Countries that Don’t Exist (but Almost Did)

Recently, I have become quite fascinated by “alternative history” – speculative re-imaginings of historical events and how they could have played out differently. How would have history been reshaped if, for example, Alexander the Great’s empire didn’t fragment shortly after his death? Or if Napoleon had won his war against Russia? Or if electricity had never been discovered? There are all manner of ways the world as we know it could have ended up completely different if a few circumstances had changed.

There are all manner of sci-fi and speculative fiction books set in alternative “what if” worlds, and recently, the Amazon Prime series The Man In The High Castle has attempted to bring the genre into the mainstream. I have become a huge fan of Alternative History Hub, a YouTube channel that presents well-researched, realistic scenarios that answer the “what if” questions of history.

So, inspired by this fascinating genre, I’ve decided to take a look at several countries that never actually existed, but had a really good chance of existing if certain historical events had gone differently. A few circumstances lining up in another way than in our own timeline, and these countries might have ended up on our modern-day maps of the world.

The Republic of Vemerana

Where it would have been: The island of Espirito Santo, in our timeline’s Vanuatu

The proposal: In the 1970s, a U.S.-based, libertarian group known as the Phoenix Foundation was founded by a real estate magnate named Michael Oliver, who had come to America after spending four years in a Nazi concentration camp. Oliver believed that even the good ol’ freedom-loving U.S. of A. was sliding toward tyranny, and so he decided to try to set up a new society somewhere in the world based on his ideas about freedom and minimalist government.

Meanwhile, there was a group of islands in the Pacific known at the time as the New Hebrides that were governed as a joint British-French colony. The islanders wanted their independence, and the British were more than happy to give it to them, but the French objected because they didn’t want their own nearby colony of New Caledonia to get any ideas. As the political wrangling between these groups grew, a man on the island of Espirito Santo named Jimmy Stevens started a political movement called Nagriamel. The movement wanted to break free from everyone and have the island become its own country, and the Phoenix Foundation, seeing an opportunity, formed an alliance with Nagriamel. With the Foundation’s backing, Stevens and his followers seized control of the island in 1980 and declared its independence as “The Republic of Vemerana”. Stevens proclaimed himself Prime Minister, and plans were put in place to make the island the libertarian utopia that Oliver dreamed of.

Why it doesn’t exist: This rebellion took place literally weeks before the New Hebrides were due to gain their independence, and the last thing that the new nation’s soon-to-be leaders wanted was a secessionist crisis. They asked the British and French to move in and crush the rebels, but the colonial powers refused, largely because they were getting ready to evacuate the islands entirely.

Soon, the New Hebrides gained their independence as the Republic of Vanuatu, and one of the new nation’s first acts was to ask neighboring Papua New Guinea to invade the rebellious island. Papua New Guinea agreed, an in the very short “Coconut War”, the rebellion was suppressed and the island was annexed by Vanuatu. Stevens spent 11 years in prison for his rebellion. Yet the Nagriamel movement still exists, now contesting elections peacefully as a political party.

Międzymorze

Thankfully, this one has an alternative English name that is much easier to write and pronounce: Intermarium

Where it would have been: Central Europe, between Germany and the USSR

The proposal: In 1918, the new Bolshevik government that had just seized power in Russia made good in its promise to pull the country out of World War I, signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the treaty, Russia gave up a vast stretch of territory that included much of central Europe, including Finland, the Baltic Sea coast, Poland, and Ukraine. The Germans certainly wanted to dominate these regions, but they didn’t have the resources or infrastructure to outright annex them. Instead, their plan was to set up a string of pro-German puppet states.

Then, Germany lost the war, and the fate of central Europe was suddenly completely up in the air. Polish general Józef Piłsudski decided to fill the power vacuum with… himself.

Piłsudski romanticized the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which dominated this part of Europe from the 14th century until it was divided between Germany, Russia, and Austria in 1795. Inspired by its centuries of success, he wanted to create a new federation that incorporated all of these newly-independent countries in central Europe into a single union. The idea was that such a union would have enough people, land, and resources to be a major power in Europe and prevent either the Germans or the Russians from dominating them ever again. Piłsudski’s plan was taken seriously by the major powers negotiating the postwar peace settlement, and even had the official backing of the French.

