Follow TV Tropes


Strong Empire, Shriveled Emperor

Go To
To be fair, this guy is a powerful Force user, but he could probably be felled by a stiff breeze.

He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods, and the master of more than a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies.
He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology.
— From the intro blurb to Imperium-focused Warhammer 40,000 novels

In most works, the leader of The Empire is powerful in their own right, especially when Rank Scales with Asskicking in their realm.

Not with this one.

They may be very old, or crippled, or ill, or some combination of the three. A slight breeze looks like it could kill them. Either way, they do not cut an imposing figure in person. They may be incredibly competent in internal politics, but they don't do anything except be Orcus on His Throne because, well... they look like they can barely get off it. Sure, they might have been The Conqueror in their younger days, but those days are long gone by. Bonus points if there appears to be some sort of cult worshiping them or the reader is repeatedly told In-Universe accounts of how amazing or impressive they are.

The key to being this trope is that despite how decrepit or powerless they may be physically, the state or authority they are at least nominally the head of is decidedly not, and defying it is no laughing matter in the setting. Also, if the setting includes magic or some equivalent to it, this guy could very well be extremely talented in its use and legitimately capable of defending himself with it, though anyone who can get around said magic will probably have no problem with assassinating him.

Compare Dark Lord on Life Support, Weak Boss, Strong Underlings, Non-Action Big Bad, Puppet King, and The Man Behind the Curtain, with which this trope often overlaps.


    open/close all folders 

  • In Aldnoah.Zero, the Vers Empire is led by Emperor Rayregalia Vers Rayvers. Publicly, he appears to be a strong and confident man. In reality, the strong image he projects is a literal holographic illusion, and the real Rayregalia is a dying, senile bedridden invalid who is being led around the nose by Count Saazbaum. In the second half of the show, his physical condition further deteriorates to needing a respirator, and his mental state collapses even further to the point that his mind regresses decades back to the time when his son was still alive, alternating between delusional and lucid. It is strongly implied he dies shortly before the end of the series.
  • Whitebeard, one of the Four Emperors from One Piece zigzags this to the extreme. On one side, he's introduced being hooked on life support despite being captain of one of the strongest crew in the world, with claims over large territories in the New World. During the Paramount War arc, he insisted on taking the life support devices out so his enemies won't pity or mock him for it, and even his subordinates note that this man is way past his prime, terminally ill and practically on death's door. On the other hand, he's still a massive, towering bulk of muscle, and he will show you just exactly why he's earned the title of World's Strongest Man.

    Fan Works 
  • In I Am Skantarios, the Pope — by dint of his authority over Western Europe — is portrayed as a serious threat to the Byzantine Empire, culminating in a Duel to the Death between the titular Skantarios and the Pope. However, the Pope is eighty and has never used a sword or ridden a horse before in his life, so the duel is... anticlimactic.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Star Wars: Emperor Sheev Palpatine founded and leads the mighty Galactic Empire — yet in The Empire Strikes Back, he is revealed to be an old man in a simple black robe, and in Return of the Jedi he is shown as being much smaller than his apprentice, Darth Vader. This trope gets zig-zagged a bit, as he is a genuinely powerful Sith Lord who is incredibly talented in the ways of the Force... but he's also a very old man decades past his prime, meaning that while he can kill easily with the Force, he's pretty helpless against anyone or anything that can get past that. Darth Vader defeats him by simply bear-hugging Palpatine and hurling him over a nearby railing to his death, and Palpatine can do nothing about it but scream and wildly fire off Force Lightning.
  • In Fatherland, Hitler's Nazi Germany has conquered Europe, and he's still in charge twenty years later. While he never shows up in the book, at the end of the movie he turns up for a diplomatic meeting with the U.S. President in Berlin, showing him to be a feeble 75-year old man.

