Was the Holy Roman Empire, Holy, Roman, or an Empire?

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Podcast Transcript

In the 18th century, the French writer and philosopher Voltaire said, ??”This body which was called, and which still calls itself, the Holy Roman Empire was in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”

Since then, some variation of this quote has found itself into history classes around the world. 

So what exactly was the Holy Roman Empire, and was Voltaire right?

Learn more about the Holy Roman Empire and find out if it was holy, was Roman, and if it was an empire on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, there was a period of chaos in Europe for several centuries. Without the empire’s stability, Germanic tribes were running around Europe.

Many groups and leaders tried to claim the mantle that the Roman Empire had left. However, no one had really been able to make such a claim seriously. 

A Germanic group known as the Franks began to consolidate a kingdom. One particular noble family, the Carolingians, began to expand and consolidate the Frankish kingdom. The Carolingian dynasty started with Pippen I in 613.

However, the first noteworthy Carolingian, at least as far as this story is concerned, was Charles Martel. He was the first European leader to stop the Islamic Moorish invasion at the Battle of Tours in 732.

His son, Pepin the Short, became the first member of the Carolingian dynasty to become king of the Franks. 

His son is where this story really begins. He was the greatest of the Carolingian kings, Charlemagne. 

Charlemagne’s kingdom was fairly similar to what is modern-day France, with some lands in modern-day Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland

Rome and the Papacy had been under the thumb of the Byzantine Empire for several centuries. This period was known as the Byzantine Papacy. The Emperor in Constantinople had to approve anyone who was elected as pope. 

An opportunity presented itself to change this situation in 797 when the young Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV was deposed by his own mother, Irene, who declared herself empress. She didn’t just declare herself empress, she actually blinded her own son.

The west didn’t recognize female imperial rulers, so they considered the imperial crown to be vacant and were looking for an alternative. 

The pope found this in Charlemagne, who had fought against the Lombards in Northern Italy.

So, in the year 800, on Christmas Day, at the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Charlemagne was crowned the new Roman emperor by Pope Leo III.

Irene supposedly tried to arrange a marriage between herself and Charlemagne, which never happened. If it had, it might have totally changed the course of European history by reuniting east and west again.

When Charlemagne died, his kingdom fractured. The Carolingian tradition was to split the kingdom between all of the king’s sons. While the political power was fractured, one of the sons kept the title of Emperor. 

While the crowning of Charlemagne was a theoretical shift in the imperial title, most historians don’t consider Charlemagne to be the start of the holy roman empire. 

His successors kept the imperial title until the death of Berengar I of Italy in 924. Then the imperial title was vacant until 962, when the title was bestowed upon King Otto I of Germany and Italy, also known as Otto the Great. 

Like Charlemagne, he was crowned “Emperor of the Romans” by Pope John XII in Rome, in Old Saint Peter’s Basilica. 

This is usually considered the start of the Holy Roman Empire, but the term wasn’t used at the time. 

This also shifted the imperial title from France to Germany. 

Otto was the King of Germany, which made up the largest part of his realm. The King of Germany was not a hereditary position. It was an elected position. When selecting a new king, the electors could choose from the heads of several different dynasties who ruled different regions. 

This system of an elected monarch covering self-ruling regions became the hallmark of the Holy Roman Republic. 

Several different dynasties ruled the empire, sometimes alternating with different royal houses, precisely because of this election system. 

In 1440, probably the greatest and best-known dynasty came to control the empire: the Hapsburgs. 

In 1356, a very set system of electing the Emperor was now in place. Instead of just having German princes elect the emperor, seven set Prince-Electors were now responsible for the emperor’s election. 

The seven electors consisted of three bishops and four princes. They were the highest-ranking officials in the empire after the emperor himself.  I’ve personally visited some of the Prince-Elector palaces in Germany, and some of them are as large as any royal and imperial palace. 

The Hapsburgs had their fingers, or should I say their genetics, all over European royal families. They had members who almost ruled every single royal house in Europe. Literally, from Spain to Poland, there were Hapsburgs. 

The Hapsburg kingdoms are often confused with the Holy Roman Empire because the Emperor was often the king of other realms as well. 