Why it doesn’t exist: Unfortunately for Piłsudski, his plan was not very popular among the people who would have had to join this union for it to work. The Finns, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and others all basically said “We just won our independence, and now you’re asking us to give it back up? No way.”

The plan was also opposed by the British and Americans, who at the time thought the Bolsheviks were a passing fad and that once peace and democracy were restored in Russia, it would continue to be their ally in Europe. They didn’t want to kneecap the “new Russia” as it was being born. If only they knew, huh?

Kurdistan

Where it would have been: In the Middle East, in the northern part of Mesopotamia and the nearby mountains, incorporating parts of present-day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.

The proposal: The Kurds are an ethnic group living in a region that is divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. They claim to be descendants of the ancient Median Empire, they speak their own language, and they have their own unique culture. Just about the only thing they have in common with their neighbors is that the majority of them are Muslim, but even here there are many exceptions. Their identity is distinct enough that they could viably have an independent, stable, prosperous nation-state of their own.

Indeed, this was the original plan when the Ottoman Turkish Empire was defeated at the end of World War I. The Ottomans were forced to sign the Treaty of Sèvres, which carved up what little remained of the empire and left it with a tiny rump on a small hunk of Anatolia. The rest of the empire would be split between Britain, France, Italy, Greece, a newly-independent Armenia, and a sector corresponding to the lands inhabited by the Kurdish people that would get a referendum on whether to become an independent nation or not. There is little doubt that the Kurds would have voted for independence, as Kurdish nationalists had been fighting the Ottomans since the 19th century.

Why it doesn’t exist: The referendum never happened, because the Treaty of Sèvres was never put into effect. Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rejected the treaty and rose up in rebellion, leading to the Turkish War of Independence. The rebels deposed the last Ottoman sultan, set up a secular, Western-style republic, and forced the Allies to draw up a new treaty. The Treaty of Lausanne more or less gave Turkey and its Middle Eastern neighbors their modern borders, and as a consequence, hopes of Kurdish independence were snuffed out.

Kurds in Turkey were subjected to discrimination, forced to abandon their culture and assimilate into Turkish society. Even their language was banned. Since the 1970s, Kurds living in Turkey have fought an on-again-off-again rebellion against the Turkish authorities. Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Syria have also fought for their independence. Today, Iraqi Kurds are granted a high degree of autonomy by the post-Saddam Hussein 2005 Iraqi constitution, allowing them their own government and military, though they still are technically subordinate to Baghdad. Meanwhile, in Syria, the Kurdish community has taken advantage of the chaos and civil warring to set up their own “government”, called Rojava. It remains to be seen where these new developments will lead, but one has to wonder what would have happened if the Kurds had been able to win their independence peacefully in the 1920s as originally planned.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers! A small sampling of the countless alternative countries that might have existed if history had taken a slightly different path. Let me know if you liked this topic; there are so many other almost-countries I could have picked from, and I’m curious to see if you want to hear some of their stories, too!

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Cat Flag: Lake Tahoe Edition

Hey Cat Flaggers! Yes, I just got back from a trip to Lake Tahoe, the giant, deep, high-altitude lake on the California-Nevada border. I had a great time exploring an area I had never been to before, and wanted to share some of what I saw and learned with all of you!

By volume of water, Lake Tahoe is the largest U.S. lake that isn’t one of the Great Lakes. It is also the second-deepest lake in the United States after Crater Lake in Oregon. Its name comes from the Washoe Indian word for “lake”, so technically its name means “Lake lake”. I personally think that’s pretty funny.

It was once a major stop-over point for miners on their way to the silver mines of Nevada, with loggers in the area supplying the timber that the mines needed to build safety support structures to reduce the risk of cave-ins. In the early 20th century, as tourism in the region grew, several unsuccessful attempts were made to designate Tahoe as a national park; today, most of the region is covered by national forests and several state parks. Interestingly, the 1960 Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley, California, very near the lake.

