A brashly overconfident emperor races to spring a trap on his foes and ends up falling in battle to a ragtag group of unsophisticated adversaries. This isn’t just the (highly condensed!) story of The Return of the Jedi‘s climax, it’s also the story of the Battle of Adrianople, in 378. There, the Roman Emperor Valens presided over the annihilation of sixteen regiments of Roman soldiers: two-thirds of the Eastern army. Of Valens, the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote: “he was ready to gain advantage and profit at the expense of others’ suffering, and more intolerable when he attributed offences that were committed to contempt of, or injury to, the imperial dignity; then he vented his rage in bloodshed.” (The Roman History, Book XXXI, Chapter 5)
A bad emperor, he was less skillful than Palpatine, who perished during the Battle of Endor, victim of his own overweening confidence in the power of the Dark Side and the Death Star.
Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design. Your friends, up there on the sanctuary moon, are walking into a trap, as is your Rebel fleet. It was *I* who allowed the Alliance to know the location of the shield generator. It is quite safe from your pitiful little band. An entire legion of my best troops awaits them. Oh, I’m afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive. — Emperor Palpatine, The Return of the Jedi
But whether capable or not, both emperors died and dealt a great blow to the empire that they ruled. However, was it the end of the empire? If we follow Adrianople, history tells us that, no, the death of a ruler in battle doesn’t guarantee the end of his empire.
To the contrary, Rome’s empire far outlasted Valens’ own humiliating end at Adrianople. (Depending on which account you prefer, he either perished of an arrow wound in battle or retreated to a stone building near the field which the enemies, seeking to overrun, then burned down with all in it.) 378 saw his co-emperor, Gratian, rally the empire with the assistance of a new co-emperor, Theodosius I. Constantinople, the imperial capital, withstood a Gothic assault and endured for over a thousand years longer as the empire’s chief city.
While Coruscant seemingly celebrated the empire’s overthrow in the final scenes of Return of the Jedi, in truth, what happened to the imperial fleet and its ruler at the Battle of Endor was hardly a game-changer. Even with many imperial ships destroyed and the new Death Star obliterated, what the Alliance defeated was only a portion of a vast, well-supplied and deeply entrenched imperial force. All of those planets, all of those starships and bases, all of those forces ready to rally at the call of the emperor or someone invoking his authority? It would be easy for the Empire to endure.
We’re already seeing from casting information and spoiler discussion that, in The Force Awakens, the Empire is not forgotten, even many years after the battle. New stormtroopers fight on behalf of an imperial cause that is further supported by a Force-sensitive warrior. With generals and Sith, it’s easy to expect that a new emperor will also arise. . . .