The ancient and medieval history
of apocalyptic prophesies (in part)
Regardless what calendar happened to be all the rage at the time the following prophecies were made, the dating system Iíll be using for them will be our familiar Gregorian reckoning. Though, Iíll also be using the newer definitions of BCE - "Before Common Era" and CE - "Common Era" instead of the fusty old BC and AD.
633 BCE - These days, people tend to associate apocalyptic hysteria with extremist Christian cults, Dark Age ignoramuses and assorted dorks who think that The X-Files is a documentary. But, in fact, the history of numerical nuttiness goes back much further than that. The Sumerians, Babylonians and Zoroastrians also shared an unfortunate proclivity for doom-by-numbers. As did the ancient Romans, who were apparently obsessed with the idea that twelve magic eagles had revealed to Romeís fratricidal founder, Romulus, the date for the cityís ultimate downfall. Seeing twelve as a portentous value, the Romans had a tendency to get all farklempt over almost every municipal anniversary that fell on a multiple of the fowl dozen. The first big dread-fest occurring when the city was but a tender 120 years old. When that date failed to produce the promised arrivaderci Roma, the idea wasnít scrapped, just modified a bit, so that the eagles now represented the months in a year. Nevermind that there were only ten months to a year back in Romulusí imagined day. And since there were 355 days in a year (Republican Calendar), the end was now supposed to arrive promptly on...
398 BCE - After 355 years of eagle-iconed months had passed away into the history scrolls. Far from being a downer year, however, 398 fell smack-dab in the middle of the Roman Republicís Golden Age. Clearly, if Armageddon fans were going to get any better mileage out of these kinds of prophecies, they were going to have to set their sights on a whole Ďnother mythology.
167 BCE (time approx.) - Setting the stage for craziness to come, the Book of Daniel hit the best-seller lists amongst the put-upon and seriously pissed-off Jews laboring under Greek (soon to be Roman) rule. With their homeland reduced to Helenism on earth, these were people in serious need of a change in management. Wishful thinki...excuse me, prophesying the end of their oppressorís reign, the Book of Daniel goes into lip-smacking, lurid detail over the gruesome, God-ordained ends of the Chosen Peopleís enemies, who are naturally portrayed as Evil Incarnate. And it goes without saying that the Chosen are all paragons of Goodness who wind up happily tra-la-la-ing through eternity in Paradise. The trouble with the BoD is that itís very, very vague about the due date on all this revenge fantasy stuff. The result is that ever since, itís tended to be used as a kind of theological booster rocket for the even wilder, bloodier and more cosmologically ambitious Final Countdowns that followed.
Early ? CE - Of course, the earliest known failed apocalyptic prophecy of the Common Era came straight out of the New Testamentís eccentric little Book Of Revelation, which states under no uncertain terms that the Final Curtain would be ringing down while there was still at least one Apostle left to give a standing O. Unless anyone reading this knows of any 2000 year-old social security recipients who were personal pals oí Jesus, we can assume that this particular claim has gone well past its expiration date.
Still, like all claims based in the Never-Neverland universe of the True Believer, the fact that nothing ever came of it has not diminished its popularity with the Faithful one iota. Instead, it has merely spurred on legions of Casandra-come-latelies throughout history who always insist that the End is, indeed, nigh and that they are the only ones to whom the Lord gave the proper party directions...kind of like a really good rave.
53 CE - Seems someone pulled a fast one on the Thessalonians that year and suckered them into believing that, darn it all, the Rapture already came and went and they missed it! Much hand-wringing, praying and screaming for refunds ensued. Not a prophecy, so much as a practical joke. But a damn good one, so I thought Iíd give it a mention here.
93 CE (roughly) - Saint Clement I, whose main claim to fame would come in the form of being the only Catholic saint to achieve martyrdom by being used as an anchor, kept annoying people with the persistent hysterical declaration that the End would be coming any moment, now...really...just you wait and see...itíll happen soon...thatís a promise!...when you least expect it!...boy, are the scoffers gonna change their tune!...any second!...itíll be ri - **splash!**
100 CE - Not too many little boys want to grow up to be martyrs, but Saint Ignatius was quite the iconoclast. Imprisoned and tabbed for lion kibble, Ignatius spent his idle hours in the Roman slammer writing down his life story, his notions about Christliness (a really hot topic in his day) and of the joys of impending martyrdom. He also went on at some length about the End Times and how certain he was theyíd coming up soon...For him personally, they were.
156 CE - Okay, so this guy walks into Ardabau - stop me if youíve heard this one - and he starts to prophesy like thereís no tomorrow. Anyhow, this guy (whose name was Montanus, by the way) this guy, well, heís good, really good, he shows promise. But his act doesnít really catch on until he gets these two chicks, Maximilla & Priscilla, as backup seers.