What struck me the most about the lake, though, was just how clear the water was! I mean, I’m used to the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean, which are clouded with salt, sand, and algae. Tahoe’s water, meanwhile, was so clear you could see down to the bottom.

This was just the tip of the natural beauty of the area, though. The pine forests were stunning, especially in the early morning sunlight.

Just look at that view!

The most fascinating thing about the lake, though, was that it was a place of contrasts. Allow me to explain a bit.

You are driving up from Sacramento toward the lake. The landscape is typical California: rolling, golden hills of dried-up grass and the odd tree here and there. Gradually, the trees start to grow more numerous, and more and more of them are pine trees instead of deciduous trees. Then, as you drive through Placerville, the landscape starts to change. All the deciduous trees disappear, as do the rolling grass-covered hills. In their places are steep, rocky slopes covered in pine trees. You keep driving up the mountainside, leaving Placerville behind, watching the road signs marking the increasing altitude as you climb and climb. Gone are the big cities and even medium-sized towns; in their place are small road stops, some of which have a sense of humor about how small they are:

Then you reach South Lake Tahoe, and suddenly you are back in civilization, sort of. Sure, it’s still pine trees and nature’s beauty everywhere you look, and most buildings are built with a rustic, log cabin theme. But there’s also a T.J. Maxx, a Ross, a KFC, and a Safeway.

The mountain pine forests seem at first to dominate the Tahoe area, but as you make your way around the Nevada side of the lake toward Carson City, the pines start to fall away, and over the course of a dozen curves in the road they disappear completely, replaced by high desert sands and scrub. By the time you reach Nevada’s state capital, you are clearly in a completely different environment than you were in South Lake Tahoe. It can seem jarring, moving through so many different ecosystems so quickly.

But nothing is more jarring than what greets you as you cross the border from California to Nevada. There is just a single street separating the California city of South Lake Tahoe from the (appropriately named) Nevada town of Stateline. On the California side of the street, you see a collection of boutiques, art galleries, and tourist traps, very much in keeping with the sort of thing you find in many California tourist towns. Then, you cross the street, and BAM! Massive, 18-story casino, located literally feet inside the Nevada border.

The entrance to Stateline is lined with several monstrously-huge, Vegas-style casino-resorts, each smushed-up as close to the border as they can possibly fit. I found the whole thing rather amusing, a physical manifestation of how man-made boundaries and limits can have as much, if not more, impact on the world and the people in it as natural ones. Indeed, by comparison, the “sudden” shifts in the natural environments from grasslands to mountain pine forests to high desert were all comparatively gradual and smooth. It was a reminder that the real world is one where there are plenty of grey areas, and only humans insist on absolutes. “On this side of the line, gambling is legal, and on this side, it’s illegal. That’s all there is to it.”

Speaking of Nevada, I spent some of the trip exploring Carson City and Reno, and had a good time seeing the sights there. In Carson City, I got to see the Artsy Fartsy Art Gallery, a really cool art collective featuring amazing works from Nevada artists, and the Nevada State Museum, a fascinating showcase of the natural and human history of the Silver State. I highly recommend anybody staying in the Tahoe area pay these places a visit.

In Reno, meanwhile, I managed to snag a snap of the Reno Arch:

Downtown Reno, of course, is most famous for its casinos, and some local sculptors decided to celebrate this fact with some interesting public artworks:

The original plan for my trip was that the first day would be spent in Carson City and Reno, and the second would be spent enjoying the natural beauty of the lake. Then, mother nature decided to throw a monkey wrench into those plans.

That haze you see in the background? Blocking the view of the other side of the lake? That’s not fog.

See, a massive forest fire more than a hundred miles away was pumping the area full of smoke from all the burning trees. A health advisory was imposed on the whole region, urging people to stay indoors to avoid breathing in all the smoke. I was experiencing some itching and burning in my eyes and throat that day, like a really bad case of allergies. I felt really bad for anyone with asthma or emphysema in the area that day.

