One of the most infuriating things for any medieval scholar is the continued public perception of the Middle Ages as a step backward for humanity, a caesura in history during which the advancement of civilization stalled out, not to begin again until the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Many scholars have diligently tried to point out that the Middle Ages were a dynamic time that had a direct impact on the shape of modernity—one only has to think of Charles Taylor’s thesis in A Secular Age that medieval Christianity itself created the basis for our modern, secular society—and yet the basic misperception of and negative attitude toward the Middle Ages remains current amongst the general public.
This is doubly true when it comes to medieval apocalyptic. What is worse is that this notion is often entertained by scholars of the era themselves. One discovers two variants of this. One is the claim that the Middle Ages simply where unable to construct their own apocalyptic scenarios and had to fall back on what had already been said in antiquity. This is the attitude one encounters in the Jewish Encyclopedia, for instance, which claims in its article on apocalyptic texts that “the Middle Ages did not create nor invent in this province, they merely worked over the material handed to them” (Buttenwieser, “Apocalyptic Literature”). But more common is the claim that once St. Augustine declared the Book of Revelation entirely allegorical in the early fifth century, the end of the world was simply forgotten about until the early modern period, with no major developments taking place at all for over a thousand years.
This has come in weak forms, such as that expressed by Norman Cohn in his deeply influential work The Pursuit of the Millennium, in which he acknowledged the complexity and originality of medieval apocalypticism but saw its occurrence as a rare and unusual aberration in an otherwise entirely present-focused medieval life, stating “if poverty, hardships, and an often oppressive dependence could by themselves generate it, revolutionary chiliasm [millennialist apocalypticism] would have run strong amongst the peasantry of medieval Europe. In point of fact it was seldom to be found at all” (Cohn 24). But it also comes in much stronger forms, such as that expressed by Ernest Lee Tuveson in his classic study of the apocalyptic roots of the United States’s national creed, Redeemer Nation. There, he dismissively states that apocalyptic millennialism only resulted in a sporadic “local uprisings in the Middle Ages” and even credits Joachim’s revolutionary millennialist ideas not to the medieval abbot himself but to Protestant reformers of the early modern period: “The Protestant eschatology was substantially new, and by the end of the seventeenth century the novel idea that history is moving toward a millennial regeneration of mankind became not only respectable but almost canonical” (17). It is this stronger form that has often been more influential, such that some scholars are still loathe to admit that there was even thought and discussion about the end-times in the Middle Ages at all.
But in whichever way it is expressed, this viewpoint treats the Middle Ages as a static time and one satisfied with its own stasis, where millennial thought only existed on the fringes at most and was itself not very original or exciting. This idea is deeply flawed and yet, because of the titanic influence of those who espoused it around the midpoint of the twentieth century, it is not difficult to find the same viewpoint, in both weak and strong forms, expressed in books, journals, and articles of very recent publication. It still very much infects the academic mindset toward the Middle Ages as a whole and medieval apocalyptic thought in particular.
Despite how common this misconception has become, nothing could be further from the reality of those times. Careful study reveals that there has perhaps never been an era in which all of society was so entirely suffused with apocalyptic thought as the Middle Ages. Indeed, an apocalyptic logic often underlay many of the developments and events of the medieval period that we moderns have come to see as quite mundane. Take the Holy Roman Empire, for instance. Generations of students and scholars of European history have delighted at Voltaire’s famous quip that the Holy Roman Empire was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire” and expressed bafflement that such a loose confederation of largely Germanic polities could claim continuity with the mightiest Mediterranean nation of antiquity. But this anomaly of history is not such an anomaly when one realizes that it has its roots in apocalyptic thinking, specifically in a passage about the Antichrist found in Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians.
