The life of St. Helena — Roman empress, Christian saint, and mother to the celebrated Constantine the Great — remains shrouded in mystery, controversy, and intrigue. To commence the start of the holiday season, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. María Lara Martínez — a talented Spanish historian and writer — about her award winning novel on St. Helena, The Veil of Promise (El Velo de Promesa), in this exclusive English language interview.
JW: Dr. María Lara Martínez, I bid you a very warm welcome to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and thank you for agreeing to be our last interviewee in 2013! ¡Bienvenido!
Your acclaimed novel, The Veil of Promise (El Velo de Promesa), is a moving, fictional narration of the life of St. Helena, who was the empress-consort of Constantius Chlorus (250-306 CE) and the mother of Constantine I (272-337 CE). Constantine was, of course, the first Christian Roman emperor and the founder of imperial Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey).
What was it that initially attracted you to Helena’s life? While known widely for her devotion to Christianity, Helena’s life was also marked by tremendous upheaval. You depict her as a very strong woman who overcomes great difficulties, and as a generous lady who is never swayed by pride or greed.
MLM: I am delighted to speak to the Ancient History Encyclopedia about The Veil of Promise around Christmas, as the history of early Christianity is strongly linked to the compelling life of Helena. Flavia Iulia Helena was born in Bithynia around 250 CE and died in Rome in 330 CE. Helena’s character has attracted me since my twin sister, Dr. Laura Lara Martínez, professor of contemporary history, told me about her life. From that instant, I endeavored to begin investigating the sources of Late Antiquity as well as those of ancient Latin and Greek authors. Additionally, what captivated me about Helena — who was a humble woman– was that she would become empress without ever seeking it.
I spent four years researching Helena’s life, tracking down the available primary sources. My study began, in part, during my stay in the United States; indeed, I remember my time at Harvard University as one filled with emotion. Afterwards, I immersed myself for an entire year in literary creation. When someone inquired about Helena, I would say that her career was most interesting. It is amazing to think that through her efforts, beginning in 313 CE — 1700 years ago — Helena helped put an end to the persecution of Christians, who were soon thereafter granted freedom of worship throughout the Roman Empire.
JW: In recent years, historical fiction has become en vogue. However, there are those who would argue that historical fiction is frivolous and inconsequential when compared to serious historical research. Why should we read historical fiction, and what qualifies as historical fiction?
MLM: In my opinion, the historical novel ought to be grounded in solid sources. The writer has to study and look at those who will be the protagonists and the antagonists in their novel according to the historical accounts. The author ought to reconstruct the spaces in which the characters moved with precision and, at the same time, the author has to inject intrigue and excitement into the plot. In this way, the novel of historical fiction can thrill the reader, who realizes that the men and women of antiquity possessed genuine emotions and felt assaulted, in other words, by the uncertainty of their era. This is something obvious, but due to chronological distance, I think many forget this.
MLM: After having analyzed the chronicles written by authors in Late Antiquity — like Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-c. 340 CE) and Theodoret of Cyrus (c. 393- c. 457 CE) — I looked at numismatic and epigraphical inscriptions related to Helena and examined her portraits. I then felt the desire to write a novel on nobody more so than Helena. I participated in historical novel workshops — held in libraries — and in conferences, and these helped me frame a “gendered perspective” in my story. All of this took many hours, but I always retained a connection to Helena. With increased empathy, there were days and nights in which I enjoyed rescuing Helena’s voice a great deal. In her life, she confronted great hardship, but she also learned how to maintain a degree of optimism even through the most difficult periods.
In my work, there are a large number of characters that really existed. Nevertheless, we know that in Late Antiquity the deeds of great men and women survived because they operated in the public sphere. The private lives of such individuals frequently remain unknown.
