Flavius Julius Crispus: A Look At Conspiracy
By Kenneth R. Kline Jr.
Crispus, Caesar (AE 3): IVL CRISPVS NOB CAES (Laureate, wearing trabea) with eagle tipped scepter held in right hand. BEATA TRAN-QVILITAS (Globe set on an altar inscribed VO/TIS/XX; above three stars) Minted 322 – 323 (Trier) .ptr. RIC VII: 376, page 198. K.R. Kline Collection.
The Purpose of This “Article”
More and more often, many new ancient numismatists
are beginning to surface on a daily basis in the realms of ancient coin chat
rooms, forums, and websites. Furthermore, a large percentage of these new
collectors are leaning towards the purchase of Constantinian era coins because
of their apparently large supply, historical background, and relatively low
cost. In focusing on the coinage of Constantine’s dynasty, several discussions
have arisen concerning Constantine’s first son, Crispus, and the conspiracy that
seems to engulf his name. Needless to say, to new collectors, this talk of a
conspiracy has certainly caused much interest in his coinage, if not some
confusion about the circumstances surrounding Crispus’ death. As a veteran
collector once said to me, “Every ancient numismatist needs at least one Crispus
in his collection, if only to debate the soap opera of his demise.”
In the past few months I have received over 20 emails from eBay patrons and several young collectors asking what this conspiracy is, how it happened, and who was to blame. I suppose the purpose of this article is not intended to be academic, but to answer some possible questions and “lay all the cards on the table” concerning many of the popular opinions that concern Crispus’ death. In fact, if at all, this piece presents itself almost as a current tabloid would, presuming and concluding from facts that aren’t always so cut and dry. In reading through this piece, always keep in mind that the events of mid 326 CE are still left up to great debate as no definitive evidence can entirely prove one scenario to be fully correct. In total, three of the most dominant theories will be presented. However, all of the discussions concerning Crispus’ death are done primarily in theory and conjecture alone, perhaps the way true-to-life soap operas should be told.
General History of Crispus
Flavius Julius Crispus (also known as Flavius
Claudius Crispus and Flavius Valerius Crispus) was the first and only son
resulting from the relationship between Constantine I, “The Great” and his
concubine wife, Minervina. Born in 305 CE, it seems that the young Crispus was
destined to lead both a magnificent and tragic life, and all at the hands of his
powerful father. Raised as the first true Christian imperial family member
(Constantine was not born or raised Christian, he was a convert), the life of
Crispus was short, but in his 21 years of existence, he was able to establish a
greatness that would rival even that of his father’s. His life, tragically cut
short in 326 CE by a jealous plot shrouded in mystery, is a source of historical
controversy that is still heavily debated even to this day.
The polar life of Crispus’ greatness and tragedy began fairly early on in his young infant life. As Constantine ascended to the throne in 307 CE, he disassociated himself from Minervina and took Flavia Maxima Fausta as his legal wife. In a manner and precise date that is still unclear to scholars, Constantine ordered that Crispus be taken from his birth mother and transported to the land that would become his new home, Gaul. While in Gaul, Crispus’ Christian upbringing and education was entrusted to Lactantius, the great scholar. Although it is unclear when these studies began and to what extent they affected Crispus, noted scholar Hans Pohlsander suggests that they must have taken place well before 317 CE.
At the age of 12, on March 1st, 317 CE in the city of Serdica, Crispus was proclaimed Caesar and probable heir to the empire along with his infant brother, Constantine II, Flavius Claudius Constantinus (Constantine’s first of three children with his wife, Fausta). Although many of the accounts written about him have been lost, it stands to reason that Crispus showed great promise as both a leader and public figurehead. A year after becoming Caesar, Crispus earned the first of his three imperial consulships in 318 CE. Responsible for the Roman troops in Gaul, Crispus was charged with the task of performing military operations against the Alamanni and Franks in 320 CE, a task that he must have completed quite successfully if his future appointments are to be considered.
