326: Crispus and Fausta, incestuous lovers?

Add comment July 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around late July of 321,* the Roman emperor Constantine the Great had his son and also his wife mysteriously put to death.

It’s mysterious because besides execution, Constantine had a damnatio memoriae passed over his former family to bury any record of their sins in Time’s obscurity. These edicts didn’t always work … but in this case, if there were any who dared to record what happened, that illicit account did not survive its journey from antiquity.

But it was surely a shocking scandal in its time.

Crispus was Constantine’s first-born son and very much in the father’s favor. He was the child of a wife or concubine named Minervina. In 307, Constantine put this woman aside to make a more politically expedient marriage to Fausta, the daughter of Diocletian‘s retired-now-unretired co-emperor Maximian who with his son Maxentius held sway in Italy at that moment of the Roman Tetrarchy‘s ongoing collapse.**

Although Crispus didn’t offer his dad much in this situation by way of family alliances, Constantine kept him in his favor — by all appearances grooming him as an heir. Call it paying it forward: as a young man, Constantine himself had been in a similar position when his father Constantius dumped Constantine’s peasant mother in favor of an imperial marriage. That moment might have strangled a world-historic career before it even began, but Constantius instead chose to keep Constantine on the paternal cursus honorum.

So it went with Crispus — for a while.

In 317, Constantine, now emperor in the western part of the empire,† made Crispus into his Caesar; the boy ruled in Gaul and Germania for several years, thrashing barbarian tribes as he ought. Dad, meanwhile, was maneuvering towards victory over his eastern opposite number Licinius, with Crispus contributing an important naval victory in 324.

The young man (in his twenties at this time; his precise year of birth is uncertain) seemed on his way to a scintillating future.


Bronze coin from the mint of Rome depicting Crispus.

Things went pear-shaped suddenly in 326 when his father had him executed without any kind of warning that survives in the scant records available to us — and not only Crispus, but also Constantine’s own wife, that Fausta whose marriage might have threatened the boy’s status.

We don’t know why but the rumor as trafficked by the much later Byzantine historian Zosimus suggests a possible Parisina and Ugo scenario: “He put to death his son Crispus, styled Caesar, on suspicion of debauching his mother-in-law Fausta, without any regard to the ties of nature … [and] causing a bath to be heated to an extraordinary degree, he shut up Fausta in it, and a short time after took her out dead.”

It is down to conjecture what one ought to make of this nth-hand scandal-mongering; for impugning someone’s character one can hardly do better than an incest accusation. The story does appear to fit the few available facts, however, and Fausta was much closer in age to Crispus than to Constantine. It might also be noteworthy that three of Fausta’s sons went on to become Emperor and one daughter Empress but none of them ever rehabilitated mom.

Damned memory be damned, Crispus was rediscovered during the Renaissance and favored with several dramatic renditions embellishing the young man as a tragic hero, often with speculation that he was wrongly condemned to Constantine’s everlasting shame.‡ The events surrounding Crispus’s death being almost entirely obscured, writers could really go nuts with it; for example, Sir Walter Scott‘s Count Robert of Paris (set in Constantinople during the Crusades) features the story of an entirely fictitious penance built into subsequent Byzantine execution rituals by a remorseful Constantine:

But the death-blow had no sooner struck the innocent youth, than his father obtained proof of the rashness with which he had acted. He had at this period been engaged in constructing the subterranean parts of the Blacquernal palace, which his remorse appointed to contain a record of his paternal grief and contrition. At the upper part of the staircase, called the Pit of Acheron, he caused to be constructed a large chamber, still called the Hall of Judgment, for the purpose of execution. A passage through an archway in the upper wall leads from the hall to the place of misery, where the axe, or other engine, is disposed for the execution of state prisoners of consequence. Over this archway was placed a species of marble altar, surmounted by an image of the unfortunate Crispus — the materials were gold, and it bore the memorable inscription, TO MY SON, WHOM I RASHLY CONDEMNED, AND TOO HASTILY EXECUTED. When constructing this passage, Constantine made a vow, that he himself and his posterity, being reigning Emperors, would stand beside the statue of Crispus, at the time when any individual of their family should be led to execution, and before they suffered him to pass from the Hall of Judgment to the Chamber of Death, that they should themselves be personally convinced of the truth of the charge under which he suffered.

