The emperor Constantine famously had both his eldest son Crispus and his wife Fausta killed in 326. Mystery has surrounded the events ever since. There are no contemporary accounts, and the earliest surviving recitations of events are overlaid with polemic.
The most frequently-told story is based upon the version recounted some 175 years later by the pagan Byzantine historian Zosimus (floruit 490s - 510s), who in his New History tied the two deaths together. Constantine had Crispus, the son of his first wife Minervina, killed when he heard allegations that Crispus had assaulted his (Constantine's) second and then current wife Fausta. Constantine then had Fausta killed when he heard the allegation against Crispus had been false, or perhaps simply out of remorse:
Now that the whole empire had fallen into the hands of Constantine, he no longer concealed his evil disposition and vicious inclinations, but acted as he pleased, without controul. He indeed used the ancient worship of his country; though not so much out of honour or veneration as of necessity. Therefore he believed the soothsayers, who were expert in their art, as men who predicted the truth concerning all the great actions which he ever performed.
But when he came to Rome, he was filled with pride and arrogance. He resolved to begin his impious actions at home. For he put to death his son Crispus, stiled (as I mentioned) Caesar, on suspicion of debauching his [step-mother] Fausta, without any regard to the ties of nature. And when [Constantine's] own mother Helena expressed much sorrow for this atrocity, lamenting the young man's death with great bitterness, Constantine under pretence of comforting her, applied a remedy worse than the disease. For causing a bath to be heated to an extraordinary degree, he shut up Fausta in it, and a short time after took her out dead. Of which his conscience accusing him, as also of violating his oath, he went to the [pagan] priests to be purified from his crimes. But they told him, that there was no kind of lustration that was sufficient to clear him of such enormities.
A Spaniard, named Aegyptius, very familiar with the court-ladies, being at Rome, happened to fall into converse with Constantine, and assured him, that the Christian doctrine would teach him how to cleanse himself from all his offences, and that they who received it were immediately absolved from all their sins. Constantine had no sooner heard this than he easily believed what was told him, and forsaking the rites of his country, received those which Aegyptius offered him . . ..
Most modern historians point out that the story is unreliable, appearing to have been invented to explain Constantine's conversion to Christianity, but then wind up settling for some version of it, for want of any better alternative. Discussion then usually turns to speculation about details. Did Crispus actually "debauch" his step-mother or merely attempt to do so? Or did Fausta, a la Phaedra or Potiphar's wife, attempt to seduce her step-son and then, when he rejected her blandishments, run to Constantine and accuse Crispus of being the aggressor? Was it Helena who in fact convinced Constantine of Crispus' innocence and Fausta's guilt (and if so how did she know?), or did she perhaps accuse Fausta of an unrelated crime, such as adultery?
The great historian of the later Roman Empire, Arnold Hugh Martin Jones, presents an alternate hypothesis in his book Constantine and the Conversion of Europe. Prof. Jones concedes that we can never be sure as to what happened:
All we know for certain is that the Caesar Crispus, Constantine's brilliant eldest son, who had recently distinguished himself in the campaign against Licinius, was without warning, as he was accompanying his father to the Vicennalia celebrations at Rome, executed at Pola, and that shortly afterwards the Empress Fausta, recently proclaimed Augusta, was mysteriously put to death - rumour said by suffocation in the hot chamber of her bath.
However, Prof. Jones concludes that "it would seem unlikely that the melodramatic story recounted by later writers is true" and the two deaths "were unconnected, despite their coincidence in time." He believes that "a clue to Crispus' offense is perhaps to be found in an extraordinary edict which Constantine issued from Aquileia on" on April 1, 326 entitled "On the Abduction of Virgins or Unmarried Women" (De raptu virginum vel viduarum, found at Theodosian Code IX.24.1 et seq.). In it Constantine
imposes "most savage penalties" (they are not on record, having been reduced later to capital punishment) on abduction, and this whether the girl was willing or unwilling; in the former case she is to suffer the same penalty as her paramour, in the latter she is still to be penalized by the loss of her rights of inheritance, because she could have roused the neighbors by her cries. The girl's parents, if they condone the offence, are to be deported. Servants who acted as go-betweens are to have their mouths closed with molten lead.