That got me wondering, though. Surely this is far from the first time such a smoke dump has happened in the Tahoe area, right? I would imagine, since forest fires are such a common occurrence in California, that this would be something that happened fairly regularly. How do the animals and wildlife, who can’t hide indoors, handle these things when they happen? They must have some way of surviving the clouds of ash blowing in, right? After all, in the long run, the ash might actually be good for the forest, helping to fertilize the soil. At least, those were my initial thoughts on the matter.

Smoke aside, I really enjoyed visiting the Tahoe area, and I may go back someday. Hopefully, next time I’ll be able to hike through the piney woods and see some more of the natural sights. As it stands, though, I am very glad I made this trip, and I would encourage any Cat Flaggers who are interested to check the Tahoe area out.

Until next time!

Once again, it’s time to fight to save net neutrality

An Editorial

Two years ago, I wrote a blog about the importance of net neutrality as a whole, and Cat Flag in particular. The context was that a federal court had ruled against the net neutrality rules that had been set up by the Federal Communications Commission, and as a result the FCC was trying to decide how to proceed. After a huge public pressure campaign convinced the FCC that the American public still wanted to keep net neutrality, the FCC classified internet service providers as “common carriers”, the same classification long used for phone companies. As a result, the FCC was able to implement new net neutrality rules that were upheld in court.

So, story’s over right? The Internet is safe now? Of course not.

In 2017, the FCC got a new chairman, former Verizon lawyer Ajit V. Pai, a man who had voted against the FCC’s new net neutrality rules and has gone on the record saying net neutrality’s “days are numbered”. Earlier this year, he began FCC proceedings to repeal the FCC’s earlier decision. Never mind that polls have shown that there is overwhelming support for net neutrality by the vast majority of Americans regardless of their political positions; to Pai, net neutrality is a form of government overreach and an undue regulatory burden on ISPs.

Fortunately, the FCC is required to solicit public comments before making a rule change like that. Unfortunately, some spambot from an unknown source has been busted submitting hundreds of comments under fake names in support of Pai’s proposal. When contacted by Forbes magazine about removing these fake comments, Pai said he would not do so. An activist group decided to set up a website for people to check if the spambot has submitted comments under their own names, comcastroturf.com, only to be handed a cease and desist letter from Comcast threatening to sue them. (Comcast later backed down.) I used the site and found no less than two fake spambot comments under the name “Robert Griffith”. So, I submitted a real comment of my own, explaining my own position on net neutrality and alerting the FCC to the spambot comments.

Fake comment farce aside, I can understand where ISPs and Pai are coming from in opposing net neutrality. From an ISP’s point of view, net neutrality means internet users who just check their e-mails and visit a few blogs have the same internet access, at the same price, as internet users who use high-bandwidth services like Netflix, YouTube, and Steam. It means that the ISPs can’t charge companies like Google and Blizzard to give their customers faster speeds. As an MBA student, I learned about differential pricing – the idea that you want to charge customers exactly what they are willing to pay for a good, but that dollar value will be different for different customers. This is why grocery stores offer coupons and deals that reduce the price for larger purchases; some customers are willing to jump through the hoops to pay less, others aren’t. Each is getting their groceries at a price closer to what they are actually willing to pay for their groceries. Likewise, if internet customers are willing to pay more for higher-bandwidth, faster-speed service, shouldn’t ISPs be able to charge them more?

Except the internet is not a grocery store. As the court that upheld the FCC’s new net neutrality rules pointed out, internet access in the 21st century is a public utility. Since most ISPs are also phone or cable companies, one would think they would be used to being regulated like a public utility.

Most of the big internet companies – Google, Facebook, Amazon, and so on – started out life as small start-ups run by a handful of people. They got to the top through a free market that is free precisely because of the principle of net neutrality. Could you imagine if we lived in a world where Facebook wasn’t able to grow and ended up shutting down because Myspace could pay ISPs extra to load faster on users’ computers? Heck, we’ve seen cable companies drop channels over contract disputes; without net neutrality, what’s to stop Verizon from blocking Hulu for similar reasons? No wonder Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Twitter, Vimeo, Etsy, and other big websites are opposed to Pai’s proposals.

