I was asked to write this post by Robert Horvat, curator of the great History of the Byzantine Empire blog (and the If It Happened Yesterday It’s History blog). It originally appeared here.
After thirty-one years of a reign marked by endless intrigue, frequent war, religious turmoil and nothing less than the remaking of one Roman Empire into another (Byzantium), Constantine I died in Nicomedia on Whit Sunday, the 22nd of May 337. His death marked the longest period of stability—if one could call it that—in Roman history since the beginning of Rome as an empire. As with almost everything else about his life, Constantine’s death is deeply infused with meaning and questions about Christianity, morality and the nature of power in late antiquity.
Constantine, then in his mid-60s, began to slow down toward the end of 336. At the time he was preparing for war against the Persians and spent much time in Asia Minor raising an army. By the middle of the next spring he was probably certain that he was dying. He ordered that his tomb be prepared at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, his self-named capital where he soon retired to seek solace in the baths. He could find none. It’s not entirely clear what he was dying of—medical diagnoses in the 4th century were pretty rudimentary—but my guess would be some sort of cancer. He went to Helenopolis, a nearby city that evidently had better baths, but still couldn’t get comfortable, so he decided to return to Constantinople. He only made it as far as Nicomedia. He seems to have died there at a villa owned by the state.
The most momentous aspect of the story of Constantine’s death is of course his deathbed baptism. As chronicled by Eusebius, the Nicomedian bishop who baptized him, Constantine took off his traditional purple robe and clothed himself in white instead just before submitting to formal baptism. Constantine had begun his life and career as a traditional Roman pagan, owing particular allegiance to “Sol Invictus,” a sun god closely associated with the military caste; of course his claim to fame is his (supposed) conversion to Christianity on the eve of the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. In actuality I think it’s more likely that Constantine saw Christianity as a social and political glue that he could use to hold together a fractious empire, and he only decided much later in his life—despite his obvious sympathy for Christianity—that he personally believed it. Deathbed conversion was much more common in early Christianity than it is today, and at least one other Byzantine Emperor did the same thing. Thus it’s not so strange that he waited until the last moment to convert.
One of my favorite pictures–me posing with the giant statute of Constantine at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, 2006.
Is it true, as some historians and more than a few lay people have speculated, that the reason Constantine waited until he was almost dead to officially convert was to allow the maximum amount of sins of his life to be forgiven? This seems like a pretty silly rationale. Constantine did some pretty horrible things in his life: he started wars, laid waste to entire countries, double-crossed trusted friends and colleagues, and most notably the murder of his own wife and son. But honestly, how plausible is it that he was planning to commit these mortal sins—or others like them—in advance, and thought rationally about how to go to Heaven with a clean slate? What, did he want to leave that last allowance just in case he felt like starting another war or murdering another relative while he was laying there dying? I don’t buy the “maximum forgiveness” rationale. There was so much myth-making about (and by) Constantine during his lifetime, it seems entirely consistent that some myths would be perpetuated after his death, and this, I think, is one of them.
After his death on May 22, 337 Constantine lay in state inside a golden coffin that was put on display in the central hall of his palace. Supposedly the lying-in-state lasted a whole three months (I bet that smelled good). If that’s true, it was not until August that the grand funeral procession through the streets of Constantinople got underway, marching the golden coffin in full view of the people Constantine ruled until it was finally interred in a lavish burial chamber in the Church of the Holy Apostles. Exactly what happened to his body after that is unclear. It may have been moved before the end of the 4th century—the original Church of the Holy Apostles was notoriously unstable and in danger of collapse—and it doesn’t appear to have been one of the tombs plundered by the Crusaders in 1204 (although Justinian’s was). Yet a fragment of a porphyry sarcophagus now housed in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums is said to be from the final resting place of Constantine the Great.
The real tombstone he left behind, however, was the Byzantine Empire itself. Now infused with Christianity and wrapped in the purple swaddling of the Roman throne, the eastern half of the Roman Empire that was Constantine’s obsessive project proved far more durable and long-lasting than the Western portion. For over a thousand years after Constantine’s death the capital that bore his name was the shining light of religion, art, culture and commerce while western Europe moldered in comparative darkness and obscurity. In a very real sense Constantine remade the world.