There, Paul—or whoever wrote the letter, for its authenticity is disputed—attempts to tamp down an outbreak of apocalyptic excitement in the church of Thessalonica by reminding the Christians there, “I beg you, my friends, do not suddenly lose your heads, do not be alarmed by any prophetic utterance, any pronouncement, or any letter purporting to come from us, alleging that the day of the Lord is already here” (2 Thess. 2:1-2). Paul tries to offer reassurance by stating, “You know, too, about the restraining power which ensures that he [the Antichrist] will be revealed only at his appointed time” (2 Thess. 2:6). As long as this “restraining power” remains in existence, the Antichrist can not manifest and the end-times will not begin.
That “restraining power” came to be quickly, and almost universally, interpreted as the Roman Empire, creating the idea that as long as the Roman Empire remained standing, the Antichrist could not manifest in the world and the end-times would be averted. Preserving the Roman Empire in some form became a matter of paramount importance, as it was the only thing keeping the world from descending into the final time of tribulation. And, conversely, as long as the Antichrist did not manifest in the world, it must mean that the “restraining force” was still in place and the Roman Empire, in some form, must actually still exist. It was this stray comment in Second Thessalonians that allowed the Holy Roman Empire to lay claim to the mantle of the Roman Empire. The logic of apocalypse provided a throughline of legitimacy that geography, culture, language, and history could not. In calling itself the “Roman Empire,” the Holy Roman Empire was primarily laying claim to Rome’s role as the “restraining power” holding back the Antichrist and keeping the world safe from its universal doom. It was this apparent success at keeping the Son of Perdition at bay, rather than anything we moderns would recognize as marks of continuity and legitimacy, that justified the Holy Roman Empire’s claim to Rome’s imperial legacy.
But this was not the only implication that was drawn from this single line in Second Thessalonians. For, if the Roman Empire and its lineage of emperors is to continue until the coming of the Antichrist, then there must be a final emperor in that lineage, reigning just before the Antichrist’s infernal advent. Hence, the notion of a Last Emperor of the Romans was born. When laid out like this, it must seem easy to get the seed of the Last Emperor idea from the bible. But how medieval prophets got that seed to flower into the myth of the Last World Emperor is a credit to their own ingenuity and proves that, far from being static and overly tied to old models, the apocalyptic thought of the Middle Ages was dynamic and ever-open to new developments. Perhaps the most distinctive and striking development of medieval apocalyptic thought was that it shifted and broadened the understanding of who played the role of protagonist in the drama of the end-times.
For early Christians, this had been Christ and Christ alone. Not so for medievals. Theirs was an expanded perspective, one which recognized the need for the Christian faithful themselves to play a much bigger part in the transformative events of the eschaton. It was no longer enough to simply sit idly by, watching the signs of the times, enduring persecutions, and waiting for Christ to appear in glory and set everything right. In the Middle Ages, for the first time, pious individuals themselves were called upon to play the key role in the unfolding of God’s plan in history. True, Christ was still coming as the Son of Man in the clouds to put a cap on the whole history of humanity, but before he got there, humans themselves had plenty to do to make the world ready for him. This trend would, of course, find its fullest expression in Joachim of Fiore’s idea of a new generation of “spiritual men” who would do more to ring in the millennial age than Christ himself, but it began, albeit with a far more restricted focus, with the introduction of a single new figure into the Christian narrative of apocalypse: the Last World Emperor.
Where and when the notion of a warlike Christian Emperor who would aid God’s elect in the final struggle against evil originated cannot be pinpointed with exact accuracy. Marjorie Reeves, in her magisterial and definitive study, Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages, sees the idea developing already in the third-century theologian Lactantius, “Finally [in Lactantius’s account], the righteous are besieged in a mountain by Antichrist. Then they call to God and He sends a liberator—‘regem magnum de coelo’ [great king from heaven]—to their aid. Shortly after this Christ Himself appears in judgement with an army of angels” (Reeves 297).
