- The Apocalypse of Empire: Imperial Eschatology in Late Antiquity and Early Islam by Stephen J. Shoemaker
The Apocalypse of Empire: Imperial Eschatology in Late Antiquity and Early Islam
Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018
Pp. viii + 260. $59.95.
Stephen J. Shoemaker’s The Apocalypse of Empire: Imperial Eschatology in Late Antiquity and Early Islam grows out of his previous book, The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). There, Shoemaker argued that Islam, at its point of origin, centered on apocalyptic ideas. In the current volume, he wanted to answer the most frequent objection that audiences raised: if the first Muslims believed the end was near, why did they bother to build an empire? In the late antique world, Shoemaker responds, apocalypticism was always enmeshed in concepts of empire. One might observe further that eschatological programs, medieval and modern alike, have served as calls to action rather than to surrender and withdrawal. In any case, Shoemaker sensed a lacuna, and The Apocalypse of Empire is his response.
In this book, Shoemaker ranges well beyond Islamic themes, offering a sweeping history of apocalyptic thought over the course of eight centuries, including Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, as well as Muslims. Such a broad survey is, of necessity, less a close reading of sources and more a general presentation of historiography, but one made in this case with a single argumentative purpose. For while on the surface the book offers a case for the enduring power of eschatology to shape imperial dreams, in practice, its narrative looks always toward the rise of Islam and how preceding apocalyptic dialogues gave it shape.
The nexus between apocalypse and empire begins in earnest, in Shoemaker’s analysis, at a traditional point: the reign of the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 b.c.e.). His programmatic persecution of Jews, beginning in 167 b.c.e., inspired a handful of apocalyptic texts, notably the biblical book of Daniel as well as other short works collected in 1 Enoch. These powerfully [End Page 335] imagined texts served as calls either to resist or rebel against Antiochus’s rule. When Macedonian hegemony ended, the apocalyptic ideology survived, but the identity of the villains shifted to the new rulers, the Romans. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, the communities of Qumran presented themselves as training for war against Rome during the Last Days, which lay not in the future but rather had already begun. Later Jewish writers, particularly after Roman armies destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 c.e., continued to weave themes of war and judgment into anti-imperial texts. Against this background the actual book of “Apocalypse,” John of Patmos’s Revelation, receives surprisingly short shrift. Presumably, John falls too much on the side of “patient endurance” rather than active resistance. Still, and plainly, Revelation has proven a supple enough text, and the millenarian vision of chapter 20 a dangerous enough idea, that The Apocalypse of Empire would have benefited from a more extended consideration of it.
Later Christian apocalypticism faced a unique challenge. The key variable, and the obvious one, is Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. The traditional anti-imperial tone of eschatology turned on its head. Instead of a parody of godly rule, Constantine’s court became a precursor of heaven. The chief literary product of this revision was the oracle of the Tiburtine Sibyl, to which Shoemaker devotes most of the second chapter. Composed in the late fourth century and circulated in several languages with multiple revisions over the course of centuries, it is a notoriously difficult text to work with. The most controversial point is its ending. In most manuscript copies, the Sibyl concludes with the story of the Last World Emperor, a character who unites a faltering Roman Empire against armies of barbarians and pagans. Under his rule, a reinvigorated Rome achieved an astonishing series of military victories, until the emperor decided to lay down his crown in Jerusalem. Some readers question whether this legend was part of the original Tiburtine Sibyl or...