The 1987 film The Last Emperor was a critical and box office smash. It won 9 Oscars and profits far exceeding its $24 million budget. It’s based on a true story – the life of Pu Yi, the final emperor of China. But he wasn’t the only last emperor in world history. So let’s take a moment to look at Pu Yi and some of the other men who represented the ends of their empires, dynasties, and eras.
Xuantong Emperor (1906-1967), also known as Pu Yi, held the imperial title, but never any power. From the ages of 3 to 6, he was the last of the Qing dynasty emperors. But effectively, he was just the tool of various warlords in the chaos of early 20th Century China. Later, he was the titular ruler of Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria from 1934-1945. Upon the collapse of his Japanese masters, Pu Yi was arrested by the Soviets, who imprisoned him until 1950. Then Stalin presented him as a gift to Mao Zedong, who had just completed the Communist conquest of China. Pu Yi spent the next nine years in a labor camp before his release to take up the simple life of a gardener.
Pedro II (1825-1891) was the second and last emperor of Brazil, which gained its independence in 1822. Pedro became emperor at just 5 years old, and was declared of age at 14, but real power eluded him until about 1850. Then he set to work ending slavery, expanding Brazilian territory at the expense of Paraguay, and establishing an effective bureaucracy. An absolutist monarch in the old European mold, he resisted sharing power with a younger generation of Brazilians that was increasingly republican in their political outlook. An army coup in 1889 overthrew him, and Pedro II died in exile in Paris.
Charles I (1887-1922) took power in 1916, in the middle of World War I. He tried and failed to remove Austria-Hungary from the war, and upon the collapse of the Austrian army on the Italian front, he renounced political power. That proved to be an insufficient concession for the people of the rapidly collapsing multiethnic empire, and Charles was forced into exile in Switzerland in March of 1919. Austria deposed him the following year, and his efforts to take the Hungarian throne were stymied. He died in 1922 in relative poverty on the Portuguese coast. Due to his devout faith and desire for peace, he is a candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church. He was beatified (a step in the sainthood process) in 2004 after a Brazilian nun claimed to be healed of her varicose veins after praying that Charles intercede for her.
Romulus Augustulus (r. 475-476), the last emperor of the western Roman Empire, had a legally weak claim to the throne in this own right. This was because his father, the general Orestes, had overthrown the emperor Julius Nepos and given the imperial throne to his young son. This was Romulus, known to history as Augustulus, which which is the Latin diminutive form of "little Augustus". The boy was clad in the imperial purple, but he had no power at all beyond the walls of Ravenna, the northern Italian city that had been the seat of Roman governance over Italy for decades. The Germanic king Odoacer, in possession of no imperial title but a formidable army, deposed him the following year. Romulus was well-treated, but forcibly retired to a country estate in Campagnia with an annual pension.
Bao Dai (1913-1997) was last emperor of Vietnam and the last reigning member of the Nguyen Dynasty. He succeeded to the throne in 1926, but promptly moved to France -- Vietnam’s colonial ruler -- at the request of that nation’s government. He was allowed to return in 1932, and he carried out a number of reforms designed to build a 20th Century government that France would consider worthy of limited sovereignty. France refused, and so Bao Dai retreated into the lifestyle of a playboy until the Japanese conquest. When the Communist Viet Minh took control of the country after the Japanese surrender, Bao Dai abdicated the throne, and the next year, moved to France. The French installed him as head of state in 1949, and then pushed him out of power in 1955. He died in exile in Paris in 1997.
Constantine XI Palaiologos (1404-1453) was the last ruler of the Byzantine Empire, beginning in 1449, amidst furious infighting with his political rivals. Under assault by Muslim invaders for eight hundred years, the once-mighty empire had been reduced to Constantinople, a few Aegean islands, and the Peloponnese. Fully aware of the desperate circumstances, Constantine spent all of his energies on securing help from the Catholic west. He even held a Latin Mass in Hagia Sophia, to the outrage of the population of Constantinople. But no aid came, save the Genoese mercenaries that he could not afford to pay. After a seven week siege by Sultan Mehmet II, the Turks breached the walls of Constantinople. The emperor flung off his royal insignia and rallied his remaining troops to a final charge in which he died.
Atahualpa (ca.1498-1533) was the last emperor of the Inca. His father did not clearly denote a successor, so Atahualpa had to seize power through a bloody civil war. While enjoying the thermal baths at Cajamarca, he was surprised by 168 European soldiers led by the Spanish adventurer Francisco Pizarro. Atahualpa offered an enormous ransom to the Spanish, who were paid 13,420 pounds of gold and 26,000 pounds of silver. Diego de Almagro, the commander of the Spanish garrison at the time that the ransom arrived, responded by executing the Inca emperor. But indigenous peoples of the region were inspired to compose messianic prophecies about Atahualpa. Two centuries later, a Native Peruvian named Juan Santos, claiming to be a descendant of Atahualpa, led a prolonged rebellion against Spanish colonial rule in the Andean highlands.
Haile Selassie I (1892-1975) was the last emperor of Ethiopia. As a political entity, the Ethiopian Empire emerged gradually over a millennium of change. It was firmly in place by the time of Adma Siyon (r.1313-44), but had essentially collapsed by 1769. Tewodros II (r.1855-1889) restablished the monarchy and claimed, like all previous Ethiopian emperors, to be the successor of King Solomon. He was eventually followed by Haile Selassie I. The emperor overcame a conquest by Mussolini’s Italy during World War II and, with British and US help, modernized the Ethiopian government and economy. Haile Selassie defeated a coup in 1960, but dissent to his rule only increased. In 1974, in the midst of a serious famine, the army revolted and imprisoned the emperor. Haile Selassie died the following year in confinement, and his captors declared an end to the Solomonic Dynasty. Nonetheless, he remains today the central focus of worship in the Rastafarian religion, which sees him a divine messenger and savior. Images: Columbia Pictures, Wikimedia Commons