2.2. The prophecy of the messianic emperor


Shortly after he came to power in 306, Emperor Constantine the Great promoted religious tolerance in order to stop the conflicts within the empire. But Constantine was not prepared to become a Christian; he only converted in 312 and continued to hold the pagan position of Pontifex Maximus (a title discarded by emperors, but later taken by the Papacy: the “Supreme Pontiff”). In the spring of 313 Constantine, together with Licinius, promulgated the Edict of Milan. Through this act he asked all governors of the provinces to stop all religious persecutions and the confiscated properties to be immediately returned. The edict did not declare Christianity as the official religion of the empire, but it only allowed religious freedom, so that anyone may worship any deity without being persecuted. However, through the Edict of Milan in 313 and the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 emanated by Emperor Theodosius, Christianity ended by becoming a reality first tolerated, and then a constitutive part of the empire. The tradition spread the idea that the Edict of Milan was the act through which tolerance toward the Christian religion was instituted, but Galerius issued an edict of tolerance in 311 as well.142

Constantine was far from being a saint. On the contrary; he committed unimaginable atrocities to secure his power, while the legalization of Christianity (together with the other beliefs) was nothing but a political scheme meant to bring peace within the empire and to gain the sympathy of his subjects.143 But, just as Cyrus the Great stood as a model for the image of the Messiah, the masses of Christians responded by idolizing Constantine the liberator. The emperor shifted the religious paradigm: Christians appreciated him, worshiped him, and even sanctified and began to celebrate him on the 21st of May. Indeed, the creation of legends regarding great personalities was a common practice. But the alliance between the church and the imperial institution so grossly altered and exaggerated the image of the emperor, that this became an integral part of the apocalyptic scenario. The Roman emperor turned into the predecessor of Christ’s return, while the Roman Empire was no longer seen as an apocalyptic beast, but as a barrier against the rise of the Antichrist and a model for the Millennial Kingdom. This is the prophecy of the messianic emperor.

The widespread legend of Nero redivivus boosted the “messianization” of Constantine as well. The medieval universe was dominated by circularities, proportions and antitheses. Hence, the so-called “holiness” of Constantine antagonized Nero’s wickedness: Nero persecuted Christians, Constantine supported them; Nero was a Roman emperor, Constantine was also a Roman emperor; and Nero was the forerunner of the Antichrist, while Constantine became the forerunner of Christ.

A pseudo-prophecy in the Roman collection Libri Sibyllini,144 written around 380 and assigned to the sibyl of the city of Tibur (modern Tivoli), depicted Constantine as a crucial element of the final days: “A king of the Greeks whose name is Constans will rise. He will be the king of the Romans and the Greeks. He will have a tall stature, a beautiful appearance, a glowing face.” The reign of this emperor is characterized by great wealth, victory over the enemies of Christendom, the end of paganism and the conversion of the Jews. After he will defeat Gog and Magog “he will come to Jerusalem, and, taking off the tiara from his head and all the imperial clothes off his body, he will let the empire of the Christians to God the Father and to Jesus Christ His Son.”145 In this way, the emperor will give free passage to the Antichrist:

At that time the prince of injustice, who will be called the “Antichrist,” will rise from the tribe of Dan. He will be the Son of Perdition and the culmination of pride, the master of great wonders and signs made through lie. He will deceive many through the art of magic so that he will appear he calls fire from the sky. ... When the Roman Empire will fall, then the Antichrist will show himself and he will sit in the House of God in Jerusalem.146

The prophecy says that the Antichrist will be challenged by the two witnesses of the Apocalypse, Elijah and Enoch, but he will destroy them and he will begin a final persecution against Christians, until “he will be killed through the power of the Lord by Michael the Archangel on the Mount of Olives.”147

The pseudo-prophecy of the Tiburtine Sibyl was a source of inspiration for the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius. This was written in Syriac toward the end of the 7th century as a reaction to the Islamic conquests in the Near East, and it was falsely assigned to Methodius of Olympus in order to gain credibility. It depicts well-known Christian eschatological themes: the rise and the reign of the Antichrist, the invasions of Gog and Magog, the great tribulation that precedes the end of the world and the idea of a Roman messianic emperor.148

Interestingly, the messianic emperor resembles very much the Islamic concept of the Mahdi. The messianic emperor precedes Jesus Christ, the Mahdi precedes Isa; the messianic emperor protects Christianity, the Mahdi protects Islam; they both have contact with the Antichrist and they are both models of religiosity and morality. Islam appeared approximately three centuries after the invention of the Christian concept of the messianic emperor. An exchange of information in this regard from Christianity to Islam was possible, but improbable. The two concepts rather came into being separately, but from similar contexts. As Constantine stood as prime model for the messianic emperor, in the same way the Islamic concept of the Mahdi most likely appeared due to the pro-Islamic actions of an important leader. The concept of the messianic emperor disappeared from Christian doctrine until the Age of Enlightenment, but the rigid doctrine of Islam has preserved the concept of the Mahdi until nowadays.

In the 8th century the presence of the messianic emperor became a necessary condition for the accomplishment of the Christian apocalyptic scenario. But because Constantine had died and the final events had not occurred, it was Charlemagne’s turn to assume this role. After he inherited the throne of ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

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