Shameless Facts About Faustina the Younger, The Most Scandalous Roman Empress

Tricky Brick / March, 07, 2024

Stories from the Roman Empire rarely disappoint. With all its tales of gladiators conquests and messy love stories reality tv producers would have had a field day if television existed back then. One character from the Roman empire that doesn’t get much airtime is the Roman empress Faustina the Younger—one of the most shameless and scandalous royals of her time.

1 She Had A Hard Act To Follow

Faustina had impossibly large shoes to fill. You see her illustrious mother Annia Galeria Faustina left a virtually flawless legacy. She graciously did her duty as a Roman empress and the countrymen loved her so much that they gave her the highest title a woman could receive at that time “Augusta”. Faustina's father also declared her mother a goddess.

But despite having to follow in the shadow of greatness there was one thing about little Faustina that made her stand out from all the rest.

2 She Got Lucky

Child mortality in Rome rocketed past the rest of modern society at the time Faustina was born in 130 AD. Babies rarely survived through childhood. In fact Faustina became the only child of her parents to survive to adulthood. Faustina was lucky to be alive at all but also lucky to be alive in Rome when she was. Fortune had certainly smiled on her...for now

3 She Had The Best Of Rome

At her birth Rome experienced a time historians called the “Pax Romana". While they continued to repress enemy countries and cultures Rome itself lived in peace with diplomatic transfers of power from one emperor to another. This soon came to an end however and in some ways Faustina may have played a disturbingly major role in the end of the great Roman period.

4 She Had No Control

Faustina never got the chance to make her own life plans. She lived with all the lavish comforts and luxuries afforded to the highest members of the wealthy Roman empire but there was one disturbing downfall to her station. She had no control over her own life. Her father steered her wherever he pleased and the consequences were chilling.

Long before becoming an adult by our contemporary standards Faustina's family forced her into very adult life-altering positions

5 Her Marriage Was Political

Faustina’s family arranged her first marriage and she had no say in the matter. When her second cousin emperor Hadrian adopted Lucius Verus to be his heir he arranged Faustina’s marriage to him. This set an only eight-year-old Faustina as the future Roman empress. Marrying at eight is traumatizing enough but her marriage drama was only just beginning.

6 She Kept It In The Family

Just seven years after her first marriage Faustina’s father stepped in and threw her for a loop. He ended the betrothal and remarried her to his own chosen heir Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was actually Faustina’s cousin on her mother’s side and technically her adopted brother. None of this seemed questionable at the time though Faustina didn’t really have a choice either way.

Of course by today's standards her marriage to a family member wasn’t the only taboo aspect of the union.

7 She Married An Older Man

Doing as she was told a now 15-year-old Faustina married her cousin a man nearly ten years her senior. No records directly reveal Faustina’s thoughts and opinions on the matter though we can only imagine that her father wouldn’t take them seriously even if she did share them. Now a young teenager and soon to be empress Faustina turned to her next huge responsibility as a Roman royal.

8 She Never Stopped

Because children so rarely survived in Rome during this time any woman who could bear many children appeared especially blessed. And well Faustina was unbelievably fertile having nearly 14 children over the course of 21 years. But despite birthing baby after baby this took an undeniable toll on the empress. Motherhood only invited tragedy and heartbreak into her world.

9 She Faced Tragedy After Tragedy

Although Faustina spent a good deal of her reign pregnant she’d ultimately lose most of her children. More than half of them died before reaching adulthood a fact that must have been difficult for both her and her husband. Still she was still considered successful in childbearing a fact that proved worthy of a very special honor.

10 Her Fertility Was Legendary

The Roman locals praised Faustina’s childbearing calling her the “fertile empress". Officials even minted a coin in her honor with the engraving depicting her with four children. Aurelius eventually became emperor in 161 with his supposedly virtuous and well-loved wife at his side. Faustina seemed ready to perform her role as the perfect empress—but in reality her behavior proved far from perfect.

11 She Barely Survived

Once Faustina and her husband actually came to power tides started to shift in the Roman empire. On one hand dangerous plagues swept the country lowering the population and hurting the economy. Neighboring countries made advances on Rome and the health of Aurelius began to waver. The stress of these outward forces affected Faustina in a singular way—and she reacted scandalously.

12 She Pursued Her Passions

Faustina wasn't always the picture of decorum. In fact she may have been a lot more of a slave to her desires than some historians record. Multiple rumors insist she continually had passionate extramarital affairs with sailors soldiers and even gladiators. As a matter of fact one rumored affair got particularly bloody.

