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Did Faustina the Younger sleep around?

By Jasper Burns

 


Copyright by Jasper Burns

In 175 C.E., Faustina the Younger, the wife of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, died in the village of Halala near Mount Taurus in Cappadocia, now in eastern Turkey. The cause of her death is uncertain. Cassius Dio tells us that she either died from gout or killed herself to avoid the penalty for conspiring with a provincial governor (Avidius Cassius) to overthrow her husband! This charge was almost certainly false and, in any case, Marcus was so lenient in dealing with the rebellion that he regretted the death of Cassius and certainly would never have punished his own wife. The Historia Augusta says she died from a sudden illness.

The village in which Faustina died was renamed Faustinopolis in her honor and a temple to her was erected there. A vast memorial coinage was issued in her memory. The Roman Senate set up silver images of Faustina and Marcus Aurelius in the Temple of Venus and Rome in the capital as well as an altar in their honor on which all Roman newlyweds would offer sacrifice. The Senate also ordered that a golden statue of the Empress would be carried into the theater whenever Marcus was in attendance and placed in the special section where Faustina had sat, surrounded by the influential women of Rome.

    
Faustina the Younger (posthumous portrait) and Marcus Aurelius as Caesar

Marcus Aurelius honored his wife by delivering her eulogy and by establishing a new order of underprivileged girls to be supported by the State, the puellae Faustinianae ("Faustina's girls"). Cassius Dio tells us that Marcus wrote the Senate immediately after his wife's death, begging them not to execute any senators implicated in the recent rebellion, "as if through this he might be consoled for losing her."

Marcus never remarried after Faustina's death, preferring to take the daughter of her steward as his mistress. The Emperor said that to marry again would have unfairly burdened his children with a stepmother. Throughout the remaining five years of his reign, he continued to pay homage to his wife. In fact, his grief over her loss became legendary. Nearly two hundred years after her death, the Emperor Julian II, who idolized Marcus Aurelius, commented that he had mourned her beyond "what was becoming" though she was "not even a virtuous woman."

As Julian's comment suggests, Faustina has gone down in history as a model of misconduct. Many ancient writers charged her with adultery, treason, and even murder! She was believed to have had innumerable lovers from all levels of society. The historian Sextus Aurelius Victor wrote that she shamelessly cruised for sexual partners among the sailors who worked naked on the beaches of Campania in Italy! Senators as well as gladiators and pantomime actors were said to have been seduced by the Empress. It was believed by many that Commodus, who fought publicly as a gladiator when emperor, was fathered by a gladiator rather than by the dignified Marcus Aurelius. Faustina was rumored to have had an affair with her son-in-law, Lucius Verus, and to have been guilty of his murder.

According to the historians, Marcus was anything but ignorant of his wife's scandalous behavior. The Historia Augusta claims that, during an illness, Faustina confessed to her husband that she had had an affair with a particular gladiator, the supposed father of Commodus. Marcus consulted his soothsayers about what should be done to remove his wife's passion, and they advised him to execute the gladiator and have Faustina bathe in his blood just before lying with her husband! The same source states that the Emperor even caught Faustina breakfasting with one of her high-ranking lovers, and yet promoted him and others like him to high positions.

Paradoxically, the Historia Augusta also says that Marcus was either ignorant or pretended to be ignorant of Faustina's affairs and defended his wife in his letters. The historian reports that, when he was told about her misdeeds and urged to divorce or even kill her, he replied that "If I send her away, I will also have to return her dowry," which, of course, was the Roman Empire (she was the daughter of Marcus' predecessor, Antoninius Pius).

What are we to make of all this? Surely, where there is so much smoke, there must be some fire? If we consider the case in support of Faustina, we find that it rests on very meager literary evidence. However, the primary witness on her behalf is the man who knew her best and to whom she was married for thirty years. In the first book of his "Meditations," in which he expresses his gratitude for the good things in his life, Marcus Aurelius gives thanks that "I have been blessed with a wife so obedient, so affectionate, so genuine." This testimony should not be dismissed lightly; it was not written for anyone but Marcus Aurelius himself to read.

There are other arguments in favor of Faustina, including the abundant and often distinctive honors paid to her by her husband and by the Senate and Roman people. There is no hint that she was denied the public credit due to an Empress who fulfilled her role with energy and dignity. The stories of her adulteries could easily have arisen after her death in response to the outrageous behavior as Emperor of her unpopular son Commodus. Also, if the stories of Faustina's debauchery were true, we might wonder how she found the time and opportunity to carry on such a frantic sex life while bearing and raising fifteen children! She was rarely parted from her husband, even choosing to share his hardships on the frontier when she did not have to. Furthermore, Fronto's letters to Marcus belie the stories that the Emperor's children were not his own. He goes on and on about Marcus' remarkable resemblance to them: "They are exactly like you in appearance; nothing could be more similar."

So how did the gossip against Faustina gain such force and credibility? It seems as if the Empress had some very powerful enemies.

In fact, there is evidence of animosity between her and perhaps the richest, most influential private citizen of his time: the gifted Athenian orator Herodes Atticus. In an age when orators and philosophers were like pop stars, able to attract crowds of people eager to marvel at their verbal and intellectual gymnastics, Herodes Atticus was a superstar. As a typical sophist, he was part teacher, part lawyer, and part entertainer. His students, many of whom became celebrities in their own right after his death, included the young Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.