Crispus, Caesar (AE 3): FL IVL CRISPVS NOB CAES (Laureate head facing right), ALAMANN-A DEVICTA (Victory advancing right, spurning captive), Minted 324 –325 (Sirmium) .sirm. RIC VII: 49, page 475. K.R. Kline Collection.
In 324 CE during the second war for imperial
supremacy between the partnership of Licinius I & Martinian and Constantine,
Crispus was appointed commander of his father’s fleets in the waters of the
Hellesport, the Propontis, and the Bosporus. It is assumed that Crispus was
given this role not only because of early victories, but also because of his
devotion to his father and the relatively large stake he had if the battle was
won. With four or five years of combat experience already under his young belt,
the naval battles were almost finished before they were started as Crispus’
lighter and faster ships virtually wiped away the fleet of Licinius. This
victory would prove to be the final one Constantine would need to unite his
empire as the two opposing emperors soon gave into his demands for a power
exchange in September of 324. Because of his victories, it is reasonable to
believe that Crispus was very dear to the hearts of the Roman people. Achieving
great victories and tasks at such an early age, many honors were thrust upon
him. Gaining his final consulship in 324 CE, the contemporary author Eusibius
writes, he was “an emperor most dear to God and in all regards comparable to his
By 325 CE, after the trumped up charges of the Licinii were rendered and their executions carried out, the Constantinian dynasty’s dominion over the entirety of the Roman Empire had been completely assured. It seemed the only question left to ask for some would be the consideration of an “official” heir to the empire. Of course, almost beyond any doubt, Crispus would be both his father’s and the people’s choice. However, there were other factors to be considered. By 326 CE, Crispus now had ten year old (Constantine II), nine year old (Constantius II), and three year old (Constans) half-brothers who had also been appointed as Caesars. These three children of the truly “royal” marriage presented a bit of a political conundrum for the time period. However, with the amount of glory and political sway that Crispus was garnering, the decision would still be a fairly easy one.
By early 326 CE, we know that Crispus was sitting at the right hand of his father, clearly in control as the chosen heir of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, having married in 320 CE, he was a husband and a father of a young boy. However, by mid 326 CE, Crispus Caesar was dead, assassinated by order of the man who had owed him so much, his own father, Constantine “The Great”. It is at this time in the ancient literature where the scholar comes to a virtual dead end in concerns to Crispus and his demise.
Crispus, Caesar (AE 3): CRISPVS NOBILISS CAES (Cuir., dr. and laur. bust right), PRINCIPIA IVVENTVTIS (Crispus, in military garb, holds spear and shield standing right), Minted 317 – 318 (Thessalonica) .Ts.D. RIC VII: 21, page 502. K.R. Kline Collection.
The “Conspiracy Theories” Surrounding the Death of Crispus
What is known about the death of Crispus is that
his father ordered his termination in mid 326 CE at Pola in Istria. What are
rather unclear were his reasons behind the death order. Almost instantaneously
upon the order of his execution, Constantine made Crispus to suffer the most
dire of all Roman punishments, the Damnatio Memoriae. He was stripped of all
honors, many of his likenesses were torn down from the common Imperial
establishments, and his name was stricken from most of the Imperial records of
the time. Even the fate of Crispus’ wife and son was never officially recorded
or allowed to survive past his untimely death.
With such a glorious career and life being snuffed out in a matter of a few short months, the loaded question that begs asking is “why was Crispus’ execution ordered in the first place, and who is to blame?” Although we may never truly be confident with any one answer, several different theories exist. For the purposes of this writing, I shall only visit three possible scenarios that have debated for many centuries. Two of the theories are still quite popular and have been told time and time again, however the final theory to be presented addresses that which is only “hinted” at by a combination of many other theories.
Conspiracy Theory #1: Fausta, The “Evil Stepmother”
Fausta, Augusta (AE 3): FLAV MAX- FAVSTA AVG (Bare head, waved hair, mantled bust right), SALVS REI-PVBLICAE (Salus standing front with two children in her arms) Minted 326 CE (Antioch) .smanta, RIC VII: 76, page 690. K.R. Kline Collection.
