deified and reported to all as having achieved immortality by the people in their households. So they withdrew from the emperorship for this purpose, and Maxentius in their place was made emperor of Rome and Thessaly.[7] Galerius continued in the Eastern areas, as has already been said. They were both wild beasts and pursued every kind of evil, in particular showing irrepressible fury against the Christians.

2. During this period the emperor Constans while still tribune of Britain went to make war on the Sarmatae.[8] He overcame them by force and withdrew with a great victory. Wishing to rest his army at a particular place[9] he found an inn, where dwelt a beautiful girl of Greek religion called Helena. He was enamoured and went to bed with her, and that night the woman conceived. He rose at dawn and in token of their union gave her a scarlet cloak and a gold bracelet.[10] Then he set off with his army and returned to his own country. Following his valiant achievements the authorities in his city assembly crowned him emperor. Now Constans had already by his own wife a son who was an imbecile. In sorrow over this he held a council with his leaders and those in authority. Then he sent bodyguards out to the East to search for a handsome clever child which could be brought up as his son. This was certainly the work of divine providence. Those who were despatched travelled along that same route by which Constans had returned from his war with the Sarmatae. They stopped at the inn where Helena was. They tied up their horses at the front of the hostelry, and went inside to enjoy the hospitality. Helena’s son Constantine, fathered by the emperor Constans when he was a tribune as has been described, was about ten years old. With the pleasure of a little boy, or perhaps rather summoned by divine providence to his imperial inheritance, he was enticed by the horses. One of the bodyguards came out and saw him sitting on a horse, and crossly gave him a slap, saying: “Don’t be naughty. You’re too young to go riding.” The boy was hurt and went crying to his mother. She first cuddled him, then said to the one who had hit him: “Friend, don’t strike the child, for he is the emperor’s son.” The bodyguard replied: “The emperor has only one son and he’s a halfwit.” But Helena continued swearing by her own gods and Caesar’s salvation that he was the emperor’s son. As they still did not believe her, Helena explained the events following the victory over the Sarmatae and the withdrawal of Constans while he was still a tribune. At once she displayed the things that he had given her. When they saw the scarlet cloak and the gold bracelet they were convinced and overwhelmed with joy. They took the boy and the afore-mentioned gifts and returned in haste to the emperor, and placed the boy Constantine in front of him. They showed him as well the things given by him to Helena and said: “Recognise these things, emperor, which in your divinity you granted to a girl at an inn. Through her this boy is your son.” The emperor recognised them, and filled with joy and happiness he immediately embraced him, and gave him fifteen companions. With them he sent him off to the ruler of the East, Maximian Galerius, who was his friend, to be educated in the art of war and in Greek learning. But Constantine observed the terribly harsh tortures that were imposed on the Christians by the tyrant Maximian. The boy, who shunned evil as much as anyone and was of noble character, was very grieved and saddened at heart.[11]

3. Now Diocletian after relinquishing the emperorship had reached Dalmatia in his travels. Due to divine wrath his tongue was split open and a large number of worms seethed out of his throat, causing his whole body to suffer from the torment, until piteously he lost his wretched life. In the same way Maximian Herculius while likewise on his travels in Tarsus in Cilicia finished his life in an awful state.[12] Meanwhile Maximian Galerius in a false sense of security was leading a godless and savage lifestyle. He was a philanderer, so his subordinate officers, and even men of lesser rank, would hold a competition to conceal their own wives and daughters from the tyrant’s sight. He was so affected by the deception of the demons that led him astray that he would not refrain from doing anything or trying anything unless prophecy or witchcraft prevented him. Against the Christians he predicted not only utter destruction but also the seizure of their possessions through his own impiety.

He observed that Constantine was advancing handsomely to the prime of youth and was equipped with God-given intelligence. He suspected, or rather he received an omen, that Constantine would destroy his tyranny, and so he planned to kill him by a trick. What was his plot? It was the practice of the emperors in the East to show off their courage in the following manner: they would release into the theatre a bear without fangs or claws, which the men in charge had pulled out beforehand. The emperor would then enter and kill it with a cudgel. Similarly they released a lion also without teeth or claws which he would slay as well. After that came thirty men with dry sponges, with which apparently they would pelt the emperor, while he hurled stones at them until all thirty men fell. Amongst the shouts of the crowd would be: “Wonderful is the courage that fate has granted the emperor. Hooray for the fortune of the Romans!” When this spectacle was due to take place in the theatre, Galerius pretended to be ill and unable to enter the arena. So he instructed Constantine to conduct the slaughter of the animals, having previously told the men in charge to drive healthy fierce animals in front of him into the theatre, so that as has been said Constantine might be killed by an unsuspected cause. And so a fearsome bear was let into the arena, whereupon Constantine leapt in and immediately slew it. They did the same with a lion which he also killed on the spot. The thirty men who were wielding stones instead of sponges he despatched with his bare hands. Maximian in a rage threatened death against the men in charge. They had released the beasts with their claws and fangs intact, and by showing them in evidence they just avoided destruction. So the pious Constantine after learning what had happened made his escape to his own father Constans. When he died, Constantine became the successor to his father’s emperorship, on the 25th July in the first year of the 271st Olympiad.[13]

4. About Constantine’s emperorship. In the January of the fifth year of his reign a large mob of barbarians assembled at the river Danube, aiming to cross it and to destroy the land of the Britons.[14] Emperor Constantine gathered his whole army and approached the said river to prevent the enemy advance. He resisted their passage for many days and held them back, but when he saw the multitude was growing larger and larger and becoming countless, he was placed in a great dilemma. Then, as he hesitated to join battle, he saw before his eyes at night the holy light of a cross shining aloft, showing through the stars the message: “In this be victorious.” Seeking assiduously to find out which god the sign belonged to, he summoned the leaders of his people, and learnt from one of the Nazarenes – for this is what Christians were called in those days – that it was the sign of Christ, on which he was crucified for the salvation of mankind. He trusted whole-heartedly in God and fashioned his own sword into the shape of the sign that he had seen and ordered it to be carried ahead into battle. At an early engagement most of the barbarians were destroyed, while others perished in the river, and the remainder were defeated and taken prisoner. A very few of them were able to reach their own country and describe their total defeat. After this great and glorious victory, they returned with great joy and their God-given trophies to their own parts. From then on in alliance with God and with the cross of the Lord going ahead, the northern and western nations as far as the Ocean itself were subjugated to him. The result was peace and profound calm in the whole inhabited world under his sway.

