By Michael Goodyear
Nostalgia: yearning for a better time from the past. Whether it is a desire to return to a bygone historical era or just last year, nostalgia is a common phenomenon that many of us have felt. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that medieval societies similarly felt a desire to return to the past. In particular, a series of myths arose in various European countries about the return of a former great king, who is just sleeping, waiting for his time to return and save his homeland.
These “king in the mountain” myths have appeared across the world, but have been most prevalent in Europe, featuring both mythical and real historical figures, such as King Arthur, Charlemagne, and King Sebastian I of Portugal. Here, we will focus on two of the most prominent of these myths: the long slumber and future return of the great Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, and the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos.
Frederick Barbarossa: The King Under the Mountain
The Brothers Grimm, the famous collectors of German myths, recorded the stories about the great Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (r. 1155– 1190) sleeping under a mountain in Germany. The myth was first recorded in the seventeenth century, but it no doubt stretched further back in time. According to these legends, Barbarossa actually sleeps deep underneath Kyffhäuser, a range of hills in the central German region of Thuringia, awaiting his country’s time of need. According to the legends, ravens circling Kyffhäuser are a sign of Barbarossa’s continuing presence under the hills. Supposedly he continues to sleep under Kyffhäuser, his beard growing to an enormous length. When he finally awakens, however, he will restore greatness to Germany and create prosperity for the land.
This makes for a remarkable story, but Barbarossa died roughly 2,000 miles away from Kyffhäuser, drowning in the Saleph River in modern Turkey while leading his army during the Third Crusade. Following his death, the German crusader army disintegrated, but Barbarossa’s son, Frederick VI of Swabia (r. 1170– 1191), took his father’s corpse, pickled, to the Holy Land. The body was improperly preserved, however, and it was split into different parts and buried across the Holy Land, falling short of the goal of burying Barbarossa’s body in Jerusalem, which was, at that point, ruled by the Muslim leader Saladin (r.1174–1193). There is little doubt that Barbarossa’s body was scattered across modern-day Turkey and Lebanon. So with such certainty, why would a myth about Barbarossa being asleep under a German mountain take root?
For Germany, especially during the Middle Ages and early modern period, Barbarossa’s reign was a height of Germany’s strength. He was undoubtedly one of the most powerful European rulers of his generation. He substantially increased the Holy Roman Empire’s influence over neighboring states, such as Poland and Hungary, and preserved German power in Italy, despite the rising of the Lombard League in rebellion in northern Italy. German influence in Italy would culminate during the reign of his grandson, Frederick II (r. 1198–1250), who ruled Sicily, Naples, and the Holy Roman Empire. Most scholars also consider Barbarossa to be one of the most powerful Holy Roman Emperors.
After the reign of Frederick II, however, the Holy Roman Empire started to ebb in power, and further divisions inside Germany broke up the territory of the empire further until the time of Emperor Maximilian I (r. 1508–1519). Internal civil wars and the devastation of the Black Death in the fourteenth century ravaged Germany. The reign of Barbarossa and his Hohenstaufen dynasty was seen as a century of relative peace and prosperity, and thus something worth German nostalgia. Especially during the movement for German reunification, there was a longing for a German past of greater unity under a great emperor such as Barbarossa. This sense of longing for a past glorious era for Germany was demonstrated even after Germany was reunited under Prussia when Wilhelm I (r. 1861–1888) built a statue of himself at Kyffhäuser along with a statute of Barbarossa, replete with a long beard.
Constantine XI Palaiologos: The Marble Emperor
A longing for the past is not exclusive to Germany. But while Germans may have looked to a stronger Holy Roman Empire under Barbarossa, Greeks have instead looked to a restoration of the long-lost Byzantine Empire that was dominated by Greek elements. The Greeks were under Ottoman rule for nearly 400 years, making Greek freedom a critical cause in the mindset and memory of the nation. This longing for a restored Byzantium even influenced Greek government policy after independence in the nineteenth and early twentieth century under the name of the Μεγάλη Ιδέα, or the Great Idea, to take back land from the declining Ottoman Empire.
One way in which this longing for the Byzantine past was demonstrated was in the belief that the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI Palaiologos (r. 1449–1453), during the final Ottoman onslaught on Constantinople, was turned into marble by angels and placed under the central gate of Constantinople, known as the Golden Gate. This legend arose almost immediately following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, but it became especially popular during the 1820s when Greece was fighting its War of Independence against the Ottomans.