  • Malkariss from the Redwall book Mattimeo founded an immense subterranean civilization on slavery and speaks from an imposing statue — but is elderly, frail, and nearly blind, and depends on his servants to run his empire according to his orders.
  • The Emperor of the Agatean Empire in the Discworld book Interesting Times. He is bedridden, speaking is difficult for him, and there are already internal power struggles... yet he still orders executions left and right, and his empire has nearly a million men under arms.
  • Cleon II and the Mule from Foundation. The former is the last strong Emperor yet bedridden due an unknown and painful disease, the latter is a mutant with enough power to build a huge empire, a frail build, and enough health problems to die before he's fifty.
  • God in His Dark Materials is so old and frail that he is literally killed by a slight breeze.
  • In The Traitor Baru Cormorant, the Emperor at the head of the Imperial Republic of Falcrest is actually a lobotomized puppet, and the Parliament has no real power either. Instead, all real power is in the hands of a cabal of "advisers" operating behind the scenes.
  • Played With in Mistborn with the Lord Ruler. The nature of his powers make being Orcus on His Throne a necessity, especially because he needs to spend some periods of time as a shriveled old man in order to spend other times as a healthy, young man, despite being centuries old. However, when he takes an active role in the first book, he's a nearly invincible Physical God rather than the nominal ruler that would be expected from his absence from public life.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In The Man in the High Castle, Adolf Hitler has conquered half the world, The Holocaust has gone through, and the only other country is his wartime ally Japan... yet he is in his seventies at the start of the series, with failing health, and it is admitted that he will probably die soon. The original novel takes it even further; Hitler no longer rules the Nazi empire he founded, instead rotting away in a lunatic asylum as he dies of old age, all while the rest of the Nazi leadership tries desperately to pretend that they didn't build a world off the ideas of a man even they now know to be insane.
  • Babylon 5: While Centauri Republic is an empire in decline, they still rank among the five most powerful races in known space. The emperor, however, is a very old man who is gravely ill. At least at first; when he makes a visit to Babylon 5, his health takes a sudden turn for the worst and he dies shortly thereafter. His replacement is a much younger man, but is really not right in the head.
  • In The Borgias, the King of Naples was a highly feared man who was known for his cruelty. By the time he first shows up on-screen, he's old, frail, and possibly senile, making him an easy target for torment by his own son Alfonso.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The God-Emperor of Mankind from Warhammer 40,000 is the nominal leader of the Imperium of Man, which controls the majority of the setting, but has spent the past ten millennia on life support while his body has decayed to a skeleton; although he has immense psychic power, most of it is used on maintaining a beacon to use for humanity's FTL Travel. Outside of this functionnote , the Emperor is effectively a figurehead, while the day-to-day administration is left to the High Lords of Terra, and each system is controlled by its own local planetary governor. Very much averted in the backstory, where he was — among many other things — a brilliant example of an Emperor Scientist.

    Video Games 
  • When EVE Online launched, the current God-Emperor of the Amarr Empire (the game's largest NPC Empire) was Heideran VII, who was well over 700 years old and confined to his life support throne.
  • In most of the games based on The Simpsons, specially the Konami's Beat 'em Up of The '90s and The Simpsons Game, the Big Bad is usually Montgomery Burns, a frail, ridiculously old man who can be easily defeated — even by Maggie.
  • Final Fantasy VI has the Gestahlian Empire, which covers the known world and is run by Gestahl, a 60-year old geezer. Albeit a geezer with a cunning strategic mind who masters highly advanced Playing with Fire magic.
  • Final Fantasy XIV subverts this as well. The Emperor and founder of the Garlean Empire, Solus zos Galvus, is never even seen outside of official developers' artwork, and he's an old man in his eighties by the time the game starts. Before the first expansion, he dies offscreen due to illness and old age and the ensuing Succession Crisis happens entirely independently of the player or their allies. His grandson, Varis, then takes over. Two expansions later, it's revealed that Solus was actually one of the immortal Ascian sorcerers, had several clone bodies, and is in fact very much still alive - he only took a short nap in the Interdimensional Rift after the death of his mortal body and later happily comes back into the picture by messing with his grandson and monologuing about how the Garlean Empire was simply a tool of the Ascians. Soon after, we learn his Ascian name - Emet Selch - and he steps into the Big Bad role for the Shadowbringers expansion, and he is anything but this trope.
  • Final Fantasy XV subverts this; the Empire of Nifleheim is nominally governed by the Emperor Iedolas Aldercapt, but the de-facto ruler and actual Big Bad is his chancellor Ardyn Izuna, who looks much younger due to being immortal.
  • The Empire of Adrestia in Fire Emblem: Three Houses is led by Emperor Ionius IX, the father of Edelgard von Hresvelg. Ionius is a man in very ill health and in reality has barely any political power, having been rendered powerless in a silent coup by an alliance of corrupt noble families and by Those Who Slither In The Dark. He is so powerless, that he was unable to prevent his 11 children from being kidnapped, imprisoned, and experimented on to become double Crest implantees, with 10 of those children eventually being tortured to death. The horrible state of his health is the major factor that allows Edelgard to return to the capital and ask him to step down so she can ascend the throne, averting this trope (well, for as much as she can, since her health also ended up rather damaged by the aforementioned experiments — of which she was the Sole Survivor).
  • Fallout: New Vegas features Caesar's Legion as its primary villainous faction - a brutal and ruthless fascist empire that keeps its territories under control through slavery and extreme violence, founded on the principle that Might Makes Right. The leader of the Legion, Caesar himself, is a man in his fifties and a Non-Action Big Bad who is happy to let his legionaries handle any physical conflict, partially due to his advancing age, but also due to his terminal brain tumour effectively crippling him. If Caesar is dead by the time you visit The Divide, Ulysses has some choice words regarding a frail old man leading a society that believes in the survival of the fittest.
    Ulysses: Caesar would be history's hypocrite if he was angry about what happened. Seems you proved his philosophy to him. If he'd been stronger, he'd be alive, and we wouldn't be talking.

