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On the Death of the Empress Fausta

  • David Woods

Fausta, or Flavia Maxima Fausta to call her by her full name, was the daughter of one western emperor, Maximianus Herculius (286–305), the sister of another, Maxentius (306–12), and the wife of a third, Constantine I (306–37). She was married to Constantine in 307, and bore him at least five children from 316 onwards, three sons (Constantine, Constantius, and Constans), and two daughters (Constantina and Helena).2 Following his defeat of his rival Licinius at the battle of Chrysopolis in 324, and the unification of the empire under his rule as the sole Augustus once more, Constantine honoured with the title of Augusta both his wife Fausta and his mother Helena, as is revealed by the issue of coins in their names each with this title.3 However, tragedy struck in 326 when Constantine appears to have executed first his eldest son Crispus, then Fausta herself. The reason for these executions, and the extent to which these deaths were related, has attracted a great deal of debate. Yet more remains to be said about the manner in which Fausta died, which may well provide an important clue as to the full circumstances of her death, whether she was executed, died by accident, or committed suicide even. Thus, it is my intention here, firstly, to offer a new explanation for the manner of her death, and secondly, to draw attention to an overlooked allusion to her death in a late Latin source, the Historia Augusta.

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1. For full references, see Jones, A. H. M., Martindale, J. R., and Morris, J., The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire I: AD 260–395 (Cambridge, 1971), 325–6. Her full name is known only from coins (n. 3).

2. See Barnes, T. D., The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine (Cambridge, Mass., 1982), 42–3.

3. See Bruun, P., The Roman Imperial Coinage VII: Constantine and Licinius AD 313–37 (London, 1966), 116, 137, 203, 263–4, 325–6, 383, 447, 475, 514–15, 551, 612–13, 647, 709.

4. In his Liber de Caesaribus composed c.361, Aurelius Victor notes only that (De Caes. 41.11), ‘When the eldest of these [Constantine's children] had died on the orders of his father, suddenly Calocerus, commander of the imperial camel herd, insanely seized the island of Cyprus and pretended to rule’, with no mention of Fausta. In his Breviarium composed c.369, Eutropius claims that Constantine became arrogant with the result that (Brev. 10.6) ‘First he persecuted his relatives and killed his son, an outstanding man, and his sister's son, subsequently his wife and afterwards numerous friends’. Writing c.380, Jerome notes in his Chronicle for 325, ‘Crispus, the son of Constantine, and Licinius Junior, the son of Licinius and Constantia, Constantine's sister, are most cruelly killed’, but misdates the death of Fausta to 328, stating simply, ‘Constantine kills his wife Fausta’. The anonymous compiler of the first recension of the Consularia Constantinopolitana, writing c.388, dates the death of Crispus to 326, stating only, ‘Crispus was killed’. He dates the death of Licinius Junior to 325, but does not mention Fausta at all. Finally, the ecclesiastical historian Orosius, writing c.417, claims, following a brief mention of the Arian heresy and the Council of Nicaea in 325, that (Adv. Pag. 7.26) ‘Constantine turned the sword of vengeange and the punishment destined for the impious against even his close relatives. For he killed his own son, Crispus, and his sister's son, Licinius.’

5. In general, see Barnes, , ‘The Epitome de Caesaribus and Its Sources’, CPh 71 (1976), 258–68.

6. In general, see Nobbs, A. E., ‘Philostorgius' View of the Past’ in Clarke, G., Croke, B., Nobbs, A. E., and Mortley, R. (edd.), Reading the Past in Late Antiquity (Rushcutters Bay, 1990), 251–64.

7. From Walford, E., The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen … also the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius as Epitomized by Photius (London, 1855), 435.