As a result, I have had to reconstruct Helena’s domestic milieu and childhood, combining imagination with a degree of credibility. It requires a great deal of research to describe the personal aspects and movements of my characters — cuisine, clothes, customs, personality, etc. — although the work is wonderful! In this sense, the experiences of the author also are reflected; such is the case with Helena’s grandfather and sister, Caerelia, in which I unconsciously and consciously included features of my grandfather, Ángel, and of my sister, Laura.
JW: I was intrigued by your depiction of Helena’s relationship with Constantine: Theirs was a durable, lifelong bond, which enabled them to triumph against all odds. What would account for their strong mutual affection in your opinion?
MLM: Constantine and Helena possessed very different characters. He wanted to tear down his opponents in order to end the Tetrarchy and become the sole emperor in the Roman world: He was an ambitious man. Helena, on the other hand, desired peace for the Roman Empire. In 326 CE, Helena faced the assassination of her grandson — Crispo — which was caused by Constantine. These were terrible days for Helena, but she ultimately accepted the repentance of her son.
Another interesting note is that Helena, like Constantine, was born pagan. Helena converted to Christianity after being repudiated by Constantius Chlorus: Christianity helped Helena recover her crushed dignity following the rejection of her “husband.” Years later, Constantine is baptized on his deathbed.
However, both had been born in humble circumstances, and they knew the common people. This prompted them to find solutions to problems that had affected Romans for centuries; for example, the religious intolerance of the followers of Christ. Let us remember that in the first centuries of our Christian Era, besides religion, one could be seen as a “philosopher of life,” in harmony with the other Hellenistic schools of thought inherited by Rome; especially, Neoplatonism and Stoicism. The followers of Jesus were seen as rebels and revolutionaries for not acknowledging the cult of the emperor and worshiping only their God. For this, they were thrown to wild beasts in Roman amphitheaters.
JW: The chapter in which Helena visits the Holy Land is absolutely fascinating: Helena searches throughout Jerusalem — which was still being rebuilt following the destruction caused by the Jewish-Roman Wars (66-136 CE) — for holy relics, including fragments of the True Cross.
Did you have the chance to visit Rome or the Middle East in order to retrace the sites Helena visited and worshiped?
MLM: Traveling throughout the Mediterranean is exciting! I remember with special clarity my stay in Rome, visiting several key places connected to early Christianity. In Rome, Helena lived on the Domus Sessoriana, which previously belonged to the Elagabalus family and today is La Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. Also, in St. Peter’s Basilica — whose foundations Helena walked by in her own life — there is now a beautiful Baroque sculpture of St. Helena by Andrea Bolgi (1605-1656 CE). And of course, delving into the famous catacombs is an overwhelming experience as these stones speak of faith and heroism.
JW: Dr. Lara Martínez, you have also just authored a book on witchcraft and magic during the 17th century CE: Witches, Magic, and Disbelievers in the Spanish Golden Age (Brujas, magos e incrédulos en la España del Siglo de Oro). What motivated you to author this book, which appears to be a departure from your novel on Helena? What is it about this dynamic time in Spain’s history that fascinates you?
MLM: I combined my specialty in modern history, in which I received my doctorate degree and completed my practicum, with literature, using them to write a new historical essay. This second genre pertains to witchcraft, magic, and the Spanish Golden Age (c. 1500-1650 CE).
I have always been drawn to the point of connection between religion and the belief in magic in different eras. In The Veil of Promise, I evoke the reputation that the augurs and haruspices acquired in the ancient world. They predicted the outcome of battles through the consultation of the Sibylline books or the examination of birds. In my book on witches, which required six years of investigation in archives and Spanish, European, and American libraries, I analyze myths like the flying broom or the power of potions, all of which are fantasy, but were reported before the Inquisition in detail by ordinary Spaniards.
JW: Given your varied interests in history and literature, I wondered if I might inquire as to the projects you are currently undertaking? Is a sequel to The Veil of Promise planned in the near future? Additionally, do you have the desire to cover other figures from the ancient world in the form of novel? Everyone at AHE hopes that your works are eventually published into English!
