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Crispus' year and place of birth are uncertain. He is considered likely to have been born between 299 and 305, somewhere in the Eastern Roman Empire. 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 Eastern Roman Emperor Diocletian in Nicomedia, thus securing the loyalty of Caesar of the Western Roman Empire Constantius Chlorus, father of Constantine and grandfather of Crispus.
The marriage of Constantine to Fausta has caused modern historians to question the status of his relation to Minervina and Crispus. If Minervina was his legitimate wife, Constantine would have needed to secure a divorce before marrying Fausta. This 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 may have already been dead by 307. A widowed Constantine would need no divorce order.
Neither the true nature of the relationship between Constantine and Minervina nor the reason Crispus came under the protection of his father will ever probably be known. The offspring of an illegitimate affair could have caused dynastical 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, in order to secure his alliance with his new father-in-law. Constantine in turn may have had to put aside Minervina in order to secure an alliance with the same man. Constantius did not however dismiss Constantine as his son, and perhaps Constantine chose to follow the example of his father.
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.
On 1 March 317, the two co-reigning Augusti jointly proclaimed three new Caesars; 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, 322. 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. Crispus joined his father in visiting Rome during 322, and received the warmest and most enthusiastic welcome by the crowds. 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 the rival fleet of Licinius. The subsequent Battle of Hellespont was fought in at the straits of Bosporus. The 200 ships under the command of Crispus managed to utterly beat 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 soldier and 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."
In 326, Crispus' life came to a sudden end: on his father's orders, he was tried by a local court at Pola, Istria, condemned to death and executed. Soon afterwards, Constantine had his own wife, Fausta, killed; she was suffocated in an over-heated bath.
The reason for this act remains unclear and historians have long debated Constantine's motivation. Zosimus in the 5th century and Joannes Zonaras in the 12th century both reported that Fausta, stepmother of Crispus, was extremely jealous of him. She was reportedly afraid that Constantine would put aside the sons she bore him. So, in order to get rid of Crispus, Fausta set him up. She reportedly told the young Caesar that she was in love with him and suggested an illegitimate love affair. Crispus denied the immoral wishes of Fausta and left the palace in a state of a shock. Then Fausta said to Constantine that Crispus had no respect for his father, since the Caesar was in love with his father's own wife. She reported to Constantine that she dismissed him after his attempt to rape her. Constantine believed her and, true to his strong personality and short temper, executed his beloved son. A few months later, Constantine reportedly found out the whole truth and then killed Fausta.
This version of events has become the most widely accepted, 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 favourites of Constantine. 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 illegitimate affair. When Constantine found out, his reaction was to have both of them killed. What delayed the death of Fausta may have been a pregnancy. Since the years of birth for the two known daughters of Constantine and Fausta remain unknown, one of their births may 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 quite 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 modeled 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 Cripus. The play was adapted for the French stage by Francois 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.
References and sources
- Torino, Alessio (2008). Bernardinus Stephonius S.J. Crispus-tragoedia. Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.
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Ovinius Gallicanus ,
|Consul of the Roman Empire
with Imp. Caesar C. Valerius Licinianus Licinius Augustus V
Imp. Caesar Flavius Valerius Constantinus Augustus V,
Valerius Licinianus Licinius Caesar
Imp. Caesar Flavius Valerius Constantinus Augustus VI,
Flavius Claudius Constantinus Caesar
|Consul of the Roman Empire
with Constantine II,
Amnius Anicius Julianus
|Consul of the Roman Empire
with Constantine II
Sextus Anicius Faustus Paulinus,