* Approximate times around the spring and summer of 326 have been proposed by various authors based on the very vague allusions of ancient sources. This author argues that numismatic evidence permits a more precise triangulation. Constantine in 326 journeyed from his new capital in the east to Rome: an imperial mint traveled with him, striking coins as it went — and some of those coins show Crispus. His presence on coins from various stops of this journey indicates that Crispus must have been alive as the procession reached Rome on July 21, 326, but the Caesar vanishes from them, and from history, immediately thereafter.

** The History of Rome Podcast narrates this period, with Constantine’s rise into political relevance in episode 130.

† The Tetrarchy was still tetrarching along pending Constantine’s victory over all: the system featured separate senior emperors East and West each dignified Augustus, and each Augustus had a junior fellow-emperor and heir titled Caesar. Constantine was Augustus of the West, and Crispus was a Caesar.

‡ Fausta tends to get somewhat shorter shrift than her putative lover. Crispus’s presence in the literary culture would appear to make him the namesake of the Boston American Revolution martyr Crispus Attucks. African-descended men in North America often carried Roman names, though “Crispus” was by no means a common one.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Notably Survived By,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Royalty,Scandal,Sex,Soldiers,Uncertain Dates,Women,Wrongful Executions

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305: Feast Day of St. Philemon the Actor

1 comment March 8th, 2009 Headsman

This is the feast day for St. Philemon the actor, supposed to have been hurled into the sea at Alexandria, Egypt, during the persecutions under Diocletian.

The fate of this otherwise obscure saint — he’s not to be confused with the first-century prelate to whom St. Paul addressed the shortest of his canonical epistles — is, of course, a byproduct of Christianity’s centuries-in-coming overthrow of the pagan world in which it incubated.

And in fact, Philemon the Actor’s martyrdom would have occurred towards the very end of the reign which saw the very last major anti-Christian persecutions. Already by this time, the young man whose sword arm would bear Christianity to its political triumph was a major political figure in the Empire.

The very next year, Constantine received the imperial purple, and over the ensuing years overcame his partners and rivals in that station to win unchallenged hegemony over the Roman World.

Laurels for Philemon and many others of his ilk would soon be policy for the empire that had put him to death, as celebration (perhaps exaggeration) of such travails cemented the newfound legitimacy of the formerly illicit religion elevated by Constantine.

Part of the Themed Set: The Church confronts its competition.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drowned,Egypt,Entertainers,Execution,God,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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284: Aper, by Diocletian

6 comments November 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date* in 284, one of Rome’s greatest emperors claimed the purple by summarily executing his rival before the approving army in Anatolia.

The Emperor Diocletian christened his reign with a bit of scaffold theatricality, but he might have been the real perp.

For half a century, the Roman Empire had waded through crisis. In its political manifestation, a parade of forgettable emperors had marched through the throne room, each to be assassinated, overthrown, or otherwise disposed of by some equally forgettable aspirant en route to a similarly unenviable end.

At length, out of this unpropitious bunch, rose one Diocles, a low-born Dalmatian of classical education whose martial gifts saw him rise through the legions. His opportunity came when the emperor Carus, barely a year on from succeeding his assassinated predecessor, died on campaign against Persia allegedly struck by lightning (quite possibly a euphemism for something more dagger-like), leaving his son Numerian in charge.

As the army meandered back to the friendly confines, Numerian secluded himself in his litter. And after a while, the litter started to stink.

Sometime on the journey, he’d been secretly killed — but by whom?

The principals this day are our leading suspects. (And it’s a little mystifying in either case just what was gained by leaving the body hidden so long.) We turn to Gibbon to narrate what must have been a riveting — not to mention definitive — proceeding adjudicating between them a few kilometers past Nicomedia (moder Izmit, Turkey) towards Chalcedon (now the Kadikoy district of Istanbul).

