The Holy Roman Empire

28.04.2015 |

Episode #4 of the course “The Most Powerful Empires in History”

In its heyday, the Holy Roman Empire covered an enormous amount of land, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, the Slovak and Czech Republics, and parts of eastern France. It also included northern Italy, western Poland, and Slovenia. The Holy Roman Empire was unique in that it was likely seen by some as neither holy nor an empire (as Voltaire has commented). It was a conglomeration of independent kingdoms, religious groups, and lay cities. Whatever it was, it lasted over 1000 year, until Napoleon overtook it in the early 1800s.

The creation of the Holy Roman Empire is unique. When Rome fell in 476, the area did not have a leader until 800. The Pope lived in Rome and was given power by a religious council, but he was a religious leader, not a true political one.

Pope Leo III was attacked in the streets of Rome by citizens who tried to blind him and cut out his tongue in an attempt to make him incapable of holding office. Shortly after, he asked Charlemagne to visit Rome in 800. Charlemagne was a leader of a confederation of Germanic tribes, and at a ceremony on Christmas day, Pope Leo placed a crown on Charlemagne’s head and named him the emperor (much to Charlemagne’s surprise). Charlemagne was told that a relative would be named as the successor, so Pope Leo III essentially tricked Charlemagne into becoming the first true political leader of the Holy Roman Empire. Although Charlemagne was not pleased at first, he graciously accepted the honor. He took the title of “Charles, most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor, governing the Roman Empire.”

Once Charlemagne passed, the Holy Roman Empire was again without a leader until 962, when Otto I was crowned. Otto I was the Duke of Saxony at the time, and his coronation transferred power from the Roman imperial heirs to the Germs (heirs of the East Franks). Even though it was an empire, the people actually held elections for the crown. This “modernized” form of government and the fact that the people were extremely accepting helped the Holy Roman Empire survive for over 1000 years.

The people changed the name to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, and this massive territory included roughly 15 million people by 1500 (about 3% of the world’s population at the time). However, the empire lacked defined boundaries, and its people predominantly spoke German, Italian, and Slavic languages. Ultimately, inner turmoil weakened the governmental structure, and the Empire was abolished by Napoleon in the 1800s.


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