The Holy Roman Empire started with the coronation of Otto I in Rome in the year 962 while the Roman empire ended in 476. Or in other words: The Holy Roman Empire started centuries after the end of the (Western) Roman Empire!
But why was it called the Holy Roman Empire when there were centuries between the end of the Roman Empire and the start of the Holy Roman Empire?
The name Holy Roman Empire is meant to show the continuation of the Roman Empire, the so-called „translatio imperii“. That manifested the claim for a highlighted position among the European realms. And because the Roman Empire was seen as the last of the 4 biblical empires (after which the day of Reckoning would happen) it could not be allowed to end.
Let`s find out more!
Why was it called the Holy Roman Empire?
Just like any empire today and throughout history, the Holy Roman Empire needed to justify its existence and the claim for a highlighted position among the other realms.
The legitimation of an Empire was often achieved by putting the Empire in one line with other successful historical empires. Apart from that, there were also biblical reasons why the Roman Empire could not be allowed to end and had to be continued in the Holy Roman Empire.
Let`s take a look at both reasons independently.
One reason why a connection between the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire was necessary was a religious one.
Back in the Middle Ages and until not so far back people were quite religious and took the bible seriously.
And in the Old Testament, more precisely the Book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar II has a dream of 4 global empires.
According to the bible the first empire, the empire of Nebuchadnezzar II, is the most powerful one. The following two are less and less powerful. The 4th and last one will be able to destroy and conquer all the other empires but will be separated. When the last empire end the day of Reckoning happens
Or in other words: As soon as the 4th and last empire ends the day of Reckoning happens and the world ends.
Nowadays most people would probably not be overly bothered by such a biblical claim. But in the Middle Ages that prophecy was taken seriously!
In the following, I will present the interpretation of the biblical source by the ancient theologian Saint Jerome (=Hieronymus).
According to Jerome the first empire that is mentioned in the Book of Daniel is the Babylonian empire of Nebuchadnezzar II. The second empire was the Achaemenid (=Persian) empire, the third empire was the Greek empire, and the fourth was the Roman empire.
That identification fitted well since the biblical prophecy claimed that the last empire, described as the legs, was divided.
And in the year 395 AD the Roman Empire was divided into an Eastern Roman Empire and a Western Roman Empire.
So now I just talked a lot about the bible and how the last empire would end in the Day of Reckoning.
But how does that explain the name Holy Roman Empire?
It is important to realize that for medieval people the Day of Reckoning was a real event that could occur at any moment and that would end their lives, they were truly afraid of it!
In the mind of the medieval people, the world would end with the end of the fourth (the Roman) Empire!
Because of that fear, the idea was created that the Roman Empire had never ended but had been continued in the shape of the Holy Roman Empire.
Following the year 1150, the idea of the „translatio imperii“, the transmission of the Roman Empire into the Holy Roman Empire, and the transmission of the rule from the Romans to the Franks was established and maintained until the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.
After the Franks, most notably Charles the Great, were able to unify large parts of Western Europe the Carolingian Empire broke apart.
The rule over East Francia, the part that would later be the core of the Holy Roman Empire came under the rule of the duke of Saxony.
For more information on how the rule over western Europe passed from the Romans to the Frankish houses of Merovingians and Carolingians and then to the duke of Saxony, I would like to recommend you my article here.
But let`s leave the religious side of why it was called the Holy Roman Empire and turn to the legitimation aspect that the name Holy Roman Empire brought with it.
The continuation of the Roman Empire was not only important for preventing the day of Reckoning but also for the sake of the legitimation of
- The ruling dynasties and
- The highlighted position of the Holy Roman Empire over the other European realms.
Even today we trace many of our greatest achievements, democracy, theatres, and so on back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. And the idea of a unified Europe can also be connected to Roman Empire.
The idea to use the past, especially successful precursors, for legitimizing one’s own position is not new. It was also used during the Middle Ages both by the Holy Roman Empire as a whole and the different dynasties that ruled over it.
Let`s start with how Rome and the Roman Empire offered a way to legitimize the elevated position of the Holy Roman Empire over the other European realms before we take a look at how dynasties tried to trace their origins back to Rome.
Rome as Legitimation for the Holy Roman Empire
To understand why Rome was of such importance for the legitimization of the Holy Roman Empire we first have to take a look at the start of the Holy Roman Empire.
When & How was the Holy Roman Empire founded?
In 843 AD the Carolingian empire was split into 3 parts by the treaty of Verdun.
Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne had 3 sons and each son inherited one part of their fathers’ empire.
West Francia would go to Charles the Bald and would later develop into France.
The middle part (a narrow corridor from the north sea, Burgundy, the province to northern Italy) was given to Lothair I who would also follow after his father as emperor.
By the way:
Because Lothair I was designated to succeed his father as emperor he was given the Middle part of Francia with the most important cities, Aachen and Rome, of the Frankish empire.
In Aachen, the emperor was crowned king of the Germans and in Rome, he was crowned king of the Romans. He needed both coronations to be seen as emperor of the Carolingian empire (and later the Holy Roman Empire).
East Francia was given to Louis the German and would later evolve into the Holy Roman Empire.
In 911 the Nobles of East Francia decided to no longer vote a member of the Carolingian dynasty as king and chose Conrad I, the duke of Franconia.
Conrad I chose Henry of Saxony (also called Henry the Fowler) as his successor. Henry the Fowler managed to prevent the decline of royal power in East Francia and was able to pass a strong kingdom to his son Otto I in 936.
Otto I was crowned king of the Germans in 936. And Otto I decided to be crowned as king of the Germans in the city of Aachen, just like Charlemagne and the Carolingian emperors before him.
It is safe to say that Charlemagne, an emperor who controlled large amounts of Western Europe, was a role model for Otto I, the new king of East Francia.
