The British Museum holds a coin collection bearing the faces of Roman emperors and empresses, including Marcus Aurelius and Faustina the Younger. While not all these coins are currently on display, the stories behind them are filled with politics and drama. They tell a dramatic tale about those who ruled one of the largest empires in history.
One particularly interesting empress was Faustina the Younger (130-175 AD), the daughter of Roman Emperor Antonius Pius (ruled 138-161) and empress Annia Galeria Faustina (more well-known as Faustina the Elder). In fact, a coin of Faustina the Elder is displayed at the British Museum and is part of a future British Museum THATMuse digital hunt! Stay tuned and follow us on Instagram for updates! She was married off to her cousin, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180), by her father. Together they had twelve to fourteen children, only six of which survived to adulthood, five daughters and one son. Their son, Commodus, became the Roman Emperor after his father.
Rumor Has It
Rumors flew around the Roman Empire that Faustina the Younger had committed adultery multiple times – the most memorably with a gladiator. Though probably false and created by Faustina’s biggest enemies, the rumors are a lasting piece of Faustina’s legacy.
According to the legends, Faustina fell head over heels in love with a gladiator – despite her marriage to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. In the Roman times, gladiators were seen as sex symbols and as an aphrodisiac. Rich women in the Roman Empire would swoon over the gladiators. Some hired them as body guards to protect them, as well as have affairs with them. The story goes that when Marcus Aurelius found out about the affair, he was advised to take an unusual approach!
As told in the Historia Augusta, Marcus Aurelius had the gladiator executed and forced Faustina to “bathe in his blood” — ick! A gladiator’s blood was a way to renew passion between the adulterer (Faustina) and their spouse (Marcus Aurelius). Therefore, afterwards, Faustina and Marcus Aurelius slept together.
Alongside gladiators, Faustina is believed to have slept with sailors and soldiers. One lasting legacy of these affairs were the rumors about her son, Commodus, as people said he was the son of Faustina’s gladiator lover or another lover making him an ‘illegal’ child. Though never confirmed, many believe it true based on descriptions of Commodus acting like a gladiator during his ruling. There were also rumors about Faustina ordering deaths, including poisoning and executions, which made many believe she was an evil.
Despite the turmoil which surrounded her reputation, upon her death, Marcus Aurelius buried Faustina the Younger at the Mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome, and claimed her a deified mortal. In a life of scandalous love affairs, executions, and rumors, Faustina’s story would be at home on reality TV today. Would you turn on “Keeping up with the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty”?