The year 326 was meant to be a year of feast and celebration for the emperor Constantine. His last remaining rival Licinius was dead, the Roman Empire was united again under a single emperor and for the moment the unity within the Christian church had been restored thanks to the Council of Nicaea. In July of 325, Constantine had already celebrated his twentieth year on the throne or Vicennalia, but in 326 he simply celebrated it again in Rome, the city where his immense Basilica of the Saviour (currently known as San Giovanni in Laterano) was now complete. It is, however, very unlikely that the emperor much enjoyed his stay in the Eternal City, as in spring Constantine had been compelled to order the execution of his son Crispus. A few months later his wife Fausta had died under mysterious circumstances. The reasons for the execution of Crispus and the exact circumstances of Fausta’s death will probably never be known. Historians have speculated about the two deaths ever since the fourth century.
The deaths of Crispus and Fausta
Crispus, who was born around 300, was Constantine’s son from a previous relationship with Minervina. The young man had distinguished himself as a general in the war against the Alemanni and as an admiral in the war against Licinius. However, he does not seem to have been very popular with his father, who preferred his sons from his marriage with Fausta. She was the daughter of the former emperor Maximianus (284-305), who had, by the way, been eliminated by Constantine himself. In April or May of 326 Crispus was arrested and executed in Pola in modern Croatia. Several months later Fausta was found dead in a scalding hot bathroom, where she had supposedly succumbed to the heat. What had happened here? Sources from the fourth century tend to be extremely brief. Aurelius Victor states that the reason for the execution of Crispus was not known to him, and he does not mention Fausta’s death at all. Eutropius merely reports that Constantine had his son and wife executed. The Epitome de Caesaribus offers us more information: Fausta supposedly encouraged Constantine to have Crispus killed. His death had greatly angered the young man’s grandmother, who happened to be Constantine’s mother Helena. She had lambasted her son, who then had Fausta smothered in her bath.
Fausta may certainly have had reasons to want to get rid of Crispus. As an adult with an impressive track record, he was the main rival of her own young sons Constantine, Constantius and Constans. Zosimus, who wrote at the beginning of the sixth century, claims that Constantine suspected Crispus of having sexually assaulted Fausta, and that that was the reason for the execution of his son. Joannes Zonaras (twelfth century) on the other hand believed that Fausta had tried to seduce Crispus, but that the young man had rejected her. Fausta had subsequently fooled Constantine into believing that Crispus had raped her. It is a story that has from time to time been compared to the story of Phaidra and Hippolytos from Greek mythology. In addition to an accusation of rape, false or not, it is also sometimes assumed that Crispus and Fausta had a consensual incestuous relationship. The age difference between the two was perhaps ten years, while the age gap between Fausta and Constantine was much bigger. Constantine supposedly found out about the relationship and in a fit of rage then ordered the death of his son and wife. However, this does not explain why Crispus died several months before Fausta.
Gregory of Tours, who like Zosimus lived in the sixth century, believed Crispus and Fausta were involved in a conspiracy against Constantine, who had however learned about it and had taken swift action. Gregory does not give us any details, but it is conceivable that Crispus felt that his father had been on the throne long enough. It was essential for the young man to make his move now, before Constantine’s other sons would reach the age of manhood. But perhaps it was Constantine himself who thought ahead and had Crispus executed in favour of his other sons. Of the three boys especially nine-year-old Constantius was quickly becoming the apple of his father’s eye. We should also not rule out that Fausta’s death was just an accident. Accidents like that were not uncommon in Antiquity. Unfortunately we will never know the truth.
When the emperor celebrated his Vicennalia in Rome in July of 326, Crispus had already been executed and subjected to a damnatio memoriae. Fausta’s death must probably be set shortly after the festivities, which cannot have been very festive, in spite of all the pomp and splendour in Rome. The city was certainly beautiful. Upon the celebration of his Decennalia over ten years previously, Constantine had granted Rome the Basilica Nova and a complex of public baths, while his triumphal arch stood proudly next to the Colosseum. In addition to the aforementioned Basilica of the Saviour, the smaller basilica over the tomb of Saint Paul the Apostle must also have been completed, while it is likely that the construction of a much larger basilica over the tomb of Saint Peter had already started. Constantine did not live to see the completion of the latter basilica. After 326 he never visited Rome again. It is clear that the emperor’s mind was now set on the New Rome, the city of Constantinople that had been founded by Constantine himself. And Constantinople was rapidly taking shape.