This is an issue I feel passionately about because it directly affects me. Cat Flag runs on WordPress, so if something were to suddenly happen to WordPress, I would be in big trouble. So all I’m asking, if you agree with me (or even if you disagree), is that you let the FCC know what you think about this issue.

  • Please visit this web page on the FCC’s website
  • Where it says “Proceedings”, please list “14-28” and “17-108”; those are the actual FCC cases having to do with the net neutrality proposals.
  • Remember, anything you enter is a matter of public record, so please keep it civil. And don’t set up a spambot.

Thank you.

Who Designed the U.S. Flag?

The 4th of July is coming up in a few days, and already everyone in my hometown getting ready for a big, patriotic party. The stores are all selling red-white-and-blue decorations and have put hamburgers and hot dogs on sale. Even I’m planning on busting out the grill on the fourth as I celebrate my nation’s birthday. By far the most common sight this time of year, though, is the American flag, the good ol’ Stars-and-Stripes.

I’ve given my country’s flag the Cat Flag treatment before, but today, I wanted to talk about its history in more detail today. Specifically, I want to do one of my favorite things: answer a simple question that has a not-at-all simple answer. Who designed the flag?

Let’s start by getting one thing out of the way:

It was NOT designed by Betsy Ross

The year was 1870. William J. Canby went to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania with a story his aunt had told him about his grandmother. He claimed that in the spring of 1776, Elisabeth “Betsy” Ross had sewn the very first Stars-and-Stripes flag on the orders of George Washington himself. Over the years, this story has become a part of America’s national folklore, with her home being turned into a museum, a bridge named for her, and postage stamps issued to commemorate Ross’s memory.

Only one problem: there is zero direct historical evidence that this ever happened. That’s not to say it didn’t happen, mind you; historians consider this story “neither proven nor disproven”. Historians debate its merits based on what we know about the time period and what indirect evidence there may or may not be for such a meeting.

Even if the story is true, though, Betsy Ross didn’t design the flag itself. Canby’s telling of the event explicitly stated that Washington arrived with a design already drawn up for Ross to sew. According to Canby, Ross’s only contribution was changing the shape of the stars – Washington’s design had six-pointed stars, but Ross thought five-pointed stars looked better and were easier to make.

So, if Ross didn’t design the flag, who did?

The man who claimed to have designed the flag (and was stiffed)

Meet Francis Hopkinson. Before the Revolution, he had alternated between working as a customs officer and running his own business. When the war broke out, though, he became a member of the Continental Congress, where he was assigned to the Marine Committee. On June 14, 1777, the committee issued a resolution stating “That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

It makes sense that the Marine Committee would take a keen interest in declaring an official U.S. flag, as American ships at sea would need to be able to identify each other and be identified by the navies of allied nations such as France. Prior to this, Americans used a wide variety of different flags, many of which included British flags like the Union Jack or St. George’s Cross, something that was a bit inappropriate now that the United States had declared its independence.

After the flag resolution was adopted, Hopkinson asserted that it was his design and began sending bills to Congress to pay him for it. He sent four formal requests to Congress to pay him. Congress never did.

Still, he must not have felt too bitter, as he continued to play a role in the new nation’s politics, participating in the Constitutional Convention and serving as a federal judge.

The high school student who designed the current 50-star flag (and got a B-)

Of course, the Stars and Stripes that Hopkinson (allegedly) designed was only used for a few years. As I mentioned on my blog before, as the nation grew the decision was made to add a star for each new state admitted to the Union. Over the years, the flag has undergone many, many redesigns.

Thus, when Hawaii was admitted to the Union as the 50th state in 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower needed a new design to squeeze in one more star.

A high school history class in Ohio decided that it would be fun to have the students come up with their own 50-star flag designs for a class assignment. One of the students, Robert G. Heft, turned in a flag that was pretty simple, laying out all 50 stars in a square, using alternating rows of six and five stars. Heft received a B- for his design. After class, Heft made a deal with his teacher: if his flag design was actually adopted, the grade would be changed to an A. Probably laughing at how preposterous the odds were that Heft’s design would ever be accepted, the teacher said, “you’re on.”