8. In general, see Harries, J., Sidonius Apollinaris and the Fall of Rome AD 407–485 (Oxford, 1994).

9. From the Loeb translation by Anderson, W. B., Sidonius: Poems and Letters II (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), 197. The description of an age ‘of Nero's pattern’ refers to the claims by earlier sources that the emperor Nero (54–68) had had an incestuous relationship with his natural mother Agrippina (Tac. Ann. 14.2; Suet. Nero 28.2), alluding thereby to the claim that Crispus had enjoyed a similar relationship also with his stepmother Fausta.

10. In general, see Ridley, R. T., ‘Zosimus the Historian’, BZ 65 (1972), 277302.

11. From Ridley, R. T., Zosimus' New History: a Translation with Commentary (Canberra, 1982), 36–7.

12. See Lieu, S. N. C. and Montserrat, D. (edd.), From Constantine to Julian: Pagan and Byzantine Views. A Source History (London, 1996), 210–62, for a full discussion of this text, and the translation which I have followed here, 242.

13. In general, see Bleckmann, B., ‘Die Chronik des Johannes Zonaras und eine pagane Quelle zur Geschichte Konstantins’, Historia 40 (1991), 343–65.

14. From the translation by Pohlsander, H. A., ‘Crispus: Brilliant Career and Tragic End’, Historia 33 (1984), 79106, at 101.

15. Crispus' name was erased from CIL II.4107, III.7172, V.8030, IX.6386a, X.517, together with that of Fausta from CIL X.678.

16. See Barnes, , ‘The Editions of EusebiusEcclesiastical History', GRBS 21 (1980), 191201, at 197.

17. It is a sad comment on our age that it seems so incomprehensible to many that anyone should ever have been punished just for adultery. Conspiracies or other political machinations have to be discovered as the ‘real’ causes of events. See Ferrill, A., ‘Augustus and His Daughter: a Modern Myth’, in Deroux, C. (ed.), Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History II (Collection Latomus 168: Brussels, 1980), 332–46, for a similar dispute concerning the ‘real’ reason for the exile by Augustus of his daughter Julia to the island of Pandateria in 2 B.C. A recent exception is Marasco, G., ‘Constantino e le uccisioni di Crispo e Fausta (326DC)’, Rivista di Filologia e di Istruzione Classica 121 (1993), 297317, who argues that Crispus and Fausta were executed not so much for adultery, but for incest; I thank Prof. T. G. Elliott for drawing this last to my attention.

18. Guthrie, P., ‘The Execution of Crispus’, Phoenix 20 (1966), 325–31.

19. Pohlsander, , art. cit. (n. 14), 105–6.

20. Pan. Lat. 7.4 refers to Minervina, the mother of Crispus, as Constantine's wife, which seems proof that he was legitimate. In general, see Barnes, , op. cit. (n. 2), 36, 42–3; also, Grubbs, J. E., Law and Family in Late Antiquity: the Emperor Constantine's Marriage Legislation (Oxford, 1995), 306–7.

21. Austin, N. J. E., ‘Constantine and Crispus’, Acta Classica 23 (1980), 133–8.

22. Drijvers, J. W., ‘Flavia Maxima Fausta: Some Remarks’, Historia 41 (1992), 500–6, at 505.

23. Barnes, , Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, Mass., 1981), 220.

24. So Pohlsander, , art. cit. (n. 14), 101, claims of the relevant passages in Zosimus and Zonaras, that ‘the Phaedra-and-Hippolytus motif is obvious and certainly raises doubts about the veracity of this account’. Yet similar such relationships did sometimes occur, as in the case of Antonina, the wife of the 6th-century general Belisarius, who had an affair with their adopted son Theodosius (Proc. Anec. 1.14–30). See also Watson, P. A., Ancient Stepmothers: Myth, Misogyny, and Reality (Leiden, 1995), 136–9.

25. In general, see Paschoud, F., ‘Zosime 2.29 et la version paienne de la conversion de Constantin’, Historia 20 (1971), 334–53. See also Fowden, G., ‘The Last Days of Constantine: Oppositional Versions and their Influence’, JRS 84 (1994), 146–70, esp. 163–8, where he argues that, in this instance, Zosimus combined Eunapius' text with the fictitious Actus Silvestri.