5. About the war against Maxentius. Maxentius who at that time was ruling in Rome proved to be the most wicked of all those who had preceded him in Rome. He subjected the inhabitants and especially the Christians to many trials and punishments including putting them to death, exiling them and sending them into the mines. He also took advantage of Galerius’ brutal example. The residents of Rome were unable to tolerate this and sent an embassy to the very peaceable Constantine, asking him not to allow the mother of cities to be utterly destroyed by a cruel tyrant. Constantine sympathised with them and decided to liberate them from the evil of the cruel tyrant. But he was afraid of his sorcery and witchcraft and the dissection of individual babies that he practised for the purpose of prophecy.

About the stylus-shaped cross that he saw.  As he was engaged in deep thought, there appeared to him again, as he was on a field with his army about midday, a stylus-shaped cross formed from light, on which had been written: “Constantine, in this be victorious.” Full of alarm the emperor asked his companions whether they too saw the same thing. They admitted that they had seen the same vision. So with his confidence restored, and full of courage and enthusiasm, that very same night the Lord appeared to him saying: “Use the sign that has been shown to you and you will. defeat all your enemies. And you will found a city for my mother, God-bearing Mary, towards the East in a place I myself shall show you.” He awoke full of faith and made a copy of the cross from pure gold and ordered it to be carried before him into battle. This is preserved up to the present day in the imperial palace.

The impious tyrant Maxentius, reliant on his sorcery and his demons, built a bridge of many ships across the river that flows through Rome. Then he went out to make war on Constantine. There was a clash, and the enemy lines were obliterated by the power of the cross, and most of them fell. The tyrant with the remainder of his mob took flight to the city and made a stand on the bridge. But it straight away was broken by divine power and hurled them all into the depths of the river.

 The beginning of Constantine’s reign in Rome.  The Romans came out in great joy and with garlands to receive the victory-winning cross and the divinely crowned emperor Constantine. At once the pro-Christian emperor ordered that the relics of the holy martyrs and faithful be properly anointed and laid in prominent and salubrious places, and that the Christians in exile and in the mines should be recalled with honour. They all held a victory feast for seven days, singing hymns and giving glory to God, honouring the admirable and venerable cross of the Lord, and magnifying the pious emperor Constantine. This was the seventh year of his reign. Anyone who wishes to study in detail these events in sequence, should turn to the Life of our father among the saints Silvester, who was bishop in Rome at the time, by whom Constantine was judged worthy of holy baptism, where a fuller account will be found. Because of the length of the story I have omitted it.

6. When he heard of these events Maximian Galerius the ruler of the East, as has been said earlier, had turned out to have refrained a little from his madness and threatening behaviour towards the Christians. Nevertheless, emboldened by the number of his demons and sorcerers, he too armed himself for war against the great Constantine. The pious emperor Constantine, strengthened by the invincible power of the cross, set out against him, taking with him Licinius who had recently become related by marrying Constantine’s sister after his victory in the war. Constantine made him emperor of a reasonable tract of land after requesting from him an agreement that he would never contrive any harm against the Christians. But this happened later. When the encounter took place and the venerable cross appeared, the tyrant’s army could not withstand the assault and turned in flight. Many were cut down, and the rest abandoned the war and joined sides with the ruler Constantine. The most impious emperor Maximian threw away the seals of emperorship so that he would not be recognised as he fled as one of the army. He went around from village to village in secret, and with great difficulty with a few of his most loyal followers reached his home with nothing. He assembled the priests of his so-called gods, the prophets and seers and men renowned for sorcery whom previously he had honoured. with devotion, and as cheats and deceivers and plotters against his emperorship he executed them at that very hour. He was about to fall into the hands of the emperor – for Constantine had pursued him and was still at war – but divine anger intervened and destroyed him. A fire from the depths of his guts had seized his limbs and created intolerable pains in him. His eyes were ejected by the burning force, and his flesh parted from his bones, and in such a state the wretched man pitifully took his own life. With the tyrants thus removed from the scene, the world enjoyed a secure and profound peace, and the position of the Christians reached new heights in every respect and in all nations the cross of Christ was glorified.

7. About the emperorship of Licinius. Now Licinius had taken charge in Bithynia as has been said, but he was not satisfied with enjoying his good fortune, but forgot his agreement and brought many intolerable ordeals to bear on the Christians. This did not escape the notice of the pious emperor. First he reprimanded him by entreaty in letters, and then he confronted him with dire instructions. When he found Licinius inflexible, he initiated and proceeded to make war on him. He captured him alive and banished him in exile to Thessalonici. But he was in the words of the proverb ‘washing an Ethiopian’. For in Thessalonici Licinius, though condemned to live there and being under amnesty, was not prepared to live quietly, but hired natives and armed himself against the pious emperor. By. hiring these men the wretched man was purchasing his own death. For when the emperor learned of it, he at ‘Once made arrangements to have his head cut off. Now that this scoundrel was out of the way for good, affairs enjoyed perfect peace. At this time Macarius was bishop of Jerusalem, a practitioner of every virtue and most honourable before God. He had succeeded Hermonas.