The Holy Roman managed to survive until 1806 when the forces of Napoleon managed forced Emperor Francis II to dissolve it as an institution. 

That is sort of a very quick cliff notes version of the Holy Roman Empire. I’ve touched on some of these things in previous episodes, and I’m sure the Holy Roman Empire will be brought up in future episodes as well. 

Now I want to spend the rest of the episode addressing the actual term, Holy-Roman-Empire, and Voltaire’s criticism of the term, that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. 

When Charlemagne was crowned emperor, he has simply crowned the head of the “Roman Empire.”

The Latin term “sacrum” or sacred was first used in conjunction with the empire in 1157 with the ascension of Frederick Barbarossa. 

The term “Holy Roman Empire” wasn’t used until the 13th century. 

In 1512, the official term became the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation,” although this official name was seldom used in official written documents. 

So, let’s look at each of these terms. First, was it holy? 

The question here isn’t if the emperor or the empire was pius or saintly. If that is the case, then no empire or kingdom in history was holy.

For centuries after the coronation of Charlemagne, it was tradition for the Emperor to be crowned in Rome by the pope. 

The Empire was often known simply as the “Christian empire,” even though that was a misnomer because there was still the Byzantine Empire and every single kingdom in Europe was also Christian. 

The Emperor himself wasn’t a religious leader, but he did have electors who were bishops, so the church did have a say in who would take the throne. 

The official state religion was catholicism up until the Protestant Reformation. As most of the territory in the empire was in Germany, adapting to Protestantism was a political necessity. 

However, only two strains of Protestantism were legalized in the Empire: Lutheranism and Calvinism. 

So, as far as if it was holy, I’m going to say mostly, at least up until 1571, when it began to accept multiple Christian denominations. 

The holy part is actually the easiest to resolve. Next up would the the “Roman” part. 

When Charlemagne was crowned Roman emperor, it was done under the theory of “Translatio imperii”. 

The theory justifies or explains the transfer of imperium. For the reasons I gave up above about Emperess Irene, that was the justification for the transfer of Imperium.

As I explained back in the very first episode of this podcast, the Byzantine Empire really was nothing more than the continuation of the Roman Empire in the east.  No one called the Byzantines, Byzantines, until they were gone. 

The Byzantines called themselves Romans. In fact, if you can remember way back to that episode, there were people in some Greek islands who considered themselves Roman up until the first decade of the 20th century. 

However, Constantinople and other lands around the Eastern Mediterranean were part of the Roman Empire. 

Germany, which is where the bulk of the Holy Roman Empire lay, never was. In fact, it very famously was never able to be conquered by the Romans, and they handed the Romans one of their most famous defeats at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. 

So, a German Roman Emperor is very…..un-Roman.

Moreover, Rome itself was controlled by the Papal States and, for the most part, wasn’t part of the Holy Roman Empire. 

So, I’m going to have to say that it was not Roman. Not in any meaningful sense. It neither controlled Rome nor was most of its territory part of the original Roman Empire. 

Finally, was it an Empire? 

Well, what is an empire? The dictionary definition of empire is “A political unit having an extensive territory or comprising a number of territories or nations and ruled by a single supreme authority.”

So, was the Holy Roman Empire comprised of multiple territories and nations?

The answer is actually yes. In fact, there were many principalities, dutchies, and kingdoms that compromised the Empire, so it does meet that requirement.

However, the Emperor usually didn’t have that much control over many of these territories. The real power was usually vested in a lower-level member of the nobility that controlled the region directly.

In fact, the power of the Emperor was usually a matter of how strong an individual emperor was as a person. There were a great many weak emperors who held the title but not much power. 

Most of the criticisms of the Holy Roman Empire were that it was closer to a Federation than an Empire. 

The problem is that it wasn’t really a federation. It wasn’t a union of equals. 

However, even big Empires like the British, Mongol, and Islamic empires had regional rulers who handled local details.

So, I’d say that the Holy Roman Empire was really a “sort of holy, non-Roman, quasi-Empire.”

…but that doesn’t really roll off the tongue. 


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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