An Ancient Soap Opera
Constantine had his son killed in 326. Many people believe this happened because Fausta accused Crispus of making advances. The truth is, we do not actually know why Constantine ordered the death of Crispus.
Around January of 326 A.D., Constantine left for Rome. He was going to celebrate his vicennalia again. Constantine had already celebrated it in Nicomedia and the citizens of Rome felt neglected. Constantine traveled with some of his family- his mother Helena, his wife Fausta, his half-sister Constantia,Licinius II and his son Crispus. This trip must have been tense. Helena and Fausta had a past. The Emperor Maximian was the father of Fausta, and Maximian was the adoptive father of Theodora, who had stolen Constantius Chlorus from Helena nearly forty years earlier. Constantia was the widow of Licinius and her husband was dead by order of Constantine. She must have known her stepson, Licinianus, had an uncertain future. Fausta may have harbored ill feelings toward Crispus, the child of Constantine's first wife, because her sons were in his shadow. Crispus and Constantine would surely have been on edge. Crispus may have felt Constantine was growing jealous of his increasing popularity. The setting was like a modern soap opera and tension must have been high.
The setting and mood are speculative, it is not even sure that Constantine traveled with the others, but when the Imperial party reached Serdica in January, Constantine ordered the arrest of Crispus. A few days later, Crispus and Licinius II were killed. Shortly after, Fausta was killed in her bath. There is a conflict in sources about how she died-- either scalding, stabbing or suffocation by steam. So all we know for sure is that Crispus (and Licinius Jr.) and then Fausta were killed. Four ancient historians link Fausta to the death of her stepson. Zosimus is the only one who writes about an affair. "Crispus was suspected of having adulterous relations with his stepmother Fausta, and was therefore executed."1 Zosimus wrote this more than a century after the incident, so he was hardly in the know. He was most likely repeating gossip he had heard and as a pagan, he was very critical of Constantine and tried to portray him in a negative fashion. Aurelius Victor, who was born circa 320 A.D., had only this to say about the incident, "when the eldest (Crispus), had for reasons unknown, perished condemned by his father."2
It does seem likely that Fausta was probably involved in the death of Crispus. She would have known that as long as Crispus lived her sons would be junior to him. She could have manufactured some evidence that Crispus was plotting against Constantine. Constantine may have been growing jealous of Crispus and if he thought a plot was hatching he would have acted. Gibbon even suggested that Helena, the wife of Crispus, was the daughter of Licinius I.3 If this was true, it makes the plot theory more plausible. Fearing a plot, Constantine would have acted quickly, as he did throughout his life. Once he discovered the plot was false, he would have had Fausta killed.
This is just another scenario, though. As noted earlier, the only facts known to us are that Crispus and then Fausta died by order of Constantine. Constantine should probably not be judged by the standards of today. "The father of the Roman family had the power over everyone and everything in the home. This power was legally recognized. If any member of the family behaved in any way that he considered exceeding the boundaries of proper behavior he had the power to punish the offender with harsh sentences, such as, banishment, slavery, and death."4
It seems most likely, given Constantine's nature, that he had a very good
reason, or at least thought he had, for his actions.
Suggestions for further reading
P. Guthrie, “The Execution of Crispus.” Phoenix 20 (1966) : 325- 331.
Hans A. Pohlsander, "Crispus: Brilliant Career and Tragic End." Historia : Zeitschrift für alte Geschichte 33 (1984) : 79-106.
David Woods, “On the Death of the Empress Fausta.” Greece & Rome 45, No. 1. (April 1998) : 70-86.
1 Zosimus 2:29
2 Aurelius Victor, de Caesaribus 41:10-16.
3Gibbon, Edward. The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire. chapter 18.
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last modified on 20 July 2007