Following Constantine’s adoption of Roman Christianity in the fourth century C.E., the idea grew that the Roman Empire was the last world monarchy before the establishment of the kingdom of God. Thus, the empire quickly became viewed as the divine tool for Christianizing the world.
With this pedigree and its record of peace and civilization, the empire’s fall in the West in 476 brought forth a number of attempts to revive it.
Various powers through the centuries have been involved in reassertions of the imperial model. Some sought simply to emulate the empire’s greatness. Others invited religious Rome’s stamp of approval on their political ambitions, and some were thrust to the fore by direct papal action.
In the sixth century, the Byzantine emperor Justinian’s “Imperial Restoration” was just that—an attempt to restore the unity of the western and eastern halves of the Roman Empire, broken apart by barbarian invasions. The inhabitants of the eastern Byzantine Empire had always considered themselves Roman. Justinian compiled and recodified Roman law, and sent his armies to recover Italy and North Africa for Roman rule. His restoration was successful, though short-lived.
By the time of the Germanic Frankish monarch Charlemagne (768–814), Pope Leo III, his position in Italy under threat, was looking for more political and military support. The king seemed the logical choice and was already Leo’s protector as king of Lombardy in Northern Italy. At a ceremony in Rome on December 25, 800, to consecrate Charlemagne’s son as king, the pope suddenly placed a crown on Charlemagne’s own head and proclaimed him Charles I, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Though it was an illegal act, Charlemagne’s imperial title was eventually recognized in 812 by the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople. Charlemagne did come into possession of the duchy of Rome, and although his revival of the imperial model didn’t endure long, he became the inspiration for succeeding medieval Christian kings in France and Germany. The pope’s desperate move thus turned out to be a significant act that set the stage for the next reappearance of the Roman Empire.
Otto I, known as Otto the Great, came to the East Frankish (Saxon/German) throne in 936 and was the true successor to Charlemagne. In 962 in Rome, Pope John XII named him Holy Roman emperor in an effort to shelter himself under the protection of the Frankish monarchy. Otto became protector of the Roman church and ruled over both German and Italian lands. It was one of Otto’s successors, Conrad II (1024–39), who named his territory the Roman Empire.
From the middle of the 11th century, the position of the papacy gradually strengthened, creating rivalry with its secular protectors. By the 12th century, therefore, the emperor was looking for new arguments to support his primacy. Relying on Roman law to bolster his position, Frederick I Barbarossa (1152–90) added the Latin word sacrum to the name of his empire, making it the “Holy Empire.” From about 1440 it became “the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.”
The Habsburg dynasty had taken over the German throne in the 13th century, and it was the Habsburg Holy Roman emperor Charles V (1519–1556) who declared in 1521 that “the empire of old had not many masters, but one, and it is our intention to be that one.” Though the territorial breadth of his empire was impressive, Charles’s devotion to things Roman found greater expression in his strong support of the Roman Catholic Church against the Protestant Reformation. With the redefinition of Europe’s political map in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, however, the Holy Roman Empire disappeared from view.
Napoleon Bonaparte revived the Roman idea once more when he set out to fulfill a long-standing French ambition to acquire imperial title and lands. Napoleon, born in Corsica, was of ancient Tuscan nobility. In December 1804 he was to be consecrated emperor of France by Pope Pius VII. At the ceremony, Napoleon seized the crown from the pope’s hands and placed it on his head himself. He was also president of the Italian Republic and in 1805 was crowned king of Italy. His strong relationship with the papacy brought about a long-lasting concordat between France and the Vatican. Napoleon sought to emulate Charlemagne, even making a play to claim the Frankish title from the Habsburg emperor, Francis II. The Austrian, however, preempted him and gave up his imperial title. Thus the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806, but German lands now fell under Napoleon’s power. Though his rule was cut short by defeat and imprisonment, the extent of his territories rivaled many previous attempts to occupy the space of the ancient Roman Empire.
With Napoleon’s death, the idea of the medieval Roman Empire seemed to disappear. But its image still loomed in the imagination of some, including those who established the Second Reich or German Empire in 1871. It is speculated that the enduring memory of Charlemagne, Otto the Great and Frederick II also influenced Adolf Hitler, whose Third Reich, in alliance with Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italian state, wrought such destruction in the 20th century.
It was Mussolini who, a few months before the march on Rome that brought him to national power in Italy, declared in April 1922, “We dream of Roman Italy—wise and strong, disciplined and imperial. Much of the immortal spirit of ancient Rome is reborn in Fascism!” According to a recent analysis of this speech, “Mussolini wished to be regarded as a new Augustus, a second Caesar” (Peter Godman, Hitler and the Vatican, 2004). By 1936, when his troops had successfully invaded Ethiopia, the Duce was able to proclaim that Italy again had its empire, “an empire of peace, an empire of civilization and humanity.”
Like so many before him who had declared themselves successors to the fallen empire, Mussolini’s attempt did not last long. Indeed, his imperial “reign” may well be the shortest and the smallest in extent of any revival.
But has the image of the empire now truly disappeared forever? If the past is any guide, it would be premature to say so. The Roman imperial model, in association with a well-defined religious tradition, has come and gone many times. Certainly there are those who see the developing 25-nation European Union (EU) in imperial terms. Its recently hard-won constitution awaits ratification by member states, whose leaders met in 2004 at the Campidoglio, the political and religious center of ancient Rome. Inside the ornate Orazi and Curiazi hall, where the 1957 Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community was signed, the 25 leaders agreed to the constitution under the gaze of the statues of 17th-century popes Urban VIII and his successor Innocent X. Perhaps not many of the dignitaries present appreciated the symbolism: the two pontiffs “overseeing” the event were the very ones who had witnessed the division of Europe and the end of the Holy Roman Empire as a result of the Thirty Years’ War and the consequent Treaty of Westphalia.
The framers of the constitution, however, carefully avoided any reference to Europe’s Christian heritage, despite the protests of the present pope. At this point, the EU is envisioned merely as a secular power. Though it has only an incipient military force and lacks a unified foreign policy, the union already has varying degrees of economic, legislative and judicial power over its wide swath of nations. Its geographic expanse is beginning to rival the original. Thus, in terms of Daniel’s dream, it may yet prove to be the precursor of another powerful iteration of the idea and image of the ancient Roman Empire.