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The Roman Empire of the Apocalypse: History, Eschatology, and the Four Kingdoms of Daniel in Late Antiquity, the Early Medieval Middle East, and Byzantium

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Abstract

This dissertation explores how late Roman and Byzantine Christians conceptualized the role of their empire in the consummation of history and the events of the end times, and suggests that their views on this subject have larger ramifications for the study of Byzantine political thought. It examines how the citizens and subjects of history’s first Christian empire reconciled the distinctly anti-imperial apocalyptic literature of the Bible with the needs of imperial ideology. It pursues this question by studying how Latin, Greek, and Syriac writers in late antiquity and the early medieval period interpreted the apocalyptic prophecies in the Old Testament Book of Daniel, which were hostile to the imperial order of the time.

The Danielic prophecies divided history into four successive kingdoms, of which the fourth and last was the most wicked, ruled by an evil and persecuting king. It prophesied that in the near future this evil kingdom would be destroyed and replaced by an eternal and holy fifth kingdom. Scholars have long recognized that ancient Jews and early Christians denounced the Roman Empire as the persecutory fourth kingdom of Daniel. Nonetheless, most modern scholarship claims that after the conversion of Constantine, Roman Christians sought to reconcile Christian empire with scripture, either by stripping the fourth kingdom of its negative associations and celebrating it as the polity which would help usher in the God’s eternal kingdom, or by identifying the empire with that eternal kingdom, Daniel’s fifth kingdom. These mistaken conclusions stem from a conflation of Byzantine and Syriac eschatological literature. Some Syriac sources, produced in the imperial borderlands or within the Persian and, later, Arab empires, did glorify the Roman Empire from afar as a virtuous fourth kingdom; however, this literature exercised a major influence within the empire only from the eighth century onwards.

In addressing past misconceptions, this dissertation proposes a new narrative of the development of late Roman and Byzantine political eschatology. It argues that while Christianity was still illegal within the Roman Empire, Christians formulated a common political-eschatological scenario; that is, a shared narrative of the political events that they believed would take place in the time leading up to the end of history. According to this scenario the Roman Empire, identified as the fourth kingdom of Daniel, would at some point in the future fall into the hands of the Antichrist, who would reign as the last emperor and use the Roman state to persecute Christianity. Despite the Christianization of the Roman Empire, this scenario remained largely unchallenged through the seventh century. This indicates that late Romans were far more pessimistic for far longer about the future of the empire than most scholarship suggests.

Next, the dissertation argues that divergent interpretations of the four kingdoms of Daniel and Rome’s eschatological role did develop within Syriac literature. This was the result of textual differences in the Syriac version of the Book of Daniel, different traditions of Biblical exegesis favored by Syriac Christians, and the unique political circumstances under which Syriac Christians lived. One such tradition, first attested in the Syriac Demonstrations (composed c. 337 AD by the Persian Christian Aphrahat), held that God had tasked the Roman Empire, as a righteous fourth kingdom, with ruling the earth as Christ’s proxy until his second coming. According to this theory, when Christ returned the Romans would peacefully restore the kingship to him.

Aphrahat’s understanding of Rome’s eschatological role was somewhat popular among Syriac Christians until the late sixth or early seventh century. After that time, Syriac eschatology became far more ambivalent towards the Roman Empire—likely as a result of the Roman persecution of the Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church. Such ambivalence was exacerbated by the seventh-century Arab conquests, which shattered the grandiose expectations for the Roman Empire. A major exception to this ambivalence was the Syriac Apocalypse of Methodius of Patara ("Pseudo-Methodius"), composed c. 690, which resuscitated and adapted Aphrahat’s eschatological views to the political circumstances after the Arab conquests. The author of the Apocalypse of Methodius of Patara invented a literary figure commonly called the Last Roman Emperor (or “King of the Greeks”) to act out Aphrahat’s interpretation of the Danielic prophecies: this emperor would bring all the world under Roman rule and would later surrender his kingship to God in advance of Christ’s second coming.

Finally, the dissertation argues that the Apocalypse of Methodius of Patara, which was translated into Greek c. 700 AD, introduced to Byzantium the idea that its empire was a good fourth kingdom of Daniel, and provided an alternative to the earlier political-eschatological scenario. As the empire teetered on the brink of collapse in the eighth century and the status of the emperor faced new challenges, Syriac political eschatology provided a more hopeful message in the face of Byzantine concerns about the future of the empire. Nonetheless, the earlier, more pessimistic political-eschatological scenario was never fully displaced, and many Byzantines continued to suspect that the Byzantine state would succumb to evil in the final days of history.

In setting forth a new narrative of the development of Byzantine eschatology, this dissertation challenges many old assumptions. Contrary to received wisdom, the late Romans and Byzantines did not believe that their empire was the manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth or a forerunner to Christ’s eschatological kingdom. Rather, longstanding traditions of Christian eschatology taught them to be wary of the Roman state and suspicious of the powers of the emperor (even if not all late antique Christians heeded these lessons). This finding problematizes traditional portrayals of Byzantine political thought as a Christianized doctrine of divine kingship stressing unconditional loyalty to the emperor as God’s representative on earth. Moreover, his dissertation demonstrates that a positive appraisal of the empire’s eschatological role was not imposed through imperial court propaganda as modern scholars often suggest, but rather developed from the ground up, emerging from the imperial periphery or from outside the empire. This suggests that emperors and their spokesmen had far less influence in shaping ideology than is often assumed, and exposes weaknesses in the top-down historical narratives that predominate in the field. Further, this dissertation challenges the long-held assumption that Syriac apocalypticism developed out of Byzantine imperial ideology, and shows instead that Syriac eschatology actually shaped Byzantine ideas and indeed exerted a major influence on Mediterranean-wide discourses on empire and kingship. Such insights emphasize the connectedness of the late antique and medieval worlds, and argue for a history of the Byzantium that privileges cross-cultural links over strict disciplinary boundaries.

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This item is under embargo until October 12, 2023.