26. Drijvers, , art. cit. (n. 22), 505.

27. E.g., Burckhardt, J., The Age of Constantine the Great (London, 1949: a translation by Hadas, M. of the German original), 283, alleges that Constantine had Fausta ‘drowned in her bath’; Balsdon, J. P. V. D., Roman Women: their History and Habits (London, 1962), 170, claims that ‘she was roasted – or scalded – to death in the baths’; Barnes, , op. cit. (n. 23), 221, claims that she ‘suffocated in the steam’; Grant, M., The Emperor Constantine (London, 1993), 114, keeps an open mind, claiming that ‘he [Constantine] had her immersed in a scalding bath, or suffocated in a deliberately over-heated steam-room’.

28. Desnier, J.-L., ‘Zosime II, 29 et la mort de Fausta,’ BAGB (1987), 297309, at 305.

29. In general, see MacMullen, R., ‘Judicial Savagery in the Roman Empire’, Chiron 16 (1986), 147–66.

30. Grubbs, , op. cit. (n. 20), 216–21.

31. Barnes, , op. cit. (n. 23), 221, opts strongly for suicide, as he continues to do in JEH 44 (1993), 293, reviewing Drijvers, J. W., Helena Augusta: the Mother of Constantine the Great and the Legend of Her Finding of the True Cross (Leiden, 1992), who accepts (60) that Fausta was executed.

32. Amm. 28.1.47.

33. From the translation by B. Jackson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers III.

34. See Yegiil, F., Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), 352–5.

35. There is some dispute over the exact location of these baths. Eusebius (VC 4.61) claims that Constantine visited the hot baths of his own city, by which he must mean Constantinople, while Zonaras (Epit. 13.4.25–27) claims that he sailed across to visit hot springs at Soteropolis in Asia Minor. It is possible that he visited both.

36. On the life, works, and nachleben of Soranus, see Hanson, A. E., ‘Soranus of Ephesus: Methodicorum Princeps’, in Haase, W. and Temporini, H. (edd.), ANRW II.37.2 (Berlin, 1994), 9681075.

37. The following passages of translation are from Temkin, O., Soranus' Gynecology (Baltimore, 1956).

38. Suet, . Domit. 22.

39. See Eyben, E., ‘Family Planning in Graeco-Roman Antiquity’, AncSoc 11/ (1980/1981), 582; also, Harris, W. V., ‘Child-Exposure in the Roman Empire’, JRS 84 (1994), 122.

40. E.g., Jerome, Ep. 22. 13; Basil, , Ep. 188 Canon 2.

41. Barnes, , op. cit. (n. 2), 44, on C.Th. 9.38.1 and Porfyrius, Carm. 10.

42. Eyben, , art. cit. (n. 39), 6274.

43. A number of other imperial ladies were probably available also to help Helena if she so required, including Eutropia, Fausta's own mother, and Constantia, Constantine's sister. On the last, see now Pohlsander, H. A., ‘Constantia’, AncSoc 25 (1994), 151–67.

44. Imperial ladies, even Christians, were no less likely to be aware of various methods of contraception or abortion than any other group. E.g., Eusebia, wife of Constantius II (337–61), was alleged to have tricked Helena, the wife of Julian Caesar, into drinking a potion that caused her to miscarry (Amm. 16.10.18). Theodora, the wife of Justinian I (527–65), was alleged to have had many abortions during her years as an ‘actress’ (Proc, . Anec. 9. 19, 17.16).

45. Eus, , VC 3. 42–6. Grant, , op. cit. (n. 27), 115, refers to ‘Constantine's dispatch of his mother Helena to the Holy Land, in the hope of expiation’.

46. On Fausta's location, see, e.g., Barnes, , op. cit. (n. 23), 221; Drijvers, , art. cit. (n. 22), 506. On Crispus' journeys and residence, see Barnes, , op. cit. (n. 2), 83–4.