Well, look out, hold the phoenicia! The trio is a hit!
Pretty soon theyíre getting this huge fan following and doing major gigs all over Asia Minor. From there on, though, itís the old story; Star gets too full of himself, starts bad-mouthing the Bishops and acting like Godís mouthpiece, gets all petty and demanding, figures his fans ought to fast and be celibate and, like, martyr themselves or something Ďcuz, oooooh, The End is gonna be coming any minute, now! In fact, New Jerusalemís supposed to land smack dab between Pepuza and Tymion, of all places, like some phrygian Mother Ship...and it all just goes downhill from there.
Pretty soon, Montanus and everyone who hung with him are, like, totally excommunicated. They try to make it on their own as a kind of free-agent sect and the group stillís got a few die-hard hangers-on right up to 900-something, but really, by the early 500ís, The Montanists are definitely doiní the one-hit-wonder slide on the one-way road to Has-Been City. Bummer, huh?
210 CE - A Christian seer by the unfortunate name of Judas futzed about with the Book of Daniel and came to the conclusion that the Antichrist would be popping up "real soon now"...And the clock is ticking...
365 CE - Long before there was a boy named Sue, there was a Saint named Hilary...of Poitiers, that is. He is also known by the far more apt Latin name of "Hilarius". In addition to being a foaming-at-the-font anti-heresy loon and a would-be tunesmith, Hilary took up the "real soon now" cry for Antichrist hysteria with gusto. He made the all-too-typical and tragic mistake of limiting "soon" to "this here year", however, and by 366 was taunted out of town as if his mother was a hamster and his father smelled of elderberries. Having altogether too much time on his hands, Pope Pius IX decided to overlook this embarrassing mystical gaffe and in 1851 declared that his latest choice for sainthood would truly be Hilarius.
375 - 400 CE (give or take) - Probably the worldís first conscientious objector, Saint Martin of Tours managed to get out of being drafted into the Roman legions by arguing, "I am Christís soldier: I am not allowed to fight."
...A philosophy which obviously never caught on with too many subsequent Christian generations.
After being booted out of the corps, Marty went his own way and ended up in Poitiers as the protégé of...you guessed it; Hilarius. With a role model like that, it wasnít long before Marty was squealing about the Antichrist, too and writing reams of histrionic screeds warning that The Evil One was already out and about and training for the big showdown. Cagey enough to have learned from Hilaryís mistake, Marty was careful to make his "real soon now" claim a bit more fuzzy and wavered around 25 - 30 years.
Nevertheless, all those who had embraced Martyís warned fuzzies would be in need of a lot of post let-down hugs as the years droned uneventfully on and on...
500 CE - Around 221 CE the noted historical scholar and obsessive Christian apologist, Sextus Julius Africanus wrote his "Chronographiai", an attempt to compile the whole history of life, the universe and everything into one all-purpose, handy-dandy tome. Stuck as he was on the idea that God was on a tight 6000 year creation to demolition schedule, Jules placed the open for business date at about 5000 BCE and Armageddon at roughly 500 CE. (time approximate and subject to schedule change) The date was given even further affirmation when Hippolytus, famed antipope and insufferable grouch, came to the same conclusion. The year came, the year went and the Christians who had so hopefully packed their bags for Rapture pick-up were left standing at the cosmic bus stop without a ride.
591 CE - It is a proven fact that those who lean toward fancying Doomsday prophecies tend to hold rather low standards in Doomsday prophets. A textbook example of this lack of good judgment happened in France on this particular year. It seems that some Frankish villager wandered into a local forest and found himself eye-ball deep in a swarm of flies. (hygiene being what it was, or wasnít in those days, itís a wonder why this sort of thing didnít happen more often) Overwhelmed with a major attack of the creepy-crawlies, the poor fellow came completely unglued, ran off to become a hermit, decked himself out in animal skins, then came back to town and started telling anyone who would listen that he was Jesus Christ gathering his flock before the Big One hit...which would, of course, be "real soon now". Ignoring what would seem the obvious fact that he was a raving (and exceptionally fragrant) loony bird, people starting following him in droves. The end (not of the world, but of the cult) came when a local bishop sent a crew of thugs out to nab the Lord of The Flies and hack him into tiny bite-sized bits. Ah, the perils and pitfalls of pre-Black Flag society.
750 CE - Before there was AD (Anno Domini) there was AM (Anno Mundi - "The Year of the World").
Though no FM, Iím afraid.