Meanwhile the pious and great Constantine was enjoying complete security now that affairs were going as he expected, and he devoted all his concern to religious matters. He began rebuilding the shrines of God with due respect, enriching them from the public accounts with money and expenditure and all kinds of treasures. Those of the pagans he totally demolished, and assigned their revenues to the august churches of the Christians. He published a first law, that the shrines of the idols be given to those committed to Christ, and that men who still worshipped idols should face the death penalty. He then issued a second law that only Christians should serve as soldiers and be in command of natives and armies. In addition he prescribed a third law, that there should be no work done in the two weeks at the festival of Easter, the week before the festival and the week after it. With these arrangements in place there was universal joy and profound peace in the whole world under his sway, so that all nations individually came to faith and were baptized, and shattered their ancestral gods with their own hands.

 8. About the building of the city. During these days there came to mind the instruction he had received from the Lord in a dream near Rome, which was to build a city for the mother of God, as he said “in the place I myself shall show you”. So in his search through lands and regions he reached Thessalonici. When he saw its mountains and plains with their easy connection to the sea, and that it was well supplied with water and generally abundant, he thought this was the place that God wanted for the foundation. He spent two periods there and built churches wonderful for their size, beauty and adornment, and inaugurated enormous gracious baths. He also laid in water supplies to serve every need of the citizens, but when he saw that a plague was threatening the place, in great distress he abandoned it. He travelled to Chalcedon in Bithynia and finding it long since demolished by the Persians he determined to make his foundation here. Without further ado he set about starting the work, but eagles took the workers’ plumb lines and carried them off to Byzantium. This happened many times and when the emperor learned of it he did not know what to do. Then one of his intimate servants called Euphratas said this: “There is the place, master, that the Lord wants the building of the city for his mother, the holy mother of God.” The emperor was pleased by this suggestion and straight away went across there, inspected the place which was then a bare hillside, and put Euphratas in charge of the work, with instructions to build a city that would please the mother of God. He gave him plenty of assistance and lots of money, and told him to take what would help him from the surrounding country. This was in the twelfth year of his emperorship.

9. At this juncture the Persians launched an expedition against Rome. The emperor found out about it and set out to meet them. Now the Roman generals did not possess detailed knowledge of the routes inside Persian territory, in fact they were completely ignorant about them, so the Persians took advantage of their close familiarity with them and attacked the Romans at night. They killed many of them, and prepared to attack unobserved the majority who had fled into nearby strongholds. Among them the martyr Eusignius took refuge in the emergency with a number of others in a thicket. He it is who was to give a clearer account of these events before Julian the Apostate at the time of his martyrdom for Christ. Others were taken prisoner, among them the emperor Constantine who was overpowered and condemned to serve as a sacrificial victim to their idol. But reflect on God’s goodness, and how he provides a way when there seems no way out! The guards of the abominable rite of the Persians went out to gather wood that they would need for the sacrifice, and when they approached the place where a few men were hidden and began trying to cut the brushwood, the men leapt out and overwhelmed them. They were dragged into the thicket. Then they asked them to tell in all truth what had happened to the Roman emperor. They were panic stricken and clasped their feet, saying: “We are slaves of the Persians, as you can see, though we too are Romans. If our lives are saved, we will tell you everything in detail. If you like, you can trust us. We will also suggest a very useful plan.” And after making an oath to them the guards continued: “The king of the Persians and his rulers have announced the celebration of his birthday in the temple of their god and that your emperor will be produced as a sacrifice. If you are willing, listen to us without suspecting any trap. For as we said before, we too are Romans and care more for the safety of our compatriots than that of the Persians. And our earnest desire has long been to tread on Roman soil. Around the altar is a high wall, the enclosure that we call the temple. The middle parts of the temple are covered over, but the parts around it have no roof. All the people enter this temple with the king. Since it is the Persians’ custom to approach any sacrifice without even the weapons they have on them, we can lead you into the temple in the evening, if you are in agreement. The next day, when the crowd comes in, we will place you behind the gates. At the moment when your emperor is about to be sacrificed, we will close the gates and join you in cutting down the Persians. And we shall liberate your emperor.”

The Romans put their faith in their words, and at dead of night they followed them and were brought inside the temple where they enjoyed breakfast and a rest. At dawn the heralds shouted, and they stood behind the doors with their weapons concealed. The whole Persian assemblage entered. Emperor Constantine was led forward in chains and placed next to the altar. As the Persians were dancing, the guards in accordance with their promise secured the gates and bade the Romans cut down the Persians. They released the emperor Constantine from his bonds and produced weapons and joined in equally in the slaughter. All the Persians in the temple along with their king were killed. “Great you are, God of the Christians,” shouted the Romans, “and who apart from you works miracles without number?” Then they came out of the temple following the guards and overran all the sentry posts and freed any men in them that were Romans. But the Persians that they encountered they killed without mercy, while the men who were hidden in the mountains they called out through heralds. Then they returned to the stronghold where they had carried out the massacre, and after setting in order the arrangements for the journey they entered Byzantium, wreaking great destruction in the villages they found en route. So that is what occurred.