Historically, taken from the writings of Zosimus,
a 6th century writer, and Zonarus, a 12th century historian, several believe
that Crispus and his stepmother, Fausta, may have had some type of illicit
sexual relationship. Again, the nature of that relationship is left up to
debate. Several stories state that the relationship was one of mutual consent,
and that Fausta had planned to turn it into a tale of being raped. As the story
is told, Fausta had quite a bit to gain from Constantine’s knowledge of the
subject. Remember, as a mother she had her own children’s best interest to look
out for. In a time period of great power struggle and attainment of station, an
empress would many times substantiate and secure the imperial title for a son by
any means necessary. If this theory is to be believed, Fausta was no different.
In any event, as the tale goes, a weepy eyed and ravaged Fausta confronted Constantine with the “affair” under accusations that she had been raped by a violent and demeaning Crispus. In a fit of rage, Constantine then ordered Crispus’ life to be ended immediately. If this had been Fausta’s plan, it worked marvelously well. Crispus had been executed and now her three children were the rightful heirs en masse to the throne. The plan would have one serious side effect for Fausta, however. Not long after the “rape” had come to public knowledge, another tale of deceit had been told to Constantine. In the end, Fausta would be called a liar and a false accuser by a separate informant, perhaps Helena, the mother of Constantine. Being told that the entire tale of rape was simply a cover-up for an affair that was consensual, Constantine ordered that Fausta be closed up in an imperial bath and scalded to death. If Fausta had indeed conjured up such a plan to create a position for her three sons, she ended up making the ultimate sacrifice, suffering a painful and merciless death at the command of her own husband.
Conspiracy Theory #2 : Helena, The Mother : Saint or Saboteur?
Helena, Silvered AE3, RIC 148, gem uncirculated, 2.87g, 16.9mm, 180o, Alexandria mint, 327-328 A.D.; obverse FL HELENA AVGVSTA, diademed and mantled bust right wearing double necklace; reverse SECVRITAS REIPVBLICE, Securitas holding branch downward in right and lifting fold of robe in left, wreath left, B right, SMAL in ex; rare.
A somewhat more recent theory that is brought up
by many actually defends Fausta as being the product of deceit in her own right.
When looking to see who could be a master planner behind both the assassinations
of Crispus and Fausta, the name of St. Helena, Constantine’s mother, seems to
come up in many circles.
In the end, it has been shown that Helena did stand to obtain a lot of power and influence both over her son and her grandchildren if the first son and wife of Constantine were both “removed.” Some rumors state that perhaps it was Helena who placed the ideas of “rape” in Fausta’s mind, convincing her that her personal shame would be concealed by the greatness of her own children’s power in Crispus’ absence. When Fausta followed through with the plan, it would have allowed Helena the perfect opportunity to trap Fausta in her own lies. As Fausta was boiled alive, Helena once again became the dominant female influence on Constantine’s life. One can imagine a distraught Constantine, obviously emotional over the events of the past few months, calling upon Helena for her advice and wisdom. And, with Crispus out of the picture as well, the three remaining grandchildren, all of whom were of a royal marriage and much more befitting of the imperial title, would have to look toward her for guidance as well.
Now, to be honest, this theory has a tendency to run on a lot of “what if” type of scenarios. However, when taken as a whole, the situation does make great logical sense. As Crispus and Fausta were removed from the imperial mix, Helena’s power would almost rival that of her own son’s. If Helena were guilty of hatching this plan, or at least helping it along to fruition, she would go down in history as one of the most treacherous individuals in any royal history.
Conspiracy Theory #3: Constantine I, “Look No Further Than the Father”
A642. Constantine, Bronze follis, RIC 222, choice gVF, 3.75g, 22.7mm, 180o, London mint, 310-312 A.D.; obverse CONSTANTINVS P F AVG, laureate and cuirassed bust right; reverse PRINCIPI IVVENTVTIS, prince standing right holding globe in right and spear pointing down in left, * right, PLN in ex; nice portrait, glossy chocolate patina, scarce type.
