Empire and Imperialism: Overview

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Empire and Imperialism: Overview

The multiple meanings of empire have a long history. To the ancient Greeks, the concept, expressed by the term monarchy, referred to the Persian Empire, the vast power that fought the Greeks in a series of campaigns in the early fifth century b.c.e. To the Greeks, the empire was a gigantic war machine, one in which military officers employed whips to force their soldiers to fight, unlike the Greeks, who fought voluntarily as freemen. Empire thus signified conquest and slavery, as opposed to the city-state, which signified freedom.

Roman Imperium

The ancient Roman conception of empire differed from the Greek. The term came from the Roman concept of imperium, meaning jurisdiction or lawful authority. A Roman official who ruled a subject population or who commanded troops possessed imperium, an authority symbolized by the fasces, which was borne as a sign of authority before the consuls who ruled Rome. The fasces, a band of rods bound around the handle of an ax, symbolized the power to flog or to execute those under Roman jurisdiction. The associated term imperator identified an especially successful general, someone who had won a significant battle in the service of Rome. What neither imperium nor imperator meant was rule over a specific territory and the office of the one who ruled over a specific place in the modern sense of empire and emperor.

The terms imperium and imperator did become permanently associated with rulership over a designated region with the reign of Augustus Caesar (27 b.c.e.14 c.e.). Although in theory Rome remained a republic, the end of the civil wars following the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 b.c.e. saw the formation of a hereditary monarchy under Augustus, who bore the title of imperator. The vast collection of lesser units that comprised the territory over which Augustus exercised imperium became the Roman Empire, at least in the eyes of subsequent generations. To later observers, the Roman Empire was the rule of a single man over a large space occupied by a wide variety of peoples and maintained by an army.

Christian Conceptions

Empire had a mystical or spiritual meaning in the ancient world as well. In the ancient Near East, the course of human history was often symbolized in terms of empires. One of the most famous examples of this is in the biblical Book of Daniel, where there is an image of man composed of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay. Each element represents one of the stages of human history, a history of decline from the best to the worst. The mystical conception of a cycle of empires comprehending the history of mankind continued to reverberate in Christian circles for the next two millennia. Succeeding generations of Christians attempted to interpret their contemporary world in terms of the Fifth Monarchy, the final great empire the appearance of which signaled the end of the world as we know it.

During the Middle Ages and later, the Greek, the Roman, and the biblical conceptions of empire circulated along with new ones that emerged. The most significant new conception of empire emerged in the year 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, king of the Franks, as emperor, transferring the Roman imperial office from Constantinople, where it had resided since the Emperor Constantine established that city in 330, to the king of the Franks. While the pope never explained what he intended by this action, it seems clear that his goal was to link the most powerful European ruler to the church and to assert the superiority of the spiritual power over the temporal. In doing this, Pope Leo was initiating the process whereby the empire was brought within the ecclesiastical conception of a right political order with the emperor serving as the agent of the pope in the administration of Christian society.

The Carolingian empire gradually dissolved over the next century, breaking up into several small kingdoms, the most important being France and Germany. The imperial title gradually came to signify less and less. Beginning in 911, however, the title began to acquire increased importance as it became associated with the kings of Germany. The most important of these emperors, the Ottonians (9361002), bore not only the title king of Germany but king of Italy and king of Arles or Burgundy as well, suggesting that an emperor was the ruler of several kingdoms and the defender of Christian society against its enemies.

The last of the Ottonians, Otto III (r. 9831002), announced a revival of the imperial vision on his official seal, which read renovatio imperii Romanorum (renewal or revival of the empire of the Romans), suggesting the creation of some vast empire under German leadership. In conjunction with this, he began the practice of identifying the empire as the Holy, or Christian, Roman Empire. This medieval German empire, a combination of a Christian conception of empire and a German one, reached its peak in the reigns of the great Hohenstaufen emperors Frederick I Barbarossa (r. 11521190), and Frederick II (r. 12121250).

