"...like a good Sith, this new apprentice was as arrogant as he was cunning."
George Lucas didn't waste any time introducing us to the "big bad" in his galaxy far, far away.
In the first minutes of A New Hope (or purely Star Wars, as it was originally known), a towering black figure loomed through the smoke and carnage of the firefight aboard Tantive IV, and when he spoke, his voice was as intimidating as his appearance. His name was ominous. He was our first look at a Dark Lord of the Sith.
But what actually is a Dark Lord of the Sith? For that matter, what's a Sith?
Tens of thousands of years before the Skywalker saga, the Sith were just a species. They were composed of a higher-than-normal proportion of individuals with the potential to use the Force, but in this era, they weren't necessarily identified with the dark side. In fact, pureblood Sith were present on Tython, where some of them were among the ranks of the Je'daii - the forerunner of the Jedi.
We meet one in the Dawn of the Jedi series set almost 26,000 years before the Battle of Yavin. Sek'nos Rath was a Je'daii alongside human, Twi'lek, and other species. Yet in the Force Wars - a decade-long struggle against the invading dark side-wielding Rakatan - we last see him strongly influenced by the dark side of the Force. A bit of foreshadowing, perhaps?
Centuries later, a rift developed among the Jedi. Through flashbacks in the various Tales of the Jedi graphic novel series, we learn of two Great Schisms between traditional Jedi and those who experimented with alternate uses of the Force - including "abilities some might find… unnatural." After the Second Great Schism, the victors exiled the Dark Jedi who eventually found themselves on Korriban, where they became rulers of the native Sith. The most powerful of these Dark Jedi, Ajunta Pall, became the first true Dark Lord.
Korriban is where we found these dark masters centuries later in Tales of the Jedi: Golden Age of the Sith. Over the generations, the fallen Jedi and the natives interbred until the species became synonymous with the dark side philosophy and an affinity for cunning and ambition.
Nearly forgotten by the Jedi and the young Republic, these Sith were rediscovered by two wayward hyperspace explorers, Gav and Jori Daragon. United under a Dark Lord, Naga Sadow, who saw an opportunity for conquest, the combined forces of Sith invaded the Republic to start the Great Hyperspace War. But the Republic and the Jedi triumphed, scattering the Sith Empire. A remnant would escape to the Unknown Regions, others were scattered across the galaxy, including a group profiled in John Jackson Miller’s Lost Tribe of the Sith series.
After the Great Hyperspace War and the fall of that ancient Sith Empire, the Republic believed itself safe. But Sith ideology would occasionally reemerge - usually discovered by talented but impatient and arrogant Jedi. More installments of the Tales of the Jedi graphic novels, along with several Knights of the Old Republic issues, tell those stories, culminating in a Great Sith War and another seemingly final defeat for adherents of the dark side.
But the hidden exiled remnants of the ancient Sith Empire weren’t sitting idle in the Unknown Regions. Seeking a way to test the Republic’s defenses, the Sith sent an emissary to Mandalore the Ultimate, leader of the Mandalorians. Telling Mandalore of a vision of the Mandalorians defeating the Republic and using the Force to manipulate him, the emissary turned him into a weapon of the Sith. Convinced that the idea of invading the Republic was his own, Mandalore rallied his followers.
The ensuing Mandalorian Wars, beginning 3,796 BBY, are the backstory to the popularKnights of the Old Republic video games and are explored in the novels and comics of the same name. One gifted Jedi - Revan - felt obliged to fight, over the objections of the Council. He and his friend Malak beat the Mandalorians, becoming heroes of the Republic. But along the way, Revan discovered ancient Sith teachings - and evidence of the hidden, ancient Sith Empire. Believing this empire to be a more significant threat than the Mandalorians, he adopted the ways of the Sith to defend the galaxy, becoming Darth Revan.
Revan and Malak established their own Sith Academy on Korriban and subsequently began the Jedi Civil War by invading the Republic. Eventually, Revan was captured and redeemed by the Jedi before leading the fight against Malak and ultimately defeating his former friend.
A series of Sith Lords scrambled for the pieces left behind after Malak's defeat. Only a triumvirate would survive… briefly. They turned on each other, were eventually defeated by a former lieutenant of Revan, and the Sith were once again presumed to be beaten for good.
But three centuries later, the hidden Empire struck again. This war saw the Sith capture the Republic's capital, Coruscant, and in the truce, the galaxy was evenly divided between the Republic and the Sith - the first time the Dark Lords' order was recognized as a legitimate government.
The uneasy peace, the setting for Star Wars: The Old Republic, lasted for a dozen years before another large galactic war erupted.
In the crucible of this new war arose a new kind of Sith Lord. Born on a Republic mining world and running from the law after killing a Republic officer, he was intercepted and sent to train on Korriban. He was eventually offered the chance to join the ranks of the Dark Lords.
He took the name Darth Bane.
Influenced by Revan, Bane believed the reigning Brotherhood of Darkness spread the power of the dark side too thin. He developed the Rule of Two: a master to wield power, and an apprentice to crave it. He reigned for many years with his apprentice, Darth Zannah, before she defeated him in battle in 980 BBY. His saga is told in Drew Karpyshyn's popular Darth Bane trilogy.
Darth Bane also developed a Grand Plan. The Sith could never outnumber and overwhelm the Republic and the Jedi, so they would dismantle the Republic from within. His plan would take almost a thousand years of manipulating galactic politics to succeed.
920 years after Bane came Darth Plagueis the Wise. Obsessed with immortality, he learned how to manipulate the Force to stave off death… and even to spontaneously generate a pregnancy, creating life itself.
Plagueis knew that he needed a particular kind of apprentice. The Grand Plan required someone close to the levers of political power. This he found in a young man from Naboo's political class who had strong Force potential.
And, like a good Sith, this new apprentice was as arrogant as he was cunning.
The young man, Sheev Palpatine, would take the Sith name Darth Sidious. He worried his master's experiments with creating life through the Force was a plan to replace him as apprentice. So, after celebrating his election as Chancellor of the Republic, he murdered Plagueis in his sleep. 13 years later, with the Jedi Order nearly exterminated, their prophesied chosen one now a Sith Lord, and the Republic declared a Galactic Empire, the Sith's Grand Plan succeeded.
The success would be short-lived, however. While Sidious and his Empire ruled the galaxy through fear, a rebellion arose in opposition. Within a generation, a civil war raged.
In its climactic battle over Endor, Sidious’s final apprentice, Darth Vader, betrayed and murdered the last reigning Dark Lord of the Sith. While there would be other followers of the dark side of the Force, Vader’s betrayal - Anakin Skywalker’s redemption - would be the end of the Rule of Two, and the presumed end of the Sith Order.
Check out episode 4 of The Living Force Podcast to hear more of the team's thoughts on The Phantom Menace: