Crispus & Fausta

The study of history can be hampered by political considerations and evidence colored by sources with an ax to grind. Some figures in history are held in such high esteem by popular opinion that a historian recording negative information is treading dangerous ground. Other figures are protected from objective evaluation by their position of power or the power of their successors. Time and the deaths of contemporaries makes it more acceptable to bring up negative data but by that time it may be too late to discover the full truth.

Never in history was this point better illustrated than it was by the scandal of 326 AD. Constantine the Great was the most powerful of the Roman Emperors. As the man who ended the persecution and converted the Empire to Christianity, he was loved by the Christian scholars and historians of the late Roman Empire. He was succeeded as Emperor by his sons (by his second wife, Fausta). There was no freedom or demand for histories that recorded negative information about Constantine until well after everyone involved had perished.

What was the scandal? In 326 AD Constantine executed both his eldest son (by his first wife) Crispus and his second wife, Fausta. Histories of the period do not even mention it. Later accounts vary in details to the point that we may learn more about the prejudices of the writer than about the facts of the case.

Crispus Caesar - AE 3 (follis) 318 AD, Rome
ROMAE A-ETERNAE- XV on shield - PR - RP
Fausta - AE 3 (follis) 326 AD, Heraclea

Flavius Julius Crispus was born in 305 AD to Constantine and Minervina. In 307 AD, Constantine divorced Minervina and entered into a political marriage to Fausta, the daughter of the Augustus Maximianus. Crispus was made Caesar in 317 AD and proved his abilities as a leader in military campaigns during the early 320's. After distinguished service in the defeat of Licinius, the position of Crispus as heir was relatively certain. Why Constantine executed his wife and son is not fully clear. Some later accounts provide the story that Fausta accused Crispus of trying to seduce her and that Constantine killed him in a fit of rage. This version goes on to say that Constantine discovered the charge to be false and had Fausta suffocated in her bath. Another version suggests that Crispus and Fausta each (separately) violated Constantine's strict laws against adultery and that Constantine could not control his temper when confronted with the disobedience of his son and the infidelity of his wife. Whichever was the case, Constantine later considered the act a mortal sin and sought help and forgiveness through personal acceptance of Christian baptism. Pagan writers of later times emphasized the importance of this Christian promise of forgiveness for these murders in the conversion of the Empire to Christianity during the last decade of Constantine's life. Exactly what happened and why may never be certain. Following the death of Crispus, the young sons of Fausta (Constantine II, Constantius II & Constans) moved into the positions of heirs apparent.

The coins shown are just two of many available to collectors that portray these two persons. The Fausta was issued near the time of the murders (RIC dates an issue with a dot following the mintmark to the period after Crispus died but while Fausta still lived). Some references describe the type as Hope holding two children; I prefer the view that this is Fausta holding the two of her three sons that had been named Caesar in 324 AD. The third and youngest, Constans, was not elevated until 333 AD and is not shown on this coin. The Crispus is a 318 AD commemorative of Constantine's having completed his tenth year and undertaken vows of five more years (the XV on the shield). Crispus, though only about 15 years old, is shown in a military pose even though his victories were yet to come.

The family of Constantine is well recorded on coins of the fourth century Empire. Constantinian bronzes are a popular specialty among collectors with many types easily available from a wide variety of mints.

Persons wishing to know more about Crispus and Fausta may enjoy the discussion in Jones, A. H. M., Constantine ant the Conversion of Europe, University of Toronto Press, 1978, pp. 198-200.

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(c) 1997 Doug Smith