Holy Roman Empire and Church versus State

The great medieval conflict between church and state from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries focused, for the most part, on the relationship between emperors and popes. Each party possessed a vision of Christian society in which it played the leading role. In the decretal Venerabilem (1202), Pope Innocent III (r. 11981216) spelled out in detail the papal conception of the function and role of the emperor within Christian society. He distinguished between the office of king of Germany, an office whose occupant was elected by seven electors, three archbishops, and four lay magnates representing the body of German higher clergy and nobles, and the imperial office, which was in the gift of the pope. The electors could elect anyone they wished to the royal office, but if they wanted their candidate to be raised to the imperial office, they had to ensure that he would be acceptable to the pope. In effect, the pope held a veto over the royal selection process. In Innocent III's view, pope and emperor were the coordinate but not coequal heads of Christian society. The emperor was the senior secular ruler with some vague right of precedence over all other Christian rulers, while the pope was at the peak of Christian society. In symbolic terms, the emperor was the strong right arm of the church, applying force when spiritual admonitions were not sufficient.

In 1356 the nature and status of the Holy Roman Empire received its final medieval shape when Emperor Charles IV (r. 13471378) issued the Golden Bull. This document generally restated earlier positions on the relationship between the papacy and the empire but with an important caveat. Under the terms of the bull, the pope had the authority to crown the emperor, but his relationship to the emperor ends at this point. The emperor is no longer seen as the agent of the pope, the strong right arm of the church to be flexed at the command of the pope. The emperor answers not to the pope but to God for his actions. By the end of the fifteenth century, the claims of imperial jurisdiction had so shrunk and its identification with German royal interests become so strong that the empire became known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

The notion of a Christian empire the jurisdiction of which coincided with that of the church itself did not die, however. In the De monarchia, the Italian poet Dante (12651321) outlined a Christian world order in which the emperor was the ruler of Christian society and, presumably, as missionaries converted the rest of mankind, would eventually be the ruler of the entire world. The theologian and philosopher Nicholas of Cusa (14011464) developed a similar theory of imperial jurisdiction in the fifteenth century. There was, however, a paradox in these fourteenth-and fifteenth-century discussions of universal imperial power. In reality, the actual power of the emperor, based as it was on the wealth and power of the king of Germany, was declining to its lowest limits as emperors such as Maximilian I (r. 14931519) struggled to maintain themselves in the face of the loss of most of the sources of royal revenue. On the other hand, although no one could have prophesied it, the Holy Roman Empire was about to be resurrected for one last tumultuous era in the sun as Maximilian was succeeded by his grandson, Charles V (r. 15191556), whose accumulated dynastic possessions were to include most of the Americas and much of the rest of the world as a result of the division of the New World by Pope Alexander VI (r. 14921503).

Evolution of Europe

While the medieval use of the terms empire and imperial is usually seen as restricted to the Holy Roman Empire, in fact this was not the case. Several other medieval rulers referred to themselves as emperor and their possessions as an empire, or were said to have possessed imperium over a variety of peoples. The Ecclesiastical History of England, by the scholar and theologian Bede (672 or 673735), referred to Anglo-Saxon rulers who possessed imperium over those who dwelled beyond the bounds of the king's own kingdom. Some Anglo-Saxon kings also seem to have used the imperial title in the tenth century. The title also was employed by some Spanish monarchs. At least one Visigothic ruler, Reccared (r. 586601), was labeled an emperor. Subsequently, the king of León in the tenth century and a king of Castile in the eleventh century claimed imperial status as a consequence of their conquests. The use of the imperial title by rulers other than the kings of Germany gradually faded, however.

The fact that the terms emperor and empire were not employed by most European rulers does not mean, however, that European rulers were not in some sense imperialists. The various kingdoms that developed in medieval Europe were in fact composed of numerous smaller jurisdictions that had come under the authority of a single dynasty as a result of conquest, marriage, inheritance, and so on. Spain, for example, was composed of the former kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, and León. Likewise, Anglo-Saxon England at one time consisted of seven kingdoms that eventually came under the control of King Alfred (r. 871899) and his family. One might even describe medieval Europe as consisting of a collection of miniature empires.

In the long run, the medieval concept of empire has been judged in a variety of ways. German scholars have often asserted that the efforts of medieval German rulers to control Italy, one of the kingdoms of the empire and the seat of the ancient Roman Empire, distracted them from their true task, the development of a German national kingdom, and therefore lay the basis for the modern German state. Others have seen the claims of the medieval emperors as a kind of fantasy that could never be fulfilled. For others, the great battles between the popes and the emperors was a disaster for the development of Europe. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, however, the notion of a Europe united under pope and emperor suggests a forerunner of the European Union.

See also Anticolonialism ; Christianity ; Colonialism ; International Order ; Monarchy ; Peace .


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James Muldoon