    Western Animation 
  • The Owl House: Emperor Belos, ruler of the Boiling Isles and overseer of the coven system, is hinted to be this. He rarely makes public appearances anymore, operating through intermediaries without leaving his palace, and when he finally see him towards the end of season one, he's visibly ill and has to feed on the magic bile from a palisman to function normally. Despite all this, he's still the most feared man in the Boiling Isles, and with good reason. As it turns out, he's actually a human from the 1600s who's been using the palismen to artificially extend his life as he plots genocide against his subjects. His weakened state is actually caused by the souls of all the palismen he's devoured over the centuries attempting to break free.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: King Bumi subverts this trope. Though not the Emperor of the Earth Kingdom, he rules over a fairly powerful city-state (which may or may not be some form of vassal to the Earth King), Omashu. When Aang arrives in Omashu for the first time, Bumi subjects him to a series of challenges, culminating in a duel. Bumi's exact words are "Whoever you point at will be your opponent" and Aang, thinking he's being clever, points at Bumi rather than either of the two warriors. Only after this happens, does Bumi shed his disguise of being a frail old man to reveal that he is not only in VERY good shape, but also one of the most powerful earth-benders in the world.

    Real Life 
  • Timur the Lame was crippled for most of his life, but managed to carve out an mighty empire that only grew more powerful as he became older. By his late sixties, he could barely hold a sword or mount a horse alone, but succeeded in crushing the Georgians, Armenians, Persians, Egyptians, Indians and the Knights of Rhodes, and humiliated the rising Ottoman Empire by taking its sultan prisoner alongside his entire harem with him.
  • The British Empire during the second Boer War, with Queen Victoria in seclusion and on her deathbed for most of the war.
  • In the United States — one of the most powerful nations on Earth and arguably the center of a cultural sphere of power that extends worldwide — the President must be at least 35 years old. While most presidents are in their late 40s to early 60s, there have been some exceptions fitting this trope. Ronald Reagan was nearly 70 when he was elected (at that time the oldest elected president) and a few weeks shy of his 78th birthday when he left office at the end of his 2nd term. Then Donald Trump surpassed him at exactly 70 by his election in 2016... and then Joe Biden came, at the age of 78 when sworn in. A more specific example is during WWII, the president of the US was Franklin D. Roosevelt who was in his '60s and was in a wheelchair due to Polio.
  • The USSR — the other official superpower during the Cold War — had not one, but three Secretaries-General of frail health from the late 1970s to mid-1980s: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. The first half of 1980s was jokingly (in a dark way) called 'the Five Years of Fabulous Funerals' or 'Bier Racing'. Then a younger, more energetic person took the position and started to reform the country... we all know how it ended. This actually led to a joke in the era: "Under the tsar, supreme leadership was passed from father to son. Under communism, it's passed from grandfather to grandfather."