10. Now envy flourishes everywhere and the malignant eye cannot bear to look on success. Euphratas had been appointed to supervise the foundation of the city, as has been said earlier. First of all he was creating the inflow and outflow of the water channels according to the lie of the land, and digging wells. and laying underground cisterns from place to place. He was unable to display any of the work to the light of day, and some men denounced him before the emperor, saying: “The money that was given from your empire to Euphratas has been wastefully squandered by him and he has not even begun at all his task because he holds you in contempt. But if he hears that you are visiting, he will probably run away.” The emperor listened to these allegations, but because he would not listen to a mere tell-tale or because he was showing special treatment to Euphratas, he travelled to Chalcedon to investigate them. Again the allegations were repeated, with men saying: “See, lord, he has not even cut down the wood on the hill.” So they confirmed plainly what had been said before. However the emperor continued with the same intention; – but consider the good disposition of the emperor! For when Euphratas came before him, he said no hostile word towards him, but instead appeared friendly by his expression and said: “How is the city going?” Euphratas replied: “Fine, master, in line with your instructions.” The emperor asked: “Why then can we see no sign of it?” Euphratas answered: “If your majesty is in agreement, we will cross the sea so that you can see precisely what we have achieved.” This is what happened and he led in the emperor on horseback with a large retinue carrying torches from the colonnade of the area of Eugenius which neighbours the sea, and he led him through the underground series of vaults as far as the foundation of the great column on which the statue of the emperor rests. This was brought from Rome and set up by his blessed mother, and is now called the Phoros. There were to be seen many and frequent underground vaults which completed the whole circuit of the circular structure which was visible above, each formed from a buttress and a column. From them great colonnades were laid in a straight line towards the sea on each side, through which all the refuse from the meat markets and the sewers could be discharged. The emperor marvelled at all this but was unable to understand what it meant. Euphratas said: “Cities can make use of these, master, when there are heavy rains, by them taking the overflow so the citizens are completely safe. It also makes building the walls very straightforward.” Hearing this the emperor was amazed at the man’s intelligence, and gave great thanks to God for inspiring these ideas in Euphratas, and he praised him very highly. He rewarded him with great honours, and said: “Since you have decided that the construction is to be like this, I trust that you will also make haste to build the place for God and that you will bring to live here not only Romans but also people of all nations.” Euphratas replied: “This shall I do, God willing. But I make one request of your majesty: when you are about to withdraw your imperial presence from here, take the signet rings from the leaders of the Senate and mark each of them and send them in a letter to me.” The emperor promised to do this, and carried out his promise at a convenient time. This was the fourteenth year of his emperorship.

11. Persian invasion. The Persians were unwilling to tolerate the unexpected slaughter that they had suffered at the hands of the Romans. When they learned the emperor was staying in Bithynia, they marched straight for Chalcedon with their whole army, ravaging all the lands, and setting fire to the temples, towns and dwellings and everything they they found on their way. When they had reached Chalcedon, as they did not have the strength to cross the sea, here they halted their journey.

Roman expedition.  The pious emperor heard about their invasion, gathered together his army and crossed through Macedonia. While he was approaching Persian territory he first secured the roads that led to Bithynia. Then he changed the appearance of the soldiers so that they would not be recognised as being Romans. In this way he entered Persian lands. He found only women and children, and separated the women and killed them. Any that were pregnant, they pretended to roast their embryos and eat them. The children they tied up and beat them with threshing implements as if it were harvest time. They did many other strange acts so that they would not be recognised for who they were.

At this the Persian queen made use of places of refuge in the area, and sent frequent letters every day to her own husband to make clear her situation. But the men of the pious emperor who had secured the roads as has been said passed all these letters into his hands. This continued to happen for a whole year. After this she managed to get a letter through to the Persian king. Emperor Constantine discovered this and straightaway withdrew from Persian territory, and set up a close guard on the roads. So that was what took place. When the Persians learned of the disconcerting turn of events from the letters that had got through, each of them with all speed and without a thought for their king, and lacking any military formation, hurried away to their own homes. Hence it is said that the creatures now called ‘wolf-panthers’ were their dogs, which were abandoned by them at this time and grew wild like wild cubs and ran off towards the East, while none of them at all are found in the regions of Thrace. When the Persians in their small numbers encountered the Romans who were guarding the roads, they were killed by them without mercy. Their king heard of this and received the survivors and took to flight by trackless empty mountains and secured his own safety. At these successes won by the holy and adorable cross the pious emperor was glorified and the whole army gratified, and they returned to their own lands.

12. Now Euphratas – for the narrative is obliged to return to him again – had received from the emperor the signet rings of the leading men. He summoned men with knowledge of the leaders’ houses at Rome and appointed houses to be built following the design of each house, with exact similarities as to setting and position with regard to air and sea. Then he sent by letters, and with the security of boats, the leaders’ actual signet rings to their wives as if from their own husbands. They did not realise the deception, but rather filled with joy that they were on their way to their own husbands, embarked on the boats with all their most valuable possessions and with their whole household they all reached Byzantium. There they entered the city built for the mother of God, and each of them went to the house that had been made the same as hers in Rome, filled with extraordinary amazement. For the entrance of each house was the same as that in Rome; the protective rampart was identical, the well was the same, the gardens in the same shape and appearance, the rooms, the colonnades and all the rest had a genuine resemblance to those in Rome. So each of them thanked their divinity as best they were able and awaited the arrival of their own husbands. Meanwhile the most pious emperor Constantine had returned to Chalcedon with his army after his destruction of Persia. The most loyal Euphratas was the first to meet him and made the following proposal: “When your majesty returns to the palace at dead of night with your boats, then give each leader by the hand to me to escort to his own home. What happens next you will learn later.” So the emperor returned to the palace as arranged and taking each of the leaders by the hand passed him on to Euphratas, saying: “Take him to his own house.” He went off with torches and a large bodyguard. Each man stood at the gates of the house and inspected the entrance, inspected the outward impression of the house, and in particular its appearance, and the surprised shout of the servant girls and the uproar that passed among the servants, and the greeting of his children and the embrace of his wife. He was astonished and could not explain it, but heard his relatives saying: “We received your letter and boats, and came to find things here.” And for more certain confirmation they displayed the letter itself and the signet ring. While they were all engaged in this, the night passed without any sleep. At first light they all with one accord gathered before the emperor and showed their amazement at his scheme. “Why did you persuade us” they asked “to live as foreigners, and how did you make us become immigrants?” He replied with a gentle countenance: “It is the mother of God who summoned you. And I trust in Christ who was born her son, our true God, that we shall not be short of anything, but shall be filled with his blessings beyond our desire.” Then he ordered that each should be given three times the lands that he possessed in Rome, and plenty of money from the imperial treasuries for their improvement, because they had been stripped bare by the Persians. So all were delighted, and chose to stay in the city under God’s protection.