But in 936 it was still East Francia, not the Holy Roman Empire.
To unite the arguing and rebelling dukes in his kingdom Otto needed an external enemy to unite his realm.
And an opportunity was presented in 955 when Hungarian nomads once more invaded East Francia in hopes of finding a weak realm without a strong leader that would not be able to stop their plundering.
The threat of the Hungarian nomads gave Otto the possibility to unite dukes and warriors from all over his empire against a common enemy.
After Otto I and his army were able to finally defeat the Hungarians at the battle of the Lechfeld in 955 the victorious warriors felt a strong sense of unity and nobody would question Ottos’ legitimation anymore!
Despite the great victory against the Hungarian nomads and following victories against the Slavs Otto I was not satisfied. He wanted to be emperor just like his role model Charlemagne!
By marrying Adelheid, the widow of the Italian king in 951 Otto I had already become king of Italy.
It is important to know that only a man who was already king of Italy could be crowned as emperor by the Pope!
On February second 962 the Pope crowns Otto I in Rome as emperor.
By being crowned as emperor in 962 Otto I had successfully revived the Roman Emperorship. Otto I was the founder of a Christian empire that should later be called the Holy Roman Empire!
Now we just discovered that to be emperor one also had to be king of Italy and crowned in Rome.
But why Rome? What was so important about the city at the Tiber?
Before I will dive into why Rome was so important for the Holy Roman Empire I would like to take the time to recommend you my article on the true history of how Rome was founded. Sure, we all know the story about Romulus and Remus, two descendants of the Trojan Aeneas. But how was Rome really founded? What is the scientific evidence? More on that here in my article!
Please also check out the paragraph down below where I go into depth on how creatively the Merovingians, the founders of Francia, put themselves in a close relationship with the Romans.
Rome as Legitimation for the Holy Roman Empire
The Roman empire was massive and mighty. Now that surely doesn`t come as a surprise to you.
But it is a key element of why the Roman Empire was used as legitimation for the highlighted position of the Holy Roman Empire throughout the Middle Ages.
The Roman Empire, its power, knowledge, and size commanded respect, both today and during the Middle Ages.
And although much of the ancient Roman knowledge had been lost during the migration period unlikely allies brought much of that knowledge back to Europe.
Here you can find my article with more information on the surprising and little-known facts about how previously lost ancient knowledge came back to Europe during the Middle Ages.
Putting oneself in one line with one of the most powerful empires of history certainly helped legitimize the own claim for a highlighted position among the European realms.
Especially since the territory that the Holy Roman Empire took up had also been claimed by the Roman empire.
The idea of the Roman empire was adopted by the Holy Roman Empire to emphasize and prove the legitimacy of its` claim for a highlighted position among the other European realms.
But Rome and the Roman empire did not only have to serve as legitimation for the raised position of the Holy Roman Empire.
The individual ruling dynasties also tried to trace their origins back to Rome.
Rome as legitimation for the ruling dynasties of the Middle Ages
The concept of trying to legitimize ones` personal claim for power by referring to ones origins from another, highly important, leader of another long gone but highly important empire is nothing new.
The Romans did the same.
Not only did the Romans claim to descent from Aeneas, a hero of the Trojan war. You can find more information about him and both the founding myth and the reality of the origins of Rome in my article here.
Caius Julius Caesar even claimed that he was a descendant of the goddess Venus herself, more on that in my article here.
Medieval dynasties did almost the same thing. But since they were Christians they could obviously not claim a pagan goddess as their ancestor.
Let`s look at two examples, one from the Early Middle Ages and one from the Late Middle Ages.
The Merovingian dynasty
The Merovingian dynasty was the most important dynasty that followed after the end of Roman superiority in Gaul.
For more information on the Merovingian and the Early Middle Ages in general I would recommend you my article here.
But since the Merovingians were Francs, not Romans they needed a legitimation for why they and nobody else was destined to rule.
And they found a quite creative way to interlink their dynasty to the Romans and the Trojan war!
The Merovingians claimed that they, just like the Romans, descended from a trojan refugee of the Trojan war.
But while Aeneas, the mythical ancestor of the Romans had taken the southern route, the ancestor of the Merovingians had taken the northern route through eastern Europe.
Because of that the Merovingians basically stylized themself as closely related to the Romans. And because of that close relationship, they were obviously the first choice when it came to ruling…
The House of Habsburg
House Habsburg, who would not only rule the Holy Roman Empire at its end in 1806 but would also rule the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its end after World War I in 1918 also had a creative way to connect themselves to the ancient Romans.
While the Merovingians during the Early Middle Ages claimed to be basically brother people to the Romans the House of Habsburg took it even further and connected itself to the most famous Roman: Julius Caesar.
Do you want to learn more about Julius Caesar and why he was never crowned king? Here you can find my article with more information.
When & Why did the Holy Roman Empire end?
So we just talked a lot about the origins of the Holy Roman Empire and also took a short look at its expansion. But what happened in 1806 that the Holy Roman Empire ended?
In short Napoleon Bonaparte happened. Napoleon did not only end the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 but also changed the face of the European continent forever and would eventually lead to Bismarck unifying the German states. More on why Bismarck wanted to unify Germany here.
But that is a story or another time.
I hope you enjoyed our trip into the fascinating history of the Holy Roman Empire.
Are you also interested in the 3 periods the Middle Ages are usually divided into? And the question if that division into Early-/High-/ Late Middle Ages actually makes sense? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
J. Fried: Das Mittelalter, Geschichte und Kultur (München 2008).
M. Borholte: Christen, Juden, Muselmanen. Die Erben der Antike und der Aufstieg des Abendlandes 300 bis 1400 n. Chr (München 2006).