Sorry, Son, But You Have To Die: Why Constantine The Great Really Wasn't that Great.
Updated: Sep 26, 2023
Constantine I, who came to be known as Constantine the Great, was a Roman Emperor at the beginning of the 4th century, who won several important battles to reunite the Roman Empire under one emperor after decades of internal conflict. But Constantine is most famous for laying the foundation for Christianity to become the dominant religion in Europe.
Constantine demonstrated his belief in strict discipline and unbending principles when he ordered the execution of his eldest son and heir, Flavius Crispus, who might have committed adultery. And for good measure, Constantine also had his own wife, Fausta, put to death.
According to novelist Ian Ross, who wrote a book series entitled Imperial Vengeance: “It is one of the most mysterious episodes in later Roman history, a puzzle that has never been solved.
“In AD326, a year after the culmination of a civil war that had given him total power over the Roman world, the Emperor Constantine condemned his son and heir, Flavius Crispus Caesar, and his own wife, Flavia Maxima Fausta, to cruel and unusual execution. No official explanation was ever given.”
The absence of an explanation has not prevented speculation by a stream of scholars and historians. Among the theories is one that says a charge of adultery was brought against Crispus by Fausta, who was herself sentenced to death when Constantine became convinced of his son’s innocence.
Others claim that Fausta and Crispus were plotting treason together, or that she falsely accused Crispus of raping her, and was put to death in turn when the truth emerged.
Perhaps the final word should go to Dutch academic Jan Willem Drijvers, lecturer in ancient history at Groningen University, who wrote: “In the case of the executions of Crispus and Fausta, historians should admit that they have a mystery which will never be solved.”
There is no mystery, however, about Constantine’s rigid disciplinary code as applied to offenders, especially those found to have indulged in sexual misconduct. Rapists, by all accounts, were burned alive. The same fate awaited girls who eloped from the family home. A servant who conspired in such an elopement would be executed by having molten lead poured down his or her throat.
Even Crispus and Fausta apparently suffered agonising deaths – he by poison, she by being held in a bath where the temperature was increased until she died.
Despite all this Constantine achieved lasting fame and a place in history as “The Great”. That was partly because by 324, having become sole Emperor, he restored stability and security to the Roman world after it had been torn apart by 80 years of internal dissent.
He was responsible for a great number of social, financial, military and administrative reforms including shifting the empire’s capital from Rome to Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul). The city had been under Roman control for more than 100 years but under his massive expansion plans it was tripled in size and he renamed it – surprise, surprise! – Constantinople.
Finally, but most significantly, Constantine was the first emperor to convert to Christianity and to allow Christians to worship freely – at a time when most of the Roman population still worshipped the old gods of Rome.
He was instrumental in shaping the Edict of Milan which not only gave everyone the right to observe their own religion but ended the persecution of Christians which had gone on for generations, and restored to them property that had been seized. This development had a huge impact on European history.
Constantine’s support for Christianity is alleged to have come about during his struggles for control of the empire.
According to his biographer Eusebius, before one vital battle in which he faced great odds Constantine saw a cross of light in the sky, along with the Greek words for “With this sign, you shall win.”
So the emperor marked the Christian symbol of the cross on his soldiers’ shields and swore that if he was victorious he would pledge himself to Christianity.
When he did triumph he kept his word, supporting the faith for the rest of his life. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was built on his orders and became the holiest site in Christendom. He was also responsible for Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Many Christians venerate him as a saint.
In 337 he fell seriously ill at Nicomedia – present-day Izmit, Turkey – and was baptized shortly before his death, according to common practice of the time. He was 65 years old.
He had ruled for 31 years, longer than any emperor since Caesar Augustus, the first and according to many historians the greatest Roman Emperor.
But for all his reforms, Constantine remains controversial. Some historians argue that he was never a Christian, but just an opportunist. And one ancient writer describes him as having been “for ten years an excellent ruler, for twelve a robber and for ten a spendthrift.”