Yet unlike Barbarossa, Constantine was far from one of the greatest Byzantine emperors. Constantine was emperor long after Byzantium’s heyday; Byzantium had been in semi-vassal status to the Ottomans for decades and the imperial crown jewels were made of glass. The “empire” was composed of little more than Constantinople itself plus the Peloponnesus in Greece. Constantine only ruled for a little over four years. The Byzantines themselves had looked back on previous mighty emperors and implored them for help, as the Germans had with Barbarossa. Following a disastrous defeat against the Bulgars under Krum in 811, Byzantine troops went to the tomb of Constantine V (r. 741– 775), the great iconoclast emperor and general, and implored him to rise from the dead and lead their army to victory once again.
Yet being the last emperor certainly leaves a major impression on the memory of a people, especially when that emperor is waiting in marble under the gates of the Queen of Cities, Constantinople, to reclaim it for the Greeks and Christendom. Furthermore, Constantine’s body was never found, since he tore off the imperial regalia before charging into the final battle with the Ottoman Turks. So although he likely died in the fighting and was just unidentified, the fact that his body was never found, unlike Barbarossa, contributed to the myth. The ensuing 400 years of Ottoman rule over the Greeks also made them look back fondly upon memories of their medieval empire, and especially their tragic but heroic final emperor who died fighting to save the great city of Constantinople.
Constantine has had a significant impact on the Greek national psyche. He was used to inspire soldiers during the Greek War of Independence as well as during subsequent wars between Greece and the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the third king of modern Greece, Constantine I (r. 1913–1917, 1920–1922), was deliberately given the name Constantine, and parallels were drawn between the namesake marble emperor and the then king, who appeared poised to retake Constantinople before Greek forces were overwhelmed in Asia Minor during the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922.
Today, Constantine is still seen as a Greek hero, and contemporary composers have even composed elegies for the marble emperor. Statues of Constantine exist throughout Greece. There are two in Athens, one in the square next to the main cathedral, the other on the waterfront in the suburb of Paleo Faliro. The late Byzantine capital of the Peloponnesus, Mistras, boasts another statue of the last Byzantine emperor, who had previously served as the despot, or provincial ruler, of Mistras before becoming the leader of the entire empire. One can also buy icons of Constantine in Greece, where he is considered an unofficial saint. The Golden Gate, under which the marble Constantine supposedly sleeps, has long since been walled up by the Turks. The land around the gate is also blocked off from any visitors. After all, myth or not, Turkey cannot be too careful.
The myths of Barbarossa and Constantine are but two of many “sleeping king in the mountain” legends. Yet, these two stories showcase the main two archetypes of the king in the mountain myth: a great king or the last king. On the great king side, other sleeping kings include Genghis Khan, Vytautas the Great of Lithuania, and Charlemagne. Examples of sleeping last kings include Sebastian I of Portugal, whose kingdom was then absorbed by Spain for 60 years, and King Rodrigo, the last Visigoth king of Spain, whose kingdom was overrun by the Umayyads. The prominence of such stories about medieval rulers demonstrate the fondness with which former medieval golden ages were viewed by their subjects’ descendants.
Despite the long-dead status of Barbarossa and Constantine, the legends of their return show the enduring interest in the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire in Germany and Greece’s historical memory. Both stories have been interspersed with apocalyptic narratives, which were especially important in Byzantine literature. While the emperors may return at the time of greatest need for their people, the apocalypse has been suggested as that time. But while the emperors may not rise up from under Kyffhäuser or the Golden Gate to lead their people to future victories, their influence continues to make an impact on the continued recognition of medieval imperial history and, in particular, the reigns and lives of Barbarossa and Constantine.
Michael Goodyear holds a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School and an A.B. in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Byzantine history. He has been published in a variety of academic and general-interest publications in law and history, including Le Monde diplomatique, Ancient History Encyclopedia, and the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law.
Guran, Petre. “From the Last Emperor to the Sleeping Emperor: The Evolution of a Myth.” The Apocalyptic Complex: Perspectives, Histories, Persistence, edited by Nadia Al-Bagdadi, David Marno, and Matthias Riedl, Central European University Press, 2018, pp. 157–178.
Koshar, Rudy. From Monuments to Traces: Artifacts of German Memory, 1870–1990. University of California Press, 2000.
Philippides, Marios. Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus (1404–1453): The Last Emperor of Byzantium. Routledge, 2019.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Frederick in his cave, depicted in the 1893 book A travers les Alpes autrichiennes, by Maurice Grandjean
Comments & Reviews