It is one of the most mysterious episodes in later Roman history, a puzzle that has never been solved. In AD326, a year after the culmination of a civil war that had given him total power over the Roman world, the Emperor Constantine condemned his son and heir Flavius Crispus Caesar and his wife Flavia Maxima Fausta (the Caesar's stepmother) to cruel and unusual execution. No official explanation was ever given for what happened.
Just as the deaths of these two prominent individuals were immediately hushed up by the imperial authorities, so the details of their lives were also erased, quite literally: their names were chiselled from monuments, and the historian Eusebius rewrote his major work to omit the glowing references to Crispus in the first edition.
In the absence of an official story, rumours bred, and many of these are mentioned by later writers. Gregory of Tours claims that Fausta and Crispus were plotting treason together, while Eutropius suggested that Crispus had paid for an illegal astrological reading. Orosius maintained that Crispus was killed because he favoured the heretical Arian sect, while Evagrius claimed that the executions never happened at all.
Several ancient historians allude to a sexual connection between the pair; Zonarus agrees with the 5th century churchman Philostorgius that Fausta falsely accused Crispus of raping her, and was put to death in turn when the truth emerged. Many recent commentators have followed this line, but it does not explain why neither victim was ever pardoned, nor their reputation restored.
Whatever crime Fausta and Crispus were alleged to have committed, Constantine must have believed it to be heinous, and never forgave either of them. Clearly the deaths were connected, and unusual: Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that Crispus was killed at Pola (modern Pula, Croatia) – by coincidence or sinister design, the same unimportant town in Istria was later chosen as the execution site of another Caesar, Gallus, who was killed on the orders of Constantine’s heir Constantius II.
Sidonius Apollinaris gives ‘cold poison’ as the cause of Crispus’s death; he and several others mention that Fausta died in an overheated bath. There are strong hints of conspiracy and treason, and suggestions that the emperor’s mother Helena had some influence over events, but beyond that all is conjecture. Why, for example, was Crispus poisoned in Pola, of all places? Was he taken there as a form of exile, after being condemned in Milan, or even in Rome? Was he trying to escape a death sentence, or was he, perhaps, travelling to join Constantine at the time he was apprehended? Neither poisoning nor boiling in a bath were usual Roman execution methods: did the pair die by suicide, hoping to escape imperial justice, or perhaps just by accident? Or was this a case of 'judicial murder'?
Modern scholars have little more to go on, and have been able to offer only tentative theories about what might really have happened. David Woods, in his paper ‘On the Death of the Empress Fausta’ (1998) suggests an attempted abortion as a likely cause for Fausta’s end. But as Jan Willem Drijvers puts it, “in the case of the executions of Crispus and Fausta, historians should admit that they have a mystery which will never be solved.”
For a long time, it was not even clear when the deaths happened. We know that both Crispus and Fausta were dead by the end of Constantine’s vicennalia year, the 20th anniversary of his acclamation: that would be July 24th AD326. Crispus, apparently, died first, and we know he died at Pola. We also know, from the date of a law of Constantine’s recorded in the Theodosian Code, that the emperor was still in Milan on July 6th, but he had arrived in Rome for the vicennalia celebrations by the 18th at the latest. Lars Ramskold, in his 2012 paper ‘Constantine’s Vicennalia and the Death of Crispus’, cites what could be a vital piece of evidence for the chronology of the events of AD326: a bronze dynastic coin recently found in Rome, celebrating the vicennalia and showing the head of Crispus, which was probably minted in the city after Constantine’s arrival. If so, the coin proves that Crispus must still have been alive – or was believed to be alive – on July 18th. Bearing in mind the amount of time a message would have taken to reach Rome from Pola, and the information that he was dead before the 24th, we can narrow down the possible time frame for the young Caesar’s execution to a matter of days. Fausta, then, must have been killed almost immediately after the receipt of the news; most likely, she died in Rome, where she would have been accompanying her husband for the forthcoming celebrations.
The deaths of Crispus and Fausta, together with the battles of the civil war that preceded them, form the dramatic centrepiece of my novel Imperial Vengeance. In composing the story, I tried to make the best sense of the scraps of evidence we do possess, and to devise a scenario both historically plausible and dramatically engaging. It’s almost certain that the version of events I present in the novel is a long way from what really happened – it does, after all, involve several fictional characters – but I was determined to create something that followed the course of known history to the very limits of available knowledge, and then to use those limits as a guide to invention. To create a fictional version of what happened, in other words, that at least could have been true. I leave it to the reader to judge how effective my attempts at ‘re-imagination’ have been!