13 She Revisited Her Past

Among many other notable rumored affairs Faustina may have gotten romantically involved with her first husband Verus while technically married to Aurelius. Perhaps onlookers could consider this back step forgivable even if Faustina was just a child when she was betrothed to him. However the affair becomes less forgivable when considering her new family connection to this old lover.

14 She Had A Twisted Love Triangle

Let's talk about betrayal. During Faustina's rumored affair with Verus he was married to Lucilla—Faustina’s own daughter. Not only was Verus her first husband but he was then also her son-in-law. The whole debacle must have made for some interesting family dinners even more so when Faustina discovered that Verus admitted the whole affair to his wife.

Faustina couldn’t live with the betrayal and decided to take extreme action.

15 She Took Revenge

Faustina reportedly poisoned Verus once she found out that he'd betrayed her trust. While some reports state that Verus died in battle others report that he perished with symptoms consistent with food poisoning which lends to the rumors that Faustina ordered the poisoning that ended his life. However Verus may not have been the only person to cross this passionate empress and suffer the consequences.

16 She Was Ruthless

Roman society likely expected Faustina to be a lot like her mother notably virtuous and pious. But Faustina had her own ideas about the right ways to rule. In fact she is quoted as declaring that. “Leaders and soldiers are accustomed to crush others if they themselves are not crushed”. It’s no wonder she felt like she could take charge when people’s lives hung in the balance.

17 She Played God

Roman executions were notoriously gruesome including crucifixions being impaled and sometimes torture. As empress Faustina clearly carried great weight in the affairs of the day. As such rumors have it that she ordered the deaths of many others during her reign. While her reasons remain unclear she didn’t hesitate to order the end of her enemies.

With allegations of her evil behavior swirling throughout Rome the locals looked to her husband for a response. But Aurelius’ response to his wife’s transgressions shocked everyone.

18 Her Husband Excused Her

Faustina’s husband didn’t seem to hold any of her behavior against her and the public thought poorly of Aurelius’ lack of action. On the subject of Aurelius’ treatment of his wife one critic of the time even said “Other people’s misdoings in particular his wife’s he tolerated making no fuss and exacting no punishment". Maybe Aurelius was just being a considerate husband—but then he made an utterly bizarre judgment call.

19 Her Lovers Got Passes

Faustina’s husband did the opposite of what people expected. He not only excused his wife’s behavior but he also often promoted her lovers to positions of great status. With his wide-reaching power as emperor Aurelius could have surely ordered these lovers killed. Instead he honored them. This looked like weakness on Aurelius’ part but unfortunately for Faustina he had other more selfish motivations.

20 She Was A Pawn

Aurelius believed that maintaining his wife was just par for the course. After all she was a key part of the deal he struck to gain rule of the Roman empire. Records show that when advisors encouraged Aurelius to severely deal with Faustina he responded by declaring “If I send away my wife I must also repudiate her dowry”. Simply put his hands were tied.

To Aurelius Faustina seemed to be just a pawn in the political game he played to hold his position. Faustina now free to woo and bed whoever she pleased took her infidelity a little too far.

21 She Cheated Carelessly

Faustina seemed to get away with most of her affairs so much so that she eventually stopped caring whether her husband knew or not. In fact her husband once caught her having breakfast with one of her lovers. Her shameless behavior likely embarrassed the emperor—but little did he know Faustina had an even greater public humiliation in store for him.

22 She Made Her Husband A Joke

The arts played a huge role in Roman society at the time including comedic theater. Making fun of the news was the norm for some of these comedies but things got awkward at one particular performance that Aurelius attended. The act used a pun to ridicule Faustina and Aurelius’ marriage likely hinting at the empress’ constant infidelity. But that wasn't all.

23 Her Husband’s Health Scared Her

Faustina’s behavior not only threatened her husband’s image but eventually threatened his rule as well. In 174 Faustina’s husband became extremely ill. The sickness possibly resulted from ulcers. Whatever the case Aurelius’ diminished state concerned Faustina so much so that she allegedly made a decision of dire betrayal.

24 She May Have Been A Traitor

With her husband’s health on the fritz some reports state that she encouraged a revolt against her husband’s rule. She allegedly gave her secret support to Roman general Avidius Cassius who ultimately proclaimed himself emperor after a false report on Aurelius’ death. Faustina’s reputation caused many to think that she had some type of romantic affair with the general.

