For many Greeks, May 21st is a festive day, as the Greek Orthodox Church commemorates Saint Constantine, the founder of Constantinople, and his mother Helen.
Constantine and Helen are amongst the most popular names in the Greek world. It is hard to find a family that does not have or know someone christened with these names.
There also dozens of different or shortened versions, such as Elena, Elene, Ellen, Eleni, Lena, Eleanor, Eleonora, Eleonor, Nora, Marilena, for females christened Eleni and then Nadia, Nandia, Nadya, Thina, Dina, for those christened Constantina.
As for men, Costas or Kostas is amongst the most common names in Greece and the diaspora.
Constantine was the son of Constantius Chlorus, the ruler of the westernmost parts of the Roman empire, and his consort, Helen.
He was born in 272 in Naissus of Dardania, a city on the Hellespont. In 306, when his father died, he was proclaimed successor to the throne.
In the year 312, upon learning that Maxentius and Maximinus had joined forces against him, he marched into Italy, where, while at the head of his troops, he witnessed the words “By this shalt thou conquer” on a radiant pillar forming a cross in the post-midday sky beneath the sun.
The following night, Jesus Christ appeared to him in a dream and declared to him the power of the Cross and its significance.
Constantine entered Rome in triumph
When he arose in the morning, he immediately ordered that a labarum be made (which is a banner or standard of victory over the enemy) in the form of a cross, and he inscribed on it the Name of Jesus Christ.
On October 28th, he attacked and conquered Maxentius, who drowned in the Tiber River while fleeing.
The following day, Constantine entered Rome in triumph and was proclaimed Emperor of the West by the Senate while Licinius, his brother-in-law, ruled in the East. However, out of malice, Licinius later persecuted the Christians.
Constantine fought him once and again, and utterly destroyed him in 324. In this manner, he became monarch over the West and East. Under him, and because of him, all the persecutions against the Church ceased. Christianity triumphed and idolatry was overthrown.
In 325, he called the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea, which he himself personally addressed, to create the Creed that forms the belief system of Christians. In 324, in the ancient city of Byzantium, he laid the foundations of the new capital of his realm and solemnly dedicated it on May 11, 330, naming it after himself, Constantinople.
Since the throne of imperial rule was transferred to Constantinople from Rome, it was named New Rome, and the inhabitants of its domain were called Romans; it was thus considered the continuation of the Roman Empire.
Constantine died some time between May 21st to May 22nd of the year 337, having lived sixty-five years, of which he ruled for thirty-one. His remains were transferred to Constantinople and were buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, which he had constructed.
Helen found the Holy Cross
As for his holy mother, Helen, after her son had made the faith of Christ triumphant throughout the Roman Empire, she undertook a personal pilgrimage to Jerusalem and found the Holy Cross on which our Lord was crucified.
After this, Saint Helen, in her zeal to glorify Christ, erected churches in Jerusalem at the sites of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, in Bethlehem at the cave where Christ was born, and yet another on the Mount of Olives. She also established many other churches throughout the Holy Land and Cyprus amongst other places.
She was proclaimed “Augusta,” and her image was stamped upon golden coins while two cities, namely in Bithynia and Palestine, were named Helenopolis in commemoration of her. Saint Helen died of old age in either the year 330 or 336.
(With information from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America)