Fausta was the second wife of Constantine (he had divorced his first wife, Minervina). Their sons were Constans, Constantius II, and Constantine II. Constantine's first son, Crispus, was mothered by Minverina. We know Fausta was awarded the title Augusta by 324 AD largely because it “is revealed in the coins [in her name] with this title” (Woods 1998: 70). Yet these coins, dated as late as 328 AD, reveal a dramatic and dark mystery, both historical and numismatic.
|AE 20mm Follis of Flavia Maxima Fausta, commonly known as Fausta. Struck in Thessalonica, circa 326-328 AD, though other mints struck similar issues as early as 324 AD. The obverse legend reads "FLAV MAX FAVSTA AVG," the final letters, AVG, indicate she had been awarded the title Augusta, or Empress, by her husband, Constantine I "The Great."|
The reverse depicts the Empress holding a pair of infants (or Spes holding the infants, rather than the Empress, as the image is often interpreted, or sometimes "the Empress as Spes"). The infants' identities are uncertain. Perhaps they were the couple's sons, Constantine II (b. 316 AD) and Constantius II (b. 317), or, perhaps, mythical or symbolic characters such as Romulus and Remus. If they were living sons, Constans may have been omitted for cultural or simply practical reasons, being further down the line of regnal succession and/or born in 323 AD, very shortly before the first of these coins were struck.
The real mystery behind this coin is why this coin exists in the first place. In 326 AD Constantine I "The Great" had already issued the extreme measure, characteristic of the ancient world, of a damnatio memoriae against Fausta—a proclamation prohibiting a historical record of the person, an erasure or “damnation of memory,” as translated literally. There is some debate over why and how she died, but it was clearly in disgrace. She was either executed upon Constantine's order, committed suicide "voluntarily," or, perhaps, suffered a horrible death during a failed attempt to abort an adulterous pregnancy. (For more nuance and the context of the ongoing debate about her demise, see, e.g.: David Woods, 1998, "On the Death of the Empress Fausta," Greece and Rome 45: 70-86; Paul Stephenson, 2009, Constantine, London: Quercus).
By 324 (the first issue of the coin at any mint), Crispus already held considerable power, having been named Caesar, the position second in power and responsibility only to the Augustus (Emperor). Importantly, Crispus would have been the traditional heir to succeed the throne upon the Emperor's (Constantine's) death.
For decades, classical historians have predominantly considered Fausta to be responsible Cripus' death, having plotted to incite Costantine himself to order the execution of Crispus with a false accusation of rape. Indeed, sources writing as early as the 4th century (damnation memoriae be damned), say as much quite clearly and almost universally (see Woods , who comments on the earliest sources, but proposes a radically alternative hypothesis).
If the traditional account is to believed, Constantine certainly believed her when issuing the order of Crispus' execution. However, he was persuaded otherwise, in large part by his mother, Helena (according to the classical sources). Thus, Constantine discovered that the plot was false either immediately afterward, or, according to some sources, just before the execution. In either case it was tragically too late to send word to halt the killing.
Constantine, in turn, reputedly had Fausta executed upon uncovering her plot. Crispus seems to have been poisoned at about the same time Fausta died, a common method of suicide and occasional assassination, but not used in official executions in the Roman Empire. The histories record Fausta’s means of execution as being sealed in vat of scalding liquid and left to die of suffocation or burning, for which there is some precedent.
One bit of information, though, is difficult to fit into the traditional understanding of how and why Crispus and Fausta died. The damnatio also extended to include Crispus—a rare and extreme enough event, especially for a Caesar and first son of "the Great" Augustus Constantine, to spur at least one major rival hypothesis. Woods argues that, indeed, the deaths were related to Constantine learning of Crispus' sexual advances on Fausta. However, the punishments (including the damnation memariae against both), suggest that there may have been some truth to the claims. Crispus died of poisoning in a remote location where, Woods argues, Roman lawbreakers and political undesirables were often sent into exile. Combined with the mode of death (all contemporary sources cite poisoning), it is possible if not likely that his death was a suicide.
Helena may also have died of suicide or during a medical procedure; it is unclear. The sources agree that she died in boiling or "hot" water. However, bathing in extremely hot water was a method of abortion used at least since the time of Soranus, when he wrote his volumes, Gynaecology in the first century AD. Indeed, one of Domitian's daughters died of it (Woods 1998). Thus, the classical references to execution by boiling may have been fanciful reinterpretations of a medical procedure gone wrong or any number of other alternatives. Scandal, in whichever form, though, is difficult to deny: For an edict to erase two of the highest living members of Royalty from history (indeed, there is evidence that documents were re-written to exclude both), something remarkable and lurid must have occurred. Moreover, the edict was never rescinded by the sons of Fausta, all of whom outlived their father, Constantine I, and could have done so quite easily as one might expect.