To date, the two previously mentioned stories have
been the accepted historical possibilities for the blame of Crispus’ death.
However, if we take a further look into the psychology and politics of the
moment, other plausible reasons seem to present themselves as well. If one looks
at all of the conjecture concerning the motives of Fausta and Helena, perhaps we
are being remiss in failing to discuss one other major player in the great “soap
opera” of Crispus. To present an alternative thought on Crispus’ execution, one
need only look as far as the man who benefited most from his death, Constantine
In each of the stories told about Crispus’ execution it is mentioned that due to the affair between Fausta and Crispus, Constantine was thrown into a blind, uncontrollable rage. Whether it be fact or fiction concerning the “adulterous” affair, the one piece of evidence we do know for certain and, coincidentally, seem to ignore is that Constantine the Great had both his son and his wife executed because of his “rage.” Rage seems to be a quaint term to use in place of possible premeditated murder.
To discuss Constantine the Great is to discuss a man of great power, prestige, intelligence, and jealousy. In a matter of roughly two decades, his efforts, along with the events of history, swept aside the powerful structure of the Tetrarchy, and he assumed full command as sole emperor over the entire realm of the Roman Empire. To accomplish such a feat, one must have had the ability to break alliances, form alliances, and break them once again. Proving himself to be one who would gain power at any cost (e.g., accept the surrender of Licinii, make grand promises to them, then have them terminated the following year), it is fairly easy to see how the death of Crispus could benefit his own power structure.
As Crispus gained more and more affinity and respect from the Roman people and more importantly, the armies of Rome, it is quite possible that even he, himself, had never expected to become so popular so quickly. Another person who was most certainly caught by surprise was Constantine I. With tales of his great victories, several passages state that Crispus’ name was beginning to rival that of even his father’s, and, in some circles, eclipsing it. To substantiate the third conspiracy theory, it does not take a great leap of faith to realize that Constantine was an extremely jealous man and lacked the ability to allow others their time in the spotlight. Couple this with the notion that Crispus was known to be a braggart, and we have the perfect setting for a premeditated plot.
Up until this time, we have generally accepted that Constantine was told of the adulterous affair by Fausta, and that his “blind” rage led to the execution of Crispus. The earliest surviving records of this occurrence still take place centuries after the fact. Imagine that the affair had existed or had been suggested to occur. Constantine’s window of opportunity would be short, but if he could pull of the assassination, his grief and anger would have been the perfect mask for getting rid of his last remaining rival, Crispus.
As the affair came to light, an intelligent and political Constantine could come out of the situation almost resentment free. With only his violent anger being blamed for the death of Rome’s beloved Caesar, Constantine would win great sympathy with the populous. Furthermore, with Crispus out of the picture, he would shine as both the great military leader and powerful emperor. As time went on, a scapegoat for the entire murder would also be appointed. As the “fraudulent accusations” came to light, his anger could once again murder another family member, Fausta. In return, Fausta’s supposed “treachery” would allow the eyes of the Roman people to settle on her for blame. The plan, if it indeed existed, would have been an absolutely perfect one. In the end, the threat of Crispus was gone, a scapegoat for his death had been appointed, and Constantine stood as a great and powerful man for another eleven years. Modern politicians could only hope for such a successful vision and outcome.
When all is said and done, we are only certain of
a few, detailed facts concerning the demise of Crispus. We know he that was
popular; we know that he was a talented military leader; and we know he was
executed at the age of 21. From that point onward, everything is left up to what
can be discussed from uncertain, if not sketchy, historical records. The three
theories presented here are not intended to incite new debate, for new debate
may be overkill. However, they are intended to show what beliefs can arise from
history when it is not properly recorded or conserved.