But her intentions for once may have been more noble.

25 She Was A Protective Mother

At the time of the revolt Faustina’s son Commodus the next heir to the empire was only thirteen. Faustina worried for her son’s safety in the absence of an emperor that she could trust providing a motive for her support of Cassius. Desperate to remain on top she made the wrong choice. Unfortunately for her she chose sides far too soon.

26 Her Husband Fought Back

Cassius ruled Rome for about three months. And then the unthinkable happened. Aurelius made a surprising recovery and ordered Cassius dethroned. Aurelius was so enraged by the betrayal that he refused to even look at Cassius’ severed head before having it buried. In reality if the rumors proved true Faustina should have met the same lethal fate as her defeated lover.

But the empress had her own devious plans.

27 She Covered Her Tracks

Shortly after Cassius’ passing letters in which Faustina denounced the traitor and commanded his punishment surfaced. These letters supposedly cleared her name and Faustina and her husband returned to the glories of Roman royalty. Unfortunately the son she fought to protect eventually became the bane of her existence a fact she might have seen coming.

28 Her Nightmare Became Reality

Faustina had a startling dream while pregnant with the Roman heir. In the dream she birthed two snakes instead of babies with one clearly being more powerful than the other. Commodus was indeed born a twin and outlived his brother to eventually become the next Roman emperor. At this point perhaps Faustina should have known that Commodus was bad news.

But she couldn’t possibly know how bad he would actually get.

29 Her Son Caused A Stir

If the rumors are to be believed Faustina clearly got around. It’s no wonder that locals closely scrutinized the features of her children wondering which actually belonged to her husband the emperor. As the heir Commodus’ introduction to the world came with a whole new level of scrutiny one that pointed back to one of Faustina’s most infamous indiscretions.

30 Her Past Haunted Her

Roman locals doubted that Commodus was the legitimate son of the emperor. In fact many suspected that he was actually the son of her most legendary lover—a Roman gladiator (more on him later). The suspicions remain unconfirmed but Commodus’ ugly behavior definitely fueled the rumor mill further.

31 She Raised A Vicious Child

Faustina’s son became known for being aggressive mean and rude even as a child. One legend tells of a time when he ordered the execution of his servant for drawing him a bath that wasn’t warm enough. It’s no surprise that people thought he was a child of a murderous gladiator. Commodus’ awful behavior ultimately stained his family and the entire Roman empire forever.

32 Her Son Changed History

Commodus ruled so terribly that his reign marks the end of Rome’s period of peace. Historians recorded him as being a bad leader who suspiciously so was ridiculously invested in appearing as a gladiator. Faustina clearly failed on some level in her raising of the Roman heir—but she also struggled with raising her daughter as well.

33 She Opposed Her Husband

Faustina strongly resisted her daughter Lucilla’s second marriage. While the reasons for her disapproval remain unclear Faustina may not have thought that the man chosen for Lucilla Claudius Pompeianus held enough status to marry her daughter. However despite her opinion the two married anyway on her husband’s orders.

For all the scandal and suspicion that whirled around Faustina she still somehow managed to remain on record as an empress of many honors.

34 The Public Revered Her

Long before Faustina’s affairs entrenched her in scandal the Roman society awarded her the highest Roman honor of “Augusta” in 147 AD. She was still just a teenager at the time although she and Aurelius had already married. Perhaps her success in childbearing earned her this initial praise but she carefully added further good deeds to her record.

35 She Kept Tradition

Like many empresses before her Faustina accompanied her emperor husband as he led many wars during his reign. Lewd rumors or not Faustina stood by her husband throughout these dangerous times. She clearly had a way with men leaving a lasting impression on the workers she encountered during her extensive travels.

36 Men Loved Her

No doubt Faustina enjoyed the attention and the affection of the men in the armies as she traveled with Aurelius. The men so loved her that they dubbed her “mother of the camp”. Aurelius too found himself greatly impressed by her capabilities and somehow seemed to think her a sufficient companion.

37 Her Husband Vouched For Her

History remembers Faustina’s husband as a good leader a decisive and quietly intelligent man. But this certainly contrasts with the wild rumors surrounding Faustina’s behavior. Still something special seemed to exist between them as Aurelius himself praised his wife calling her “obedient loving and devoid of affectation” in his own records.

However other family members weren’t nearly as nice to the Empress.

