Constantine the Great did the seemingly impossible by reuniting the fractured Roman world. His military skills led to dramatic victories which he attributed to the Christian God. As a result, Constantine legalized the religion, ended persecutions, and became the single most important church patron in Christian history. Later, he moved the Roman Empire’s capital to Constantinople to better reflect the political, military, cultural, and economic realities of the fourth century. The emperor’s successful reign ended with his death in 337 A.D. Constantine was finally baptized on his deathbed to absolve him of his sins. In the end, the first Christian emperor waited as long as possible to accept the sacrament of baptism.
65-year-old Emperor Constantine marched to punish the Persian Empire for an incursion into Roman territory. The Persians tried to sue for peace, but Constantine rebuffed the effort. However, the emperor never embarked on the assault. Instead, he grew ill in the spring of 337 A.D. As a result, he began to make preparations for his death, picked a final resting spot, and ensured peaceful succession.
As time passed, Constantine’s health continued to decline. He left Constantinople for the baths of Helenopolis. When the waters and prayer failed to restore his old vigor, the emperor resigned himself to death. He began the progress back to his capital, but made it only as far as Nicomedia. Once he recognized the end was near, the emperor called his bishops to his side and requested to be baptized.
The Bible declares “The Lord himself affirms that baptism is necessary for salvation.” St. Augustine wrote sixty years after Constantine’s death that “God does not forgive sins except to the baptized.” A modern politician walks hand-in-hand with sin. A Roman emperor was bathed in it. Constantine wanted to be absolved for his sins, so he held off baptism as long as he could so that as many sins as possible would be wiped from his slate.
Constantine chose the Jordan River for his ceremony. According to tradition, John the Baptist used the Jordan’s waters to baptize Jesus Christ. Constantine was making a political statement by associating himself with Christ while clearing his soul of sin. Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia performed the ritual. The emperor promised to live a more Christian existence in the time he had left. Constantine the Great died on May 22, 337 and was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.
The first Christian emperor reasserted his faith at the end of life. He followed tradition and was baptized to be absolved of his sins. He waited until death was imminent so that he could wash away as many sins as possible. Additionally, he literally followed in Christ’s footsteps with his baptism in the Jordan River. Some have questioned Constantine’s religious sincerity, but his final acts as emperor undercut the critics. He was a Christian warrior and followed tradition with his baptism.