What was the Holy Roman Empire?

Holy Roman Empire diagram by Jost de Negker

The first thing every high school student learns about the Holy Roman Empire is the famous quip by satirist and Enlightenment thinker Voltaire: “The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” This begs an obvious question, though. What, exactly, was the Holy Roman Empire, then? The answer that our history teachers give us is that it was a loose confederation of German feudal states. Then he or she moves on to the next topic because there isn’t enough time to actually delve into it.

I, on the other hand, have never been satisfied with the oversimplified explanations that I got in history class about any topic. So, today, I’m going to delve into this oddity of history that lasted nearly a millennium and in many ways was a precursor to our modern European Union.

Where did that name come from?

To understand the origins of the Holy Roman Empire, we have to begin with the mindset of people who lived in the very early Middle Ages. Today, our history books say that the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD. However, as I have covered on this blog before, the reality wasn’t so simple. What actually happened was a long, slow, gradual decline accompanied by a political transition. In 285 AD, the Roman emperor Diocletian introduced a number of reforms, including major reforms to the position of Roman emperor itself. He promoted his most trusted right-hand man to be co-emperor with him, with each taking responsibility for one-half of the empire. This set a precedent that became permanent in 395 AD, when Theodosius the Great declared upon his death that one of his sons would be emperor of the west and the other would be emperor in the east. In the decades that followed, the western empire would be overrun by and carved up between various Germanic tribes, such as the Goths, Franks, Vandals, and Anglo-Saxons.

However, and this is the key point, LEGALLY the Roman empire still held dominion over those lands. Our history classes tell us that Theodosius “split the empire”, but that isn’t what happened at all; it was still one empire, just with two emperors. When the last emperor of the west was overthrown by the general Odoacer, who declared himself king of Italy, this coup was approved by the Roman Senate and Odoacer legally considered himself a vassal of the eastern emperor Zeno, now the sole Roman emperor. All these “barbarian” kingdoms in western Europe, at least on paper, acknowledged the Roman emperors who now reigned from Constantinople as their superiors, even though they were in all practical respects rulers of independent kingdoms.

Then, in 797 AD, a woman seized power in Constantinople and reigned as Empress Irene. Pope St. Leo III refused to recognize a woman as the ruler of the empire, and declared the title to be vacant. Instead, on Christmas Day in 800 AD the pope crowned the most famous king of the Franks, Charlemagne, to be Roman Emperor instead.

Charlemagne image by Albrecht Durer

This created the awkward situation that there were now two people running around claiming to be the “Roman emperor”, one recognized by the feudal kingdoms of western Europe, and one who actually ruled over the remnants of the Roman empire in the east. Historians today refer to this latter line of emperors as the “Byzantine emperors” and their realm the “Byzantine Empire”, but back in those days, nobody used those terms.

Charlemagne’s dynasty continued to claim the title of “Roman emperor” for the next eight decades, but as his heirs began fighting each other for power and carved up the land between each other, they gradually fell from power and the title fell into disuse. It wouldn’t be until 962 AD that a German warrior-king named Otto the Great was crowned emperor by Pope John XII as a reward for helping protect Rome and the papacy from a warlord who was ravaging Italy at the time.

This, at last, was the start of what we would recognize as the “Holy Roman Empire”, though it was still just called the “Roman Empire” at this point. It wasn’t until the Investiture Controversy of the 12th and 13th centuries that the term “Holy” was added as a political ploy. The Investiture Controversy was a power struggle between the Popes and Emperors over who had ultimate authority over the Empire, especially over the selection of bishops, and therefore emperors started calling themselves “Holy” to strengthen their claims.

How did the Holy Roman Empire work?

Holy Roman Empire map by Rex Germanus

Map of the Holy Roman Empire during Otto the Great’s reign. The orange area is where people spoke German at the time.

At its height, the Holy Roman Empire ruled over a vast stretch of central Europe, including Germany, northern Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Bohemia (modern-day Czechia), and more. In theory, all of these lands owed fealty to the emperor. In practice, however, the actual power of the emperor was quite limited, partially because of the nature of feudalism in medieval Europe, and partially because such a vast empire was impossible to govern effectively when there was very little infrastructure and the fastest method of travel was on horseback. The actual power of the emperor was usually dependent on how much he personally traveled to pay visit to his many vassals.

Real power was in the hands of these local rulers – kings, dukes, counts, princes, bishops, abbots, and so-called “free cities” that had a republican form of government. Even the Pope ruled a vast stretch of territory in central Italy called the “Papal States”. In practice, the true power of the reigning emperor was based largely on what lands he personally ruled as Archduke of Austria or whatever. He couldn’t enforce his will over these other independent rulers unless he raised an army to make them comply, and even then, he would be largely dependent on those very same independent rulers to provide him with troops for these armies.

As an example of the limits of the emperor’s power, the Investiture Controversy saw a political split among the local rulers between those who sided with the emperor and those who sided with the Pope, and the two sides would often wage war against each other.

Indeed, the emperor’s title was not hereditary. Unlike most monarchs, the Holy Roman Emperor was elected to the position. That’s right, people voted for the emperor! Well, not just anybody mind you – only four (later six) powerful feudal lords and three bishops, collectively called the “electors”, got to pick. Even then, they were technically only electing the “King of the Romans”; this man wouldn’t legally be emperor until the Pope crowned him.

So, was this so-called “empire” purely symbolic, then? Well, no, there actually was an imperial government structure. The Reichstag was a grand council made up of the local rulers that could pass laws that would apply throughout the empire. There were also imperial courts that could enforce these laws, and even a system of imperial taxation.

This is why I see the Holy Roman Empire as a precursor to the European Union. Like the EU, the HRE had a political system that was superimposed over the local rulers and could enact universal laws, but depended on the cooperation of these local rulers to enforce these laws.

So, what happened to the Holy Roman Empire?

The Holy Roman Empire, weak as it was, continued to exist for centuries in some form. Though the Italian states, Switzerland, and the Netherlands would each eventually gain their independence from it, and the House of Hapsburg would eventually grow rich and powerful enough to bribe and threaten the electors to always put one of their own on the Imperial throne, the empire managed to keep going well into the early modern age. However, there was one force it couldn’t stand up against:

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David

Napoleon Bonaparte was undeniably one of the most consequential figures of European history. As leader of France, he marched his armies across Europe in an attempt to remake the continent in his image. In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French, and that very same year, Holy Roman Emperor Franz II declared himself Emperor of Austria. The reason was that he knew Napoleon would finally be the one to abolish the Holy Roman Empire altogether, and Franz decided he wanted to still be an emperor of some sort after that happened. Well, Franz turned out to be correct, for in 1806, the Holy Roman Empire came to an end at long last.

Still, one has to be impressed by its long run. Somehow, this confederation of wildly different states across central Europe managed to last 844 years, in spite of numerous civil wars, foreign interference in its politics, religious tensions, and weak institutions. Its impact on Europe can still be felt today in the fact that most royal families in Europe are of German descent and Germany to this day is a federal republic. The idea of sovereign states submitting some power to an overarching political structure is the basic underpinning of the European Union. Indeed, while it is going through rocky troubles right now, perhaps the European Union may yet survive for centuries as its predecessor had.