(Warning: spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker ahead!)
When I wrote several months ago an article mentioning the use of the myth about “Nero Redivivus” and Star Wars universe, I did not know yet how near the mark did I hit. Palpatine’s appearance in TRoS was hinted at in the very first trailer, but only the film itself showed how closely has J. J. Abrams matched the classic myth of a returned Emperor.
The myth of a supposedly dead ruler coming back and retaking his realm may be as old as humanity itself. It appears in many cultures in various forms. One well-known example may be that of King Arthur, according to some legends sleeping under Mount Badon with his knights, to come back when the country is in peril. Many countries have a similar “sleeping national hero”. Historically, one of the most influential legends, and the closest to the Star Wars take, is the legend concerning Roman Emperor Nero. The legend related to his return is a “hero returning” legend for some, but in one of its longest-surviving iterations, it is the legend about the return of the ultimate villain.
Just like Palpatine, Nero was not a favourably portrayed figure already during his reign. Already early Roman historians such describe him as disliked and corrupt, if not straightaway mad. A popular gossip blamed him for starting the Great Fire of Rome and then using it as pretext for the persecution of Christians.
Here one can already think of parallels with Palapatine’s persecution of the Jedi (whom he also blamed for various things he had done himself). Indeed, already in Episode III, George Lucas was clearly drawing on these parallels. The visual image of burning Jedi Temple in the centre of Republic’s capital city was evocative both of the Great Fire of Rome and of the razing of the Temple in Jerusalem at the end of the Jewish-Roman War that started during Nero’s reign.
Nero had other “charming” qualities ascribed to him by the historians. Later Christian writers blamed him mainly for the first persecutions, but even non-Christian historians such as Tacitus tend to portray him negatively. He had his own mother killed (perhaps someone can utilise this when writing Palpatine’s backstory), also his persecution of Christians was explained by Tacitus rather as an act of personal cruelty than of fear of a new religion. It is very easy to imagine Nero as Palpatine, at least in the realm of legends: a cruel and evil Emperor.
The Emperor Lives
Nero was eventually betrayed by his own Praetorian guard and fled into exile, where he committed suicide. Or, that is what histories tell. The common folk of his own time already had a different explanation.
“Nero Redivivus” is the name given to the figure of a mythological ruler returning from the edges of the Roman Empire with a new army, to take back his throne. The popular “conspiracy theory” that lasted decades and in places hundreds of years after his death said that Nero did not, in fact, die, but fled into Parthia. Parthia was the easternmost region neighbouring the Roman Empire (roughly present-day Iran and extending towards present-day India) and the furthest a Roman citizen in that era could imagine, the veritable end of the world. This was the border of the unknown, beyond which there be dragons, myths and whence anything can come – including a resurrected Emperor.
One can easily see how the story of Episode IX corresponds to this myth. The Emperor, supposedly killed in Return of the Jedi, is not in fact dead. He has survived and is out there, amassing strength, to one day return with an army of powerful, unfamiliar forces. Parthians or Star Destroyers: it does not matter; they play the same role in the myth.
The Number of the Beast
But why did such myth even exist about Nero? Well, he was not seen as the bad guy by everyone. It seems that in the provinces, as well as among many common people, he was perceived as a positive figure. The heavy taxes he imposed that so annoyed Roman’s wealthy citizens helped the Empire’s infrastructure. It was likely among those supporters where the “Nero Redivivus” myth originated. It was also among those where several actual pretenders for the throne, claiming to be the returned Emperor, historically appeared.
The myth of Nero, however, survived the longest thanks to being used as reference in a text widely read until now. That text is the Biblical book of Revelation, chapter 13: “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns (…) And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.” This is the very same text that mentions the famous “number of the Beast”, 666, which most researchers believe to be a cipher for the name of Emperor Nero. The wounded and “miraculously” healed head then would be Nero Redivivus, supposedly dead, yet returned. The author of Revelation would simply have picked up a very popular “conspiracy theory” of his time and used it to illustrate the coming of Antichrist.
Star Wars Is A Myth
Taking all the elements of the myth – the Antichrist as the evil of all evils, a dead but returned Emperor, an army gathered from the fringes of the known universe – we have a scheme that fits both the legend of Nero Redivivus and the story of Palpatine in The Rise of Skywalker.
I am not saying that J. J. Abrams was necessarily intentionally using the parallels between Nero and Palpatine. Perhaps he was, just like George Lucas, simply drawing on the common human heritage of myths and legends that very often run along the same lines. Lucas had also confessed that initially, he had written Star Wars as it came to him, and only later discovered how strikingly close they are to the scheme of many classical myths, “the hero’s journey”, as it were. In the case of TRoS and the sequel trilogy, however, the parallels are perhaps more notable than in many other cases. Perhaps it is because of the figure of the Emperor that connects them.