Constantine the Great and his personal tragedies

Image Credit: Haefen Hassinger

Constantine the Great was arguably the most powerful man in the world. As the sole emperor of the Roman Empire, he had the power of life and death over millions. But he was a pitiful figure who could not trust anyone. Those around him; family, friends and officials, were constantly trying to use him to further their aims. Complicating matters, he also had to defend himself against potential usurpers. It was Constantine’s suspicious nature that allowed him to survive. But this was a double-edged sword.

Those around Constantine were naturally aware of his suspicious nature. This became a tool they used to exploit him. As a result of these courtly intrigues, Constantine ordered the death of his eldest son Crispus. This would lead to the execution of his wife Fausta as well. Although the reasons behind these executions are unknown, I shall attempt to give an overview of this tragedy.

The shining successes of Flavius Julius Crispus

Around 305, Constantine was blessed with a capable firstborn son; Flavius Julius Crispus. It is uncertain whether Crispus’s mother Minervina was ever Constantine’s legal wife. We know little else of her. In any case, Constantine was married to Fausta in March 307 with whom he would have another three sons. 1

From the beginning, Constantine groomed Crispus well. He made sure that Crispus received his education from the learned Christian scholar Lactantius. Then, in 317, Constantine made Crispus Caesar along with his half-brother Constantine II. He assigned Crispus a personal staff and army at Augusta Trevirorum; Trier in modern day Germany. Crispus was to learn the ways of statecraft by managing Britain, Gaul and Spain with the aid of a praetorian prefect. 2

Under the supervision of his praetorian prefect, Crispus made his father proud by fighting successfully against the Alamanni and Franks in 320. Then in the Second Licinian War, Crispus made an important contribution to his father’s triumph with a brilliant naval victory. Even in the domestic sphere, Crispus’s star shone brightly. His marriage to Helena produced a son in 322. No father could be prouder than Constantine to have such a young and successful son like Crispus. Sadly, all this would not last. 3

Constantine regrets the execution of Crispus

Although many rumours exist, the exact reason remains unknown. All that is certain is that Constantine executed Crispus in 326, at the tender age of twenty-one. Fausta may have played a large part in this incident by poisoning Constantine’s mind against Crispus. 4

Some time after the execution, Constantine realized his mistake. It was likely that his mother Helena, rather than the wife of Crispus, persuaded him of his son’s innocence. But it was too late for regrets. Constantine could only erect a golden statue in memory of his dead son. His conscience probably found some solace knowing that God forgave him and still loved him. But his son Crispus would never return to life again because of his mistake. 5

It is tragic that Constantine had not shown his firstborn son greater mercy. He could have curtailed his son’s powers. Or he could have temporarily imprisoned him. It would have at the very least given his anger time to cool. Time, would have revealed the truth. Even if Crispus was guilty, the Christian way of forgiveness and exile would have been better than death.

Fausta the trusted wife of Constantine

The Western Roman emperor Maximian married his youngest daughter Fausta to Constantine in March 307. The purpose was to form an alliance with Constantine against the Eastern Roman emperor Galerius. Fausta proved her loyalty to Constantine in 310 when she revealed her father’s plot against him. Maximian died as a result, but Fausta became Augusta in 324 as a sign of Constantine’s trust in her. Additionally, she bore Constantine three sons to secure his dynasty. 6

Fausta’s role in the death of Crispus

As the closest person to Constantine, Fausta probably knew her husband very well. She would have known his doubts and insecurities. Therefore she could easily manipulate him into believing that Crispus harboured ill-intent against him. Her motives were simple. As long as Crispus lived, he would always pose a threat to her sons. 7

Exactly what Fausta said is unknown, although there are many theories. One tale suggests she loved Crispus but he showed no interest. Due to the humiliation, she told Constantine that Crispus attempted to rape her. Another tale alleges that she accused Crispus of forcing a girl to be his concubine. She knew full well that Constantine abhorred such inappropriate sexual relations. However Fausta convinced Constantine, the fact remains she managed to get Crispus killed. 8

