The forgotten European empire

The Roman Empire seems to be a constant source of fascination two-millennium later. From 27 BCE to 476 AD (or CE if you prefer) the empire ruled Europe, Asia Minor and parts of Africa. Immortalized by Shakespeare and many others, you can now even watch a series on Netflix that tries to dramatize many of its major events. It had a good run in its five hundred years until the Visigoths finally sacked Rome and ended the empire.

Still, the Roman Empire can’t quite hold a candle to the Holy Roman Empire for endurance. The Holy Roman what? The Holy Roman Empire, dude! You say you never heard of it? You are hardly alone there. I think it was about fifteen years ago, reading a history book that I first encountered mention of the Holy Roman Empire. Maybe my course in European history was a bit rushed, but I was taken aback that there was this other empire that far outlasted Rome, which I never heard of before. Yet it lasted a thousand years, from 800 to 1806 AD. So it’s an empire that lasted twice as long as the Roman Empire and even shared much of its name. Yet at least here in the Western Hemisphere it’s largely unknown.

During the time of Emperor Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Empire technically owned much of the known world, including the New World, recently discovered by Christopher Columbus. Yes, technically Massachusetts where I live now was once part of the Holy Roman Empire, as was all of North, South and Central America, not to mention much of central Europe because in the beginning there was only Spain in the new world. At the time Spain was a kingdom but also part of the Holy Roman Empire, so Emperor Max had lordship of a sort over all its dominions.

In November of last year I was in New York City and took in an exhibition on chivalry during his reign at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I learned this fact and more, and well as walked around mouth agape at the astonishing array of shiny and ornate armor preserved from his reign, which you can see in this book, which my wife bought me. She also bought me a history book of the empire by scholar Peter H. Wilson.

For about six months I’ve been slowly slogging my way through the book. It’s quite scholarly but not particularly engaging, but certainly feels comprehensive. The bulk of the book is over six hundred pages long; and there are nearly half as many pages of footnotes and a bibliography after that.

So why does the Roman Empire get all the credit while the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted twice as long and is certainly the longest lived empire in the West, hardly get any mention?

Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, founded the empire. Charlemagne kept conquering other countries and territories. An empire is basically a collection of countries and territories, which is why the Roman Empire wasn’t a true empire until 27BCE. It first had a reign as a republic that lasted a few centuries. The Holy Roman Empire though was basically central Europe. It had no established capital, but its heart was modern day Germany, Switzerland and Austria. It also included Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics and Poland, as well as many minor Baltic states like Lithuania. It also generally included Italy, which is where the Roman part comes in, as well as parts of Spain, France and the Netherlands. Technically even Sweden was part of the empire. Austria and Prussia though were two major powerhouse countries in the empire, often chafing at the presence of the other.

Its name really made no sense. It was neither particularly holy, nor really Roman (predominantly it was German) nor arguably much of an empire. Its borders were constantly changing, as well as the way it was managed. Here in the United States we can’t help but remember our own Civil War. States within the Holy Roman Empire were often at war with each other, something I believe the Roman Empire largely escaped except with the partition of its eastern and western spheres. It’s a world that to us Americans looks pretty weird. Its name was probably an attempt to assert it was a newer and better Roman Empire, with Christianity at its core.

It was however an institution of a sort that worked reasonably well in a hands-off, decentralized way, which turned out to be good considering all the change it endured over a thousand years. It began in a post Roman, pre-Medieval world and ended with the Industrial Revolution. It might be creaking around today had not Napoleon finally brought the empire to its end in 1806. No common language really united it, although German was the predominant one. In its early years, to deal with all the language issues, Latin was used to conduct business, and most of its rules were oral; there being no printing presses back then. Fealty was really important to make it work at all. There were plenty of non-German speaking people in this empire, which had something to do with its amorphous feel of not being a real empire. Over its thousand years though three groups generally controlled it: the Carolingians, the Hohenstaufens and the Habsburgs.

Its governance today looks really strange too. One of the problems reading the history I read is to understand the bizarre assortment of controlling entities, which constantly shifted. The empire was a collection of kingdoms, and the kings were generally given broad discretion in exchange for fealty. But there were also princes, lords, knights, margraves, dukes, counts and lots of other titles that seem lost to history and meaning today. Wilson doesn’t bother to explain much about what these titles meant, but I was able to pick up quite a bit of it. Princes actually had dominions in the olden days that they controlled. They were basically minor kings. Counts were like minor princes; indeed the term county apparently comes from the fact that they were ruled by counts.

Then there were various ecclesiastical figures, not to mention ecclesiastical territories managed by clerics, which got much more complicated during the Reformation. In a way the empire’s wishy-washiness was an asset during the Reformation, giving it agility to hold a loose conglomeration of people together despite these seismic religious changes.

But perhaps the real reason the Holy Roman Empire isn’t talked about much is that its accomplishments were pretty mundane. It was often too busy fighting wars on multiple fronts to act imperialistic. Turkey was a constant threat. Except for during Maximilian’s reign, it really was never a gigantic empire. Unlike the Mongols, it didn’t control territory that amounted to all of Asia.

But like a brown dwarf star, it was good at enduring, just sloppily. Any entity that can stay together, even as a loose confederation, for a thousand years must have done something right. While the empire never felt like it excelled in accomplishments, it at least excelled at endurance. It needed to be sexier though, which is probably why it seems so forgotten while the Roman Empire’s shorter stint seems much more worthy of remembering.

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