13. About how the city was named Constantinople. During these days it is said that the mother of God appeared in dreams to some particularly reverent men and said: “It is my wish, reliant on my special association with my son and Lord, that because of the emperor Constantine’s good character Byzantium should be renamed Constantinople.” This was the sixteenth year of Constantine’s emperorship.

The first Synod.  In the nineteenth year of his emperorship, the first holy synod of the three hundred sacred and holy fathers was summoned at Nicaea to act against the impious Arius.

Now Euphratas was providing food supplies and houses for those from every city and land who chose to settle in Constantinople, and he was becoming very successful. He built an enclosure round the walls he had laid in a circle, where today the great colonnade of Taurus stands, and he made it secure with fortresses from one sea to the other. Soon afterwards he saw that it was filled with people as far as the colonnade Bous, and he extended the protection to cover this, which is how ‘the Second’ got its name from the enclosure of the wall.

The emperor Constantine had three sons born to him by Maximiana daughter of Diocletian. The eldest, Constantine, took his father’s name and he became ruler of the West. The second was Constans, who ruled the East. And Constantius the third was chosen by lot to be ruler of Europe.

From now on Euphratas embarked on building the churches of God and the holy places in accordance with the instructions of the devout emperor. He completed many with the assistance of God and with the faultless strong hand of the emperor. Among them he built the great church of God, which shall be described later on. Now the account should pass on to the finding of the holy cross.

14. About the finding of the venerable cross. Now that the Romans together with the pious emperor Constantine had been granted to settle in Constantinople, the emperor did not consider it right that his mother should not be with him, so he fetched her from Rome. She explained that a divine vision had come over her, bidding her to travel to Jerusalem to effect the discovery of the venerable cross of Christ our Lord and the exposure of the holy sites. So she was despatched with a huge sum of money and everything else she might require. She reached the holy places and conducted the search for the sacred cross, and found it buried far in the depths of the earth. This had certainly been the result of God’s will, to prevent the cross being destroyed by fire when Jerusalem was burnt in the destruction of Vespasian. It had been buried in the following manner.

The impious Jews were consumed by malice following the ascension to Heaven of our saviour and Lord Jesus Christ, and they dug a large deep excavation just next to the holy tomb, and cast into it the cross and its pedestal and the nails. Everything else, namely the spear, the reed and the sponge, was hidden by some other friends of the Lord. Then they heaped together very many mounds of earth and concealed the holy tomb itself, and above it they founded a temple to Aphrodite and set up on the temple an idol appropriate to her. The wretches thought that, as some Christians were trying to bring the things requisite for a memorial and wanting to honour Christ through holy ritual, they would not be able to worship him at that place because of its defilement through the abomination of Aphrodite. But God who works miracles was revealed again.

About the plant called ‘basilicon’.  There sprouted there a plant which is called ‘basil’ by doctors, and ‘basilicon’ by the public, extremely fragrant and beneficial to invalids. When the Jews who always oppose the truth saw this and realised that such things were the product of divine power, they never stopped trying to uproot it every way they could, trampling it and obliterating it. But it flourished all the more in appearance and fragrance.

Thus the sacred tomb and the life-giving cross were discovered through the efforts and enthusiasm of the blessed Helena on the 22nd of April by Judas who was surnamed Kuriakos in holy baptism. He later became bishop of Jerusalem and suffered publicly along with his mother Anna at the hand of Julian the apostate and famously won the crown of martyrdom.

15. About the elevation of the venerable cross. So the most blessed Helena built a beautiful church at sacred Golgotha and placed the cross there. On the 14th of September, in the plain light of day, as a mass of people attended the church, suddenly in view of all of them the roof of the temple was opened and the cross flew up, leaving in its place only the pedestal on which it had stood. As it passed through the opened roof of the church it was raised up as far as Heaven, and they all cried out with one voice: “Lord, have mercy.” Thus was fulfilled the verse of prophecy which says: “Raise up our Lord God and bow down before the pedestal of his feet, for he is holy.” Likewise the great Ephraim the Syrian, in his work praising the just Joseph, when he reveals precisely to his readers the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and confirms the destruction of the wretched Jews, says: “And Christ will come from Heaven holding in his hands the very cross and showing to the Jews not only it, but also the wounds on his hands and feet and in his side. They will recognise both the cross itself and the Son of God who was crucified by them.”

The blessed Helena was afraid that something similar might happen also to the pedestal of the cross, for it too had been stained with drops from the Lord’s side and with blood from his sacred feet. At that same hour with prayerful entreaty to Macarius, the bishop among the saints, she cut out from it a replica of the cross that had been taken up, although smaller in dimensions, and when it was finished she set it up. This was the one that some time later[15] was captured by the Persians and recovered again by emperor Herac1ius. And she sent word to all the churches.

As for the nails of the inviolate hands and feet of the Lord Jesus Christ, one of them she placed on the bridle of the emperor Constantine her son, so as to fulfil the prophetic verse which says: “And there will be in those days that which on the bridle of the king’s horse will be called sacred to the Lord.” The second nail she fastened on his head-dress in the form of a cross, and the other two she placed on the monument which the Romans built for Constantine in return for their liberation from the tyrant Maximian. It was she who brought it to Constantinople and set it up on the great column in the place called the Forum.