47. The evidence for the imperial journeys of the period 283–337 has been collected by Barnes, op. cit. (n. 2), but there is no evidence that anyone else happened ever to visit Pola other than Crispus. The same is true of the period 337–61, on which see Barnes, , Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 218–28, with one exception, the ex-Caesar Gallus who passed near Pola on his way to exile at Flanona on a nearby island (Amm. 14.11.20; Cons. Constant, s.a. 354; Soc. HE 2.34).

48. Other 4th-century exiles to the Dalmatian islands include the ex-magister officiorum Florentius in 361 (Amm. 22.3.6), and the ex-proconsul of Africa Hymetius c.371 (Amm. 28.1.23).

49. See Barnes, , ‘Two Senators Under Constantine’, JRS 64 (1975), 40–9, on Firm. Mat. Math. 2.29.10.

50. So Pohlsander, , art. cit. (n. 14), 104, argues that Crispus was ‘confronted by an imperial emissary and allowed to choose the means of death’.

51. Eutr, . Brev. 10. 6.1; Epit. 41.7; Zos, . HN 2. 28. The claim that Licinius was trying to raise a revolt once more, Soc, . HE 1. 4, seems simply a propaganda effort by Constantine, or his flatterers, to justify this crime.

52. Philost, . HE 4. 1; Art. Pass. 15.

53. See, e.g., White, P., ‘The Authorship of the Historia Augusta’, JRS 57 (1967), 115–33;Honore, T., ‘Scriptor Historiae Augustae’, JRS 77 (1987), 156–76. The Historia Augusta is usually dated by means of its perceived dependency upon a variety of late antique texts which include works by Eunapius, Claudian, and Vegetius. Unfortunately, though, the dates of composition of many of these works are themselves subject to dispute. English-speaking scholars generally date its composition c.395.

54. See Bird, H. W., ‘Diocletian and the Deaths of Cams, Numerian and Carinus’, Latotnus 35 (1976), 123–32.

55. Vict, Aur.. De Caes. 39. 11; Eutr, . Brev. 9. 20; Epit. 37.7–8.

56. From the Loeb translation by Magie, D., The Scriptores Historiae Augustae III (Cambridge, Mass., 1932), 443–5.

57. See, e.g., Syme, R., Ammianus and the Historia Augusta (Oxford, 1968), passim.

58. See Turcan, R., ‘Héliogabale précurseur de Constantin?’, BAGB (1988), 3852; Fowden, G., ‘Constantine's Porphyry Column: the Earliest Literary Allusion’, JRS 81 (1991), 119–31.

59. Fowden, , art. cit. (n. 58), 120, on V. Heliogab. 13–14.

60. That prostitutes often entertained their clients at the baths is sufficient proof that male and female could tolerate the same water. In general, see Ward, R. Bowen, ‘Women in Roman Baths’, HThR 85 (1992), 125–47; also Dauphin, C., ‘Brothels, Baths, and Babes: Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land’, Classics Ireland 3 (1996), 4772.

61. . See Chastagnol, A., ‘Etudes sur la Vita Can IX: Non est meus’, in Bonamente, G. and Paschoud, F. (edd.), Historiae Augustae Colloquium Genevense: Atti dei Convegni sulla Historia Augusta II (Bari, 1994), 8999, esp. 92, on adultery, and 98, on Crispus and Fausta.

62. See Chastagnol, , ‘Étude sur la Vita Can VIII: Carin et Elagabal’, in Straub, J. (ed.), Bonner Historia-Augusta-Colloquium 1979–81 (Bonn, 1985), 99113.

63. Pohlsander, , art. cit. (n. 14), 103, rejects the possibility that Fausta died by accident in her bath on the basis that Constantine did not restore her memory, or honour her with ‘a splendid funeral, orations, and monuments’. But accidents continue to happen even to people deep in disgrace.

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