38 She Lost a Fortune

As a member of the Roman elite Faustina expected to receive a huge sum of money when her great aunt passed. However her aunt clearly found some fault with her niece and made a surprising decision about her money. Instead of leaving it to Faustina the rightful heir she reportedly left her fortune to some associates who were also her companions. Faustina did not take the news well.

39 She Had Her Pride

Faustina could have demanded her inheritance but refused to do so. She had far too much pride. Reports claim she didn’t want to look greedy preferring to maintain her air of prestige. She declined to even buy any of her aunt’s expensive jewelry in the estate’s final auction. This image consciousness remained with the empress right to the bitter end.

40 She Was On The Job

Even though historians considered Aurelius himself a good and peaceful ruler many wars marked his reign over Rome. During one of these conflicts in the East Faustina died suddenly while accompanying her husband. Her short life certainly swirled with rumor and ambiguity. And the end of her life was just as mysterious if not more so.

41 She Died Suspiciously

Scholars and historians remain undecided on the cause of the empress’ demise. Some reports claim she passed from natural causes while others declare the empress took her own life perhaps to cover up some further wrongdoing. A more interesting explanation though is cause to wonder if her past finally caught up with her.

42 People Wanted Her Gone

Faustina made a lot of questionable choices during her reign as empress but none so grievous as her alleged support of the man who tried to usurp her husband’s throne. According to some reports retaliators killed the empress for her romantic involvement with the traitor Cassius. With all the uncertainty surrounding her life it’s hard not to be suspicious about her cause of death.

But although something seemed fishy her husband went to great lengths to make her look like a good person.

43 She Became Immortal

At least Faustina’s husband seemed distraught at her passing. In the Roman tradition the rulers could crown great people gods and goddesses at their passing and Aurelius made a quick move on his wife’s part. He declared his wife a goddess and erected temples in her honor. This would have been more than enough but he pushed even further.

44 Her Legacy Lasted

In Faustina’s honor Aurelius renamed the place she died changing it to Faustinopolis. Moreover admirers built the Baths of Faustina in Greece in her honor and they still hold her name. Somehow this scandalous empress managed to make a respected name for herself. And as a result her husband helped others on her behalf.

45 She Helped Others

When Faustina’s mother died her father was so moved by her life and dedication that he created a fund for the poor girls of Rome in her honor. Faustina’s passing inspired Aurelius to do the same in honor of his wife and he increased the fund further. Aurelius went to great lengths to pay tribute to his wife which is why his next move or more explicitly his inability to move made sense.

46 Her Husband Never Got Over Her

Though Aurelius had every right to remarry after Faustina he never took advantage of the opportunity. Perhaps he really did love Faustina and thought he’d never have something like that again. However reports state that he worried about how a new wife might treat his children. In Faustina's absence he remained single for the rest of his reign.

I mean who could compete with her—especially knowing the story of her most scandalous affair which is also the only one we haven't covered yet...

47 She Had Gruesome Taste

In one of her most notorious rumored affairs Faustina romantically involved herself with a powerful Roman gladiator. This news became easy inspiration for the gossip train as gladiators in Rome were symbols of all things powerful forbidden and irresistibly appealing. It’s easy to validate a betrayed husband’s anger. But Faustina’s husband the Roman Emperor supposedly reacted with dangerous rage.

48 Her Husband Got Rid Of The Competition

According to legend Faustina’s husband turned to his astrologers for advice. The astrologers shared mystical advice about how Aurelius could not only punish his wife but solve her infidelity altogether. He then ordered the execution of the gladiator likely in one of Rome’s many gruesome execution methods of the day. Faustina’s lover was gone but her punishment was just beginning.

49 She Took An Unusually Gory Bath

Aurelius ordered Faustina to bathe in the blood of her executed lover. Supposedly such an act should rid her of her passions and urges turning her into the pious Roman Royal she was meant to be. But horrifying bathing in blood was only the tip of the iceberg; it was only the first half of this bizarre fix. Things got even more deranged.

50 She Engaged in A Weird Ritual

The final act of Faustina’s cleansing took the whole procedure another notch up on the creepiness scale. After bathing in her lover’s blood Faustina’s husband ordered her to have intercourse with him which she reportedly did. In another version of the story which reversed the sequence of events he made her sleep with the gladiator and killed him during the act bathing his wife in the man's blood.

As disturbing as this whole event came to be it seemingly did nothing to quell Faustina’s raging passions and desires.