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Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Not So "Holy," Not So "Roman" Empire

For students of Medieval Europe, the geopolitical entity known by historians as the Holy Roman Empire is a unique and fascinating topic to research.  Speaking for myself on a personal level, studying the history of the Holy Roman Empire is a revealing and enlightening experience, because it shows just how much emphasis our Medieval forefathers placed on resurrecting the idea of Roma.  Despite all of the social degradation  cultural erosion and spiritual revolution that came as a result of the "fall" of Rome, Europeans, at least the elites of society, still embraced the belief in the glory of Rome, and tried to resurrect it with all of their might.

By nature, to study the history of the Holy Roman Empire is to take a nostalgic trip that inevitably leads you to the history of the Roman Empire itself.  After all, the "Holy Romans" of the Holy Roman Empire considered themselves to be heirs to the glory of Rome itself.  For them, Rome hadn't so much "fallen" as it had "transformed."  It was their duty and blessing to carry on the sacred and glorious legacy of Rome.  Rome may have undergone a "metamorphosis" but all of the ideology, power, glory and prestige that had been endowed upon the Caesars of old was theirs to cherish once again.

But in the end, this was all wishful thinking on their part; a pipe dream to help salve the Medieval world from this one painful and unavoidable truth:  Rome, at least in the Western world, was gone.  The "Dark Ages" had all but extinguished any flicker of hope in rekindling the true glory and power that was Rome, but this didn't stop our Medieval fathers from trying. 

In reality, the Holy Roman Empire had very little in common with its namesake.  It's title was little more than a relic to an extinct but still revered era.  Yet despite its inability to resurrect the glory of one of mankind's greatest civilizations, The Holy Roman Empire did leave an indelible impression upon Europe; one that is unique and different from that of Rome itself, but still critical to the development of Europe.

Traditionally, the Holy Roman Empire's roots are dated back to either Charlemagne or Otto the Great (Otto I).  Most Medieval historians are divided on whose reign it was that served as the true "starting point" for the HRE, but for me, it's Charlemagne all the way.  First off, Charlemagne saw himself (much like his father) as the great "protector" of Christianity and the papacy.  His campaigns against Muslims and "Christianization" (forced) of those he conquered, along with his coronation as Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas of 800, all illustrate Charlemagne's intent.  He wasn't just a "conqueror" like Clovis or Charles Martel, who just happened to be "Christianized" along the way.  Charlemagne was a believer all the way.

But Charlemagne's new found prestige wasn't enough.  He needed to add more than just glorious victories in battle and spiritual religious endorsement to his legacy.  And, naturally, the idea of being crowned Emperor or Caesar (Charlemagne was called both) had tremendous appeal.  Essentially, this act would put him in the class of Augustus, Constantine and Marcus Aurelius.  Charlemagne could become a legend.

But the Holy Roman Empire had little more than self-proclaimed titles to offer its chief leaders.  Unlike the actual Roman Empire, with its vast territories, extensive infrastructure and complex social hierarchy, the Holy Roman Empire was brutish, limited and constantly infested with conflicts between the religious and secular worlds.  For example, the Investiture Controversy, which primarily pitted the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV against Pope Gregory VII, revealed just how heated the divide between the religious and the secular world had become.  Unlike Ancient Rome, which (at least until its later years) managed to maintain a monopoly of control, thus keeping religious zealots (for the most part) at check, the Holy Roman Empire was a constant fight between Emperors and Popes, men of glory v. men of God.

In addition to it's regular tussles with matters of religion, the Holy Roman Empire also lacked a cohesion between the reigns of its kings.  Unlike Ancient Rome, which, though regularly beset by wars, coups and civil unrest from time to time, but was still able to maintain an intimidating and legitimate foothold on its empire, the Holy Roman Empire faced constant upheaval, never-ending turmoil and repeated revision of its borders.  The Holy Roman Empire, depending on its leader, experienced every extreme on the political and social spectrum, at times emerging as the dominant power in Europe while at others appearing more like a laughable lame duck society.

Regardless of how it differed from its ancient counterpart, the compelling factor we must all remember is that the Holy Roman Empire, despite all of its imperfections and struggles, was, at heart, an attempt to rekindle the glory of the ancient world.  We must never forget that for many of our Medieval ancestors the glory of Rome was still very much a Utopian dream that they sincerely believed could be resurrected.  And though much of this rebirth came in the form of Catholic Christianity as opposed to civic collaboration, the Holy Roman Empire should be seen as its contemporaries saw it: a rekindling of the ideas of Ancient Rome with a major dose of Christianity as a twist.

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