Now I love a sauna, a hot tub and a spa day. But because I can’t afford spa days left right and centre, for me there is nothing better than a long, hot soak surrounded by lovely bubbles, candles and maybe some wine if I am feeling fancy. Constantine’s wife however probably felt differently. Considering she was sentenced to death by being thrown into boiling hot water, or suffocated due to the immense heat of a sauna, I can see why. After all it’s not every day that historians refer to your demise as being ‘poached to death’ as if you are some overgrown egg.
Intrigued? Read below to find out more about the life and death of the Empress Fausta.
Trigger warning: please note this article does discuss rape and abortion.
Fausta was born in around 289 A.D and was the daughter of the Emperor Maximian. In 307, Fausta was used like most noble women were – to seal an alliance – this time for control of the Tetrarchy. As such, she such was married off to Constantine who set aside his current wife Minervina to be with Fausta- lucky her!
As Fausta was the daughter of Maximian and the sister of Emperor Maxentius, she was a powerful ally for Constantine and had an active role in the downfall of her father. Her father, Maximian, plotted to assassinate Constantine and when he tried to involve her in the plot, she revealed the whole thing to Constantine and so the assassination was stopped. As a result of her revelations, Maximian was then killed, by assassination or suicide – we are not quite sure which one. Either way, her father died and she had an active role to play in his demise. Not quite the loving father-daughter relationship.
Due to her loyalty Fausta was held in high esteem by Constantine, evidenced in 324 when she was proclaimed ‘augusta.’ This was a title that was given to empresses and honoured women of the imperial family and implied the greatest prestige- implying that Fausta really was at the top of her game. However, in 326 Fausta was suddenly and publicly out of favour, so much so that she was sentenced to death and her memory condemned with coins and statues of her defaced and erased from history. Why this sudden turn around? Below are five theories about why Fausta was killed!
Theory One: Adultery.
Although the circumstances surrounding her death and the reasons for it are exceptionally murky, one theory which has stood the test of time is that she committed adultery. It is believed by some that she entered into an illicit relationship with her stepson Crispus, Constantine’s son from his first marriage, who was also put to death. This adultery is attested to by the ancient historian Zosimus who states:
“He killed Crispus…when he incurred suspision of of having sexual relations with his stepmother Fausta…Constantine tried to remedy the evil: having ordered baths to be heated above the normal level, he deposited Fausta in them and brought her out when she was dead.”
Although the theory can’t be proven, some historians believe that the fact she was having an affair was highly likely. This is because the time between the death of Crispus and the death of Fausta was exceptionally short, indicating that the two were involved with each other some way. This is backed up by the simultaneous way in which both coinage depicting Crispus and Fausta were defaced and discontinued.
Theory Two: Rape allegation number 1.
Another theory which has been circulated throughout the years is that Fausta accused Crispus of raping her. When she tells Constantine, he of course flies into a rage and orders his son to be killed as punishment for his sexual transgressions. However, in this theory, Constantine finds out that Fausta was lying, accusing Crispus because of some weird jealousy thing she had going on- almost like Phaedra and Hippolytus in myth! This of course results in Constantine sentencing her to death for her lies as stated below in the Epitome de Caesaribus:
“But when Constantine had obtained control of the whole Roman Empire by means of his wondrous success in battle, he ordered his son Crispus to be put to death, at the suggestion of his wife Fausta, so they say. Then he killed his wife Fausta by hurling her into boiling baths.”
Like theory number one, we don’t really know if Fausta was the driving force behind the death of Crispus and this theory could be an attempt to perpetuate the narrative that Fausta was some devilish, manipulative woman weirdly obsessed with her stepson. The rape allegation is shrouded in mystery and it is unlikely we will ever find out the truth. What we do gather from the two sources here though is that Fausta was killed in the baths – lovely.
Theory Three: Rape allegation number 2, abortion and suicide?
Like the previous theory, this one again revolves around the alleged rape of Fausta at the hands of Constantine’s son Crispus but with a twist. This time, Fausta is pregnant and when Constantine returns to find his wife pregnant after a long absence, she tells him she is pregnant because Crispus raped her. Like last time, Crispus is sentenced to death however Fausta is not.
