The rise of the Holy Roman Empire



The Western Empire, or Holy Roman Empire, as it has been called, which was re-established by Charlemagne (and lasted in shadow until the abdication of Francis II under the pressure of Napoleon in 1806), was not unworthy of its title. Between east and west the empire of the Franks extended from the Ebro to the Elbe or Vistula; between the north and south, from the duchy of Beneventum to the River Eyder.

The personal and political importance of Charlemagne was magnified by the distress and division of the rest of Europe. The Greek emperor was addressed by him as brother instead of father; and as long as the imperial dignity of the West was usurped by a hero who united in his person both virtue and power, the Greeks respectfully saluted the august Charlemagne with the acclamations of 'Basileus' and 'Emperor of the Romans'; but as soon as these qualities were separated in the person of his son, Lewis the Pious (814-840), the Byzantine letters were inscribed 'To the King,' or, as he styles himself, the Emperor, 'of the Franks and Lombards.' When both power and virtue were extinct, they despoiled Lewis II of his hereditary title, and with the barbarous appellation of Rex degraded him amongst the crowd of Latin princes. The Greeks affected to despise the poverty and ignorance of the Western emperors, and in their last decline refused to prostitute to the kings of Germany the title of Roman Emperors.

The imperial title of the West remained in the family of Charlemagne until the deposition of Charles the Fat in 884. His insanity dissolved the empire into factions, and it was not until Otho, king of Germany, laid claim to the title, with fire and sword, that the Western Empire was restored (962). His conquest of Italy and delivery of the pope for ever fixed the imperial crown in the name and nation of Germany.

From that memorable era two maxims of public jurisprudence were introduced by force and ratified by time: (1) That the prince who was elected in the German Diet acquired from that instant the subject kingdoms of Italy and Rome; (2) but that he might not legally assume the titles of Emperor and Augustus till he had received the crown from the Roman pontiff.

The nominal power of the Western emperors was considerable. No pontiff could be legally consecrated till the emperor, the advocate of the Church, had graciously signified his approbation and consent. Gregory VII, in 1073, usurped this power, and fixed for ever in the college of cardinals the freedom and independence of election. Nominally, also, the emperors held sway in Rome, but this supremacy was annihilated in the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century the power derived from his title was still recognised in Europe; the hereditary monarchs confessed the pre-eminence of his rank and dignity; he was the first of the Christian princes, the temporal head of the great republic of the West; to his person the title of 'Majesty' was long appropriated; and he disputed with the pope the sublime prerogative of creating kings and assembling councils.

THE schools declared of Charles IV that he was the rightful sovereign of the earth from the rising to the setting sun. The subjects of the Eastern Empire were contemptuously referred to as Greeks, but this appellation was indignantly rejected by the prince and people to whom it was applied. Whatsoever changes had been introduced by the lapse of ages, they alleged a lineal and unbroken succession from Augustus and Constantine; and in the lowest period of degeneracy and decay the name of Roman adhered to the last fragments of the empire of Constantinople.

The persecution of images and their votaries in the East had separated Rome and Italy from the Byzantine throne, and prepared the way for the conquests of the Franks. The rise and triumph of the Mahomedans still further diminished the empire of the East. The successful inroads of the Bulgarians, Hungarians and Russians, who assaulted by sea or by land the provinces and the capital, seemed to advance the approach of its final dissolution. The Norman adventurers who founded a powerful kingdom in Apulia and Sicily, shook the throne of Constantinople (1146), and their hostile enterprises did not cease until the year 1185.





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