The Holy Roman Empire: What Was It Really?
The Holy Roman Empire was a superpower of the Middle Ages.
Rome, 800 CE
It was Christmas. The Tiber stank as usual, spoiling the festive mood. Everybody who’s anybody gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica. The atmosphere was tense, despite the time of year. They were watching a barbarian from some wild land beyond the Alps praying at the altar of their basilica. The barbarian was Charlemagne, powerful in Europe beyond the Alps, yet despised as all Germans or Slavs were by the proud Romans and Italians.
However, the barbarian wore the Iron Crown of Lombardy. He came to Rome with an army openly supporting Pope Leo III, who had been attacked by powerful Roman families the year prior. At nny bloodshed and pillaging could start; they all knew it. And then the pope did something unexpected. He put a crown on the barbarian’s head, proclaiming him the Roman Emperor.
How could a Frank from some wild German forest be the successor of the great Roman Emperors? There was already an emperor, empress Irene to be precise, in Constantinople. This Charlemagne character would be just another short-lived episode in Italian history. It meant nothing…
“The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman, nor an Empire.” (Voltaire)
Voltaire’s famous quote was accurate in many aspects. And still, the Holy Roman Empire was the decisive force in European politics for over a thousand years. It was the superpower, the first superpower, and for hundreds of years, the only secular power strong enough to challenge the Western Church. But Voltaire was right. So, what was the Holy Roman Empire?
The English term emperor is derived from the Latin word imperare, to rule and command. It was a military term later adopted by the ruler of imperial Rome. However, the title of the Roman rulers, beginning with Augustus the adopted son of Julius Caesar who ended the Roman Republic, changed over time. They called themselves Principi (first, amongst equals), caesars, or Augusti. Most European words for emperor are derived from the very name of Julius Caesar. The German Kaiser or Russian tzar reminds us of the origin.
Throughout European history, however, no matter the word, be it emperor, Kaiser, tzar or empereur, the title meant they were more powerful than mere kings. The two Napoleons, the Russian tzars, the Austrian and German emperors, and the Holy Roman Emperor looked back to the Roman Empire, with its capital in the heart of Italy, with admiration.
However, the first to actually revive the Roman tradition was the barbarian kneeling in the Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on Christmas of the year 800. And the proud Romans witnessing the coronation were wrong — this episode would be far from short-lived.
The Holy Roman Empire existed in Central Europe from 800 until Napoleon dissolved it in 1806. Yet, after 1806, its posthumous union, the German Confederation, lived until 1871, when it was reformed into modern Germany. Its borders and members changed during those thousand years of its existence, but the core lies in today’s Germany, as the German empire considered itself its successor.
In 800, it included present-day Germany, parts of Poland, the Czech Republic, France, and northern Italy. But it was not strictly speaking a state. The Holy Roman Empire was a federation of smaller and bigger principalities, counties, independent cities, dioceses, and even one kingdom. The rulers of these regions elected the Roman king as their liege and were bound to him with some duties. But only after the pope in Rome crowned the Roman king did he become the Holy Roman Emperor. However, this process evolved, and only in the 14th century was it codified and accepted by all.
The princes elected one of their own; the Holy Roman Emperor came from different regions and dynasties. But never in the history of the empire was the throne hereditary. If it passed from father to son, then the father had to use all diplomatic and financial skills to ensure the election of his son. The succession was never automatic.
The old Roman Empire was divided into two parts in 395 CE. In 476 CE, the Western part, with Rome as its capital, was seized by Germanic kings, who swore allegiance to the emperor in Constantinople.
In 800 CE, Charlemagne’s new empire consisted of different regions. Charlemagne’s rule in Italy was unstable and challenged as soon as his troops crossed the Alps on their way back to Germany. The heart of this new Roman Empire did not lie in Rome, but instead in present-day Germany, on Charlemagne’s court in Aachen.
After the death of the great Frank, his successors could not hold the empire as a whole. It was divided into three parts, and the title of the emperor belonged to the Italian branch. A century went by without anybody crossing the Alps to get involved in the mess of Italian politics.
In 961, the Saxon king, Otto the Great, took up the challenge, conquered the Kingdom of Italy, and was crowned by the Pope in Rome to become the Roman Emperor. The Ottonian emperors worked closely with the pope and their church in Germany. Otto’s son, Otto II, spent his life fighting wars in Italy, trying to win the respect of the Italian states and securing his position by marrying the Byzantine princess, Theofano.
Their son Otto III wanted to renew the glory of the Roman Empire and saw himself as the emperor of all Christendom. This universalist view meant that the Emperor and the Pope would govern all the Christians (in Europe), side by side. However, as the power of the church grew under the political protection of the emperors, the seeds of a new conflict were planted.
The 12th and 13th centuries would be marked by the conflict between the secular power (an emperor) and the sacral power represented by the pope. Who holds the authority over the bishops and archbishops beyond the Alps, within the Holy Roman Empire? As the church became wealthier and more powerful, so did its representatives. They started to play their own political games; and some favored the pope in Rome, and some bowed to the emperor in Germany.
It would be typical for the history of the Holy Roman Empire throughout the Middle and Early Modern ages that the bishops and archbishops acted as independent secular rules, and later on, the three archbishops would become electors of the Roman king, together with the four secular electors.
The early Middle Ages were the times when European states took shape, borders were drawn on the map, and classes fought to assert their place in the social order. The Holy Roman Empire entered the 13th century as a superpower bordering on medieval France in the West, the kingdom of Denmark in the North, the realms of Poland and Ungarn in the East, and a liquid border with Italian states in the South. Within these borders, everybody accepted the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor; the seven appointed electors elected the Roman king and promised to be a part of the so-called Roman Quest.
The quest for the Roman crown was a challenging endeavor. It meant crossing the Alps, occasionally fighting opposing Italian states that did not accept the rule of the “barbarians,” reaching Rome, where the king could be crowned emperor. And getting back through the battlefield of the Italian states, not every emperor returned alive. The Holy Roman Emperors of the high and late Middle Ages learned to accept the Alps as the line where their power lies. Getting involved in Italy meant an expensive endeavor that could end up as a disaster. Except for the mightiest, like Frederick Barbarossa, they crossed the Alps only once. Thus, the Holy Roman Emperor had nothing in common with Rome or regions where the old Roman Empire lay.
In the early and high Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire was the only superpower in Europe; the emperor lay universal claim, calling himself the emperor of Christendom and competing with the papacy for the title. Yet, new powers rose as the national states in Europe were formed. At the beginning of this story, England was far from being a superpower. Spain fought wars with Muslims on the Pyrenean peninsula, and smaller states either accepted the emperor’s sovereignty (like the Czech kingdom) or had their battles to fight, like Hungary of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
However, in the West, one state would soon be strong enough to rival the universal claim – France. In the Late Middle Ages, French kings would become more potent than the emperors, and in the 14th century, they would be the ones to compete with the pope, not the emperors.
We will end our story here. The Holy Roman Empire lived on until 1806 but belonged to the Middle Ages. Its tradition of knights accompanying their king over the Alps to get the crown from the pope was deeply rooted in Gothic culture. The emperors in the 16th century abandoned it and left the pope out of the equation entirely. From 1500, the Roman crown would be closely tied to the Habsburg dynasty and their policy. And that is a different story in which Rome plays no role.