Instead, Constantine orders that she get an abortion and in the ancient world, hot baths were believed to induce abortions in women. So Fausta goes to the baths not because she has been sentenced to die, but because she must get an abortion. In this theory therefore she dies purely by accident as she is suffocated to death by the heat of the sauna whilst trying to abort her baby:
“Hence Constantine had Crispus punished, following which he forced Fausta to proceed with an abortion, in the course of which she died.” Woods (1998), 78
It has also been said however that Fuasta committed suicide, willingly going to the baths to get an abortion and kill herself in the process rather than face an alternate, potentially worse fate should the rape allegations prove false or if Constantine changed his mind.
The abortion theory is…interesting and I am not sure if I believe that it has merit. I think it is a bit far fetched to assume that this was some terrible accident and that Constantine didn’t mean for her to die. In my eyes, he did.
Theory Four: Plotting gone wrong
It is also plausible that the two were sentenced to death for plotting against Constantine but this really makes little sense to me. This is because Fausta would most likely be plotting against Crispus to get her sons on the throne, not with him because after all why would she want the son of another to succeed? If she were plotting with Crispus against Constantine however and they were found out, it would make sense that the two were sentenced to death.
But, as I said I don’t think this one is likely just because it makes no sense that she would plot with someone who would be in line for inheriting the throne in place of her sons. But, it could be that they were plotting together to get rid of Constantine so they could rule together, married as mother and stepson. However that sounds a bit too Game of Thrones for my liking.
Theory Five: The bath staff really messed up.
Sounds stupid but you never know it could have happened! As the circumstances surrounding the death of Fausta are so shrouded in mystery, it could be that the bath staff just messed up the temperature of the place that day! As budding scholar and friend of mine M.B said:
“what if they went out for drinks the night before and were really hungover so just really messed up the temperature situation which led to her death.” M.B. 2020
Personally I think this theory is a winner – jokes. It is a darkly funny concept though that the bath staff accidentally killed the empress because they were hungover.
All of the theories I have mentioned above have their flaws and merits and even when combined together leave us no closer to discerning exactly why Fausta was sentenced to death. As always it is difficult to tell from historical sources whether or not there are any grains of truth concealed in their writings. For example, do the sources discuss the adultery allegations to tarnish Fausta’s reputation further? Or to lap up the juicy gossip and attention surrounding the illicit, high profile sex scandal? Are the sources which discuss the rape allegations falsified? Perpetuating Fausta as a jealous stepmother who causes the demise of her innocent stepson? Or do they genuinely contain information about the potentially violent sexual transgressions of Crispus which lead to the sad and accidental demise of Fausta? Even the manner of her death is a mystery with some saying she was boiled alive/ poached in a bath of boiling water and others saying she was locked in a sauna until she suffocated and died of exposure to extreme heat.
Whatever the reason and manner of death, Fausta was executed and following her death, was practically erased from history. Her memory was condemned, and she was struck from coins and statues which detailed her likeness were defaced. She was so erased from history that no contemporary source describes her fate with Eusebius mentioning neither Crispus nor Fausta in his ‘Life of Constantine.’ The silence here is telling. That no contemporary author describes the death of Fausta would indicate that a real scandal does lie beneath the surface of the bath water, between the mists of the steam room.
Although we are no closer to discerning why Fausta was killed we do know that she and Crispus are mysteriously linked in the sands of time and who knows if we will ever find out the truth behind the demise of Fausta.
Oh and we know baths are definitely involved. I am now off to enjoy mine! x
Banchich, T. M. (2018), tr., Epitome De Caesaribus. A Booklet about the Style of Life and the Manners of the Imperatores sometimes attributed to Sextus Aurelius Victor, Buffalo, NY.
Walford, E. (1855), tr., Epitome of the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius Compiled by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, London.
Barnes, T. D. (2014), Constantine: Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire, Chichester
Harries, J. (2014), ‘The Empresses’ tale, AD 300-360’, in C. Harrison, C. Humfress and I. Sandwell (eds), Being Christian in Late Antiquity: A Festschrift for Gillian Clark, Oxford, 197-213.
James, L. (2001), Empresses and Power in Early Byzantium, London.
Varner, E. R. (2001), ‘Portraits, Plots, and Politics: Damnatio Memoriae and the Images of Imperial Women’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 46, 41-93.
Woods, D. (1998), ‘On the Death of the Empress Fausta’, Greece & Rome 45.1, 70-86.