What the teacher didn’t count on was that Heft lived near his local Congressman, and was able to use this connection to get his design in front of Eisenhower’s eyes. Of the thousands of proposed designs submitted by people across America, Eisenhower decided to go with Heft’s proposal. According to Heft, his teacher did hold up his end of the bargain and change his grade.

That’s right, a 17-year-old designed the flag you’re holding!

HAVE A HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY, AMERICA!

Who was the last Roman Emperor?

Well, that’s an easy question to answer, right? Just grab a list of all the Roman Emperors and see whose name comes last! Well, that’s easy… let’s see here… looks like it was Romulus Augustus who reigned from AD 475-476. Shortest Cat Flag blog ever!

Except, no, of course it’s not that easy. I wouldn’t have written this blog if it was.

History books count Romulus Augustus as the last Roman Emperor for three reasons. First, after reigning in Rome for less than a year, he was deposed by the barbarian leader Odoacer who decided not to become emperor or appoint a puppet emperor to rule in his place, and instead declared himself the first King of Italy. Second, it’s kind of poetic that the last Roman Emperor would be named after the founder of Rome and its first emperor. Third, tables, charts, and lists have to have a finite ending point, and they don’t handle complicated mitigating factors very well.

See, counting Romulus Augustus as the last Roman Emperor is a bit problematic. While he ruled in Rome – or rather, his father ruled in his name, as he was only a child at the time – his power was limited to Italy itself and his legitimacy as “emperor” is disputed. Historically, the Roman Empire wasn’t initially a monarchy in the modern sense, as the Romans had been a republic for centuries and had a distaste for kings. So while some emperors were able to pass power down to their sons peacefully, a few men became emperor through rebellion, military coup, or assassination. One guy even won the title at auction! Thus historians tend to consider emperors as “legitimate” Roman Emperors if they controlled the entire Roman Empire at some point and/or were accepted as emperor by the Roman Senate. Romulus Augustus could make neither claim; by these criteria, he was a usurper.

Indeed, the man he usurped the throne from, Julius Nepos, was still around, continuing to reign in Dalmatia (modern-day Croatia) as the accepted legitimate emperor until his death in 480. So it was Julius Nepos who was the last Roman Emperor, right? Well, he was the last emperor in the west. In the eastern half of the empire, though, it was another story.

Okay, I’m guessing by now you are totally confused. So, let me back up a bit and explain what’s going on. After the Crisis of the Third Century (short version: the empire suffered 50 years of civil war and anarchy as everyone and their uncle fought for power), a man named Diocletian took over and decided the best recipe for stability was to split the empire up between four “emperors” that were each responsible for one part of the empire. Under his plan, there would be two senior emperors and two junior emperors. When a senior emperor died or abdicated, his junior emperor would be promoted to senior emperor and would appoint a new junior emperor. This plan failed spectacularly, leading to even more civil wars that led Constantine the Great to reunite the empire under his rule. Constantine was most famous for doing two things: (1) beginning the process of converting the Roman Empire to Christianity, and (2) moving the capital of the Roman Empire to a city that was not Rome. This new city, built on the site of the ancient Greek town of Byzantium, came to be known as Constantinople.

After Constantine, the empire would be divided and reunified several more times until Theodosius the Great became the last man to reign over a united Roman Empire. When Theodosius died in 395, the empire was “permanently” divided into a western empire based in Rome and an eastern one based in Constantinople. The eastern empire is often called the Byzantine Empire by modern historians in order to distinguish it from the older empire it sprung off of, but at the time, people who lived there still called it “The Roman Empire”, considered themselves “Romans”, and considered their ruler to be the Roman Emperor.

So, it made sense that after Julius Nepos died, the emperor in Constantinople at the time, Zeno, simply declared the empire to be “reunited” under a single emperor (himself, of course) once again. Functionally, all this did was annex Dalmatia to the Byzantine Empire, as the rest of the west had now fallen to barbarian tribes and was divided into the proto-feudal kingdoms that would give rise to medieval Europe. These kingdoms still technically considered Zeno to be their overlord, but functionally they were independent.