Constantine executes Fausta

But Fausta would never see her sons inherit the Roman Empire. Belatedly, Helena managed to convince Constantine of his folly in executing Crispus. Filled with remorse, Constantine blamed Fausta for his mistake. He may have chosen to believe the stories of Fausta’s unrequited love for Crispus and her wanton coupling with slaves. Even her pagan beliefs added to her offensive nature. In this manner, Constantine secured the moral high ground for himself and put Fausta to death. 9

Again the exact nature of her death is uncertain. One story states that Constantine had Fausta boiled alive in Trier. Another suggests that she died from suffocation in an overheated bath. Yet another says Constantine ordered her to commit suicide. What we can say with certainty is that Constantine killed Fausta. 10

Reflections of the Vizier

Two deaths do not make one right. It is true that Fausta played a part in the death of Crispus. But so did Constantine. Ultimately, her death resolved nothing. Constantine’s ruthlessness towards his enemies may have been necessary. But the murder of his closest kin cannot be justified. It also reflects badly on Constantine. None of his officials would feel secure. As long as Constantine lived, everyone would pander to his wishes instead of giving him sound advice.

What are your thoughts about Constantine’s actions? How would you have resolved the issues of Crispus and Fausta if you were in his shoes?

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Grant, Michael. The Emperor Constantine. England: Orion Books Ltd, 1998.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.

Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. California: Stanford University Press, 1997.

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  1. Michael Grant, The Emperor Constantine (England: Orion Books Ltd, 1998), 110; John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (England: Penguin Books, 1990), 36; Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (California: Stanford University Press, 1997), 29, 36. []
  2. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 110; John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (England: Penguin Books, 1990), 40, 47; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 34, 36. []
  3. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 110-111; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 48-49; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 36. []
  4. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 110-112; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 57-59; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 44. []
  5. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 113-114. []
  6. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 24, 110-111; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 36; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 29, 36. []
  7. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 111; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 57-59; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 44. []
  8. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 112-113; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 57-59; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 44. []
  9. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 114; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 57-59; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 44. []
  10. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 114; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 57-59. []
4 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Haefen says:

    Great stuff, Irving. It’s incredible to think that such family strife was fairly common among the Roman people. Of course, not to the degree that Constantine took it to. It seems that the importance of having people whom he could trust with his life never outweighed his suspicious personality. He must have had quite a temper too, because like you said, he could have chosen imprisonment or exile, which are far less permanent options.

  2. The Vizier says:

    Thanks Haefen! I think that as long as there is something that causes envy, desire or greed, strife is the natural order of things, even amongst families. 1000 years later, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent would also kill his firstborn son due to the intrigues of his favourite wife Roxlenna. Even today, we read about family members suing each other in courts and fighting over inheritance and so on. The only consolation is that, unlike emperors and sultans, family members do not have the power of life and death over each other. This however, does not rule out other discreet methods.

    I think once Constantine or anyone is used to power, it is hard for them to give it up. That probably explains why he was ruthless in protecting his power. The problem with imprisonment and exile is that that Crispus could still have served as a rallying point for those who had the guts to oppose Constantine. This would result in civil war that would destroy his precious imperial unity. But this was unlikely given Constantine’s measures to protect his power. From a practical standpoint, the murder of Crispus was the most pragmatic and efficient option to Constantine. Now, if only he had handled the issue of succession for his other sons in a better manner.

  3. saucyinterloper1 says:

    the political intrigues in history is far more colorful than what we have today…just one torrid affair amidst the ultra conservative and puritanical climate is enough to bring down a president!

  4. The Vizier says:

    Hi Saucyinterloper1

    Political intrigues are truly dangerous things. I would say that each age had its own shocking and colorful scandals. The murder of Crispus and Fausta would have been the talk of the empire during Constantine’s time. In our time, we would have Nixon and his Watergate which ultimately brought him down.

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