16. Helena built various poor-houses and monasteries, and also shrines in the places where Christ our Lord had manifestly worked miracles, in particular holy Zion, as shall be described shortly. She founded guest-houses and ensured that the needs of each af all the places mentioned would be met annually by the state, and then she returned to her own son.

The total number of years from Adam up to the bodily incarnation of the Word of God, that is his birth from the mother of God the ever virgin Mary, is five thousand five hundred; from his incarnation up to the cross thirty three; and from the ascension of our Lord and God Jesus Christ up to the discovery of the venerable cross were three hundred and nineteen years. So there were altogether from Adam up to the discovery of the venerable cross five thousand eight hundred and fifty two years.

Blessed Helena died at her son’s side in Constantinople at the age of eighty, having given him much instruction about Christian piety and faith. She was laid to rest in the church of the holy apostles, which pious Constantine had had built by Euphratas for the burial of imperial remains, and was august and beautiful and formed in a hexagon in the manner of Heaven.

Some days later there took place the consecration of the churches in holy Zion conducted by the great Athanasius in the following manner. Eusebius of Nicomedia had been excommunicated by the three hundred and eighteen holy fathers at Nicaea and been sent into exile with some others, but later he published a recantation and was recalled. When Germanus the most holy patriarch of Constantinople died, Eusebius was able to become master of the bishop’s throne of the sovereign city.[16] He was sent by great emperor Constantine to conduct the consecration of the churches in Jerusalem, and he naturally took with him the great Athanasius of Alexandria.[17] When they came into each other’s presence, as falsehood is always found to challenge truth, the bishop of Constantinople and the others embarked on slanders and false accusations against Athanasius. These were brushed aside like a spider’s web by the great Athanasius, but Eusebius was still intent on the destruction of Athanasius. When Athanasius realised this he reached Jerusalem as quickly as possible and solemnly consecrated the holy churches, and headed straight for the emperor. The emperor welcomed him gladly and sent him back to his own throne with all honour. So that is what took place.

17. About why the wood is called ‘tripartite’. Some people ask where the wood of the cross came from, and in what place and how its composition became tripartite, as it has a mixture of three types of wood, namely pine, cedar and cypress, and how it was found in the days of the crucifIxion of the Lord. We who always seek the truth, O my spiritual brothers, can say that we have not heard a story from any devout man saying anything about this other than that at Beirut, when we were staying with some Christians and by chance this inquiry was mentioned by us, we were shown a letter of an ancient Hebrew sent to a close friend of his who was also making an investigation into the wood,[18] which read as follows: “There are two rivers in Palestine, the Jor and the Dan, which unite at the same point as they form one river the Jordan, a river which takes its name from the uniting of the waters and the conjunction of their names. Between the junction of the rivers, and in fact close to the merger of the two, great Abraham was once passing in those days, and he chanced to find a character who kept cattle, lamenting and groaning at his unusual sin. Great Abraham said to him: ‘If you want to appease the Lord, brother, fetch me three fire-brands.’ When this was done, Abraham withdrew about half a stade from both rivers, and placed them in a triangle so they stood about six feet from each other, and said: ‘Each day you must water each of the sticks with forty jars. And if inside forty days the sticks come alive and take root, then you will know that God takes mercy on you. If not, then I shall see you again and tell you what to do.’ The man did what he was instructed. When forty days had passed the fire-brands were growing, and he was invigorated and went to great Abraham at the oak tree. It is said that these three fire-brands as they grew were united with the other two, and that though they had separate roots and their tops were similarly divided from each other, the whole of their middle was one in an inseparable union, and each was totally unable to be parted one from the others. Some say that this was the staff of Elisha by means of which the salty waters became drinkable. But that staff is known to have been of one wood and of one type, whereas that of the cross is formed of three. So it is clear. that those who make that claim are mistaken. This wood, which can be described as seasoned, satisfied the craftsmen at the building of Solomon’s temple, and was cut down and brought into the temple. When it lay down below it was of a different length, but when it was brought up to the roof it was a long way short of the walls. And so it was brought down. Solomon was very impressed by the seasoned beauty of the wood and did not want it to be left unused, so he measured it again. It was more than long enough. But when it was taken up it was again found short, and Solomon realised that what had happened must be the work of God’s will. So he placed it inside the temple until the cessation of the works. When the temple was completed and king Solomon was showing its beauties to the Sibyl of Erythrae for her to admire, and bade her sit down on the afore-mentioned wood, she became filled with her gift of prophecy and refused the seat, saying of the wood: ‘O thrice-blessed wood, on which Christ the king and Lord will be stretched.’[19] or rather how its works shine more brightly than the sun, I shall proceed to relate.

18. Jebusai or Jerusalem was ruled in ancient times by the prophet David. At its easternmost part Mount Zion, a name which means ‘high’,[21] lay facing the city, with a small plain lying between the mountain and the city. On this plain is the site of Golgotha called ‘Lithostratos’ and the garden and the tomb of the Lord, and the house of John the Divine, about which I shall tell shortly, and everything relating to the last days of Christ can be found on this plain. It so happened that six towers of Jerusalem facing towards Mount Zion were demolished by an earthquake and rebuilt by David. In the final capture of Jerusalem when in accordance with the Lord’s prophecy no stone was found still on another stone, only those six towers built by David were seen to be standing intact. The blessed Helena constructed a wall from these six towers and extended it back to them in a circle joining the eastern part of Jerusalem, so that she attached and enclosed within it all the aforementioned plain and a small part of the mountain. So she arranged that all the parts outside Jerusalem were within what is now called Zion, and she renamed the city Zion, not only because of the mountain which is adjacent as described, but also because of the house of the great John the Divine, which has the following explanation.

