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Crispus on a coin issued to celebrate Constantine I victory over Goths in 323.

Flavius Julius Crispus, also known as Flavius Claudius Crispus and Flavius Valerius Crispus was a Caesar of the Roman Empire. He was the first-born son of Constantine I the Great by Minervina.


Life account


Crispus' year and place of birth are uncertain. He is considered likely to have been born between 299 and 305 A.D. 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.

On May 1, 305, co-reigning Augusti Diocletian and Maximian abdicated in favor of their respective Caesars: Galerius and Constantius Chlorus. Constantine was thus able to leave his virtual captivity in Nicomedia and join his father in the West. Constantius Chlorus would not rule for long. He fell sick during a campaign against the Picts and Scots. Constantius died in Eboracum of Roman Britain on July 25, 306.

Constantine was present at the death of his father. Said father was supposed to be succeeded by his Caesar Flavius Valerius Severus. Constantine was however proclaimed Augustus by the troops of his father. Severus was himself proclaimed an Augustus in August, 306 but was unable to take action against Constantine. A revolt in Rome proclaimed a third Western Roman Augustus on October 28, 306. Maxentius, son of Maximian, had gained the support of the Praetorian Guard and soon managed to control Italy.

In 307, Maximian himself reclaimed the title of Augustus with the assistance of his son. Severus campaigned against them but was killed on September 16, 307. The Italian Augusti were however still threatened by Galerius and his Caesar Maximinus. They seeked an alliance with Constantine. Said alliance was sealed with the marriage of Constantine to Fausta, daughter of Maximian and sister of Maxentius.

Question of legitimacy

The marriage of Constantine to Fausta has caused modern historians to question what was the status of his relation to Minervina and Crispus. Assuming that Minervina was his legitimate wife, Constantine would need to secure a divorce before marrying Fausta. This action would require an official written order signed by Constantine himself. But no such order is mentioned by contemporary sources.

This lack of information has led many historians to conclude that the relationship between Constantine and Minervina was informal. Assuming her to be an unofficial lover. However it should be noted that Minervina could already be deceased by 307. A widowed Constantine would need no divorce order.

The true nature of the relationship between Constantine and Minervina is probably long lost in the mists of time. Also lost is the reason Crispus came under the protection of his father. The result of an illegitimate affair could have caused dynastical problems and would likely be dismissed. Crispus was however raised by his father in Gaul. This can be argued as evidence of Constantine having had a loving relationship of Minervina and thus a reason to preserve her son.

One should note that the story of Minervina was quite similar to that of Helena of Constantinople. Helena of Constantinople was the beloved first wife of Constantius Chlorus and the mother of Constantine. Constantius later had to divorce her for political reasons. Specificaly to marry Flavia Maximiana Theodora (daughter or step-daughter to Maximian, sister of Maxentius and Fausta) in order to secure his alliance with his new father-in-law. Now Constantine would have to put aside a possibly still alive Minervina in order to secure an alliance with the same man. Constantius had however not dismissed his son. Perhaps Constantine chose to follow the example of his father.


Whatever the reason, Costantine 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. Probably Lactantius started teaching Crispus before 317. There is no evidence that Lactantius managed to implant the values of Christianism to his young pupil. On the contrary it seems that Crispus was never baptised as a Christian during his lifetime.


By 317 there were two remaining Augusti in control of the Roman Empire. Constantine reigned as an Western Roman Emperor and his brother-in-law Licinius as an Eastern Roman Emperor.

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 A.D., 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 to victorious military operations against the Franks and the Alamanni 318, 320 and 323 A.D. Thus securing the continued Roman presence in the areas of Gaul and Germania. He joined his father in visiting Rome during 322 and received the warmest and most enthusiastic welcome by the crowds gave Crispus.

The soldiers adored him thanks to his strategic abilities and the victories to which he had led the roman legions. Perhaps more importantly, Crispus was neither a Christian nor in favour of the new religion. In contrast to his father who was certainly guilty of the later accusation and suspected for the former one. Therefore Crispus was likely seen as the secret hope of all pagans in the Western Roman Empire.

Crispus spent the following years assisting Constantine in the war against by then hostile Licinius. In 324 A.D., Constantine appointed Crispus as the commander of his fleet which left the port of Piraeus to confront the rival fleet of Licinius. The subsequent naval battle was fought in the waters of the Hellespont 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 against the armies of Licinius just outside Chrysopolis.

The two victories were his contribution to the final victory 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 inexperienced.


In 326, Crispus was suddenly executed according to the orders of his own father in Pola, Istria. Though the decision of Constantine was certainly cruel and unexpected, historians remain more interested in the motivation leading to it.

Zosimus in the 5th century and Joannes Zonaras in the 12th century both reported that Fausta, step-mother 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. Noble and shy 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 executed his wife Fausta at the end of 326 A.D.

This version of events has become the most widely accepted, since all other reports are even less satisfactory.

A treason against Constantine jointly plotted by Fausta and Crispus is rejected by most historians. They would have nothing to gain considering their positions as favourites of Constantine.

Another version suggests that Constantine killed Crispus because as an 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. Nevertheless, Crispus' status as a legitimate or illegitimate son remains uncertain.

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 at Emperor while Crispus was still a youthful Caesar. Similarily, 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 suggest that he suspected Crispus of a crime so terrible that death was not enough. Crispus also suffered damnatio memoriae, meaning his name was never mentioned again and was deleted from all official documents and monuments. Crispus, his wife Helena and their son were never to be mentioned again in historical records. The eventual fate of Helena and her son are a mystery.

Constantine may have been eventually convinced of Crispus' innocence. But he 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.

Beyond doubt there was a connections between the executions of Crispus and Fausta. Both happened too close in time to be coincidental. Such agreement among different sources connecting the 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 executing both of them. 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.

Mythological archetype

The story of Zosimus and Zonaras listed above is suspiciously similar to 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. One wonders if the legend provided inspiration for two historians attempting to resolve a historical el:Κρίσπος pl:Kryspus fi:Crispus it:Crispo


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