Mausoleum of Empress Helena – meaning how to reconcile Christianity with the cult of the emperor

Remains of the Mausoleum of Empress Helena

Remains of the Mausoleum of Empress Helena

Quite a distance away from the city center, at the present day via Casilina there is a place, which simply has to awaken the imagination. Its dominant element is a ruined rotunda and the scant traces of an enormous cemetery basilica, which accompanied it in the past. They are situated in a broad park, where from time to time we can see runners or dog owners with their pupils. It is worth going there, in order to experience first-hand one of the oldest Christian structures and to understand the vision of the emperor, who wanted to reconcile the Christian faith with the need to display his imperial splendor and divine status.

Remains of the Mausoleum of Empress Helena
Mausoleum of Empress Helena (mausoleo di Elena)
Rotunda - remains of the Mausoleum of Empress Helena
Mausoleum of Empress Helena, G.B.Piranesi, pic. Wikipedia
Christ with St. Peter and St. Paul, below St. Marcellinus, Peter, Gorgonius and Tiburtius, catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter near the Mausoleum of Helena
The Good Shepherd, catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter near the Mausoleum of Helena

Quite a distance away from the city center, at the present day via Casilina there is a place, which simply has to awaken the imagination. Its dominant element is a ruined rotunda and the scant traces of an enormous cemetery basilica, which accompanied it in the past. They are situated in a broad park, where from time to time we can see runners or dog owners with their pupils. It is worth going there, in order to experience first-hand one of the oldest Christian structures and to understand the vision of the emperor, who wanted to reconcile the Christian faith with the need to display his imperial splendor and divine status.

 

To whom am I referring? Before we get to that, I am going to describe the building which stretches in front of our eyes. In the past it was imposing indeed. Presently in ruin, it maintained the shape of a cylinder, while its brick walls are not particularly admirable, although their nearly four-meter thickness must garner respect. They were so mighty, since they had to fit eight niches cut out in their mass, opening up onto the building interior. We therefore, have to imagine the plastered, covered with crimson color body, as well as the bright, circular interior with walls covered with multi-color, incrusted in geometrical shapes slabs, which stretched upwards in subsequent rows all the way to a place where they curved becoming a dome, which in turn was adorned by a mosaic glittering in the sun. The floor was also covered with large-size, bright, marble slabs. All this served a single purpose – the decoration of the place where a sarcophagus of red porphyry, 2.70 meters long and 1.80 meters high, set on marble lions, whose walls depicted fighting men in an almost solid relief, was to be located. It stood directly opposite the enterance in a broad niche and it was to be illuminated with the light coming through the huge windows.

This monumental mausoleum was devoted, as historians confirm, to Emperor Constantine the Great. And he, following in the steps of his imperial predecessors, wanted to immortalize the place of his burial in a particular way. At his order construction began (probably after the year 312), when the decision to move the entire imperial court as well as the emperor himself to the distant Constantinople on the Straits of Bosporus had not yet been made, and the plan to erect an even more imposing mausoleum there – very remote. At the moment of the death of the emperor’s mother, Helena (approx. 329), these plans were greatly altered. The emperor ordered her to be buried here, in a tomb, which – assuming based on the scenes adorning it (the struggle of Romans against barbarians) – was to immortalize his military achievements.

We may ask ourselves, why was it here – in a place so far away from the city – that Constantine desired to be buried? In ancient times this was a location of enormous imperial estates. A cemetery of the members of the elite imperial guard, disbanded by Constantine after the Battle of Milvian Bridge, after the praetorians supported his enemy – Maxentius, was also found here. However, this is a location where not only members of the guard were buried, which is testified to by the discovered funerary epitaphs: in the underground catacombs ordinary citizens were also buried, while from the middle of the III century Christians as well. It was also the final resting place of martyrs, who according to the Liber Pontificalis, were the victims of persecutions during the times of Diocletian. It must be assumed, that for the then Christians, Gorgonius, the presbyter Marcellinus and Peter the Exorcist or Tiburtius were holy figures, while burial in their vicinity (ad sanctos) was to guarantee their intercession in the afterlife. Unfortunately we do not know a great deal about these martyrs, which can bring us to the conclusion that it was not their cult that was the direct cause of erecting the aforementioned enormous basilica (65m x 29m) in this location. Most likely it served as a Christian church dedicated to the martyrs, but also as a cemetery (inside and around the building). A hill in close proximity to the imperial mausoleum, where an altar was to be located and the Eucharist celebrated, was to guarantee the emperor with the posthumous intercession of saints, but also allowed to recall   an old Roman tradition, according to which the emperor after his death was deified, which – as we know – was in opposition to Christian ideology.

The complex shared the fate of other enormous cemetery basilicas, for example the one found in Sant’Agnese (Mausoleum of Constanza). Far away from the city and requiring great expenditures, it slowly deteriorated. Its walls were restored during the times of Pope Hadrian I in the VIII century however after the robbery carried out by Frankian monks – for Charlemagne – of the relics of the saints revered within (Marcellinus and Peter), the building fell into ruin and became a sort of a stone quarry, from which building material was obtained. The tomb of Helena still remained inside the mausoleum. In the middle of the XII century it was transferred to the Lateran and the remains of Pope Anastasius IV were laid within. Helena’s tomb is found in the Roman Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, however numerous relics of the emperor’s mother are spread all over the world.

In the XVIII and XIX century the complex – as a romantic and mysterious location – became the topic of paintings and drawings of painters, fascinated with antiquity and the picturesque ruins. Today there is not much left of the mausoleum and even less of the cemetery basilica itself, but is the imagination not stimulated by the fact that – if we are to believe historians and the information found in Liber Pontificalis – this was the first cemetery basilica devoted to the cult of the martyrs and second after the Lateran Basilica Christian structure funded by Constantine the Great.