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Crispus Caesar (317-326 A.D.)

Hans Pohlsander

SUNY Albany

Coin with the image of Crispus Caesar (c)1998 CGB numismatique, Paris

Crispus was the oldest son of the emperor Constantine I and played a fairly important role in the political and military events of the early fourth century. The regular form of his full name is Flavius Iulius Crispus, although the forms Flavius Claudius Crispus and Flavius Valerius Crispus also occur.[[1]] His mother was a woman named Minervina, with whom Constantine had a relationship, probably illegitimate, before he married Fausta in 307.[[2]] When Minervina died or when Constantine put her aside we do not know. Nor do we know when she gave birth to Crispus; we may assume, of course, that it was before 307. Some modern authorities, on good grounds, think that it was in 305.[[3]] Crispus' place of birth must have been somewhere in the East, and it is not known when he was brought to Gaul and when, where, or under what circumstances he was separated from his mother. Constantine entrusted the education of his son to the distinguished Christian scholar Lactantius,[[4]] thereby giving a clear sign of his commitment to Christianity.[[5]] We are not told when Lactantius assumed his duties, but a date before 317 seems likely.[[6]] Nor do we know how successful he was in instilling Christian beliefs and values in his imperial pupil. No later than January of 322 Crispus must have married a woman named Helena -- not to be confused with Constantine's mother or daughter by the same name- and this woman bore him a child in October of 322. Constantine, we learn, was pleased.[[7]]

Crispus' official career began at an early age and is well documented. On March 1 of 317, at Serdica (modern Sofia), his father appointed him Caesar.[[8]] The consulship was his three times,[[9]] in 318, 321, and 324. While nominally in charge of Gaul, with a prefect at his side, he successfully undertook military operations against the Franks and Alamanni in 320 and 323.[[10]] In 324, during the second war between Constantine and Licinius, he excelled as commander of Constantine's fleet in the waters of the Hellespont, the Propontis, and the Bosporus,[[11]] thus making a significant contribution to the outcome of that war. The high points of his career are amply reflected in the imperial coinage.[[12]] In addition to coins, we have his portrait, with varying degrees of certainty, in a number of sculptures, mosaics, cameos, etc.[[13]] Contemporary authors heap praises upon him. Thus the panegyrist Nazarius speaks of Crispus' "magnificent deeds,"[[14]] and Eusebius calls him "an emperor most dear to God and in all regards comparable to his father."[[15]]

Crispus' end was as tragic as his career had been brilliant. His own father ordered him to be put to death.[[16]] We know the year of this sad event, 326, from the Consularia Constantinopolitana,[[17]] and the place, Pola in Istria, from Ammianus Marcellinus.[[18]] The circumstances, however, are less clear. Zosimus (6th c.)[[19]] and Zonaras (12th c.)[[20]] both report that Crispus and his stepmother Fausta were involved in an illicit relationship. There may be as much gossip as fact in their reports, but it is certain that at some time during the same year the emperor ordered the death of his own wife as well,[[21]] and the two cases must be considered together.[[22]] That Crispus and Fausta plotted treason is reported by Gregory of Tours,[[23]] but not very believable. We must resolutely reject the claim of Zosimus[[24]] that it was Constantine's sense of guilt over these deeds which caused him to accept Christianity, as it alone promised him forgiveness for his sins. A similar claim had already been made by Julian the Apostate.[[25]] We must also, I think, reject the suggestion of Guthrie[[26]] that the emperor acted in the interest of "dynastic legitimacy," that is, that he removed his illegitimate first-born son in order to secure the succession for his three legitimate younger sons. But Crispus must have committed, or at least must have been suspected of having committed, some especially shocking offense to earn him a sentence of death from his own father. He also suffered damnatio memoriae,[[27]] his honor was never restored, and history has not recorded the fate of his wife and his child (or children).


Recent and concise accounts of the life and career of Crispus, with reference to the scattered primary sources, are the following:

A. H. M. Jones, J. R. Martindale, and J. Morris, The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire I (Cambridge, 1971) 233.

Adolf Lippold in Der kleine Pauly V (1975) 1592.

Timothy D. Barnes, The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine (Cambridge MA, 1982) 7-8, 44, and 83-84.

Ingemar König, Origo Constantini: Anonymus Valesianus (Trier, 1987) 136-38.

Dietmar Kienast, Römische Kaisertabelle, 2nd ed. (Darmstadt, 1996) 305-306.

The account by Otto Seeck, RE IV.2 (1901) 1722-24, has become in part obsolete.

More extensive or specialized studies are:

Josef Steinhausen, "Hieronymus und Laktanz in Trier," TZ 20 (1951) 126-54.

Patrick Guthrie, "The Execution of Crispus," Phoenix 20 (1966) 325-31.

Timothy D. Barnes, "Lactantius and Constantine," JRS 63 (1973) 29-46.

François Paschoud, Cinq études sur Zosime (Paris, 1975) 24-39.

Hans A. Pohlsander, "Crispus: Brilliant Career and Tragic End," Historia 33 (1984) 79-106.

Klaus Kremer, "Laktanz: Erzieher von Konstantins Sohn Crispus zu Trier," Kurtrierisches Jahrbuch 25 (1985) 35-59.