The Holy Land
Constantine’s involvement in the construction of three of the most important churches in Rome is a historical fact. His religious legacy outside the city of Rome is impressive as well. It was probably during the Council of Nicaea that Constantine had met bishop Macarius of the town of Aelia Capitolina in the province of Syria Palaestina. Aelia had previously been known as Jerusalem, the city where Jesus Christ had preached and where he had been crucified. On the spot occupied by a temple of Venus a cave had been found that had been identified as the tomb of Christ. After the discovery Macarius, with financial support from Constantine, had had the temple demolished and replaced with a Christian church. This church would be consecrated in 335 by the metropolitan bishop, one Eusebius of Caesarea. Of course we all know this church now as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was basically part of a religious complex. Above the presumed tomb a circular building was erected that was called the Rotunda or Anastasis (‘resurrection’). South of the Rotunda stood a baptistery and on the east side it adjoined a courtyard known as Golgotha. This was supposedly the location of the hill of the same name, the “place of the Skull”, where the crucifixion had taken place. East of the courtyard stood a large basilica called the Martyrium. In the Italian city of Bologna we find a religious complex that was clearly based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In 326-327 Constantine’s mother Helena visited the region that would later be called the Holy Land. Since 324 she bore the title of Augusta – empress – and during her visit to the east she must have been well into her seventies. The visit will in part have been a pilgrimage, which was in line with the growth of religiously oriented tourism in those days. But Helena’s tour must also have been a goodwill mission. The eastern half of the Roman Empire, with its large Christian communities, had seen three emperors in succession – Diocletianus, Maximinus Daza and Licinius – that were anything but well disposed towards Christianity. This must have led to considerable mistrust of the Roman authorities. It was therefore essential for Constantine to demonstrate that he played a totally different kind of flute. To accomplish this, who was a more natural ally than his venerable old mother, who could easily present herself as a pious Christian lady. Helena had moreover been born in the east of the Roman Empire, in the vicinity of Nicomedia, and Greek was her first language. All these elements made her Constantine’s ideal ambassador.
On the spot in Jerusalem that was identified as the Mount of Olives Helena had the Church of the Eleona built. It was here that, according to tradition, Christ had ascended to Heaven. Unfortunately the Church of the Eleona or church of the Ascension can no longer be visited. In 614 it was destroyed by the Persians. In Bethlehem Helena had a church built on the spot where Christ had been born, the Church of the Nativity, which is still extant. The Churches of the Eleona and Nativity are Helena’s most famous buildings in the Holy Land, but during her tour she also visited smaller cities and towns, where she gave gifts to the people and embellished churches. The empress provided the soldiers with their donativa and never forgot about the poor and the sick. In this way she created support for her son the emperor.
Later the finding of the True Cross and even of the Holy Stairs from the palace of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilatus were also attributed to Helena. It should, however, be noted that the True Cross is only mentioned for the first time in a letter written by bishop Cyrillus of Jerusalem in 351. The Holy Stairs, which the pious may nowadays climb in Rome, probably have nothing to do with the Holy Land whatsoever. Helena died at an unspecified moment between 327 and 330. According to Eusebius, she was about eighty years old. Her body was taken to Rome, where it was placed in a circular mausoleum next to the basilica of Santi Marcellino e Pietro, a basilica of which very little remains today. Helena’s splendid porphyry sarcophagus has been preserved and can currently be admired in the Vatican Museums. As it features rather martial scenes, it is generally assumed that the sarcophagus was originally intended for Constantine himself.
- Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 41 (translated and annotated by H.W. Bird);
- Epitome de Caesaribus 41;
- Eusebius, Vita Constantini, Book 3.25-47;
- Eutropius, Breviarium Historiae Romanae6;
- Zosimus, Historia Nova, Book 2.
- Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 189;
- Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 379-390;
- Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 656-657.
 Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 41.
 Breviarium Historiae Romanae 10.6.
 Epitome de Caesaribus 41.11-12.
 Historia Nova, Book 2.29.
 Historia Francorum 1.36.
 See Eusebius, Vita Constantini, Book 3.25-47.
 Caesarea Maritima was the capital of Syria Palaestina. The bishop of Jerusalem was granted the status of a patriarch as late as 451.
 Vita Constantini, Book 3.46.