Flavius Julius Crispus was known to the people and the armies of his time as a man who could rival the power of his father. What can further be concluded is that after his death, the people of Rome still had respect for him (never once have I witnessed a single damnatio coin of Crispus – it is a leap, but perhaps the people could not bring themselves to do it.) It would be incredible to imagine what the empire would have looked like had he been allowed to live and to assume the title of emperor that would have rightly belonged to him by the passing of 337 CE. Unfortunately, scholars and history buffs can only estimate the influence he would have had. To date, and yet another unfortunate, the only issue we can discuss is his murder. Again, the loaded question arises, “why was Crispus’ execution ordered in the first place, and who is to blame?” This writing has attempted to shed some light on the question at hand, but in no means does it answer either portion with any certainty. Sadly, the tragic death of Crispus will remain one of those mysteries that perplexes and upsets even the modern day detective -- the murder that could not be solved.
Crispus, Caesar (AE 3): Anepigraphic Obverse (Cuir., dr. and laur. bust left), CRISPVS CASEAR in two lines (Star above), Minted 317 – 318 (Thessalonica) smantb., RIC VII: 58, page 687. K.R. Kline Collection.
The Obverse Legends of Crispus
A Few Selected Obverse Types Depicting Crispus
Row A: Anepigraphic laureate , draped and
cuirassed bust left
Row B: (left to right) Laureate head rt. (age 15); Laureate head right (age 19); Laureate and cuirassed bust
right; Laureate, draped, and cuirassed bust right; Laureate, draped and cuirassed bust left.
Row C: (left to right) Helmeted and cuirassed bust facing right (low height crest); High crested helmet,
cuirassed, ¾ turned bust right; Fancy high crested helmeted and cuirassed bust right; High crested
helmeted, draped, and cuirassed bust left.
Row D. (left to right) Radiate, draped, and cuirassed bust holding victory on globe left *; Radiate, draped,
and cuirassed bust facing right.
Row E: (left to right) Laureate and cuirassed bust facing right, spear held in right hand across right shoulder,
shield in left hand *; Laureate, wearing trabea, eagle tipped scepter in right hand facing left; Laureate and
draped, globe & scepter in left hand, mappa in right; Laureate, cuirassed bust left with shield on left arm, spear forward over right shoulder; Laureate and cuirassed bust left, shield on left arm, spear held over right.
* Unlisted RIC VII obverse type or Unlisted RIC VII obverse type specifically for Crispus
Other Suggested Resources For Information and Viewpoints on Crispus
Barnes, Timothy D. “Lactantius and Constantine.”
JRS. Number 63. 29-46, 1973.
Barnes, Timothy D. The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Bruun, Patrick M., Ph.D., ed..The Roman Imperial Coinage, Volume VII, Constantine and Licinius,
A.D.313-337. London: Spink & Son LTD., 1966.
Education Department of Lawrence University. Crispus. Website. 4 August 2003.
Eusebius (Averial Cameron & Stuart G. Hall, translators). Life of Constantine. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1999.
Guthrie, Patrick. “The Execution of Crispus.” Phoenix. Number 20, 325-331, 1966.
Jones, A.H.M., J.R. Martindale, and J. Morris. The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire I .
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Kienast, Dietmar. Romische Kaisertabelle, Second Edition. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche
Maurice, Jules. Numismatique Constantinienne. Paris, 1908-1912.
Pohlsander, Hans A.. “Crispus: Brilliant Career and Tragic End.” Historia. Number 33,
79 – 06, 1984.
Pohlsander, Hans A.. “Crispus Caesar.” Roman Emperors. Website. 24 October 2002.
“Refutation of the Assertion that Constantine became a Christian in Consequence of the Murder of His Son
Crispus.” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. II. Website. 1 February 2003
Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values, 4th edition. London: Seaby, 1988.
Smith, Doug. Crispus & Fausta. Website. 6 November 2002.
Stewart, Robert Brian. “My Lines.” Flavius Valerius Constantinus. Personal Webpage. 24 July 2003.
Van Meter, David. The Handbook of Roman Imperial Coins. Utica, NY: Laurion Press, 1991.
Woods, David. “Amandus: Rustic Rebel or Pirate Prince?” The Ancient History
Bulletin. Website. 14 November 2002.