Who would come to reassert order in the Last Days? Perhaps as early as the fourth century, Sibylline prophecies might have included the hope that the orthodox Western Roman Emperor Constans would return from the dead in that role. The fate of that story, however, is typical of the elusive early history of this legend, as it is not preserved in any document until the eleventh-century version of the Tiburtine Sibyl.
The most famous early version of the Last Emperor legend – although in this instance a ‘last king’ – can be found in the apocalyptic sermon of Pseudo-Methodius. The prophecy went that, after 70 years of persecution by the Ishmaelites, a Byzantine king would awaken ‘as if shaking off the effects of wine’, and lead a success fight-back which would establish a new peace on Earth. After a decade, the forces of Gog and Magog would begin to muster but the king would choose this time to travel to Mt Golgotha to lay down his crown, fulfilling the prophecy in Daniel that the last king would turn his kingdom over to God. The scene would be set for the final conflict between the forces of Good and Evil.
Pseudo-Methodius’s last king is difficult character to unravel. Since he was writing in Syria in c. AD 690, when the region was under Muslim dominance, it is possible that the king ‘awakening’ is a reference to hopes that Justinian II might lead an army south from Constantinople – something, in fact, he arranged but failed with. Paul Alexander once argued that the insertion of an additional messianic figure in Pseudo-Methodius’s narrative showed influence from Judaic tradition, but Gerrit Reinink has demonstrated a more natural progression in motifs from earlier Syriac texts. Most recently Gian Luca Potestà has taken discrepancies between Pseudo-Methodius’s king and the legend in the Tiburtine Sibyl to show that there must have been another now-lost text which made use of the king-figure before Pseudo-Methodius, but again likely in seventh-century Syria.
In the West, the legend took a while to gain popularity. After Pseudo-Methodius, the next major reference to it was by Adso in his De Antichristo, when he prophesied that it would be a Frankish king who would unite the Christian world before he retired and Antichrist came. Emperor Otto III might have been interested in this as he was said to have contemplated retiring to Jerusalem. If so, Otto might also have demonstrated an early association between Charlemagne (d. 814) and the story, as he opened the Carolingian emperor’s grave on Pentecost in AD 1000 to pay his respects and was said to have found his body largely uncorrupted. Frederick Barbarossa, too, became associated with the legend and was said to be sleeping at Kyffhäuser waiting to return in the Last Days. The Last Emperor was also the inspiration for the Play of Antichrist, a liturgical play from the late twelfth century.
- P. J. Alexander, The Byzantine Apocalyptic Tradition (Berkeley, CA, 1985).
- H. Möhring, Der Weltkaiser der Endzeit. Entstehung, Wandel und Wirkung ener tausendjährigen Weissagung (Stuttagart, 2000).