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Strong Empire, Shriveled Emperor

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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 Authority Equals 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 looks 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.

Compare Dark Lord on Life Support, Puppet King and The Man Behind the Curtain, with which this trope often overlaps.


Examples

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     Fan Fiction  

  • 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.

     Film  

     Literature  

  • 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.
  • 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.

     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.
  • 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.

     Real Life  

  • 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 that's nowhere near this trope, most Presidents are, in practice, nowhere near that age; POTUSes in their 40's are considered almost too young. The typical President of the United States is in his late-50's to early 70's; the current one is 71 as of this writing.
    • A more specific example is during WWII the president of the US was F.D.R. who was in his 60s and was in a wheelchair due to Polio.

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