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Queen Helena’s Inscription

The Croatian queen Helena (Jelena) is known to us only by the information obtained from her famous epitaph, the inscription on her sarcophagus, found in 1898, at Gospin otok in Solin (>). She is a person often described in the Croatian national historiography as a benefactor, in the romantic manner of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century ecclesiastical and civil practices. However, her importance was quite different, and the role she had, according to her epitaph, was quite similar to roles of other rulers of the time. The inscription states, among other information, the tasks she was to perform as the queen, mirroring duties of her contemporary rulers in accordance with the firstly, Roman and then Byzantine (Justinian’s) law. This is evidence of connections of the then Croatian state and its dynasty with the spiritual system of the contemporary world: both the West-European – the Carolingian, and the Eastern – the Greek-Byzantine.

The inscription will be paid some more attention here.

The queen’s crushed sarcophagus was restored and most of it’s inscription read with the benefit of the enormous patience and diligence of the archaeologist Frane Bulić. Scientists who studied the sarcophagus’ fragments added some missing details to it’s reading, but the essence has remained unchanged. Here is our interpretation of the famous inscription: In this grave lies the famous Helena, the wife of King Mihajlo and the mother of King Stjepan. She ruled the kingdom. The eighth day before the ides of October she was buried here in peace in the 976th year from the incarnation of the Lord, in the fourth indiction, the fifth lunar cycle, the seventh epact, the fifth sun cycle which corresponds to the sixth. She, who in life was queen, also became the mother of orphans and the protector of widows. You who look, say: “God have mercy on her soul!”

Why is this inscription so important? Firstly, because it reveals the family relationship between two Croatian kings, through their deceased wife and mother respectively. Secondly, because it states the exact date of the queen’s death, which is a rare case in old Croatian history. Furthermore, it shows a continuation of the Salonitan tradition of epitaphs which, again, testifies on the spiritual and cultural level of the then Croatian society. And finally, also of great importance, the inscription has preserved a brief formula that reveals the presence of Roman and Byzantine legal norms on the Croatian state. The inscription, namely, says that Queen Helena was the mother of orphans and the protector of widows.

This role of a protector and a tutor, namely, was not a personal virtue; it was being given to rulers and bishops. Thus, for instance, the epitaph of the Split archbishop Martin, a Helena’s contemporary, reads that he protected widows and was the father of orphans. There is a similar text in the letter sent by the Croatian King Zvonimir, immediately after his coronation, to Pope Gregory VII to express his loyalty. In his letter, the king promised to protect the poor, widows and orphans. Namely, this Croatian prince was crowned a king by the Pope’s emissary, Gebison, in 1075, in the Salonitan Basilica of Ss. Peter and Moses, today known as Šuplja crkva (>). These epitaphs are fine evidence of Croatia having been at the level of European countries at that time. Namely, these and similar formulas are known of in the then civilised countries, in Carl the Great’s codes, for instance.