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|Reign||1 March 317 - 326 AD|
Flavius Julius Crispus (//; c. 303 – 326) was the eldest son of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great and his junior emperor (caesar) from March 317 until his execution by his father in 326. The grandson of the augustus Constantius I, Crispus was the elder half-brother of the future augustus Constantine II and became co-caesar with him and with his cousin Licinius II at Serdica, part of the settlement ending the Cibalensean War between Constantine and his father's rival Licinius I. Crispus ruled from Augusta Treverorum (Trier) in Roman Gaul between 318 and 323 and defeated the navy of Licinius I at the Battle of the Hellespont in 324, which with the land Battle of Chrysopolis won by Constantine forced the resignation of Licinius and his son, leaving Constantine the sole augustus and the Constantinian dynasty in control of the entire empire. It is unclear what was legal status of the relationship Crispus's mother Minervina had with Constantine; Crispus may have been an illegitimate son.
Crispus's tutor in rhetoric was the Late Latin historian of Early Christianity, Lactantius. Crispus may be the young prince depicted on the Gemma Constantiniana, a great cameo depicting Constantine and his wife Fausta, though the depiction may instead be of Fausta's own son, the future augustus Constantius II. While at Augusta Treverorum, Crispus's praetorian prefect for the prefecture of Gaul was the great Junius Annius Bassus. After his elevation to imperial rank, at which point he was also entitled princeps iuventutis ("Prince of Youth"), the Latin rhetorician Nazarius composed a panegyric preserved in the Panegyrici Latini, which honoured Crispus's military victories over the Franks in c. 319. Crispus was three times Roman consul, for the years 318, 321, and 324.
Within two years of the defeat and surrender of Licinius, Constantine had not only put his brother-in-law and former co-augustus to death, but also executed his nephew Licinius II, the son of his sister Flavia Julia Constantia. According to the Latin histories of Ammianus Marcellinus and Aurelius Victor, after a trial whose real circumstances are mysterious, Constantine executed Crispus at Pola (Pula) in 326. Fausta, whose son Constantius II became caesar in November 324, was also put to death, and the Late Greek historian Zosimus and the Byzantine Greek writer Joannes Zonaras wrote that Constantine had accused Crispus of incest with his stepmother. After his death, Crispus was subjected to damnatio memoriae.
Crispus's year and place of birth are uncertain. He is considered likely to have been born between 299 and 305, possibly as early as 295, somewhere in the eastern Roman Empire. The earliest date is most likely, since he was being tutored in 309–310 by Lactantius. His mother Minervina was either a concubine or a first wife to Constantine. Nothing else is known about Minervina. His father served as a hostage in the court of Diocletian in Nicomedia, thus securing the loyalty of Constantine's father, Constantius Chlorus, who was caesar to Maximian in the west at this time.
In 307, Constantine allied to the Italian augusti, and this alliance was sealed with the marriage of Constantine to Maximian's daughter Fausta. This marriage has caused modern historians to question his relationship to Minervina and Crispus. If Minervina were his legitimate wife, Constantine would have needed to secure a divorce before marrying Fausta, which would have required an official written order signed by Constantine himself, but no such order is mentioned by contemporary sources. This silence in the sources has led many historians to conclude that the relationship between Constantine and Minervina was informal and to assume her to have been an unofficial lover. However, Minervina might have already been dead by 307. A widowed Constantine would need no divorce.
Neither the true nature of the relationship between Constantine and Minervina nor the reason Crispus came under the protection of his father will probably ever be known. The offspring of an illegitimate affair could have caused dynastic problems and would likely be dismissed, but Crispus was raised by his father in Gaul. This can be seen as evidence of a loving and public relationship between Constantine and Minervina which gave him a reason to protect her son.
The story of Minervina is quite similar to that of Constantine's mother Helena. Constantine's father later had to divorce her for political reasons—specifically, to marry Flavia Maximiana Theodora, the daughter of Maximian. Constantius did not, however, dismiss Constantine as his son, and perhaps Constantine chose to follow the example of his father here as well.
Whatever the reason, Constantine kept Crispus at his side. Surviving sources are unanimous in declaring him a loving, trusting and protective father to his first son. Constantine even entrusted his education to Lactantius, among the most important Christian teachers of that time, who probably started teaching Crispus before 317.
By 313, there were two remaining augusti in control of the Roman Empire—Constantine in the west and his brother-in-law Licinius in the east.
On 1 March 317, the two co-reigning augusti jointly proclaimed three new caesares: Crispus, alongside his younger half-brother Constantine II, and his first cousin Licinius Iunior. Constantine II was the older son of Fausta but was probably about a month old at the time of his proclamation. Thus only Crispus assumed actual duties.
Constantine apparently believed in the abilities of his son and appointed Crispus as Commander of Gaul. The new caesar soon held residence in Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier), regional capital of Germania.
In January 322, Crispus was married to a young woman called Helena. Helena bore him a son in October of that year. There is no surviving account of the name or later fate of the son. Eusebius of Caesarea reported that Constantine was proud of his son and very pleased to become a grandfather.
Crispus was leader in victorious military operations against the Franks and the Alamanni in 318, 320 and 323. Thus he secured the continued Roman presence in the areas of Gaul and Germania. The soldiers adored him thanks to his strategic abilities and the victories to which he had led the Roman legions.