James and John the sons of Zebedee used to have houses inside Jerusalem near to Caiaphas the high priest. They sold these to Caiaphas and bought houses outside the city, near to Mount Zion. It was there that Jesus sent despatch with the words: “You will find a donkey tied up and a foal with her.” And “There”, he said to those who asked him, “make ready the Passover.” In this house of the Evangelist took place the supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet. There Christ was seen by the eleven disciples behind locked doors after he had risen from the tomb. In this house the descent of the Holy Spirit occurred, and the mother of God lived there from the time when John heard the Saviour say as he was on the cross: “Behold your mother.” The venerable and truly saintly Helena rebuilt this house as a beautiful church and renamed it ‘Saint Zion’.

19. About Saint Sophia. Euphratas -for the account now returns to him in full circle – wanted to build the shrine of God, I mean the great church which has also been called ‘Sophia’. He surveyed the whole area of the city and went round the hills. When after his inspection he had found one better than the others on which it now stands, with a huge effort he engineered the elements of the foundations. Down below he secured them for all time by means of enormous imperishable timbers, and he equipped them with channels dug in each small section so the moisture could escape. In addition he created many deep wells which range through the whole of the church and the surrounding vaults, and beyond through the neighbouring buildings some distance away from the church, so that not the slightest moisture could seep into the foundations. He employed all the skill of craftsmen and collected all the timber and quickly erected such a large church as high as its balcony, by directly communicating to the builders enthusiasm each to use their particular skill.

Death of Constantine the Great.  At this period while the church was in progress, Constantine, crowned by God, went to be with the Lord at the age of sixty five, after a life of piety pleasing to God and having reigned for thirty two years and ten months. The soldiers along with the Senate placed his remains in a gold sarcophagus and held a great lament, mourning him as a beloved father and not as a deceased emperor. Constantius the emperor of Europe arrived – for none of his sons had been present at his death – and buried him regally in the church of the holy apostles alongside his mother. For the great church had lately been built by Constantine and Irene.

20. About the apparition of the cross. During this period on the 28th July at midday a cross appeared above sacred Golgotha. At this time the most pious Cyril was bishop of the church in Jerusalem, that is to say holy Zion, after he had succeeded Maximinus.

After this Constantius the emperor of Europe completed the remaining building works of the great church of God with the aid of the aforementioned remarkable man Euphratas. He constructed the dome in an arch because of the size of the church, and made all parts of the church very beautiful, in particular he installed a platform – which the Greeks call a pulpit – made out of pure onyx.

Now Euphratas had reached an advanced age, and as he had built inside the city near to the wall facing Thrace a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, he made this into an almshouse and there reached the end of his life. Some of the locals call this church situated near the Leomacellium ‘the Euphratas’.

About the consecration of Saint Sophia. So the church of God was consecrated by Eusebius the bishop of Constantinople who was mentioned earlier and who after his return from Alexandria was now loved very dearly by Constans. It was he who brought the relics of the saints Pamphilus, Isidorus and Theodoulus who were martyred under Maximian, and though he himself exercised his authority implacably against heretics, he laid them at the throne next to the altar.

21. Beginning of the reign of Julian. Soon afterwards Julian the Apostate took over the emblems of empire, but before he had reached the capital a large earthquake occurred which demolished the dome of the great church which has been described, that is Saint Sophia of the Word of God. It destroyed the pulpit and made unusable the area of the chancel along with the steps of the altar. From then on under Julian’s rule the churches of God were neglected. So this one remained shut. The impious man intended to curry favour with some of his people, should he return victorious from a war, by making this into a hay store and public stable. So he collected the shattered fragments of onyx from the pulpit and other parts and along with the ruins of the dome ordered them to be hurled into the sea. But his wanton lawlessness was proved to be in vain.

22. Beginning of the reign of Justinian. After many years Justinian became master of the empire. As he was a man devoted to God, but saw that the task was as huge as it was glorious, since he found the state impoverished but wanted to restore this church, he encountered the providence of God in the following way. A pious and worthy monk brought and gave him in his despair a large collection of gold coinage of ancient kings, and said: “May your emperorship accept this. And you will build the holy church of God, and make for me a small monastery as your memorial.” The emperor made arrangements to accept it, a huge quantity which was too large to be counted. Where it had come from I shall relate shortly.

He made the dome arched again exactly like the former design. When the leader of the craftsmen did not appear for a long time, because he was labouring to make the work complete, Justinian indulged in haste due to his impatience and ordered the removal of the wooden scaffolding. When this was removed the dome collapsed again just like before. The emperor was dismayed by this, when the leader of the builders arrived to criticise his haste and blame those who had gone along with it. However he proposed the best course of action, which is what took place and has lasted well. He contrived that there should be at both the feet of the two apses to East and West huge buttresses, reaching from the ground up to the curve of the apses, so that they could not easily deviate at their height but would support the dome like the recent ones. For the other two apses which joined with the arches had shown themselves strong. When everything described had been done accordingly, in the course of time the work achieved solidity, and up to today – for I have seen it with my own eyes – this roof has been wonderfully and marvellously preserved by the hand of God.

A strange and remarkable artifice was devised for the holy table of the altar. He collected a quantity of gold and silver, valuable stones, pearls, bronze, tin, and all the metals of the earth; and also trees and the types of plants that grow in the seas and rivers and lakes, I mean all those that can be seen with the eye and controlled with the hand; and in addition every liquid, juice and oil and in short everything that exists under God. He melted what could be melted and refined the arid parts away from the valuable parts, and melted the gold in a furnace, and then he put all the parts together and beautifully formed this table cast from all of them. Anyone who saw it would have said that this was the work not of human but of divine power. In addition he restored in silver what had previously been destroyed by the collapse of the dome, and dedicated great donations to the church which he secured in writing. He then came to the end of his life.

