September 21 was the birthday of Faustina the Elder. I’ve had this on my calendar of dates of interest for a long while, as it’s part of my practice to honour (or at least acknowledge) the diui and diuae that my Gallo-Roman ancestors would have honoured—along with additional key figures from other periods who have significance for me. Anyway, so September 21 comes along, and I’m stood in front of my altar, saying my regular prayers, and I get to invoking Diua Augusta Faustina. And I just get this really profound feeling that there was something potent and positive and compelling from Faustina that I was meant to discover—a sort of, “Hey. Dig deeper. There’s more about me you should know about.” So I first spent a bit longer in prayer and meditation with Faustina than I had intended to, and set out to do some more research.
And it turns out there’s quite a lot to discover. First the basic Faustinian facts: She was born and raised in Rome to a well-connected family that had lucrative business interests in Spain. Her grandmother was the divine Matidia, niece of the divine Trajan and mother-in-law of the divine Hadrian. Faustina’s father was twice consul, and naturally her husband was not destined for a life of obscurity. He was in fact Antoninus Pius, adoptive son of the divine Hadrian, who, upon succeeding his father in 138 CE, became by some measures the best of the Good Emperors, enjoying a peaceful, prosperous 22-year principate. (Personally I tend to rate Hadrian’s rule higher, but there’s a very strong case to be made for Antoninus.) Incidentally, Antoninus Pius also came from Gaul; this native of Nemausus can stand alongside the divine Claudius and Postumus as princes that Gaul can be proud of.*
But in the midst of the prevailing peace, justice, and prosperity, there was a catch: Antoninus’ belovèd wife Faustina died in the third year of his reign (in late October, 140 CE). Antoninus was bereft, while Faustina was launched to immortality. (Echoes of Antinoüs here, perhaps?) Her statue went up everywhere; a temple was dedicated to her in a prominent part of the Roman Forum (it is still standing, having been repurposed as the Catholic church of San Lorenzo in Miranda). Antoninus continued commemorating Faustina throughout his life, notably on his coin issues. As much as a third of Antoninus’ coinage bears Faustina’s image rather than his own, while the reverses of such coins show a wide variety of religious and other themes: Aeternitas, Pietas Augusta, Faustina’s consecratio, the goddesses Ceres and Juno, Faustina’s funeral pyre (an ornate three-storey gilded wooden structure), her temple, and so on. Antoninus Pius endowed a charitable foundation in her honour, the Puellae Faustinianae or Faustinian Girls, which provided aid in the form of food and cash for orphan girls and other girls in need. This too is commemorated on coins.
And of course there’s the magnificent Column of Antoninus Pius, depicting the apotheosis of the divine Pius and the divine Faustina in quite an unusual way. They are side by side, looking serenely forward, as they are borne up to heaven on the back of not an eagle, but a winged genius or messenger—sometimes interpreted to be Æon—as the goddess Rome and the genius of the Campius Martius look on. The scene’s meaning is clear enough: through divine intervention, the time that separated Faustina’s death from Pius’ was overcome, and the couple were reunited in heaven to watch over the city they had ruled in life.
Apart from her appearance in these monuments and on so many coins, the divine Faustina remained present to worshippers in a variety of other ways. Her image was brought out so she could preside over events in the Circus Maximus: she was brought around sometimes in a carpentum or covered waggon, sometimes in a currus elephantorum or decorated cart drawn by a pair of elephants.
The cult image of the divine Faustina in Rome will have depicted her seated, with a tall thin sceptre or staff in her left hand and what appears to be a sheaf of wheat in her right hand, with a stephane or diadem on her head. The sheaf of wheat may perhaps have been emblematic of her generosity, or else a sign of her special closeness with Ceres (or both).
Newlyweds, moreover, would repair to her temple to sacrifice there, praying that they might enjoy the same marital concord that Antoninus Pius and Faustina had enjoyed (this certainly happened at Ostia, probably at Rome, and perhaps more widely). And Concordia is another dominant motif from Faustina’s coin issues.
To be honest, until recently I’d never thought very much about Faustina the Elder as a specific individual. Sure, I was aware of her as Antoninus Pius’ wife and as part of the family of goddesses—beginning with Marciana and continuing via Matidia and Sabina onwards†—who held the Five Good Emperors together as a family unit. The divine Faustina speaks irresistibly of prosperity and happiness, generosity and concord. She appears as a protégé—and conduit for the numina—of Ceres, Juno, Magna Mater, and other deities. It is also clear that her ongoing influence and example helped Antoninus Pius shape his principate—arguably the smoothest and best-governed in Roman history.
In addition to her September 21 birthday, two other (approximate) dates can be commemorated for Faustina: her death sometime in the range 21–23 October and her funeral in early November (sometime in 6–12 November). Immediately upon her death, she was “called a goddess by the Senate” (diua a Senatu appellata est). Her funeral arguably was the moment at which her soul was conveyed heavenward by the eagle: in Martin Beckmann’s theory, this would be the moment of her consecratio. In a perfect world, we would also celebrate the dedication of her temple in 144 CE, but as far as I’m aware, the exact date of this is unknown—as is the date of her marriage with Antoninus Pius. The day they became Augustus and Augusta was 10 July (of 138 CE), when the divine Hadrian also attained immortality. Also a day we can keep at least partly in Faustina’s memory is the ieiunium Cereris, or fast of Ceres, on 20 October. The idea behind fasting in honour of a deity of abundance and providence is plain enough: one gives something up for a short while in order to appreciate it the more later (and through it, the deity who bestows it). This rite also had an expiatory and purifying significance; furthermore, it permitted worshippers to participate in some sense in the anguish of Ceres in searching for Proserpine. We also know from the Fasti Ostienses that the divine Pius and Faustina observed this feast themselves on 20 October 140; that the divine Faustina joined the ranks of the immortals shortly thereafter; and that, like other diuae, she was afterwards closely associated with Ceres—perhaps more so than with any other deity.
Two of my chief sources for the above gleanings are Martin Beckmann (2012), Diva Faustina: coinage and cult in Rome and the provinces, American Numismatic Society, New York; and the much shorter but still interesting Bettina Bergmann & Wendy M. Watson (1999), The Moon and the Stars: Afterlife of a Roman Empress, Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Mass. On the ieiunium Cereris, I also consulted Ladislav Vidman (1978), “Ieiunium Cereris quinquennale (en marge des Fasti Ostienses)”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 28:87-95. (Did I ever mention what an awesome library I have access to? 😉 )
* In contrast, the emperors Gaius (Caligula), Bassianus (Caracalla), and Carus leave an obviously less happy legacy. Tetricus is a special (and interesting) case. He was the final Gallic emperor, and he was essentially bought off by Aurelian, who negotiated his surrender and sent him into a life of easy retirement in Italy. This certainly isn’t as glorious as the voluntary relinquishing of power so celebrated in Cincinnatus, George Washington, or Nelson Mandela, but it does show perhaps a certain degree of humility, even a willingness to sacrifice individual pride for the greater good.
† Though never called a diua by the Senate, the last of this line might have deserved such an honour. I’m referring to Lucilla, a granddaughter of the divine Faustina the Elder, who was the wife of the divine Lucius Verus and put to death by the brutish Commodus when she was implicated in a plot against him. We may remember Lucilla as a courageous opponent of tyranny—even when the tyrant was her own brother.