The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 48

The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. This week we focus on the sons of Constantine the Great, Crispus and Constantine II. Next week we will look at his other two other emperor sons, Constans and Constantius II.

Sons of Constantine the Great Part I of II

Crispus and Constantine II

constantine2Crispus was the oldest son of Emperor Constantine I and played a fairly important role in the political and military events of the early fourth century. His mother was a woman named Minervina, with whom Constantine had a relationship, probably illegitimate, before he married Fausta in 307.

Constantine entrusted the education of Crispus to the distinguished Christian scholar Lactantius, thereby giving a clear sign of his commitment to Christianity.

Crispus’ official career began at an early age and is well documented. In 317, his father appointed him Caesar. 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. In 324, during the second war between Constantine and Licinius, he excelled as commander of Constantine’s fleet in the waters. The high points of his career are amply reflected in the imperial coinage. Contemporary authors praise him, calling him “an Emperor most dear to God and in all regards comparable to his father.”

Crispus’ end was as tragic as his career had been brilliant. His own father ordered him to be put to death. Although the year is known (326), the circumstances are less clear. The most believable account states 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 Emperor Constantine ordered the death of his own wife as well, and the two cases must be considered together. Whatever the case, Crispus must have committed, or at least must have been suspected of having committed some shocking offense to earn him a sentence of death from his own father. Crispus’ honor was never restored and history has not recorded the fate of his wife and his child (or children).

Constantine II was born at Arelate, the son of Emperor Constantine and Fausta. His date of birth is reported as being at some time in 317. This date is of some doubt since it is known that Fausta’s son, Constantius II was born in August of the same year. Therefore one suspects that he was either born in 316 or Constantine II was the illegitimate child of Constantine and another woman.

In any case, Constantine II was elevated to the rank of Caesar alongside his half-brother Crispus. In 321, Constantine II then held the consulship, first as the colleague of his father, then of Crispus. The fact of Constantine II being made consul, too young even to be able to sign his own name yet, did much to support Licinius’ accusation that Constantine was seeking to advance his sons at the expense of Licinius’ son, a matter which was a contributing factor in the eventual break between the two Augusti.

In 324, the year of Licinius’ defeat, Constantine II held yet another consulship with Crispus. But in 326, Crispus was executed, leaving Constantine II as the senior Caesar alongside his brother and co-Caesar Constantius II who had been elevated by his father in 323.

In 332, Constantine II was sent by his father to the Danube to campaign against the Visigoths. Naturally his was a purely ceremonial command, the actual commanding of the troops was being conducted by seasoned generals rather than an unexperienced teenage royal heir. The campaign was successful, a crushing victory being won over the enemy.

In 335, Constantine announced the division of the Empire to follow his own death, between his sons and his nephews, Dalmatius and Hannibalianus. In this division, Constantine II would receive Gaul, Spain and Britain. However, the sons would defy Constantine’s wishes after his death in 337. Between them, the brothers agreed to simply eliminate their cousins. Was the reason for the murder of their cousins to not share territory with them? Then Constantine II failed to secure any additional territory for himself, remaining in control of only Britain, Gaul and Spain, though he, the eldest among the brothers, was acknowledged as the senior Augustus by the other two.

Their accession to power was tainted by murder, but it was not long before the brothers began to quarrel among themselves. One particular source of trouble was the Bishop Athanasius, who after fleeing to Treviri, was granted permission by Constantine II to return to Alexandria which was in the domain of Constantius II, who wanted him there under no circumstances.

In an attempt to allay their differences, the brothers held a meeting but could not come up with a solution. In 340, Constantine II broke with Constans and invaded Italy, with Constans absent from Rome engaged in suppressing an uprising among the Danubian tribes. Constans hastily sent back a relatively small force to Italy to slow the advance of the invader, while his main army would return. But this vanguard on its own successfully staged an ambush at Aquileia in which Constantine II was killed.

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