This arrangement lasted for a few decades, but then a new emperor came to power in Constantinople:

Justinian may be listed as a Byzantine Emperor, but I would argue he was the last Roman Emperor in the sense we tend to think of Roman Emperors. He reconquer many of the Roman imperial lands that had once been lost to barbarian invaders, reclaiming North Africa, Spain, and Italy itself. He was the last Roman Emperor who actually controlled Rome. However, he also reigned during the first recorded outbreak of bubonic plague, AKA the Black Death, killing 25 million of his subjects and leaving the empire unable to consolidate his gains. In the centuries that followed, Muslims would conquer the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain while the Germanic Lombards would invade Italy and Slavic tribes would take over most of the Balkans.

Yet even though it was now much, much smaller, the Byzantine Empire would continue to endure to the very end of the Middle Ages, finally coming to an end in 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. This means that the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, was the last man to claim the title of Roman Emperor.

Wait, no, that’s not right. Sorry, I forgot about the Holy Roman Empire.

In the late 8th century, the Vatican was in deep trouble. The Lombards were attacking and seizing control of Catholic land in Italy, and the Pope needed help. Luckily, the King of the Franks, a military genius named Charlemagne, was a devout Catholic and happily came to the Pope’s aid, crushing the Lombards and conquering Italy. Pope Leo III was so grateful for this service that he gave Charlemagne a surprise Christmas present: crowning him Emperor of Rome.

This wasn’t just a symbolic gesture, either. See, just three years earlier, a woman, Irene of Athens, took the throne of Constantinople and became empress in her own right. Until this point, the Popes had consistently accepted whomever was the reigning Byzantine Emperor as the legitimate Roman Emperor. But a woman? Perish the thought! By crowning Charlemagne, Pope Leo III was directly challenging Irene’s legitimacy. His hope was that Charlemagne and his heirs would restore the Roman Empire in the west and return Europe to its former glory.

Of course, this didn’t happen. As Voltaire famously said, “The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” In practice, it was a collection of petty feudal kingdoms, duchies, and principalities as well as some city-state republics in central Europe. Its “emperors” were just ceremonial figureheads elected by a collection of the most important nobles and bishops, known as the “prince-electors”. That’s not to say a Holy Roman Emperor couldn’t be powerful, some were very powerful, but their power was based on what realms they held in their own right apart from their fancy title. A Holy Roman Emperor couldn’t enforce his will on the other kings, dukes, or princes unless his armies defeated them in battle.

Still, on paper, these so-called “emperors” claimed to be the heirs of the ancient Roman Emperors of old until the whole thing was abolished by Napoleon in 1806, with the Austrian Hapsburg monarch Francis II being the final Holy Roman Emperor.

We’re still not quite done, though. Skipping back over to Constantinople for a bit, we soon find out that after the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453 they didn’t abolish the title of Roman Emperor. They adopted it for themselves. That’s right, for centuries, the Ottoman Sultans claimed to be the modern Roman Emperor, along with other titles they claimed like Caliph of all Islam and Protector of the Holy Cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The Ottoman sultans loved long, fancy lists of titles. Thus, the last Ottoman sultan to claim the title of Roman Emperor was, well, the last Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed VI.

Right. Now we’re definitely done, right? Actually, you might be surprised to learn that, as I type this, there is actually a man, right now, who can claim the title of Roman Emperor. Yes, there actually is a current Roman Emperor! Here he is:

I am talking about King Felipe VI of Spain, whose royal title is a bit interesting. See, while he usually just uses the title “King of Spain”, according to the Spanish constitution, he has the right to use any other title that historically “corresponds to the Crown”.

The founders of modern Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, may be most famous for sending Christopher Columbus on his journey across the Atlantic in 1492, but they did a great many other things during their reign as well. One of those things was help out Andreas Palaiologos, the nephew of Constantine XI Palaiologos, who was flat broke at the time. They purchased the Byzantine imperial title from him. Technically, no Spanish monarch has ever formally given up this title, meaning it is one of the titles that King Felipe VI is entitled to claim and use if he so chooses.

Who says the Roman Empire is dead?