The timing of the edict "and its violent, almost hysterical, tone, strongly suggest," Prof. Jones believes, "that it was provoked by Crispus' case." If so, "Crispus' offence cannot have been that alleged by later popular report." Instead, Prof. Jones suggests that Crispus may have
abducted some unknown girl, and that she had acquiesced and the parents had been willing to compromise the case. Crispus' offense was the graver, in that he was already married to a certain Helena [not Constantine's mother, obviously], and had a child by her - born in 322. He can thus have offered satisfaction to the unknown girl only by making her his concubine; and that this what he had done is suggested by another law, issued about this time and perhaps forming part of the edict on abduction, prohibiting married men from keeping concubines.
What then of Fausta? If her death was unrelated to that of Crispus, why was she killed? Prof. Jones finds a hint in another law promulgated by Constantine at Nicomedia on April 25, 326 as an amendment to Lex Iulia concerning adultery (Ad legem Iuliam de adulteriis, Theodosian Code IX.7.2):
Although adultery is considered a public crime, the accusation for which is granted to everyone alike, without any limitation of law, still, in order that marriages may not be disgraced at pleasure, only the nearest relatives shall have the right to bring such accusation, that is to say, father, brother, paternal and maternal uncle, who are incited to do so by reason of true grief.
1. But we give permission to these persons to dismiss the accusation, if they wish.
2. The husband, above all, should be the avenger of the marriage bed, who may indeed accuse his wife on suspicion, though he may keep her with him if he only suspects her. And the emperors of the past consented that he should not incur the peril (frequently) arising from filing a written information, since he may accuse under his right as husband.
3. We direct that outsiders shall be kept from making any accusation; for although the necessity of a written complaint exists in every kind of accusation, some persons nevertheless make such complaints rashly, and seek to cast disgrace on marriages by false slander.
4. Violators of marriage-chastity should be punished by the sword.
Prof. Jones believes that the promulgation of this law suggests that Fausta was accused of adultery:
That Fausta was charged with adultery is suggested by a constitution, posted at Nicomedia on 25th April, 326. In this Constantine limits the right of accusation in case of adultery to the near relatives of the erring wife, and in the first place to her husband - in Roman law adultery was a crime, and a common informer had hitherto been able to accuse.
And what was Helena's involvement, if any?
It may be, too, that Helena played some part in [Fausta's] fall. It is, at any rate, odd that Helena was proclaimed Augusta - thus emerging from an eclipse of over thirty years - only a year or two before Fausta's death, and it is perhaps significant that immediately after she made a pilgrimage to Palestine - she had been converted to Christianity by her son, Eusebius tells us - where she contributed lavishly to the new churches at the Holy Places. She died not long after in the odour of sanctity.
For what it's worth, I find the connection between Fausta's alleged offense and the adultery law less convincing. The emendation of the law promulgated by Constantine limited the categories of persons who could bring charges of adultery. But why would this amendment have been relevant to Fausta's case, where the complainant was presumably Constantine himself? Perhaps Prof. Jones means to find relevance in the fact that the amendment appears also to eliminate the requirement of a "written information," legalizing Constantine's precipitous action. But if so he does not say.
The arguments concerning Helena are even less persuasive, I think. I simply don't understand why it is relevant that Helena was proclaimed Augusta several years earlier, or that she subsequently visited Palestine. As to the former, it is inconceivable that Constantine received information from Helena years before he acted on it. And as to the latter, is Prof. Jones suggesting that she was atoning because her information led to Fausta's execution? Or was she doing penance on behalf of a remorseful Constantine? Again, Prof. Jones does not exactly say.