A general assembly of the army was appointed to be held at Chalcedon, whither Aper was transported in chains, as a prisoner and a criminal. A vacant tribunal was erected in the midst of the camp, and the generals and tribunes formed a great military council. They soon announced to the multitude that their choice had fallen on Diocletian, commander of the domestics or body-guards, as the person the most capable of revenging and succeeding their beloved emperor. The future fortunes of the candidate depended on the chance or conduct of the present hour. Conscious that the station which he had filled exposed him to some suspicions, Diocletian ascended the tribunal, and raising his eyes towards the Sun, made a solemn profession of his own innocence, in the presence of that all-seeing Deity. Then, assuming the tone of a sovereign and a judge, he commanded that Aper should be brought in chains to the foot of the tribunal. “This man,” said he, “is the murderer of Numerian;” and without giving him time to enter on a dangerous justification, drew his sword, and buried it in the breast of the unfortunate praefect.** A charge supported by such decisive proof was admitted without contradiction, and the legions, with repeated acclamations, acknowledged the justice and authority of the emperor Diocletian.

Though there isn’t any direct evidence of it, posterity is entitled to suspect on grounds of means, motive and opportunity, that the eventual beneficiary of Numerian’s demise — the emperor henceforth known as Diocletian — was its true author.

Whether obtained by fair means or foul, Diocletian put the laurels of state to good use, stabilizing government by introducing the “Tetrarchy” — the rule of the empire’s eastern and western halves by two emperors (“Augusti”) each aided by a “Caesar” who was also the heir apparent.

Diocletian’s two decades in power before his anomalous voluntary retirement constitute a watershed in the late history of Rome, and not only because the cycle of imperial assassinations and civil war took a welcome generation-long hiatus.

Although he’s also remembered for initiating the last major persecution of Christians, his administration set the stage for the rise of Constantine the Great, the Galilean’s first imperial champion. Constantine’s father was one of the original tetrarchs, the Caesar of the west.

And in the longer term, Diocletian’s division of the empire between east and west would sow the seed of the later separation of Byzantium and Rome, and the corresponding division in the Christian world. No surprise, then, that the first ruler profiled in Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast is this date’s executioner:

[audio:http://www.12byzantinerulers.com/audio/02-Diocletian.mp3]

More audiophilia about Diocletian and the tetrarchs in this lecture from Isabelle Pafford’s UC-Berkeley course on Roman history. (The first 6:45 or so consists of class business and carryover from previous lectures.)

[audio:http://webcast.berkeley.edu/media/s2008/hist106b/hist106b_20080425.mp3]

* As with much in the ancient world, sourcing is tenuous, and there is some scholarly debate over whether the events in this post should be ascribed to November 20, or to November 17, or to September 17, or to some other date. Since this blog, notwithstanding its title, embraces the occasional execution whose date is uncertain, I am prepared to wave aside textual uncertainty in the interest of a ripping good story.

** According to the Historia Augusta, Diocletian had a superstitious reason to carry out this bloodthirsty act personally.

This story my grandfather related to me, having heard it from Diocletian himself. “When Diocletian,” he said, “while still serving in a minor post, was stopping at a certain tavern in the land of the Tungri in Gaul, and was making up his daily reckoning with a woman, who was a Druidess, she said to him, ‘Diocletian, you are far too greedy and far too stingy,’ to which Diocletian replied, it is said, not in earnest, but only in jest, ‘I shall be generous enough when I become emperor.’ At this the Druidess said, so he related, ‘Do not jest, Diocletian, for you will become emperor when you have slain a Boar (Latin: Aper).’ ” … It is now well known and a common story that when he had killed Aper, the prefect of the guard, he declared, it is said, “At last I have killed my fated Boar.” My grandfather also used to say that Diocletian himself declared that he had no other reason for killing him with his own hand than to fulfill the Druidess’ prophecy and to ensure his own rule. For he would not have wished to become known for such cruelty, especially in the first few days of his power, if Fate had not impelled him to this brutal act of murder.

Part of the Themed Set: The “Ex” Stands For “Extrajudicial”.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Assassins,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Murder,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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