Herodes Atticus was as famous for his prodigious wealth and magnificent gifts to the cities of Greece as for his academic prowess. Nevertheless, he was a controversial figure with at least as many enemies as friends. He had a reputation for treating his slaves and freedmen harshly. He berated and mocked his mentally retarded son and didn't hesitate to humiliate his rivals and students with his razor sharp wit.

In about 160, Atticus was charged with murdering his own wife, Annia Regilla. It was claimed that he had a servant beat Regilla for some minor offense when she was eight months pregnant! Atticus proclaimed his innocence and tried to prove it by an ostentatious display of mourning. To some, these gestures were proof of his innocence; to others they were proof of his guilt. He was acquitted for lack of evidence but the suspicions lived on.

As the richest man in the eastern half of the Empire, Atticus behaved in a high-handed way and was often accused of playing the tyrant. Opposition to him in Athens grew until, in 174, he formally accused three city officials of conspiring against him. Rather than stand trial in Athens, where Atticus' influence was strong, the three men went to Marcus Aurelius' headquarters at Sirmium to plead their case before the Emperor.

Faustina and her youngest child Sabina, aged 3, were with Marcus in Sirmium and urged him to provide for the needs of these defendants. They also let him know that they were firmly opposed to Herodes Atticus in this matter. Little Sabina supposedly even fell at her father's knees, begging him in her baby talk to save her Athenians.

    
Faustina's Parents: Antoninus Pius (reigned 138-161) and Faustina the Elder (posthumous portrait)

Faustina had ample reason to dislike Atticus. When she was about 10 years old, her father Antoninus had been involved in a quarrel with him on Mount Ida in Asia Minor. The two men and their parties had met each other on a narrow road and, when neither side would give way, a shoving match had ensued. Some even said that Atticus struck the future emperor during the incident! Furthermore, the unfortunate Regilla was related to Faustina and about her age. It is very possible that the two were girlhood friends in Rome, where Regilla's family had a villa on the Appian Way. Faustina would not have forgotten the accounts of Atticus' cruelty towards her.

When Atticus himself arrived in Sirmium, he was accompanied by the servant who had allegedly beaten Regilla, who brought his beautiful twin daughters, whom Atticus cherished as if they were his own. The night before the case was to be heard by the Emperor, lightning struck the building in which the girls were staying and killed them both!

The next day, the grief-stricken Atticus forgot his usual eloquence and complained bitterly to Marcus that he had been "sacrificed to the whim of a woman and a three year-old child." He abused Marcus for ingratitude and, when warned by the praetorian prefect that he was courting death by speaking so bluntly to an emperor, the aged orator replied that "an old man fears few things" and stormed out of the proceedings.

Marcus wept when he heard the charges brought against his former tutor, and was forced to punish Atticus' servants for their roles in the crimes. Atticus himself lived away from Athens for about a year in what may or may not have been a voluntary exile.

Certainly, Faustina would not have appreciated Atticus' crack about the "whim of a woman" and she may have had a role in his removal from Athens. It is interesting that the orator waited until after Faustina's death to write to Marcus Aurelius in a successful attempt to renew their friendship. The Emperor, who always treated his former teachers with profound respect, wrote a letter to the people of Athens about this time asking them to forgive Atticus' for his excesses and welcome him home.

Atticus outlived Faustina by a few years, dying in his 70's in the late 170's. To the end of his life, the so-called "King of Orators" and "Tongue of Greece" was surrounded by adoring pupils, many of whom became famous writers and sophists in their own right. We may wonder if the image of the Empress Faustina as a latter day Messalina was the creation of Herodes Atticus and his followers. If so, then his revenge for the humiliation at Sirmium would have been complete.

Marcus Aurelius, aged 58, passed away at his northern base of Vindobona (modern Vienna, Austria) on March 17, 180. His son Commodus, who had been co-emperor since 177, ruled the Empire badly (his sister Lucilla was executed in 182 for plotting his overthrow) until his murder on the last day of 192. His assassination precipitated a series of civil wars that were reminiscent of the struggle for power that had followed the death of Nero.

The eventual winner of the throne was an African by the name of Septimius Severus. He modeled his reign on that of Marcus Aurelius, even renaming his older son for the deified emperor. However, when that son, better known as Caracalla, assumed the throne, he showed a peculiar dislike for Faustina, though he was born 13 years after her death. He revoked her deification and deconsecrated the temple in Cappadocia that Marcus Aurelius had erected for her.

Interestingly, Caracalla had been taught by a student of Herodes Atticus' leading disciple. Furthermore, two of Faustina's accusers, the historians Cassius Dio and Marius Maximus, as well as Atticus' admiring biographer, the sophist Philostratus, were all closely associated with Caracalla's court. Certainly, the young Emperor's attitude toward Faustina was influenced by these men.

    
Two of Faustina's children - Lucilla and Commodus

In 212, Caracalla ordered the death of Faustina's daughter, Cornificia, then in her fifties. The manner of her death, recorded by Cassius Dio, reflects the dignity of her upbringing: "Her last words were 'My poor, unhappy soul, trapped in an unworthy body, go forth, be free, show them that you are the daughter of Marcus Aurelius!' Then she took off her ornaments, composed herself, opened her veins, and died."

(This is an excerpt from an early draft of a biography of Faustina the Younger from the upcoming book, Great Women of Imperial Rome, scheduled for publication by Routledge, Oxford, in Fall 2006. Read about the upcoming book.)

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