Crispus spent the following years assisting Constantine in the war against by then hostile Licinius. In 324, Constantine appointed Crispus as the commander of his fleet which left the port of Piraeus to confront Licinius' fleet. The subsequent Battle of the Hellespont was fought at the straits of Bosporus. The 200 ships under the command of Crispus managed to decisively defeat the enemy forces, which were at least double in number. Thus Crispus achieved his most important and difficult victory which further established his reputation as a brilliant general.
Following his navy activities, Crispus was assigned part of the legions loyal to his father. The other part was commanded by Constantine himself. Crispus led the legions assigned to him in another victorious battle outside Chrysopolis against the armies of Licinius.
The two victories were his contribution to the final triumph of his father over Licinius. Constantine was the only augustus left in the Empire. He honoured his son for his support and success by depicting his face in imperial coins, statues, mosaics, cameos, etc. Eusebius of Caesaria wrote for Crispus that he is "an Imperator most dear to God and in all regards comparable to his father."
Crispus was the most likely choice for an heir to the throne at the time. His siblings Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans were far too young and knew very little about the tasks of an emperor. However, Crispus would never assume the throne.
In 326, Crispus' life came to a sudden end. On his father's orders, he was tried by a local court at Pola, Istria, in the Augustan regio of Venetia et Histria, condemned to death and executed. Soon afterwards, Constantine had his own wife, Fausta, killed; she was drowned in an over-heated bath.
The reason for this act remains unclear and historians have long debated Constantine's motivation, all of which are speculative. The main version seems to be that Fausta was in love with Crispus but when he repulsed her, she accused him of adultery and Crispus was executed. Her own death followed the discovery of her fraud by Constantine's mother, Helena.
Philostorgius writes that Fausta fell in love with Crispus, but her love went unrequited. She said that Crispus had tried to seduce her, causing Constantine to execute Crispus. When Constantine realized his mistake, he then executed Fausta. This account excludes Helena.
This version of events has become the most widely accepted[by whom?][dubious ], since all other reports are even less satisfactory. That Fausta and Crispus could have plotted treason against Constantine is rejected by most historians, as they would have nothing to gain considering their positions as his favourites. In any case, such a case would not have been tried by a local court as Crispus' case clearly was. Another view suggests that Constantine killed Crispus because as a supposedly illegitimate son, he would cause a crisis in the order of succession to the throne. However, Constantine had kept him at his side for twenty years without any such decision. Constantine also had the authority to appoint his younger, legitimate sons as his heirs. Some reports claimed that Constantine was envious of the success of his son and afraid of him. This seems improbable, given that Constantine had twenty years of experience as emperor while Crispus was still a young caesar. Similarly, there seems to be no evidence that Crispus had any ambitions to harm or displace his father. So while the story of Zosimus and Zonaras seems the most believable one, there are also problems relating to their version of events. Constantine's reaction suggests that he suspected Crispus of a crime so terrible that death was not enough. Crispus, his wife Helena and their son also suffered damnatio memoriae, meaning their names were never mentioned again and deleted from all official documents and monuments. The eventual fate of Helena and her son is a mystery. Constantine did not restore his son's innocence and name, as he probably would have on learning of his son's innocence. Perhaps Constantine's pride, or shame at having executed his son, prevented him from publicly admitting having made a mistake.
It is beyond doubt that there was a connection between the deaths of Crispus and Fausta. Such agreement among different sources connecting two deaths is extremely rare in itself. A number of modern historians have suggested that Crispus and Fausta really did have an affair. When Constantine found out, his reaction was to have both of them killed. A possible cause of delay in the death of Fausta is pregnancy. Since the years of birth for the two known daughters of Constantine and Fausta remain unknown, one of their births could have delayed their mother's execution.
The story of Zosimus and Zonaras listed above is similar to both the legend of Hippolytus of Athens (casting Crispus in the role of the youth, Constantine in the role of Theseus and Fausta in the role of Phaedra) as well as the Biblical account of Joseph and Potiphar's wife (Genesis 39).
Crispus became a popular tragic hero after the success of Bernardino Stefonio's neo-Latin tragedy Crispus, which was performed at the Jesuit Collegio Romano in 1597. Closely modelled on Seneca's Phaedra, this became a model of Jesuit tragedy and one of the main bases for Alessandro Donati's 1631 Ars Poetic and Tarquinio Galluzzi's 1633 Defense of Crispus. The play was adapted for the French stage by François de Grenaille as L'Innocent malhereux (1639) and by Tristan l'Hermite as La Morte de Chrispe ou les maleurs du grand Constantine (1645). It was performed as an opera in Rome (1720) and London (1721), where it was entitled, Crispo: drama, not to mention Donizetti's 1832 opera Fausta. The story is also retold and embellished in chapter 31 of Sir Walter Scott's novel Count Robert of Paris. When Evelyn Waugh reworks the story in his novel Helena (1950), Crispus is innocent.
References and sources
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Crispus.|
- Barnes, Timothy, Constantine: Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire, 2011, p. 177-8.
- Roman Emperors – DIR Fausta
- Woods, David (1998). "On the Death of the Empress Fausta". Greece & Rome. 45 (1): 70–86. doi:10.1093/gr/45.1.70. ISSN 0017-3835. JSTOR 643208.
- Zosimus: New History. BRILL. 2017-08-03. ISBN 978-90-04-34458-7.
- Marasco, Gabriele (2003-08-29). Greek and Roman Historiography in Late Antiquity: Fourth to Sixth Century A.D. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-474-0018-9.
- Marc Fumaroli, Heros et orateurs. Rhetoriques et dramaturgie corneliennes, Geneva: Droz, 1996
- Torino, Alessio (2008). Bernardinus Stephonius S.J. Crispus-tragoedia. Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.