Samuel N. C. Lieu and Dominic Montserrat, edd., From Constantine to Julian: Pagan and Byzantine Views. A Source History (London 1996). Contains translation of and commentary on the Anonymus Valesianus, Origo Constantini.

Additionally references to Crispus will be found in all of the books on Constantine.


[[1]]Seeck in RE IV.2 (1901) 1722; Mattingly-Sydenham, RIC VII, index of obverse legends 724-25; also 67, n. 9. Jones-Martindale-Morris, PLRE I 233; Barnes, New Empire 7, n. 27; König, Origo Constantini 136; Kienast, Käisertabelle.2 2 306


[[2]]Aur. Vict. Epit. 41.4; Zosimus 2.20.2; Zonaras 13.2.37.

[[3]]Jules Maurice, Numismatique Constantinienne (Paris, 1908-1912) I 120-21; Richard Delbrueck, Spätantike Kaiserportrats (Berlin, 1933) 134; A. H. M. Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (London, 1948), 111; Joseph Vogt, Constantin der Grosse und sein Jahrhundert, 2nd ed. (Munich, 1960) 142; Guthrie, "The Execution of Crispus" 325; Jones-Martindale-Morris, PLRE I 233; Lippold in Der Kleine Pauly V (1975) 1592; "No later than 300," Barnes, New Empire 44, is to be rejected as being too early.

Full discussion in Pohlsander, "Crispus" 81-82, and in König, Origo Constantini 137.

[[4]]Euseb.-Hieron. Chron. Olymp. 274 (ed. Fotheringham 312; ed. Helm 230); Hieron. De Vir.Ill. 80.

[[5]] Cf. Joseph Vogt, "Constantinus der Grosse," in RAC III (1957) 306-79 at 335.

[[6]]Jones, Constantine (see n. 3) 80; Steinhausen, "Hieronymus und Laktanz in Trier" 128; Andreas Alföldi, The Conversion of Constantine and Pagan Rome (Oxford, 1969) 46, n. 1; Barnes, "Lactantius and Constantine" 40, n. 136; Kremer, "Laktanz" 41-43; König, Origo Constantini 138.

[[7]]Cod. Theod. 9.38. 1.

[[8]]For the abundant literary and epigraphical evidence see Pohlsander, "Crispus," 86, n. 57.

[[9]]Otto Seeck, Regesten der Kaiser und Päpste für die Jähre 311-476 n. Chr. (Stuttgart, 1919) 166-74; Attilio Degrassi, I fasti consolari dell'impero Romano dal 30 avanti Cristo al 613 dopo Cristo (Rome, 1952) 79; Barnes, New Empire 95-96 and 251; Roger Bagnall et al., Consuls of the Later Roman Empire (Atlanta, 1987) 170-71, 176-77, and 182-83; Kienast, Kaisertabelle 2 306.

[[10]]Pan. Lat. 4 (edd. Baehrens, Mynors, and Nixon and Rodgers) or 10 (ed. Galletier) 17.2; Ludwig Schmidt, Die Westgermanen, 2nd ed. (Munich, 1938) 248-49; Erich Zöllner, Geschichte der Franken (Munich, 1970) 15.

[[11]]Anonymus Valesianus 5.23 and 26-27 (MGH, AA IX 9-10; ed. Rolfe [LCL Amm. Marc. III] 522-24; ed. König 44 and 46; English transl. in Lieu and Montserrat, From Constantine to Julian 46-47); Zonaras 13.2.37; Maria R. Alföldi, Die constantinische Goldprägung (Mainz, 1963) 209, nos. 623-26.

[[12]]A good summary is provided by Raissa Calza, Iconografia Romana imperiale da Carausio a Giuliano (Rome, 1972) 273-74.

[[13]]A summary description is provided by Pohlsander, "Crispus" 89-97 with ill. 2-10.

[[14]]Pan. Lat. 4 (10) 3.4-5. More praise is bestowed on him ibid. 36.3-37.4. See also n. 10.

[[15]]Hist. Eccl. 10.9.6. Even more fulsome praise ibid. 10.9.4; Eusebius removed both passages from the final edition of the Hist. Eccl., after Crispus had fallen from grace.

[[16]] Hieron. De Vir. Ill. 80; Euseb.-Hieron. Chron. Olymp. 276 (ed. Fotheringham 313; ed. Helm 231); Aur. Vict. Caes. 41.11.

[[17]]Sub anno 326 (MGH, AA IX 232).




[[21]]Eutropius 10.6.3 (MGH, AA II 174; ad. Santini 67; ed. Friedhelm L. Müller [Stuttgart 19951 142); Aur. Vict. Epit. 41.11-12.

[[22]]Paschoud, Cinq études 37-38, and others before him.

[[23]]Hist. Franc., 1.34 in Migne, PL LXXI 179; 1.36 in MGH, SRM 1st ed. I 51; ibid. 2nd ed. I.1 26-27,


[[25]] Caes. 336A-B.

[[26]] "The Execution of Crispus" 327-28.

[[27]] CIL II 4107; CIL III 7172; CIL V 8030; CIL IX 6386a; CIL X 517 = Dessau, ILS 708; CIL X 678 = Dessau, ILS 710.

Copyright (C), Hans A. Pohlsander. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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