If Reeves is right about this interpretation, then this would be our oldest form of the Last Emperor idea. However, I tend to read this king as being Christ himself rather than a separate figure. But, in Reeves’s defense, it should be noted that Lactantius does elsewhere demonstrate a penchant for apocalyptic inventiveness. He, among other things, predicts the coming of a prophet, “When the end of time is already close God will send a great prophet who will convert men to him and who will receive power to perform miracles … Whoever attempts to injure him will be burned by fire coming out of his mouth” (Lactantius 61). Antichrist kills the prophet “[b]ut after the third day the prophet will arise and in the wondering sight of all he will be snatched up to heaven” (62). This strange figure seems to combine aspects of Revelation’s two witnesses, the Second Moses, the priestly messiah, and even Jesus himself! Thus, the type of reimaging needed to get to some form of the Last Emperor idea was not beyond Lactantius.
Regardless, Revelation’s grim parody of the Nero redivivus idea in the figure of the Beast proves that the idea of salvific Roman Emperors was nothing new and many, including Cohn and Reeves, have speculated that the collapse of the empire in the West in the fourth and fifth centuries gave shape to an initial form of the idea. But all that can really be said with certainty is that the Last Emperor idea found its Biblical justification in the widespread interpretation of Second Thessalonians’s “restraining power” as the Roman Empire and that the idea was given a proper formulation for the first time in the seventh century, in a passage interpolated into the Latin translation of the Oracle of the Tiburtine Sibyl and, more consequently, in a Syriac work known as the Apocalypse of Methodius.
Which came first, and thus deserves credit for the Last Emperor legend’s proper “creation” has long been a matter of debate. Early scholars such as Cohn and Reeves favored the Tiburtine Sibyl but, with that text’s Last Emperor material now widely recognized as an interpolation, most scholars today give pride of place to the Apocalypse of Methodius, while acknowledging that the Sibylline text may preserve some aspects of an earlier form of the legend. Thus, in line with current scholarly opinion, it will be to the Apocalypse of Methodius (generally called “Pseudo-Methodius” by scholars) that we shall turn first.
A Note on Second Thessalonians
Second Thessalonians is a fascinating case-study in the development of Christian views of the apocalypse. Its insistence that the end-times are demonstrably far off flies directly in the face of First Thessalonians’s command to be watchful for the end because “the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2), indicating that anxieties about Jesus’s supposedly imminent return were already beginning to manifest at this early stage in Christianity. And then there is the fact that, in denouncing the “letter purporting to come from us, alleging that the day of the Lord is already here,” Second Thessalonians is implicitly calling First Thessalonians a forgery, creating a canonical headache that has apparently been little noticed in Christian theology before now. These issues are not very important to the subject at hand (the Last World Emperor) and thus I have not addressed them in more detail here, but it does seem as though they should be more discussed among theologians and Biblical interpreters.
A Personal Note
An opinion piece I wrote has recently been published on ABC News’s Religion and Ethics Portal: From hopelessness to hope: Why Christianity should embrace eschatological thinking – ABC Religion & Ethics
Buttenwieser, Moses. “Apocalyptic Literature, Neo-Hebraic.” The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906. APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE, NEO-HEBRAIC – JewishEncyclopedia.com
Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium. London: Secker and Warburg, 1957.
Lactantius. “The Blessed Life,” Book VII of Divine Institutes. Apocalyptic Spirituality: Treatises and Letters of Lactantius, Adso of Montier-En-Der, Joachim of Fiore, The Spiritual Franciscans, Savonarola, translated by Bernard McGinn. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1979. 25-80.
Reeves, Marjorie: Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages: A Study in Joachimism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.
The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. The Oxford Study Bible, edited by M. Jack Suggs, Katharin Doob Sakenfeld, and James R. Meuller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 1498-1502.
The Second Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. The Oxford Study Bible, edited by M. Jack Suggs, Katharin Doob Sakenfeld, and James R. Meuller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 1503-1505.
Tuveson, Ernest Lee. Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.