Monday, May 22, 2017

May 22, AD 337 ~ Death of Constantine the Great, as recorded by Eusebius Pamphilus

Detail from The Death of Constantine ~ A tapestry by Peter Paul Reubens (1623)
now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
On this date, 1,680 years ago, ended one of the most impactful lives in all of human history. The Roman emperor Constantine the Great passed from human existence to eternal life on May 22, AD 337. (Click here if you need a refresher on Constantine's many and long-standing accomplishments.

A primary account of Constantine's final days and death may be found in the Vita Constantini of the historian Eusebius Pamphilus--a Christian bishop who knew Constantine personally. The entire Vita is well worth reading, but here are a few snippets detailing the final sickness and death of the emperor after 31 years of rule--the longest reign since the founder of the Roman Empire, Augustus.

When reading the following passage, it is well to remember that Constantine, though a promoter of Christianity, had not yet been officially initiated into the Christian Church until right before his death:
At first [Constantine] experienced some slight bodily indisposition, which was soon followed by positive disease. In consequence of this he visited the hot baths of his own city; and thence proceeded to that which bore the name of his mother [that is, Helenopolis after Saint Helena, Constantine's mother]. Here he passed some time in the church of the martyrs, and offered up supplications and prayers to God. Being at length convinced that his life was drawing to a close, he felt the time had come at which he should seek purification from sins of his past career, firmly believing that whatever errors he had committed as a mortal man, his soul would be purified from them through the efficacy of the mystical words and the salutary waters of baptism. Impressed with these thoughts, he poured forth his supplications and confessions to God, kneeling on the pavement in the church itself, in which he also now for the first time received the imposition of hands with prayer. After this he proceeded as far as the suburbs of Nicomedia, and there, having summoned the bishops to meet him, addressed them in the following words.

"The time is arrived which I have long hoped for, with an earnest desire and prayer that I might obtain the salvation of God. The hour has come in which I too may have the blessing of that seal which confers immortality; the hour in which I may receive the seal of salvation. I had thought to do this in the waters of the river Jordan, wherein our Saviour, for our example, is recorded to have been baptized: but God, who knows what is expedient for us, is pleased that I should receive this blessing here. Be it so, then, without delay: for should it be his will who is Lord of life and death, that my existence here should be prolonged, and should I be destined henceforth to associate with the people of God, and unite with them in prayer as a member of his Church, I will prescribe to myself from this time such a course of life as befits his service."

After he had thus spoken, the prelates performed the sacred ceremonies in the usual manner, and, having given him the necessary instructions, made him a partaker of the mystic ordinance. Thus was Constantine the first of all sovereigns who was regenerated and perfected in a church dedicated to the martyrs of Christ....At the conclusion of the ceremony he arrayed himself in shining imperial vestments, brilliant as the light, and reclined on a couch of the purest white, refusing to clothe himself with the purple any more.


He then lifted his voice and poured forth a strain of thanksgiving to God, after which he added these words: "Now I know that I am truly blessed: now I feel assured that I am accounted worthy of immortality, and am made a partaker of Divine light." He further expressed his compassion for the unhappy condition of those who were strangers to such blessings as he enjoyed: and when the tribunes and generals of his army appeared in his presence with lamentations and tears at the prospect of their bereavement, and with prayers that his days might yet be prolonged, he assured them in reply that he was now in possession of true life; that none but himself could know the value of the blessings he had received; so that he was anxious rather to hasten than to defer his departure to God. He then proceeded to complete the needful arrangement of his affairs, bequeathing an annual donation to the Roman inhabitants of his imperial city; apportioning the inheritance of the empire, like a patrimonial estate, among his own children; in short, making every disposition according to his own pleasure.

Click to order a copy.
All these events occurred during a most important festival, I mean the august and holy solemnity of Pentecost....He was removed about mid-day to the presence of his God, leaving his mortal remains to his fellow mortals, and carrying into fellowship with God that part of his being which was capable of understanding and loving him. Such was the close of Constantine's mortal life.
For more about the incredibly eventful life of Constantine the Great, see these posts:

October 28, AD 312 ~ Constantine defeats Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge

September 18, AD 324 -- Constantine defeats Licinius at the Battle of Chrysopolis

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