MLM: Currently, I am writing my next novel, which will continue the saga of Helena presented in The Veil of Promise. In 2014, Helena will return to meet readers and also AHE.
The same cast of characters will accompany it, together with new characters, many of which will be historical persons. Additionally, vivid dreams and magic will be acquired by my protagonist. Among other adventures, there are scenes that take place along the waters of the Nile River in Egypt, and Helena will follow the route of the Magi who worshiped the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
JW: Dr. Lara Martínez, it has been an immense pleasure to speak with you, and I congratulate you on your success. I hope that we shall be able to speak again soon! ¡Buena suerte!
MLM: It has been a pleasure to speak with you, James, and I thank you very much! The title of my next novel will be: The Memories of Helena (Las Memorias de Helena).
- “Saint Helena of Constantinople,” by Cima da Conegliano (1460-1518 CE). This image is of a panel now in the National Gallery of Art (Washington D.C., United States). This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. Such reproductions are in the public domain in the United States. In other jurisdictions, re-use of this content may be restricted; see Reuse of PD-Art photographs for details.
- Cover for “El Velo de la Promesa.” Photo courtesy of Dr. María Lara Martínez.
- Ancient Coin. Helena of Constantinople, mother of Constantine I. Æ Follis (19mm, 3.45 gm). Treveri (Trier) mint. Struck c. 325-326 CE. FL HELENA AVGVSTA, diademed and draped bust right; SECVRITAS REIPVBLICE, Securitas standing left, holding branch in right hand; STR (crescent) in ex. RIC VII 465. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. Attribution: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc, October 2005.
- A medieval Bulgarian Orthodox icon depicting Emperor Constantine and St. Helena. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. Image credit: Brosen, September 2005.
- Statue of St. Helena, located in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, by Andrea Bolgi (1605-1656 CE). Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. Image credit: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, October 2013.
- St. Helena’s sarcophagus in the Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican Museum, Vatican City. The copyright holder of this file, Joshua Sherurcij, allows anyone to use it for any purpose, provided that the copyright holder is properly attributed. Redistribution, derivative work, commercial use, and all other use is permitted. Image credit: Joshua Sherurcij, December 2006.
Dr. María Lara Martínez is a native of Guadalajara, Spain and a prominent Spanish historian and writer. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha with academic honors. Currently, Dr. Lara Martínez is a professor of social history and anthropology at the Universidad a Distancia de Madrid (UDIMA). Previously, she was also an Associate and Fellow at Harvard University — working at the Widener Library and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology — and a research instructor at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, CNRS, in Paris, France. History and literature are her two great passions, and Dr. Lara Martínez has investigated a number of historical and literary topics within broad international contexts. El Velo de la Promesa, Dr. Lara Martínez’s debut novel, won the “Ciudad de Valeria” historical novel prize in 2011 and is now in its sixth edition. Her latest publication is Brujas, magos e incrédulos en la España del Siglo de Oro.
James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, in-depth interviews with scholars, and recent book reviews. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is also a freelance writer, editor, and journalist who is interested in cross-cultural exchange and world history. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world — while still retaining his medievalist and early modernist tendencies — James is committed to excellence in journalism and research.
As 2013 comes to a close, the directors and editors of the Ancient History Encyclopedia wish to thank all of our past interviewees for their time, support, and enthusiasm. It has been an immense privilege to work with so many talented international professionals from various disciplines! Happy Holidays and Happy New Year from AHE!
All images featured in this interview have been properly attributed to their respective owners. Dr. María Lara Martínez holds the copyright to her profile picture and the cover of her novel. Unauthorized reproduction of text and images is prohibited. Translation of materials from Spanish to English was executed by Mr. James Blake Wiener. Special thanks is given to Dr. María Lara Martínez for sharing supplemental materials and images, which helped make this interview possible. Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt is to be thanked for her assistance in the editorial process. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.