23. Since my account promised earlier to reveal the burial place of the money and where it came from, it will now proceed. Within the Roman dominion is a land which in their own dialect they call a province, which is known as Thrace. In this province in ancient times were many kingdoms in various places and each of them ruled a city and controlled a people, and was concerned with boundaries and cities and its strength for wars. This was the state of affairs when a band of Persians arrived from Italy, laying waste all the country. So the neighbouring kings of the Thracians gathered, that is the kings of Ephesus, of Sardis, of Pergamum, of Magnesia, of Trale and various others. They agreed a plan to unite and defeat the Persians, and to confirm the manner of their unity by this method: by collecting in one place all the money that they each possessed and having guards from all of them for fairness. When these terms had been agreed by all parties they made underground vaults in a hill, shut the money inside and posted guards jointly, and then they marched out against the Persians. The Persians defeated them and killed them and destroyed all their land. The guards hastened to save their lives by running away and the money was left in obscurity until the days of Justinian. At the beginning of his reign the aforementioned monk spotted the place as one which would be ideal for a life of quietude, and came to live there. He built a shelter and set about cultivating vegetables. As he struck down with his spade he heard a noise resounding from the ground. When this was repeated more clearly he found the blocked up entrance. Opening it with a great effort, he made a collection, closed it up again and went quickly to emperor Justinian. The emperor accepted this gold and restored the church of God as has been described, and he built a wonderful monastery for the particular monk, which in fact is called ‘Kainourgia’ up until the present time.

 24. So ends, my spiritual brothers, the recorded history of my period. I wanted to deliver it to you in person as I promised, and to greet you personally and enjoy my beloved land. But since God who has all power has decreed that my death should take place far away from you, I send you this work from Berroia which is next to Thessalonici by the hand of my brother Sabbas. May the God of peace grant me through your prayers a share with those who have loved him. To him be glory and power now and for ever and for all ages upon ages. Amen.

  1. [1]The term isapostolos is traditionally used for Constantine, and occasionally for other saints; Mary Magdalen, Abercius, and Vladimir.
  2. [2]This Byzantine hagiographical  life of Constantine was discovered and published with an introduction and notes (but without a translation) as F. Halkin, Une nouvelle vie de Constantin dans un légendier de Patmos, Analecta Bollandiana 77 (1959): 63-107.  Halkin dates it to the 9th century or later.  This otherwise unpublished English translation is copyright to Professor Samuel N.C. Lieu (Macquarie University,Sydney, and Wolfson College, Cambridge) and appears by permission. Selected abbreviated notes have been added by me (RP) from Halkin’s footnotes. 
  3. [3]Galerius did not come to power until long after the times of Maximian Herculius.
  4. [4]An episcopal see, dependent on Thessalonica.
  5. [5]Diocletian married his daughter Valeria to Galerius, not to Maximian.
  6. [6]The description of the division is again unhistorical.
  7. [7]Diocletian and Maximian abdicated on 1 May 305, but Maxentius did not take their place, and did not become Caesar until 28 October 306, nor emperor until 307 or 308.
  8. [8]Constantius Chlorus was promoted to the rank of Caesar in 293.  In this capacity he received the title Sarmaticus in 294 and again in 297.
  9. [9]In the Life published by Guidi (BHG 364) the place was named Drepanon, in Bithynia, which Constantine made into a city with the name of Helenopolis.
  10. [10]The Passion of S. Eusignius (BHG 639) contains a very similar description of the meeting of Constantine and Helena.
  11. [11]Alexander the Monk, in his Invention of the Cross, PG 87, col. 4049 CD, employs almost exactly the same words.
  12. [12]Maximian Daia, not Maximian Herclius; the error comes from Alexander the Monk.
  13. [13]In fact on 25th July, 306, in York, the second year of the 271 Olympiad.  The error is from Alexander the Monk, from whom much of this life is copied.
  14. [14]The author appears hazy as to the location of Britain.
  15. [15]Three centuries later.
  16. [16]Germanus lived in the 8th century.  It was the death of Paul the Confessor that left the way clear for Eusebius of Nicomedia.  Alexander the Monk describes the situation but does not name the deceased patriarch.
  17. [17]The real history of the relations between the two is not so simple as this edifying narrative makes it.
  18. [18]Again from Alexander the Monk.
  19. [20]
  20. [19]Oracula Sibyllina, VI, 26 (Ed. J. Geffcken, 1902, p.132).[/ref] The king heard these words and immediately set it upright facing the East and put around it thirty crowns of pure silver. The wood stood like this up until the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. It is said that his disciple asked for these crowns, the one who betrayed Jesus to our fathers, so that from then on after they had been removed the wood was again lying bare and unused. So because it was not in use the carpenters who had to make the cross asked for it and so fulfilled the prophecy of the Sibyl. The lower part they used in its entire thickness and length for being stuck mostly into the depths of the ground, while the support of the cross was fastened on to it above and it provided a broad base for the feet of Christ the saviour.”

    This, our spiritual fathers, had been written in the Hebrew’s letter. So much for the cross. Since my account had promised to inform about holy Zion, how I have seen it with my own eyes,[20]The unknown author, or someone that he copied, had visited Jerusalem.

  21. [21]A fantastic etymology unknown elsewhere.

6 thoughts on “The ‘Halkin’ Life of Constantine in English

  1. Hi Roger. Just a quick line to say thanks for putting this online and to hymn the joys of serendipity. I am presently poring over the dioceses of the Byzantine Empire, and have just discovered the diocese of ‘Hercula or Ardameres’, attested in several of Parthey’s Notitiae episcopatuum. I consulted this translation purely out of curiosity, being interested in Constantine and all his works, and lo and behold! the very first paragraph mentions Hercula as the birthplace of Maximian. This, incidentally, gives me an reference centuries earlier than the first appearance of the diocese of Hercula in the Notitiae.

  2. Hi Roger. Thank you for this. Is it possible to quote this translation in an academic article?

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