And if you think the exact placement of 1 AD was a bone of contention, let me tell you, that was nuthiní compared to the holy hoohah over 1 AM. An understandable issue in light of the fact that the AM concept came with a warrantee for only 6000 years and the various presumed deadlines (like Juliusís above) were coming up fast and furious. Responding to the crises like the good anti-millennialist he was, the theologian and someday saint Bede simply changed the dates. Bede stands out from the usual number-swapping rabble by changing not only the date, but the whole calendar along with it. He got the idea from a long dead Scythian monk named Dionysius Exiguus (or, sans the glossy Latin, Dennis the Dinky) who had simply gotten sick and tired of the old inconsistent Julian system and the havoc it was playing with his day-runner. For Bede, this was not just good chronology, it was great PR! Just a flick of the quill and presto-chango! Doom and gloom 6000 AM became harmless, work-a-day 800 AD...Or 801...Or possibly 796...Or maybe even 797...Then again...
751 CE - Some people just donít know how to let go. When the last of the Frankish Merovingian kings was deposed by the first Carolingian one, scores of folks carried on as if it were the end of the world. Eventually, they moved on to the acceptance phase and forgot about the whole thing.
Between 799 - 806 CE - Saint Gregory of Tours was one of those irritating sniffy types who raise false modesty to an art form. Always whining about the poverty of his knowledge and the humbleness of his abilities, just so he could get others to coo all over him, protesting how fabulous he really was. Of course, daring to toot oneís own horn so close to the End Times might have looked rather bad on oneís eternal résumé, so one could sympathize a bit with the olí bishopís creative solution to the ego boo prob. By his calculations, the Last Call would be sounded out in only a scant two centuries, (and you know how fast they fly) starting off in 799 and then wrapping up seven years later to allow for sufficient grovel and debasement time in between. Of course, Greg himself keeled over in 594, so he wasnít in any real danger of seeing how his theory tested out.
800 CE - Remember Sextus Julius Africanus? Well, heís back. Or, at least, his prediction for Armageddon is. Believing in the concept of the "back-up plan", Jules included this date, should the first one fall through. Unfortunately, his second shot at the Second Coming turned out to be just as second rate.
800 CE (take II) - Targeting that very same year, an elderly Spanish monk by the name of Beatus (what are you laughing at?!?) announced his deep and utterly unshakable belief that he would live to see the Antichrist and Armageddon arrive hand in hoof by the year 800...Sad to say, even before the date rolled by, Beatus (stop snickering!) had already been disqualified on a technicality; He dropped dead in 798.
801 CE - A select few people-in-the-know about Bedeís little calendrical switcheroo went briefly bonkers when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Why? Well, according to the old Anno Mundi calendar that nobody was supposed to talk about anymore, this was really the 6000th year since the dawn of Creation and the date the Antichrist was supposed to rise to Satanic power...Provided he had even the slightest respect for staying on schedule. Which you can never tell with these Incarnation of Ultimate Evil types. So fickle.
848 CE - The "prophetess" Thiota waltzed into Mainz in 847 to announce to the easily impressed citizenry that the next year would be the last one. One assumes there wasnít much to do in Mainz since she acquired quite an avid following...for a year, anyhow.
950 CE - Another mischief-making monk, Adso of Montier, sent a letter off to the highly impressionable sister of King Otto of Germany insisting that the Antichrist would rise the very moment the Frankish kings were knocked out of power. Non-plussed as Otto himself was, the letter ended up being copied and sent out all over Europe causing the populace to indulge in an energetic and refreshing bout of apocalyptic panic for a little while.
968 CE - An eclipse caused real tsures amongst Europeans everywhere, especially the soldiers in Ottoís army, who were convinced that the End had come. It was a short-lived thrill, but I guess when youíre stuck living in the Dark Ages, youíll take anything.
Friday, March 25, 970 CE - A group of Lotharingian numbers crunchers, who really should have found themselves another hobby, came upon the astounding discovery that this exact date marked not only the coinciding of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, but also the day when Adam was created, Isaac was offered for sacrifice and the Red Sea was crossed! And as if that werenít enough to fit on their day-planners, these boys decided that it would also be the perfect moment for the big Archangel Michael vs. Satan Fight For The World Championship. For our Lotharingian nerds, April Fools came a week early that year.
989 CE - Halleyís Comet did a fly-by and briefly scared the bloody chiliasm out of everybody, including that trouble-making monk, Adso, who quickly packed up and took a one-way trip to Jerusalem.
992 CE - Next in line for Bible bobbles, comes Bernard of Thuringia. Bernie was a well-respected scholar and numerology nut-job who got everyoneís Byzantine toga in a knot when he announced this date as the definitive gute nacht, Krankenschwester. He also proved himself a foxy Ďlil forward thinker by having the good sense to drop dead long before this exercise in post-Biblical disappointment came and went without so much as a Divine hiccup. Unfortunately, most others who would follow in the ĎNardmanís wanna-be-prophetic footsteps, would not demonstrate such good timing.